Thursday, May 31, 2007

Beijing's Attempt to Clean the Air...

The Organizing Committee for the Beijing Olympic Games (BOCOG) held a press conference today with the topic of environmental protection.

One of the vice mayors, Ji Lin was the guest speaker and he extolled on how the city is going to cut emissions and improve the air quality in time for next year's Summer Games.

He explained the city is moving away from coal-fired plants and using more clean fuels like natural gas, and taking off 2,580 buses and 5,000 taxis that don't meet current emission standards off the roads.

One reporter asked that now there are three million cars on Beijing's roads, 80 per cent of which are private ones, what the city will do to limit the number of them. Ji replied by saying they are concentrating more on public transit, with a few more subway lines almost near completion and getting more buses on the road.

He also talked about oil and gas recycling stations, but didn't give a scientific explanation of how that worked. And Ji proudly talked about how there were 241 "good days" last year compared to 100 in 1998. Again there was no reasoning behind how these "good days" were calculated.

Another issue is dust pollution and the vice mayor said most of this is due to the numerous construction sites in the city kicking up dust and dirt in the air. He explained that when the Olympics are on, many of the sites will have completed construction or will be suspended. Ji hinted other industries would lower production levels or be temporarily stopped. When asked to identify them, he said they were still in the research stage and couldn't divulge any further information.

A foreign reporter asked if athletes from other countries want to bring their own experts and air quality measuring devices, would the city allow them to do this. The verbose vice mayor said they could "guarantee good air quality" and that they hoped people would believe their measurements. He added there will be mobile air quality testing systems that people can use. But he gave no description of what these looked like or how they worked.

While the vice mayor admitted there was much more work for Beijing to do, trying to cut down on the number of cars on the road doesn't seem to be one of his priorities to make the air cleaner.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Stay on Message

In public relations, it's really important to stay on message. That means repeating your key phrases so that people get it drummed into their heads.

And in the case of the Chinese government they do a really good job with the issue of Taiwan.

Today in a press conference held by the Taiwan Office for the State Council, the spokesman announced China's hopes for direct shipping links with Taiwan, but so far has received no response.

He continued to say that Taiwanese farmers enjoy no tax levies on their fruits imported into the mainland.

And when a Taiwanese reporter asked for a comment about the Democratic Progressive Party's separatist plans, the Chinese spokesperson curtly replied: "There is only one China. Taiwan is a part of China."

The government has been parroting this phrase ever since Chiang Kai-shek fled the mainland in 1949.

It's almost on par with another marketing slogan: "Diamonds are Forever."

Pure copy writing genius or a PR wizard's dream come true.

Oh and did I mention the building for this Taiwan office makes reporters climb up three flights of dirty and bare cement stairs, while the officials rest in a lobby that's carpeted and decorated with chandeliers and grandfather clocks?

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Building Cultural Enterprise

Here's another striking piece of Beijing architecture. It's diagonally across from the Swissotel and stands in front of a roundabout for everyone to marvel at.

I don't know if it's more for looks as the giant sheets of glass in front does little to prevent the exposure of office workers to the outside world.

But it's a relief from the 1980s mish-mash of geometrical shaped-towers that had no central design theme.

It's the China Poly Group building. I looked up their website and they deal in trade, real estate and culture. The business of culture? Apparently they organize large-scale art events, auctions, theatre management and produce TV programs.

I find the building so intriguing, and wonder what that part jutting out of the bottom left corner is for.... any suggestions?

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Scouting Out Deals

One of my missions is to find good places to shop.

And so I relied on my Frommer's Beijing guidebook to give me suggestions.

After the trip to the Lama Temple, I headed to Ritan Shang Wu Lou. It's a short cab ride from the Silk Market, in a three-storey building called Ritan Office Building. Inside are various shops in different rooms. It reminds me of Hong Kong's Pedder Building, with a number of little boutiques selling mostly designer apparel, from Chloe and BCBG to Marni and Tsumori Chisato.

So while some of the fashions were nice, the prices were a bit steep for my liking. But you could try on the clothes if you could get the disinterested staff to help you. Most of them sat around in the hallway, chatting with each other and didn't seem to care if a customer walked in to their shops or not.

And the designer handbags weren't that much more authentic looking than the ones at the Silk Market, so I went back there to find me a bargain.

What's so interesting is that the staff are more interested in catching bigger fish (non-Chinese) so to them I look like a local and am able to browse around under the radar. And because I'm Chinese, the starting price for me is lower than for tourists. In the end I got a big Le Sportsac bag and two small Coach purses for US$22.22).

