Saturday, June 30, 2007

Fish Heads and other Tales

Today I met up with a friend for lunch who used to live in my neighbourhood. She took me to a restaurant in the area.

It serves Shandong dishes, and we ordered braised eggplant and fish head served in a soupy sauce with fried pancakes.

The eggplants were cooked in a thick savory sauce with roasted peanuts hidden underneath for a contrast in texture.

But the highlight was definitely this big flattened fish head swimming in a slightly sour sauce. We ate the meat from the fish - cooked just right. And then took the slices of fried pancakes and dipped them in the sauce to soak up the flavour.

And along with the food we had an interesting conversation about our observations about young people today.

Being in her early 40s, she remarked how the next generation prefer reading ba shi hou (people born after the 1980's) novels, which are usually about sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll Chinese style. "These books are the best sellers!" she exclaimed with a sigh.

She added that she hardly ever sees people reading anymore, compared to places other than big cities, where she notices every other person armed with a book.

I remarked that young people today can't write Chinese characters anymore -- they depend on their cell phone to give them the character that they looking for. You type in the pinyin, or English spelling of the Chinese word, and then a selection of characters comes up for you to choose.

The same goes with QQ, the Chinese version of instant messenger.

I asked colleagues about Chinese calligraphy lessons, since I thought this would be a good way for me to learn Chinese characters. They were all shocked that I would be interested in doing this, as they admitted they were horrible in brush writing.

So in a way, China's culture is disappearing faster than most people think... or maybe today's world is too crammed with information to remember so many Chinese characters...

Friday, June 29, 2007

T-I-C Angst

This morning I didn't get to work until 10:15am.

That's because I spent over an hour trying to buy electricity. As I mentioned in an earlier posting, you don't get an electricity bill in the mail; you have to buy electricity before you use it. And you need to add money onto a card before sticking it in your power meter.

And because I only have 90 units of power left (in Chinese it's called "dou" or "degrees"), I thought I should add more money to my card, as I turn on the air conditioning every evening and it uses up some electricity.

But it was such a hassle.

The usual machine at the bank where I add money wouldn't work with my card so I asked the teller. The teller told me to go to the Chinese Industrial Commerce Bank nearby. Nearby turned out to be several blocks away.

Hot and sweaty when I got there, that teller told me I already had money on this electricity card and couldn't add anymore money on it until it was empty. Huh?

Frustrated and annoyed that I had wasted so much time to accomplish nothing, I went to work and demanded someone explain to me what was going on.

It turns out that for my building, I have to wait until my meter reads 50 units of power or less before I can stick my card in and use up the rest of the balance on it. Only then can I add money to the card.

Why do I have to wait until it gets to 50 units? Why can't I just add more money whenever I want so I don't have to worry about how much power I'm using?

Even my colleagues at work had to admit this was a strange policy, but that was also how they bought electricity. They saw I was so angry at this crazy problem and tried to cheer me up. But not many have lived overseas to know how it works in other countries (ie. more convenient) so how could they even begin to sympathize with my angst?

One American intern who's been here for six months just boils it down to things here being crazy. And all you can do is join the club.

So I guess now's a good a time as any to get sucked into the club where things don't make sense but that's the way it is.

I hope that doesn't mean I become complacent! But if I want to continue living happily here it's the first step I gotta take before reaching acceptance.

Maybe this was my initiation ritual into the T-I-C club?

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Braising is the New Party Line

Today the Shanghai Composite Index fell more than four per cent today to 3,914.20, on fears that the Central Government will cancel a tax on interest accrued from bank deposits.

It's the latest bid by Beijing to ease the seemingly overheated stock market.

This is a stark contrast from two months ago, when every other university student to grandpa started throwing their money into stocks in the hopes of making a tidy bundle.

They put so much money in, that in May, the amount of bank deposits plunged by 278 billion yuan (US$36.2 billion), and 167 billion yuan in April. This was considered shocking as most Chinese are usually a conservative bunch and prefer to save as much money as they can.

And in the last week or so, the index hovered just past the 4,000 point mark.

But the trend of "stir-frying" stocks has come to an end, with the tripling of the stamp tax on stock transactions.

And now the government is hoping individual investors will instead let their stocks simmer for a while.

It'll be interesting to see if they heed this paternal advice or think they can continue to make a quick buck or two by watching the index board all day.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Setting an Example

The Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council had its regular media briefing today.

And the spokesman, Yang Yi used the opportunity to urge Taiwan to follow Hong Kong's footsteps and return to the mainland.

"With the successful practice of 'One Country, Two Systems' in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, more and more Taiwanese compatriots will identify and understand 'One Country, Two Systems," he said. This concept will be conducive to a peaceful reunification of the country, the smartly-dressed Yang added.

