Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Day After the Rain

This morning on my way to work, this was the scene at one of the streets.

It was several inches deep in water.

And many roads are like this around the city. The drainage system either doesn't work, or the street was paved too flat for the water to run anywhere. Or there is no existing drainage system.

The water is muddy from the dirt and dust, as well as the sidewalks, as they're constructed using bricks and held together by sand.

By the way, the sky didn't clear up as I had hoped. It was still overcast today.

And now in the evening there is a giant lightning show. Bolts of light are flashing across the dark sky making for an amazing night display, and thunder rumbling in the background.

Hopefully tomorrow will be a clear day.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Naturally Cleaning the Air

For the last few days it's been hot and humid here, which is unusual for Beijing, known for its hot dry summers.

But everyday it's been muggy and hazy. And yesterday was so hot that I thought it would surely rain last night.

However, the temperature cooled just enough to prevent any precipitation from forming.

A visiting friend thought she needed to get her eyes checked because she couldn't see clearly outside. "It's not you," I replied. "It's the pollution."

This morning China Radio International said the forecast was "foggy" with heavy rain in the afternoon.

While it might have looked foggy, the city was covered in a deep haze rather than mist.

And finally late this afternoon the sky grew dark and rumbling thunder and flashes of light flew across the sky signaling rain. And it rained hard for a few minutes.

It's evening and there's still intermittent lightning, thunder and rain.

I hope it continues all night so that tomorrow morning the sky will be so clear my friend will wonder if her eyes are too sharp.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Speak English Please

Beijing Television held an English contest that was taped in the basement of the Millennium Monument, a strange structure with a needle not upright, but on an angle like a radar gun.

The contest called "I am the Hero" was also loosely related to the Olympics, encouraging people to come out of the woodwork and speak English.

Anyway, it was sponsored by a company that produces software to learn English, but interestingly enough, none of their staff spoke the language.

The contest had been going for a few months a la American Idol style, eliminating people and now they were down to the final 12. They ranged in age from an 11-year-old girl to an elderly man, but he wasn't able to make it that night for some reason.

In the competition they had to translate and perform a skit that is quite well known in China. It's basically an interviewer asking a country bumpkin couple about their lives with both comical language and physical comedy.

It was quite strange to have them translate something, when they really should have created their own skits in English. These were then graded by three judges, one of whom was an actual English person. Six people were then eliminated.

The next round was to get each contestant to wear a funny headband with a word on it they couldn't see. Through asking a series of questions in 90 seconds they had to guess what the word was. Some of them were volleyball, Mickey Mouse, traffic officer and yoga.

The young girl who had excellent English, flubbed this section because her word was "credit card". She knew it had to do with banking and it was a thing, not a person, but she couldn't figure it out. And when time was up, she couldn't even begin to guess the answer and started to cry in front of the cameras and studio audience.

Everyone tried to console her, but it was no use. She wept openly even though everyone told her she was a "hero".

She and two other people were eliminated.

The finale was a major presentation each of the finalists had to give. Another young girl used two wooden clappers and performed a rhythmic poem about the environment and that we were all heroes.

Then a university student had two boxers come on stage pretending to spar with each other. It turns out she is an interpreter for a boxing coach and she explained how she was so thrilled to be chosen by this coach to help him communicate with Chinese boxers training for the Olympics.

Last but not least was the flashiest presentation of them all -- a police officer and his cohorts in uniform marched on stage. With slide images in the background, the officer talked about his experience being in London during the bombings two years ago and how he is proud to be helping with security for the Games next year. And also sharing the stage was an attractive dancer in a sexy police-like uniform who provided the eye candy.

It was no contest who won in the end.

While the actual "tests" the contestants had to go through were a bit strange, it was impressive to see the calibre of spoken English in Beijing.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Shop to Your Advantage

My friend took me to a little unknown place really close to the Silk Market, or Xiu Shui Jie.

It's across the street from the giant superstore where you can buy fake T-shirts, shoes, handbags, as well as beads, electronics and bolts of silk.

We got there from the subway station, Yonganli and got out of exit C. We came out to the side opposite the market. And nearby is another subway entrance. That's where this underground shopping arcade is.

It's a far cry from the hordes of people crammed in the Silk Market, with sales girls grabbing your arm or chanting off names like Gucci or Prada to get your attention. There's hardly anyone in this place which is ideal for a shopper who wants to take her time. But it's also a great bargaining chip too.

The stalls have very similar merchandise to Xiu Shui Jie, and because there aren't many customers around, you can bargain the price down lower. Most of the things on sale include clothing, pashmina shawls, handbags and shoes.

We bargained the pashminas down to 28RMB (US$3.70) each.

Another bargaining tip: a bit of flattery helps with the negotiations. Each party has time to kill, so why not toss in a compliment or two? Makes for a fun conversation as well.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Ensuring Good Coverage

I'd read stories when poorly-paid journalists go to press conferences or events and are given hong bao, or "a red envelope" with some cash in it as an incentive to get a story or two out of them.

The public relations people or organizers tell the reporters that the money is to pay for their transportation or meals, a monetary "sorry to take up your time, but here's a little souvenir..." token.

Apparently this is very common practice in China.

And it's very hard to give the hong bao back, as it can be seen as rude to refuse a gift. The people giving out the envelopes really urge the journalists to take the money and it's only after some persistence on the reporter's end that they may give up and take back the monetary gift.