The search for bargains continues.

Government-Sanctioned Buddhism

I have passed the Yong He Gong (Lama Temple) a few times by taxi and finally went to check it out.

It's not far from the subway station (Yong He Gong station), and after you pay the 25RMB (CAD$3.27) admission, it's a tranquil place, but become a total tourist attraction.

It was built in 1694 originally for the Qing prince who would become the Yongzheng emperor. And when he moved to the Forbidden City, the compound was turned into a temple in 1744.

The government proudly says that before 1949 the temple wasn't maintained well and after the People's Republic was established, the government put in a lot of money and effort to renovate the temple. Apparently Zhou Enlai was one of its biggest supporters. As a government-sanctioned temple, I must say its monks are fed well with ruddy cheeks and big frames.

There are five halls on the grounds, each enclosed with some kind of Buddha statue, clothed in silk and looking down on their devotees. There's lots of incense burning in front of the buildings and many paying respects. Inside and out, the halls are all ornately decorated with tiled roofs complete with mythical creatures guarding each of the four corners and the walls and ceilings painted in many colours. Unfortunately there wasn't much English explanation and my guidebook had only a few extra bits of information.

One of the halls has a statue of the founder of reformist Yellow Hat (Geluk) sect of Tibetan Buddhism. The bronze statue depicts him wearing a golden pointed cap and long ear flaps. And the last hall has a 60ft-tall Tibetan-style statue of Maitreya (the future Buddha) carved from a single piece of sandalwood.

It's interesting to see the government put so much effort into preserving this temple and its artifacts while trying to make Tibet more Chinese...

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Quote of the Week

China's two stock markets in Shenzhen and Shanghai have been shooting upwards in the last few months.

But in the last few weeks it's almost been out of control.

Lots of people are jumping into the market, withdrawing large amounts of money out of their savings accounts and buying stocks. Some have even quit their day jobs to hang out at stock exchange outlets to "stir-fry" shares.

Yesterday the Shanghai Composite Index closed at 4,179.78, up 0.69 per cent from the day before.

There's been a lot of concern that there is a bubble growing in the market and that it could burst if the government doesn't step in to control the frenzy. An interest rate hike last week did little to cool investors keen on the market.

Regardless, this is a comment from one official, Xiang Huaicheng, chairman of the National Council for Social Security Funds:

"But the stock market is like beer. It is good to have some bubbles unless there are too many."

If you can read into that cryptic message, please let me know.

Fishing for Dinner

When my girlfriend breezed through town, we had dinner in between our pedicure and massage.

And we went to a place that was obviously good as people were patiently waiting with number tags for a taste of the restaurant's signature dish, fish that is cooked in spicy oil (the Chinese name escapes me now).

The place looks upscale, with modern table settings, table cloths and booths lining the room. We ended up sitting outside which was nice, but it also meant the mosquitos would come calling. I got bitten but it wasn't too bad.

So we of course ordered the fish dish, catfish in an oil that was infused with chillis and Sichuan peppercorns. These little nasty buggers are tiny bulbs and if you mistakenly eat one, your whole mouth goes numb. You literally had to fish around for the fish with a slotted spoon.

The fish was absolutely delicious. It was roughly chopped up and cooked in this oil so there were still bones to pick through, but the meat was wonderful, and not too spicy either.

We also had chicken wings that were wrapped in lotus leaves and covered in mud and baked. Sort of a quickie version of Beggar's Chicken without the stuffing. The chicken meat fell off the bone and was really moist. The other two dishes we ordered were stirfried vegetables and a mushroom dish fried with bits of meat and chives.

To cool us off we drank a pitcher of plum juice.

We couldn't finish the fish, but the meal was mm-mm good.

Fei Teng Yu Xiang
No. 1 Gong Ti Road
Chaoyang, Beijing

Friday, May 25, 2007

Women will Power the Next Generation

A girlfriend of mine made a short visit to Beijing and after work she took me to Yaxiu, the cotton market where we got pedicures done.

And it was the first time I had a man -- well young man -- do my pedicure.

He was really good at exfoliating the soles of my feet and even painted my toe nails quickly and professionally.

Then after having a delicious dinner, we went to an upscale spa where we shared a room and had two male masseurs knead, press, and rub our bodies sore for two hours.

With more and more males than females in the Chinese population, it's the women who are going to be able to pick and choose who her mate will be. And he'll have to be a damn good husband. And being able to give her a good massage or painting toe nails is a good start.

That's the power shift that's going to shake China to the core.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Making the Games Politically Correct

Yesterday the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games unveiled 20 pictograms for the Paralympics next year.