As this year marks the 10th anniversary of the former British enclave's return to the mainland, the Chinese official was keen to show the Taiwanese that the HKSAR has a "high degree of autonomy".

With more direct chartered flights between Taiwan and China, and closer economic links, it'll be interesting to see who wins when it comes to political rhetoric. And with the upcoming Taiwanese elections, it's anybody's guess how the next leader will shape the island's next chess move.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Three Sisters

At the turn of the century, three sisters influenced the events of China's modern history.

The Soong sisters were famously described as "one loved money, one loved power, and one loved China."

Soong Ai-ling married H.H. Kung, the richest man in the country who was also the Finance Minister of China, while Soong Mei-ling got together with Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek.

But it was Soong Ching-ling who married Dr. Sun Yat-sen, 27 years her senior and aided the Communists in their bid to help found the People's Republic of China. In turn, Chairman Mao named her vice-president and gave her a former palace from the Qing Dynasty in Hou Hai.

It takes a long stroll to get to this elegant compound, past the bars and boutiques, on the other side of the lake. But it's well worth visiting.

The focal point of the Chinese garden is a small man-made pond with carp in it, surrounded by wisteria, shrubs and rocks. Nearby is a bust of Madame Sun and her living quarters turned into a museum.

There's lots of historical information enamoured of Charlie Soong's second daughter. And there are lots of her and Dr. Sun's personal effects on display, from their clothing to wedding quilt, bottles of wine and maple syrup, and even a pistol he gave her as a wedding present. Perhaps he was worried about her safety.

And on the main floor you can see her dining room, a Western-style antique dining table and cabinet, and a sitting room next door that has a portrait of her husband on one side of the room, and Chairman Mao on the opposite side.

Upstairs there are many rooms labelled, but visitors can't enter, except see her bedroom/office behind glass. The antique clock outside her room is stopped at the time she died, and her furniture and items left as they were. It's a simple, large room, with a plain bed, a dressing table with makeup and creams, and then a desk with piles of papers, magazines, and books.

But back downstairs there are several pictures of the three sisters who visited an orphanage, Soong Ching-ling personally inspecting aid given to those less fortunate, and her giving a speech rallying others at the funeral of writer Lu Xun.

These three sisters witnessed momentous change in China, and helped it move forward into the 20th century.

And today the country is in the midst of another transformation, from a rural-based economy to an industrial and hi-tech one.

But there aren't any influential women or families to selflessly guide China forward.

We need another Soong Ching-ling. Any volunteers?

Monday, June 25, 2007

Samaranch's Farewell Tour

Former International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch is in Beijing these few days. The 87 year-old looks like he's on his farewell tour and the Chinese are giving him the VIP treatment all the way.

Today he was at Renmin University receiving an honorary professorship, as the post secondary institution has established an Olympic studies program researching the social and economic benefits of hosting the Games. Experts from the United States, the UK, Canada and Australia are part of this think tank.

Samaranch said his love for China started when he first visited in 1978 and after he was elected president of the IOC he encouraged the Chinese to bid for the Olympics. He himself felt China was robbed of the 2000 Games when they went to Sydney. But he's now pleased that Beijing is hosting the Olympics next year. He declared, "I am sure these Olympics will be the best Olympics in history," to which the crowd of mostly university students clapped loudly.

The university then showered him with a number of gifts, including a massive monochromatic oil portrait of him. I wonder where he's going to hang that.

He said the current president, Jacques Rogge will open the Games in Beijing next year. But I don't think that's going to stop Samaranch from coming back for an encore visit.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Hanging Out with the Pretty Boys

Last night I had a taste of the Beijing gay scene.

A tongxin (gay) friend of one of the American interns took us to Destination, the most well-known gay club in the Chinese capital. It's located in the Sanlitun area.

We got there around 10pm and the place was quite empty. But an hour later it was definitely rocking with cool dance tunes and a wooden dance floor that bounced with the people dancing on it.

And there were many guys to look at -- some were pretty boys, some more beautiful than women, and some you never would think they were tongxin. There were also some foreigners who were surveying the scene too.

Some were showing off their cool dance moves, while others hung out in one of the many lounges in the club. When we left, the crowd of men had spilled out into the street for everyone to see.

Apparently the gay population in Beijing is around 47,000 with over 100 bars and clubs for them dotted around the city. Many have trouble coming out of the closet to their families as the Chinese perception of gays are that they are practically an alien race.

Some well-educated and well-travelled straight people have trouble accepting gays, so you can imagine it's going to take a long time before they are more generally accepted in society. But in the meantime this community is going to make sure they have as much fun as possible.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Feeling like Pigpen

This morning I did a pretty thorough cleaning of my apartment. I vacuumed and wiped the floors. And I wiped down counter surfaces and table tops. I was horrified to find that areas that appeared clean were actually covered in not dust, but black dirt.

And no matter how much you clean, the dust and dirt creep back. It's a never ending battle that requires a lot of energy and determination.

After I wash my clothes I have to hang them dry as I don't have a dryer. And when I open the window, I wonder how much dust and dirt will get into my clothes.

I guess in a way it's OK -- a little dust and dirt might actually build up your immune system. But it's weird having that feeling of never being completely clean. That's why I totally connect with Pigpen, the perpetually dirty Peanuts character.

That's just the way it is in Beijing. Maybe I should aim to be relatively clean rather than 100 per cent clean.

Friday, June 22, 2007

East and West, Old and New

Last month I posted a photo of the Poly Group building, a modern glass box on a busy road in Dongshishitiao.

And when I got off the trolley bus tonight, I made an interesting discovery.

Behind this sleek building is a row of old Chinese-style houses. I have to go one day and see what's in these houses, but the contrast between these two structures is really striking.

It's a great example of old and new co-existing literally side-by-side.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Doing My Bit for the Motherland

Yesterday, Chinese President Hu Jintao called on overseas Chinese to contribute to the peaceful reunification of the motherland.

"The complete reunification of China and rejuvenation of the Chinese nation are the common aspiration of all Chinese at home and abroad, and need their concerted efforts as well."

He encourages them to make a greater contribution to the country's prosperity and progress, as well as world peace and development.

These are pretty lofty goals, including the return of all Chinese to the motherland. For many born overseas, China is just a country on the map.

But back to making a contribution to the country's prosperity and progress. I'm trying to do my bit, but find some Chinese lack even a basic sense of professionalism. I'm here to teach them skills and knowledge to help them do their job better, or even up to international standards. But when they can't even get their act together and show up on time or I find out my weekly scheduled meeting has been hijacked by some impromptu meeting and no one tells me in advance, why should I bother?

Until more Chinese show that they're professional and serious about learning something new, you just have to take some of them at face value and boil it down to having your T-I-C moment for the day.

It's a mindset that may take a generation or two to change.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

One-sided Memories

The media in Beijing have already started their special coverage marking the 10th anniversary of Hong Kong's return to the motherland.

And of course they have all been glowing reports.

Most of them stress how it was China that made the former British colony prosperous, helping it get through the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98, and now because the SAR is inextricably linked with China, Hong Kong has no one else but the mainland to thank for its economic boom.

They also talk about how under British rule, Hong Kong people didn't know anything about their Chinese heritage. But now after 10 years, many Hong Kongers are learning Putonghua and discovering what it means to be Chinese.

What they don't talk about is how the city had to suffer through SARS, with not much help from the mainland, how the Chinese government has meddled in Hong Kong laws (Article 23), and the question of universal suffrage ever coming to the city.

It's interesting how China is still hell bent on stressing the economic benefits.

But Hong Kong already has that. The city and its people want more.

There will be another march on July 1 in Hong Kong pushing for more political reforms.

It won't be much longer before the Chinese themselves will be asking for more. What will the Central Government do then?

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

A Salute to Bus Drivers

I think I've mentioned I could never drive in Beijing. The drivers weave in and out of lanes, and pulling bizarre manoeuvres on the road that would get you a ticket or worse in an accident for sure elsewhere.

So that's why I think the bus drivers in the Chinese capital are pretty amazing. Many drive antiquated buses that groan when shifting gears or squeak to a halt at a stop light. And on top of that they have to deal with crazy drivers on the road who think they can sneak into any empty space on the road without realizing a bus behind them might not be able to stop in time...

These drivers also have to deal with packed buses most of the day, cell phones going off, babies wailing... and they only get paid 2,000RMB (US$263) per month.

I particularly liked today's bus driver. Anytime someone cut in front of him, he still insisted on honking at them, and it sounded more like a wailing duck call than a nasty honk. This happened on more than one occasion on my way home today. I don't think I could put up with that on that on a daily basis and keep my cool.

So here's to all the bus drivers in Beijing who manage to get us home safe and sound everyday (despite the cramped conditions).

Monday, June 18, 2007

A Volunteer Army to Greet You

The city is recruiting 400,000 volunteers to help you get around the city during the Olympics and Paralympic Games next year. This doesn't include the already 100,000 people who will be helping out directly with the Olympics.

Officials made the announcement today in a press conference presented by the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee (BOCOG).

A video was shown to the media to illustrate the possible scenarios these volunteers would be of service, from giving directions to administering first aid or helping visitors with their bags. Some foreign media were amused by the stiff acting.

One reporter asked, if there are half a million visitors expected next year, does Beijing really need 400,000 city volunteers. Liu Jian, the office director of the BOCOG Volunteer Work Coordinating Group replied saying: "Chinese people are friendly and we will present our gracious hospitality, so we need more preparation work and more people for that."