But before they showed the images to the media, they went through the recent history of previous Olympics, including Barcelona in 1992, Sydney in 2000, Athens in 2004, and Turin in 2006. Atlanta was conspicuously absent and no one mentioned it either.

And then they explained that they took their inspiration for the Chinese pictograms from ancient oracle bone writing and bronze ware script.

The 20 featured sports include: wheelchair basketball, swimming, boccia, judo, power lifting, cycling and equestrian.

But someone has to tell them to update their translation vocabulary.

Throughout the English translations, the sweet woman's voice kept saying "disabled" and "handicapped" instead of the politically correct term "physically challenged".

Well they have more than a year to figure that out.

The Commute from Hell

This morning it took me one hour and 30 minutes to get to work.

It started off badly when I walked out from my apartment to the main street to catch and taxi and none were around.

When I finally did flag one down just after 8am, we began inching our way along the heavily-congested freeway. I wondered what was going on, but the taxi driver said nothing so I thought I wouldn't overreact and just be patient.

At 8:35am we finally made it to the exit to get to the street I need to go to, but traffic was at a standstill. Even the buses, which usually get priority, or at least muscle their way through, weren't moving. After several cars in front of us left the lineup, we found out that a policeman was barricading the exit with a temporary gate. This was just after 9am.

Again no explanation.

So we continued down the freeway to the next exit and turned around to get back to where we needed to turn.

I thought I would be in the office in 10 minutes. Wishful thinking.

After we turned onto the street where my office is, the traffic again stopped. Buses let people get off and masses off them walked to their destinations.

On the one hand I think, how can anyone stand this ridiculous traffic? How does anything get done in this city? Why isn't the government doing anything about transportation planning, or more importantly the number of cars on the roads?

And then I see people wait patiently and I consider, well, if no one else cares, why should I? If I'm late for work, it's not my fault.

It turns out because of the heavy rains last night some power lines went down on the street where my office is, which caused parts of the road to be shut down. I certainly didn't hear about it this morning!

I arrived at the office at 9:35am and 53RMB (US$6.92) lighter. I wonder if I'm ever going to break this record of the worst commute so far.

And for the record, yesterday's cab ride was just over 20 minutes and 24RMB.

PS. The weather didn't clear up today. In fact it just started raining this evening again and I was caught in the shower on my way home from the gym.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

A Dreary Day... with a Silver Lining

I woke up this morning to a severely overcast day. The air was heavy and threatening to rain.

When I got here, Beijingers told me that when it rains here, it's in short sporadic spurts and then the sun comes out.

Not today.

It rained all day, at times heavier than others. And it created a horrible mess on the roads with lots of muddy puddles (thanks to the accumulation of dust and dirt), and cyclists covered in big and bright-coloured rain gear. This is probably the only time when they are easier to spot on the streets.

I'm glad I wore sandals, but if I knew it was raining all day, I would have worn a skirt instead of a newly-washed pair of cropped pants. I had to throw them in the wash again because of dirty spots from walking in the rain and muddy sidewalks.

I'm not sure if it's still going to rain tomorrow, but when it finally stops, it's probably going to be the clearest day in Beijing that I've seen. Will keep you posted.

Building a New Statement

I've passed this building several times and the first time I saw it I found it so intriguing -- it's designed in the shape of the letter G. And that's because the building's name is Ge Hua Tower.

When I mentioned this to two colleagues, they never realized this before -- despite one of them passing by this building everyday on the bus, to and from work.

I think it's quite clever, and so far one of my favourite buildings in Beijing.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Food Fit for an Emperor (or Empress)

Tonight a foodie friend took me, her husband and another friend to an amazing place tonight, near Hou Hai, East Lake. It's in a hutong that doesn't even have the restaurant sign, only the address, number 11 Yang Fang Hutong.

It's called Family Li Imperial Cuisine, and its founder, Li Shanlin was in charge of the kitchen for the Empress Dowager CiXi. He memorized the Qing Dynasty recipes and passed them down to his descendants. Smart man. And we're all the more grateful for the amazing dinner we had.

The meals are calculated per head and we had the least expensive one at 200RMB (US$26) each. The next price point is 350 and then 500 and 600 I think. The latter ones include shark's fin and abalone. But we were pretty content with our gourmet fare.

We were seated in a private room -- there are three rooms in all, the two others with two or three tables. And we quickly started off with a series of appetizers. They included thinly sliced celery with bits of shrimp paste; two different kinds of fermented tofu, one bright green, the other a purple colour, both not with too strong a taste; thin slices of smoked pork; juicy small pieces of chicken; carrot salad; deep fried lotus root with chives; deep fried slices of beef; and cubes of deep fried bread, but it's actually made from bean paste. All the deep fried dishes were perfect -- light batter and fresh oil so they were hardly heavy at all.

Then we had several dishes, each with one serving. We had braised spare ribs with the meat easily falling off the bone; lightly fried thin slices of chicken breast; "tiger meat"which was braised pork - so juicy, with Napa cabbage in a broth that you ate with some rice; small delicate tea cups of egg custard that were divine; eggplant that tasted sweet; deep-fried fresh water fish called "Mandarin fish", and of course roast duck with the thinnest pancakes I've ever seen.

To finish the meal we also had winter melon soup and slices of melon and watermelon.

And we had the perfect wine to complement the meal -- a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc called Mud House 2006. Very fruity and light.

Good company, wonderful wine, amazing food and fun conversation.

Definitely a meal to remember!

Family Li Imperial Cuisine
11 Yang Fang Hutong
De Nei Da Jie Xi Cheng

Sunday, May 20, 2007

An American in Beijing

Last night a friend took me to hear some jazz in a small club in Hou Hai, by the Eastern Lake.

The place is called East Shore Live Jazz Cafe and it's run by saxophonist Liu Yuan who is apparently a renowned jazz musician in the city. He even played in the opening set and was so good, but humble as well, preferring to stand by the side and letting others take the limelight.

We came to hear a visiting American trombonist called Roswell Rudd who's quite well known in jazz circles in New York. Although he's well into his 70s, he can still blow that horn. They played four or five songs including "When you Wish Upon a Star" and "Sahara". Everyone -- the drummer, pianist, sax and bass -- jammed so well together it was quite amazing to watch.

And it's soaking in that moment, that will never come again, that makes me relish my time here even more.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Beijing's Famous Duck

Five weeks into my stay here and I finally got a taste of Beijing's best-known dish.

My colleague took me to Quan Ju De restaurant, just off Wangfujing. It's been there for eons and in the lobby there are blown up black and white photos of Nixon and Kissinger wining and dining with Chairman Mao in the restaurant.

We were sent to the third floor and thankfully a small room off to the side that was a non-smoking section.

And we had a feast... of duck of course.

For starters braised cabbage hearts with chestnuts, a typical home-style Beijing dish, but this one was covered in a cornstarch sauce, and only a few chestnuts.

But the small soup of duck tongue and cuttle fish and egg was delightful, with a vinegary taste. If you haven't had duck tongues, I can't compare it to anything else except maybe chicken feet without the bones.

And we also ordered braised duck gizzard with broccoli. You can only have so many pieces of duck gizzard before you want to move onto the main event!

We ordered half a duck and a chef with a stainless steel trolley came to our table and promptly cut into a whole duck that had a wonderful roasted smell and in a brown russet colour. He quickly cut a few slices off and said we could eat these straight. It was mm-mm oily good.

Our steamed thin pancakes arrived as well as our condiments arrived -- a thick dark sauce with green onion (the white part) cut into strips; sliced cucumbers, green chillis and garlic; mashed garlic and sugar too.

And just to be sure we had half a duck, the chef sliced the head in half too and put that on our table. Gee, thanks.

We ate the duck as fast as we could as the air conditioning was quickly cooling our food. The meat was very juicy, the skin crispy. What a perfect combination!

9 Shuaifuyuan Hutong
Wangfujing Dajie
Dongcheng District
6525 3310

Friday, May 18, 2007

Word of the Day: Sheng Nu

China may have more men than women, but the country does have its share of singleton girls.

And the word for them is sheng nu. Sheng means "left behind" and "nu" means women.

They are described as having the three H's: High diploma, High salary and High age, and the three S's: Single, Stuck and born in the Seventies.

It's these qualities that frighten prospective suitors who are intimidated by these highly educated and capable women.

Apparently some mothers are so worried their daughters won't be married off that they secretly sign them up at match making events and fudge their education to a lower degree or diploma to increase the chances of them meeting their better half.

And these match making sessions sound brutal! I heard that your vital stats and info are posted up for these guys to look at and vice versa.

I guess they haven't heard of speed dating yet.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Blowing the Smog Away

Yesterday I woke up and was so amazed by what I saw in the window that I ran to get my camera to take some pictures. Here's a view overlooking the China Post building.

It was the first time I'd seen blue skies in the morning.