While more is great, will each of these volunteers be proficient enough in English or other languages to be able to help foreigners who don't know a word of Chinese?

Right now as someone who knows some Putonghua, I still have problems getting around or asking for what I need.

So if you plan to come to Beijing next year, brush up on your Chinese now. You have just over a year to learn.

Oh and to put things into perspective, the Sydney 2000 Games had 47,000 volunteers, and the 2004 Athens Games had 60,000.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Buddhas in Beijing

Here are some giant statues at the Panjiayuan flea market set against the modern city skyline.

Treasure Hunting

On my last visit to Beijing in late October/early November, I discovered Panjiayuan, the antique flea market in the south east of the city.

And I couldn't resist going back there again.

It's a treasure hunter's paradise with so many kinds of knicknacks, from Mao memorabilia, to calendar posters, porcelain, snuff bottles, wooden boxes, embroidery, jade and bronze. It's questionable how real these antiques are, but you're buying because you like them, not because you think they're actually museum pieces lost in the shuffle.

Once you've set your eye on something. The other fun part is bargaining. Here are a few rules I follow:

1. Don't look too interested in anything.
2. When you ask the price of something, be dramatic and say tai guile! Too expensive!
3. Counter back with at least half or even one third the opening price.
4. Slowly work your way up, but have a price in mind.
5. If you come to an impasse, just walk away. They will be eager to settle a deal with you.

Works 95 per cent of the time.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Making an Indelible Impression

This is a 27 year-old guy surnamed Wu. If he wore a shirt and pants you'd never know underneath his body was covered in tattoos.

But here is he is showing off his body art in front of an exhibition on tattoos in a warehouse district where avant-garde artists show their work.

Wu got his first tattoo, a swirl of black thorns on his left shoulder when he was 17 and was hooked ever since. So far Wu has spent over 8,000RMB (US$1050) on beautifying his body. There's also a detailed black ink drawing of a Chinese dragon wrapped around his right arm.

At first his parents were horrified by their son's obsession with being pierced with ink, but perhaps because it's indelible, they have accepted it.

In fact on his back is an elaborate design with ancient Chinese characters like a poem. Wu says it's dedicated to his mom, but doesn't want to explain any further. Maybe it's the Chinese version of "I Love My Mom".

Inside a Chinese punk rock band was loudly airing its angst while fellow tattooed friends admired each others' designs and proudly posed for pictures.

Another 19 year-old girl had a design of an evil-looking character with bulging eyes on her back. Petite and stylish, she said she just liked the design and had it done. Her parents disapproved about her having a tattoo, but she claimed it was her right to do what she wanted with her body.

Most had sleeves, tattoos covering their arms, or legs, and young women had designs on their backs. One guy had his face covered in a celtic-like design.

They didn't mind non-tattooed visitors gawking or taking pictures. Perhaps it's their way of getting attention in a society where the majority are too traditional to rock the boat.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Catch up on Your TV

This is a small TV screen inside a cab I took recently. It's the first time I've seen this in a taxi. The air-conditioned buses have big screens for people to watch advertorials on a loop. So if you have a long way to go, you're going to be watching the same starlets and wannabe bands over and over again. Napping is probably a better idea.

When I get on a bus or in a taxi, I just want to get away from my computer screen and having yet another screen to look at just makes my eyes shrink back in horror.

Or maybe I should invest in companies that make plasma screens....

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Silence is Deafening

This morning the BBC came out with a story saying that one of the Southern Chinese companies admitted to using child labour, but not to manufacture Beijing Olympics merchandise.

Calls all day to the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee (BOCOG) were unanswered. Marketing director Chen Feng had said yesterday he would meet with the four companies accused of forcing children as young as 12 to work 12 hours a day and not paid overtime. But neither he nor his assistant were in the office to confirm or deny the BBC's article.

Almost as if to distract from the controversy, BOCOG held a feel-good press conference this afternoon on relations between China and Russia. Conveniently no BOCOG officials were available to address the child labour issue.

The longer BOCOG delays making a statement, the more one wonders what's really going on.

And with the Chinese government so anxious to promote a positive image of its country, the silence is almost deafening.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Stopping the "Ambush Market"

Today the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee (BOCOG) held a press conference today to say it's serious about clamping down on "ambush markets".

This refers to companies not licensed to manufacture Olympic-related merchandise who make counterfeit goods, or organizations that associate themselves with the Games but haven't paid the sponsorships for the privilege to market their brand connected to the international sporting event.

Marketing director Chen Feng stressed BOCOG was serious about cracking down on violators who were "hitchhiking" on the Olympic name. He said they would use the media to help the Olympic organizing committee to criticize them.

Meanwhile, BOCOG had to strike back at an ambush against itself.

This past Sunday, a report from PlayFair 2008 alleged that four companies with contracts to manufacture official Olympic merchandise used children as young as 12 in their factories. The group alleges the child labourers had to work overtime and had 12-hour work days. Chen addressed the issue, saying that after the press conference today he was going to meet with representatives of the four companies.

He warned that if these companies are found to have violated labour laws, their contracts would be terminated immediately.

However, when reporters asked if they could come with him to the meeting, Chen said no.

We'll have to follow up. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Vegetarian Oasis

There are some American interns working with us for over two months and one of them is a vegetarian. She's been having a hard time eating out as many restaurants either add meat to the dishes she orders or her Chinese friends are exasperated and say, "Can't you just eat meat this time?"

So I took her and two others to Pure Lotus, a vegetarian restaurant in Lido Place, attached to the Holiday Inn Lido. I'd been there twice before and was impressed with the food, along with the over-the-top presentation and decor.

And so were the girls. They oohed and awed as soon as we stepped into the dimly lit place that projected pictures of lotus flowers on the wall, and the restaurant is sectioned off by beaded curtains. We sat in a giant booth for six and sat back against the cushions to take in the serene atmosphere.

We were first handed the beverage menu which was a giant book with beautiful pictures. The drinks ranged from beetroot juice to Tisane herbal teas and very expensive Chinese ones. As the girls were on a tight budget we just had water with lemon.

The food menu was another tome that took a while to read through and figure out what to order. A waitress came by with a giant feather pen to write down our dishes and then brought yellow napkins to place on the bottom of our plates down to our laps as well as small cocktail napkins and packaged wet ones.

We first had vegetable rolls that were like California cones minus the crabmeat and mayonnaise. Wrapped in seaweed were cucumbers, carrots and watercress. Then we had pumpkin casserole, which was actually slices of pumpkin braised in a small clay pot. We also had fake chicken stir-fried with green peppers. But the favourite was the vegetarian patties served on a sizzling platter complete with mini French fries.

The vegetarian girl was so thrilled by all the food and the atmosphere that she didn't want to leave.

As a finishing touch we were also given a small bowl of lychees, presented in a bowl with dry ice flowing out of it. Pretty dramatic finish.

The last time I was there, I had lily bulb congee. I thought it would be rice congee with bits of lily bulbs in it. In fact the entire bowl was filled with petals of lily bulbs that had been braised for a while. Amazing.

It's a great place to detox once in a while. If you come more often, your wallet will be cleaned out faster than your digestive system.

Monday, June 11, 2007

A Taste of Shanghai Heaven

A famous Shanghainese restaurant chain has made it to Beijing.

Din Tai Fung is a well-known dining establishment in Taiwan, Los Angeles, Shanghai, and Hong Kong.

And it recently opened up two locations in the Chinese capital.

Having tried the one in Shanghai (and with delicious memories of it!) I had to try one in Beijing.

The one I went to is in Shin Kong Place, an upscale shopping mall that houses the likes of Gucci, Salvatore Ferragamo, Agnes B, Hugo Boss, Swarovski and Coach, all of which were completely empty.

The restaurant is on the sixth floor with modern bright decor that looks more like a hotel coffee shop than a Chinese restaurant.

While the menu has some staple Shanghainese dishes, this particular location was missing things like stir-fried river shrimps and lotus roots stuffed with glutinous rice and osmanthus.

The cold appetizer of finely diced tofu and vegetable was molded from a bowl and very refreshing; stir-fried wild mushrooms with bamboo shoots were very fresh and cooked just right. Instead of stir-fried river shrimps we ordered shrimp wontons, each with one whole shrimp and minced pork in a flavourful broth with no MSG.

And then the main event -- 20 small ball-shaped xiaolong bao. We were instructed to dip them in soup stock before dipping them in vinegar and ginger. And they were absolutely heavenly -- the skin wrapping the dumpling is so thin and delicate. When you pop them into your mouth you can't help but savour the taste and sigh with satisfaction.

For dessert, we ordered steamed cake with tiny green and red dots filled with red bean. It's a traditional Hunanese dish that my colleague says was done quite authentically. We washed everything down with organic jasmine tea.

And for all that -- the bill came to 149RMB (US$19.44).

I think I've found one of my favourite restaurants in Beijing!

Din Tai Fung
6/F, Shin Kong Place
87 Jianguo Road
Chaoyang District

Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Battle for Trust

Yesterday's results of the vote in a small community only reveals part of the story.

While the majority are for tearing down their old tongzilou, or U-shaped buildings where families shared washrooms and kitchens, many, particularly the elderly residents showed a deep distrust of everyone.

"Are you going to tell the truth?" they asked a reporter. One even asked another journalist to verify if the notary officials supervising the referendum had proof they were from the Beijing Notary Office.

Both the developer and the residents were eager to use the media to tell their side of the story.