Usually there's a thick blanket of grey smog so I can't tell what the weather is going to be like. Even checking the Weather Network website doesn't help. If the forecast says "sunny", in reality it looks totally overcast.

But in the last few days there have been huge gusts of wind, which keeps the temperatures cool and perfect in the evenings.

The best part is that the strong winds have blown the smog away. Well most of it.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Official Word on Beijing's Development

Officials from the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee had a press conference today, expounding on how the upcoming games have created a boon for the city.

They gave a laundry list of numbers to illustrate how the economy, infrastructure development and society have benefited from the Olympics which is just over a year away.

When a foreign reporter asked about the disappearing hutongs and what the city was going to do about it in light of all the construction in Beijing, the officials politely admonished him for not knowing the city well enough and that there are many examples where the city has successfully integrated new and old structures together. His only cited example was Hou Hai, where old hutongs have been converted to laid-back bars and restaurants.

He also asked why 1,700 hours were spent during the May Holiday monitoring people who spit, but again officials avoided giving the answer and instead enthusiastically replied how this exercise had greatly improved the city's image.

Other reporters tried to get more details on vague statements; again nothing was ever directly answered.

The only interesting morsel out of the event was when one official declared that despite property prices rising nine per cent already this year, he believed the prices would remain stable after the Games.

We'll have to hold him to it, because that was the only thing we could hang onto.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Off the Beaten Path: Bamboo Fish Studio

Two of my colleagues and I decided to skip the canteen fare today and head out for a culinary adventure.

One of them knew a fish restaurant hidden away near our office. And it really was in a non-descript cement alcove, with large plastic strips acting as a door.

But once inside, you were immediately transported inside a little oasis, complete with a small courtyard, bamboo furniture and casual atmosphere.

The Bamboo Fish Studio only does three kinds of fish: not spicy, spicy and very spicy. We decided on the not spicy one and soon afterwards, a giant tray arrived at our table holding a fish sliced in half, barbecued and then laid in an oily concoction and covered in all kinds of ingredients, from black bean sauce, to slices of carrot, celery, cauliflower, dried tofu, green peppers, peanuts, ginger and cloves of garlic. Underneath the tray were some hot coals keeping the dish warm.

And the meal was fantastic. The fish was cooked just right, the meat tender and smooth. There were lots of bones to navigate around, but other than that, with a bowl of rice, it was a great lunch. We did finish the whole dish, save the oil.

The bill for the three of us came to 106RMB (US$13).

I think I should wander out for more cheap eats!

Monday, May 14, 2007

Life Away from Home

I'm living away from home, but am fortunate to have decent accommodation and the means to make my living space and lifestyle as comfortable as I can or want.

But there are millions of migrant workers who come to major cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou to make a better life for themselves and their families.

According to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, in 2005 there were some 140 million people who left their hometowns. They mostly come from inland provinces heading east to mostly coastal cities where the money is.

Because they don't have much education, many work in factories, young men are security guards who do nothing except stand around all day, young women work in fast food restaurants or do massages or manicures.

Many men are supplying labour in the construction sector. Lots of buildings, from office towers to apartment buildings are sprouting up like weeds all over Beijing and it's thanks to these migrant workers who are putting them together.

I can't even imagine what their salaries are. My colleague told me the other day that the young security guards who stand in front of our office all day make 1,000 RMB (US$130) a month.

But back to the construction workers. At a construction site near my apartment, there's a makeshift white and blue multi-level building complete with doors, windows and washrooms. That's where the migrant workers live. No excuse for being late for work! There's probably a few sharing a room as there aren't many of these portable buildings on the site. They do all their cooking and bathing there too.

So with all that preamble, I thought this picture shows the contrast between the migrant workers and the apartments they build.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Beijing's Musical Talent

I was enticed by a blurb about 19-year-old pianist Wang Yujia described as the next Lang Lang.

I found her website ( and read she has the same teacher as Lang Lang. So I had to see for myself.

She performed tonight with the China Philharmonic Orchestra led by guest conductor Shinik Hahm, a Korean.

I got a 180RMB (US$23.44) ticket, sitting upstairs, and just over the left side of the stage which was great because I would be sitting directly in front of Wang as she played the piano.

After the orchestra performed Bedrich Smetana's Overture to The Bartered Bride, Wang entered the stage in an emerald green strapless dress and blunt cut layered hair with highlights. Sort of a Chinese version of Anne-Sophie Mutter on the piano.

She played Franz Liszt's Piano Concert No. 1 in E-flat Major. And she played well -- full of confidence as she attacked the keys and stroked them during the gentle interludes. All said I have to say she isn't quite up to Lang Lang's standard, whose fingers seem to dance effortlessly on the keyboard.