One man surnamed Zhang in his 70s claimed his current living space was 50 square meters. If he agreed to the compensation package he would get 70 square meters, but to him this wasn't good enough and demanded more. He was also concerned the new housing complex may not be built in the two to three years when promised. "Then what do I do?" he asked.

And as one resident described it, the developer is organizing this vote as a face-saving exercise, as the company has tried in vain to get the residents to agree on a compensation package.

The voting procedure was transparent. Literally.

Residents didn't have a secret ballot. Instead it was open for everyone to see if they voted "O" for yes, and "X" for no.

When polls closed at 9pm sharp, the notary officials sealed the clear plastic boxes and they were carried into the gymnasium by security guards. The counting was almost delayed an hour when residents' representatives were asked to move away from the tables and one elderly man refused, demanding his right to see the votes clearly. Organizers relented and other residents' representatives went back to their seats.

The counting was done quickly and efficiently, with only 32 spoiled ballots. However, some 1,700 families didn't vote, and one resident said it was because many of them were opposed to the entire process.

While the vote clearly shows most residents want to demolish their homes to make way for new ones, they still cannot agree en masse on a compensation policy. The ball is now in the developer's court to decide the next step.

This story shows the deep mistrust people have of the government and big business. And this is only one small community. Imagine an entire country with this mindset.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

The Votes are In

It's past midnight and I just came back from the polling station where residents in Juxianqiao were voting to decide whether to demolish their housing complexes or not.

And after the polls closed at 9pm, notary officials and residential representatives didn't start counting the votes until around 10:30pm.

The results were then announced at 11:40pm.

2451 supported the urban renewal project, while 1228 were opposed. There were 32 spoiled ballots. There was only a 60 per cent turnout, which some residents claim the no-shows were those opposed to the whole process.

More details to follow tomorrow.

Friday, June 8, 2007

A Little Taste of Democracy in Beijing

Nearly 6,000 families who live in a run down housing complex get a chance to vote tomorrow.

They will decide if their old houses called "tongzilou" from the 1950s should be demolished and make way for luxury apartments. They're basically small rooms and everyone shares the washrooms and cooking facilities.

A real estate developer has been trying to move into Jiuxianqiao district, but the residents are in a disagreement over how much compensation is enough.

And because talks have stalled with the 20,000 or so people, the developer has finally decided to hold a vote, more like a referendum to see if the houses should be torn down or not.

District officials and the developer would like to see everyone move out to avoid the "nail house" episode in Chongqing, where a couple refused to move out of their tiny house while bulldozing crews dug a giant crater around them.

Things are a bit complicated as 707 of the families have property rights over their house and are entitled to move back after construction is completed. But there are many others, especially seniors who have small pensions and can't afford to move anywhere else as more and more of these inexpensive housing complexes get demolished to make way for urban renewal projects.

Tomorrow from 9am to 9pm, each of the 5,473 families in Jiuxianqiao will have one vote. If the results are 80 per cent or more in favour of tearing down the place, everyone will have to move. If it is less than 80 per cent, then the developer will give up and let the residents stay.

What's also interesting is that not only the developer is shelling out compensation to the families, but the government is too.

I'll let you know how the vote goes. How refreshing to know that people are willing to try something democratic to settle something.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Word of the Day: Gaokao

Today and tomorrow 10.1 million high school graduates across the country are taking gaokao, or the national college entrance exams. Gao means "high" and kao is "exam" or "test".

Coincidentally this year marks the 30th anniversary of the resumption of gaokao after the Cultural Revolution ended in 1977.

Meanwhile, students and their parents have been preparing for this moment for months... or maybe even years. There are reports of anxious mothers and fathers taking time off work to camp out in hotel rooms near the exam sites which probably stresses the students out more than supports them. Some parents even spend lots of money on 'tonics' to help their teen learn more, or hire a 'nurse' to help their son or daughter study and make nutritious meals for them.

And the reason for all this fuss? There are only 5.67 million spots for post secondary education, in university, college and vocational training schools.

So even if you pass the exams, that may not be enough to guarantee you a seat. You have a 56 per cent chance. I can't even imagine what those who didn't get a post secondary education are doing now.

But while the Chinese covet high education, recent university graduates are wondering how far their degrees will get them as they are now all scrambling to find a job. There's even stiff competition to become a massage assistant at 2,000 RMB (US$261) a month.

While there is enough cheap labour to go around, there aren't enough jobs for educated people.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Too Many Cooks Make Bland Broth

Today the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee (BOCOG) held a press conference with an unprecedented number of officials standing by to answer the media's questions. Eighteen of them from various Olympic or municipal departments either sat on stage or in the first row seats.

You'd think with so many of them around, they would surely have something important to say.