Nevertheless, the audience loved the Beijing-born talent and she performed three encore pieces before finally leaving the stage.

After a quick intermission, the orchestra resumed with Antonin Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 in E-minor, Op 95 "from the New World". Great solos by the sax player and flautist.

Again two more encores, including Brahm's Hungarian dance.

I can't wait to see what other musical talent Beijing has to offer! Bring it on!

Saturday, May 12, 2007

The China of Yesterday and Today

Along Wangfujing Street, the store on the left is a photographic studio, displaying the portrait of Mao Zedong in his signature plain suit. And next door is a casual clothing shop selling T-shirts and jeans.

The socialist market economy in action. Wonder what the Great Helmsman would think...

Standing its Ground

Today I wandered along Wangfujing Street, which is near Tiananmen Square. It's a shopping strip where locals and tourists alike hang out. There are many official Olympics souvenir shops, department stores, small shops selling silk, tea, chopsticks, clothing and shoes. And if you don't have enough money, there's always an ATM nearby.

Further down the street is a giant shopping mall in the midst of renovation, recreating itself into a modern glass building complete with a giant screen for people to watch the Olympic games in real time next summer.

But just across the street from the construction site is a beautiful old church. Inside the Eastern Catholic Church, there are high vaulted ceilings illuminated by a number of chandeliers, and wooden pews with red velvet worn cushions. A handful of people were in there praying or reading the Bible, but most were curious onlookers like myself.

Unfortunately it wasn't a silent and enlightening experience -- you could hear skateboarders doing their tricks on the large flat slate area outside the church.

Since when did religion and skating mix?

Friday, May 11, 2007

Word of the Day: Guo Laomo

Chinese mainlanders are usually known for not being as industrious as their southern cousins in Hong Kong.

Some eat lunch quickly and then put their pillow on their desk and nap for the rest of the hour.

But nowadays in the big Chinese cities, there's a new phenomenon called guo laomo which means "over-worked models". Guo means "past" and "lao" is "work".

This terms refers to white-collar workers who are in the office well beyond the eight hours stipulated in the labour law. Some sacrifice their weekends and health leading to long-term physical and psychological illnesses.

Apparently there are three reasons for these people to be guo laomo:

1. They think working overtime is going to fast track them to a promotion or increased salary;

2. Because of cost-cutting or not enough resources, there is not enough time during the work hours to finish everything;

3. They see everyone else working late so they think they should do the same.

If they are in situation 1, then it could possibly lead to a brighter future, but those in the second scenario need to get another job soon.

Those in the third group should get a life!

I guess they haven't heard the term work-life balance... yet.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

When in Beijing, Do as the (Rich) Beijingers Do

I just came back from a fancy dinner with some wealthy Chinese. We went to a seafood restaurant called Ni Shi Hai Xian or Ni Shi Seafood.

It's a giant complex with five floors. And when you arrive by car, either a uniformed man or woman immediately open your door and invite you into a large white marbled lobby with recessed ceilings of gold leaf.

The another army of people immediately ask you if you have a reservation and check their list on a clipboard. If you want to wait for your dining companions, you can have a seat in oversized leather chairs and sip on some tea.

Or you can wander around to the back of the room where there's an array of dishes you can choose from. And the samples aren't plastic food like Japanese restaurants -- they're the real thing. There's several bowls of shark's fin soup to choose from, depending on the quality, sea cucumber, grilled fish, and a number of vegetables wrapped in cellophane.

And there are also lots of tanks filled with fish, lobster, prawns and clams. I also saw some crabs and one with its claws tied back and its shell half ripped off. Its legs were still moving to show it was really fresh.

We were ushered upstairs to the second floor where there were only a few tables occupied.

Our host looked like he'd already had a few drinks. He was having maotai, (rice wine with 40 per cent alcohol) from a wine glass. Thank goodness I was given a small glass, but one sip was already nasty.

The food was prepared Shandong style -- salted fish, jellyfish with minced cabbage, corn bread, short ribs, a clear broth with clams and tofu, stirfried bok choy, and steamed buns with a kind of diced broad bean and pork. We also did a very Shandong thing -- eat cloves of young garlic dipped in a dark soybean sauce that cut the spiciness of the garlic.

The seafood was absolutely delicious -- but the delicate flavour was immediately killed when my gracious hosts insisted I ganbei (drink maotai) with them. This happened many times throughout the meal. And by the end of it I still hadn't finished my drink and they insisted I had to empty my glass.