Instead the main spokesperson Xin Tieliang, deputy director of the Organization Department read out a giant laundry list of things BOCOG is doing in terms of hiring personnel in areas such as security, tourism, and traffic, and recruiting volunteers.

And the goals of each of the aforementioned groups were very vague and no clear explanation of strategies or how these people would be trained. He would only mention, for example that some 400 young police recruits were sent to the UK and Australia to get their Masters degrees in languages.

Some 100,000 volunteers will be trained but how and in what capacity they would be working were not outlined. Xin was very happy to add that 500 of the volunteers were from Hong Kong, Macau and other countries. There were no further details on where these overseas volunteers would be staying and what benefits they would receive for taking the time to volunteer at the Games.

But the best part of the event was when Xin mentioned media personnel would be chosen depending on their "political reliability".

A reporter from Reuters asked what this meant along with how many people were currently employed at BOCOG.

Unfortunately, Xin preferred to answer the latter question in detail (1,800), including the percentages of those with bachelor's degrees, masters, and doctorates.

I'm still wondering what "political reliability" means.

Can anyone enlighten me?

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

This Is China

On Saturday when I volunteered for T-Shirt Day, I met some other expats.

We were exchanging our impressions of living in China when one of them told us about her first day at work.

"My boss sat me down and said the first thing you need to know is T-I-C," she recalled.


"This is China."

You can use T-I-C for any situation you come across in the most populous country in the world:

The horrendous traffic makes you 45 minutes late for your meeting;
Staff put your 100RMB bill through the bill counter, even though it's one bill;
Men hacking away but still have to have their daily quota of cigarettes;
Young children peeing in the street;
Drivers idling their cars so that they can have the air conditioning on...

You get the idea.

Monday, June 4, 2007

18 Years Later

I asked some colleagues and friends if anything was happening to remember the Tiananmen Square massacre. "Of course nothing," they said.

One of my young colleagues showed me a 2004 edition of Time Magazine that profiled Wang Dan and his cousin Wang Lichao. Wang Dan was a scrawny student with glasses at the time who made speeches in the square. He was imprisoned for his actions twice and then was allowed to go the United States where he is now at Harvard.

His younger cousin has become a well-off entrepreneur in Beijing and is still very close to Wang Dan even though they are half a world apart.

It was the first time my colleague knew more details about the massacre, as he was only six at the time. But he still thinks the students were in the wrong.

"When they occupied the square they made it dirty," he said. "And the students killed the police. They were wrong... how can they say thousands of people were killed?"

I tried to explain that making the square dirty was not illegal. And only one security guard was killed. And as for the students, I admitted we still didn't know the exact number, but that many sons and daughters did not come home to their parents that night. I don't know if that made him realize that perhaps he should reconsider his opinions.

One of my bosses, is a middle-aged man with a wife and young son. At the time, he was a student at Tiananmen Square. He says at one point he even went on a hunger strike for a few days. But then he wondered if he should go back and talked to his father on the phone. His dad persuaded him not to and he obeyed. And today he fervently supports the Chinese government.

Another friend was 13 at the time. She doesn't remember much except that the students thought they were doing the right thing and idealistic. "People weren't concerned about democracy at the time," she says. "They wanted to make money." But I countered that after people do have money and everything they need, they will want more -- and that includes democracy.

Yesterday afternoon I visited Tiananmen Square. There were extra police around. Maybe it was because of the upcoming anniversary or because some official from Pakistan was in the area. But other than that it was just like any other weekend.

A handful of people were flying kites, most taking pictures with Chairman Mao in the background or keeping cool with popsicles.

For me I remember those dark images on CNN that night. A few years after that, I remember listening to former student leader Wu'er Kaixi make passionate speeches at my university, about how China needs democracy to move forward.

To stand in the middle Tiananmen Square on the eve of the anniversary and only imagine the chaos, it was an eerie feeling.

I will not forget it.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

A Confession to Make

I have a confession to make.

After over six weeks in Beijing, I succumbed to the power of McDonald's.

I didn't mean to. After visiting the Capital Museum, I was hungry and although it has a cafe, it looked empty and I thought the shopping mall diagonally across would have some food.

But the only eatery it had was the American fast-food restaurant.

There was nothing much else around within sight which I found surprising. So I broke down and walked in.

I ordered a Filet of Fish, fries and Coke for 16RMB (US$2.09) and took a seat to eat my late lunch.

The staff there are just like North American ones -- young people and older ones who look like they're in their 60s. They wear a uniform which includes denim jeans with the golden arches stitched on each of the back pockets. Very cute.

But yes... I hope you forgive me. I tried really hard to avoid McDonald's!

Gaudi's Flourishes in Beijing

A small exhibition of Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi's designs at the Capital Museum so I decided to check it out.

The museum is a giant black box with an over-sized flat lid on top. On one side is a giant bronze bell-like shape jutting out of the glass.

For only 30RMB (US$3.92) you can see everything you want in that box.

I didn't know much about Gaudi except his colourful and curvy-shaped buildings that I saw in Barcelona. But I didn't know where his fanciful ideas came from until I saw the show.

There weren't many English explanations, but wonderful 3-D computer graphics that showed how he fused geometrical shapes together to create new ones and they were architecturally strong too. These were super imposed on top of actual parts of buildings to show their applications. He had once called himself a "geometrician" and believed it was the role of the architect to use light in the best way.

Only a few items were on show, including hand-carved doors and chairs in shapes inspired by nature, tiles, some rods for banisters and candelabras, and door or cabinet handles. And there was also a model of the Sacra Familia showing the vaults inside.

The exhibition was also great because there weren't many people around.

I wandered to another section of the museum that showed off porcelain from Jindezhen, well known for its ceramics. But each of them were glued together -- there were none in tact. I found this quite bizarre. Is it because the Palace Museum in Taiwan has taken all the good stuff?

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Doin' it for the Kids

Yesterday was International Children's Day and to do my bit, I volunteered some time to participate in T-Shirt Day.

It's organized by Beijing's Magic Hospital, a non-profit organization that tries to bring fun and laughter to children who have been neglected or seriously ill. This is the second annual T-Shirt Day, where bright red backpacks are filled with white T-shirts, coloured markers, colouring pencils, paper, two milk boxes and hand wipes.

This year Magic Hospital organized volunteers to go to 12 locations in and around the city. They included Beida Hospital, where kids have serious depression or psychological problems, Wisdom Spring, a place for runaway children, and a place for kids whose parents are either executed or imprisoned.

I was assigned to go to Guang Ai Migrant School in Hou Shayu, Shanyi District. It's a poor area, but just outside the village reside wealthy expats who live in homes with garages and drivers.

When we got there, two little girls immediately greeted us and took us by the hand. They led us to the rest of the kids in the schoolyard, busily cleaning small tables and chairs.

Teacher Shi used a megaphone to bark orders at the kids to get in line. They immediately scurried into place, with the youngest in the front, the eldest at the back. Some had taken part in T-Shirt Day before, so they knew the drill. Others were anxious to see what happened next.

We handed out the backpacks to the students according to their T-shirt size (S, M, L). They immediately bowed and said thank you. Then we had to encourage them to sit down and write their names on their backpacks and then start drawing on their T-shirts.

The whole exercise is to get them to express themselves through art, and also give them a sense of property, with these new items.

It turns out the school gets funding from a Christian organization, so many of the kids drew giant hearts or crosses and wrote "I love Jesus and Jesus loves me". Others drew flowers, butterflies or rainbows.

I went around table to table checking up on the kids and praising their drawings. They were having fun and too busy drawing to make conversation.

After they were done, the teacher ordered them to put the T-shirts on top of their scruffy clothes and we took pictures of them.

We had planned to play with them for an hour and a half, but there was some miscommunication and the kids had to rush off to have a treat -- lunch at McDonald's.

Another teacher surnamed Li gave some of us a tour of the two-storey school. The ground floor had many small and narrow classrooms that barely fit in two rows of desks. There was an understocked library too.

Upstairs were the dorms, boys on one side, girls on the other. Each room has four bunk beds placed next to each other, but houses 10 children, as two small ones fit in one bed.

Li explained the school opened four years ago and the children range from four to 17 years-old. They try to give th students a basic education and hopefully by the time they reach 17 or 18 they can find a basic job.

Most of these kids are called "left behind" kids, children whose parents have left home to find jobs far away. Others are slightly retarded or are orphans.

So today was just a small way for us to let them know they're not forgotten.

Friday, June 1, 2007

A Can of Sardines

After work today I experienced my first rush hour in the subway.

From my office, I can take a bus to Yong He Gong (Lama Temple) station which is in the north eastern part of the city. When I went southwards to Jianguomen, one of the major subway transfer stations, it was completely packed. There were crowds of people everywhere trying to get onto the east-west subway line... and with my luck, in the same direction as me.

I watched as people from behind pushed others to squeeze them into the train. Then the subway staff tried to get everyone to stand back so that the train could leave the station.

Unfortunately, Beijing's subway isn't as efficient as Hong Kong's so there was a bit of a wait for the next train, and of course more people waiting to get on.

So when it finally came, I did manage to get into a subway car, but not without being pushed forward by others. We were mashed in there like sardines and it was difficult to move or hold on to something. We had no choice but to sway with the subway.

I grabbed my bags and hugged them as close to my body as I could. Now I know what it's like for Japanese women on crowded subways. You wonder whose butt is rubbing up against yours!

I got off two stops later, but not without having to elbow my way out of the train.

I don't think I could handle rush hour on the subway everyday. I think I'd get underground rage.