And did I mention two of the men were smoking like chimneys through the whole meal?

That's how the rich Chinese live... day in and day out.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

It's Hard for Beijing to be Green

Today the Organizing Committee for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games (BOCOG) announced its 15-point plan to make the city more environmentally friendly in time for the big event next summer.

And it's an ambitious plan -- recycling 50 per cent of waste water and using it for irrigation; recycling petroleum products; wind power; water and sewage treatment plants; phasing out old vehicles off the road.... the list goes on and on.

The officials also announced their green light bulb project will expand to include more public areas, like hospitals and schools. And an exhibition on conserving energy drew some 17,000 visitors. What is the population of Beijing? 10.8 million. Doesn't seem like everyone got the message.

And recycling? I haven't seen any recycling bins anywhere or any kind of propaganda telling people to sort their garbage and save the environment.

There were other grandiose plans like controlling dust pollution! And in typical Chinese official style, there were no concrete action plans or time lines released.

Somehow I doubt Beijing will be holding a green Games next year. More like grainy mustard to me.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Paying Your Utilities the Chinese Way

Before I left for Hong Kong I was worried about not having enough gas and electricity to carry me through the May holiday because things would be closed and I wouldn't have time to pay for my utilities until the following weekend.


Because in China, they don't believe in sending you a bill. Maybe they can't be bothered to pay for the paper, printing and postage, or they're worried you won't pay up. So you have pay as you go.

So when I buy gas to heat my water and cook my food, I have to tell the property office how much gas I'd like to buy. And almost 300 RMB (US$39) will get you about 190 units of gas. They charge up this electronic card I have for my apartment and then I slide that card into the gas meter at home and automatically I have 190 more units of gas. I have yet to figure out how long that will last me.

The same situation goes for electricity except I pay that at the bank. There's a sort of telephone booth where the ATM machines are. I stick the electricity card in, punch in how much electricity I'd like to buy, swipe my bank card and after inputing my bank pin number, the card is charged up and again I stick it in the electricity meter for a jump in kilowatts.

As for the phone bill, towards the end of the month, I get a phone call from a woman who tells me how much I owe. And again I take the electricity card to the bank and pay the same way.

It's so weird! And so inconvenient. But that explains why everyone turns off their lights or shuts off the heat whenever they can. It's made me more conscious of how much power I'm consuming too!

I wonder if there's a way to get people to stop idling their cars as they're wasting gas too....

Monday, May 7, 2007

Get Your Pho in SoHo

In Hong Kong, my cousin took me to a small Vietnamese restaurant in SoHo, or an area called South of Hollywood Road.

The eatery is called Nha Trang and if you don't get there early, be prepared to wait.

We got there at 12:30 on Saturday and we just managed to snag a seat on a communal table by the door.

And we ordered lots of food. The pho is very good. It comes in giant ceramic bowls filled with rice noodles, thinly sliced half cooked beef and garnished with basil and a lime wedge. The broth is the best -- no MSG and has a nice beef flavour.

We also ordered salad rolls that were very refreshing. They didn't give us a peanut sauce, but fish sauce. Unfortunately the grilled shrimp and pomelo salad [pictured] wasn't sweet, a bit on the tasteless side. We added fish sauce to them for more flavour. But the shrimp mousse cooked on sugar cane sticks were very good. You had to pull them off the stick and then wrap them in a lettuce leaf, but just as good straight.

Nha Trang
88-90 Wellington Street
Central, HK
(852) 2581-9992

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Where's Our Luggage?

The flight back to Beijing was not without its episodes.

For most of the ride back, the plane encountered turbulence and the seat belt sign was on most of the time. Not that that stopped people from getting up from their seats and going to the washroom. The flight attendants didn't even stop them and even made room for them while they were serving drinks and meals.

After a bumpy landing (I think the Air China pilots need to practice this maneuver), we exited the plane onto the tarmac and waited for a shuttle bus to take us to the main terminal. It reminded me of the days of Hong Kong's old Kai Tak airport.

My wait at passport control wasn't too bad. But then we waited for our luggage... for almost half an hour. Everyone was getting restless. And it was understandable since it was after 11pm and people wanted to get home.

The carousel started moving... but still no luggage in sight.

And finally when the first suitcase popped up, people started clapping!

Well-deserved applause for the baggage handlers I guess.

Sit on Your Tart

I've seen sushi magnets and toy bamboo steamers...

But a dan tat (egg tart) cushion?

It's from Japan and the cartoon girl on the sticker says: "It looks as good as its taste!!"

I don't know about you, but I don't really want to sit on a big yellow custard blob.

Star Gazing

On Thursday I was on my way to Times Square in Causeway Bay to pick up some books from the bookstore when I came across a crowd of people whipping out their cameras. I looked up on the stage to see Cantopop star Jacky Cheung Hok-yau launching his "Year of Jacky Cheung World Tour 2007.

A reporter was interviewing him for an entertainment gossip show very similar to the likes of Access Hollywood and eTalk Daily.

If you ask most Hong Kong people, they love Cheung because he is a true musician who writes his own songs, unlike most of the other pretty faces in the Cantopop scene. And he has staying power with over 20 years in the biz and over 60 Cantonese and 20 Mandarin albums under his belt.

Cheung's tour takes him to eight countries and 14 major cities including Las Vegas, Atlantic City, Toronto, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Arguably the World's Best Public Transit

It's great to be back in Hong Kong. I lived here for seven years and it's the efficiency and orderliness of the place that I love so much. It's a city that works. Of course it's not perfect -- there are developers gouging people who are just trying to make a living, or the government ignoring its citizens who are clamouring for universal suffrage.

But it's a city that moves people in an efficient, relatively inexpensive and clean way.

May I present the Mass Transit Railway - MTR for short. Or M-T-R-low (in Cantonese English).

When I arrived in 1994, there were only three lines. Today there are seven. They connect people to practically every major district in the city, both Hong Kong island and Kowloon.

To pay your fare, you use an Octopus card, an electronic card you add money to and not only can you use it on the MTR, but the bus, ferry, even buy stuff at 7-11 and some boutiques too. Oh yes and you can pay your parking with a beep of the card.

The directions and routes are clearly laid out so you don't have to wonder if you're going the right way. And there are announcements in Cantonese, Putonghua and English. It's a bit more expensive than the bus, but hey -- if you need to cross Victoria harbour in five minutes, you will get there taking the MTR.

Many of the stations are connected to shopping malls or underground areas so you don't have to get wet crossing the road when there's a typhoon or rain storm.

And did I say it was clean? Hardly ever see a piece of trash, or drink stains or food anywhere.

I was last in Hong Kong six months ago and this time some of the stations I've been to have included several TV screens mounted in major areas with news updates. This is fantastic in case there is breaking news or a major weather announcement.

[Insert your own transit authority] are you listening?

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Eating Western Food... Chinese Style

I made it to the Beijing Airport early, worried there would be a massive swarm of people trying to flee the capital for the May holidays.

But perhaps most of them left yesterday as it was much less crowded than I have seen it. I breezed through check-in, passport control was relatively painless and then browsed through the airport shops.

The Air China plane was full... mostly of mainlanders eager to get their Hong Kong fix, as I was. I sat next to a couple, probably in their early 40s. They looked like they were middle class, somewhat sophisticated from their dress and manners.

When our lunch came, it was a Chinese main course with a cold appetizer along with a bun and butter.

And when I looked over to my left I couldn't believe what I was seeing: The woman used her plastic knife to pick up some butter, stick it in her mouth, swallowed it, and then repeated the motion before taking a bite out of her bun.

Needless to say she finished the whole portion of butter. I almost asked her if she wanted mine.

I guess no one told her you have to eat the two together.

I've heard of Chinese people adding Coke and 7-Up to their wine for sweetness. But I think eating butter straight just upped the ante of eating Western food... Chinese style.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Call the Language Police!

The Chinese government is trying to eradicate bad English in time for next year's Olympics.

May I present you one offense I found?

At the health club in the Holiday Inn Lido Hotel the shower stalls have giant dispensers of shampoo and soap for you to use.

The brand's name is "Champaign". Is it supposed to be Champagne for your body? Or a Campaign to get you clean?

The soap is called a "fumiqant bath lotion", but in Chinese it says xiang, or fragrant.

P.S. I'm off to Hong Kong for a few days. Hope to write more from the HK Special Administrative Region.

Making Beijing Green... Sort of

From my apartment I can see a giant patch of land across the street from me. And for the past week workers have been digging and moving dirt around -- around the clock. In the evenings I see these lights bobbing up and down. I really don't know what they were doing. But what used to be hills and valleys is now flat.

And along the street (actually it's a boulevard with no lines so drivers make up their own paths down the wide road), some workers planted some trees today. They've put these young trees in small square holes thinking it's enough room for the arbors to grow.

While it's going to make my neighbourhood a bit greener (and shadier), I don't know how long these trees are going to last in those tiny holes set out for them.

May their roots struggle beyond their borders and grow beyond their alloted spots!