When journalists only make around 3,000-5,000RMB (US$397-$661) a month, the temptation is too great.

Fair reporting can only begin when they are paid a decent wage. Until then, anyone who consumes Chinese media may want to think twice about what they're reading, hearing and seeing.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Hot and Oily All Over

Beijingers love chillis. They can't get enough of these brilliant red peppers that ignite fires down your throat. Just as vicious are Sichuan peppercorns, small dark brown round spices that literally numb your tastebuds.

And last night at Fei Teng Yu Xiang, diners hovered over various dishes covered in oil and chillis. The restaurant is best known for its shao zhu yu, or fish slices cooked in a basin of oil and seasoned with the hot peppers.

Definitely not my idea of an enjoyable dining experience, but for these customers, it looked like they were having quite the fiery hot feast.

Feng Teng Yu Xiang
No. 1 Gongti Bei Lu
Chaoyang District

The ABCs of Sex

Recent reports coming out of Shanghai say that more teens are having sex in that city this summer and are calling the accidental pregnancy hotline asking how they can get an abortion.

This comes on the heels of a previous story that nearly half of the pregnant teenagers in the coastal city met their partners on the Internet. Most of the fathers disappeared after learning about the pregnancy, and the teens didn't know their partners' names.

And many of these young women have had multiple abortions, as their form of birth control.

The lack of adequate sex education in schools and parents' reluctance to talk about the subject with their children is a challenge Ma Yinghua is familiar with.

She is a senior councilor studying health and HIV/AIDS education at Peking University.

Ma explains that students are taught health education -- nutrition, health and fitness along with a bit of sex education. It's not until grades 5 and 6 do they learn about puberty and the effects that can have on bodies and minds. The ABC's of sex ed are: A for abstinence, B for be able to say no, and C for condom.

And learning how to use a prophlyactic isn't taught until college and university -- not senior high school.

When pressed if students really know how to use a condom, Ma just said yes without elaborating, instead saying she's gone to conferences in the United States where instructors there admit they have problems talking about sex in class.

She showed various textbooks on sex education that were sanctioned by the government. They were filled with cartoon drawings and not being able to read Chinese, on the whole looked pretty tame. The teacher's handbook was also hardly riveting, also with cartoon illustrations.

Ma trains teachers on how to teach sex education, as well as HIV/AIDS prevention. She started working in this government-funded area in 1996 and teachers had no clue what HIV/AIDS was. But a decade later, they are all quite knowledgeable and are now finding ways of teaching the subject more effectively. She travels around the country, particularly Henan, Guangxi, Heilongjiang provinces as well as big cities.

However, her biggest battle is with school administrators who limit the amount of class time devoted to sex education and HIV/AIDS prevention. Or Ma is asked to lecture to an auditorium filled with students when a small class is more effective for this kind of interactive instruction.

She admits she's frustrated, but continues to have hope that more young people will be armed with the information they need to prevent sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS.

While the resources and information are great, Ma also adds that these young people don't know how to resolve problems, especially when it comes to relationships. And with more of them experimenting with sex, they need to understand there's no black and white answer. This too is a big hole that Ma thinks parents should be responsible for and communicate with their sons and daughters.

The sexual revolution in China continues, but only a fraction wiser.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Race Card

To the Chinese, I'm a foreigner who is only here temporarily so sometimes they won't bother explaining things, or think I can't even begin to understand what they're experiencing.

Many young people feel they have an obligation to make their parents happy by getting a good job, salary, an apartment, spouse, and eventually kids. They feel this is a heavy burden on their shoulders.

"You don't understand," they say. "You're not Chinese."

At the same time, these Chinese have an impression that all young people from the West have no cares in the world. They assume that laowai (foreigners) don't have to look after their parents or have a mortgage, and if they don't like their job, they can just pack up and go backpacking for a year. Or two.

I try to explain that not all laowai are like this, but they can't seem to get this stereotype out of their heads. This is probably because most of the foreigners they encounter are probably backpackers or fresh grads teaching English to help fund their travel expenses through Asia.

I wish the Chinese could understand that even if I'm not Chinese to them, that I can still relate to their filial pressures. And that they do have a choice to walk away and pursue what they really want to do. They think the pressure to conform to the status quo is uniquely Chinese. But little do they realize it's really universal.

Monday, July 23, 2007

In Good Time

For the most part, Beijingers are not in a rush.

They like to walk slowly -- saunter is probably the best word to describe it. My coworkers wonder why I walk so fast. I tell them it's a lasting legacy from my Hong Kong days. While I get to a destination faster, I probably perspire more.

In traffic jams, drivers, bus passengers and truck drivers all wait patiently for the cars in front to move. We'll get there eventually. Even if there's an accident, they all take turns manoeuvering around the crash site and carry on.

At restaurants, wait staff are in no hurry to get their customers' orders or to serve them their dishes so they can get the next round of diners. Perhaps not getting tips propagates this environment.

Office workers especially in state-owned enterprises, finish their lunches, and then take a leisurely nap bent over their desk with their heads resting on cushions or mini pillows. Then they slowly get back into the grind one and a half hours after lunch break started.

While I appreciate this laid-back attitude, which has helped me slow my pace down a notch, it can also be frustrating especially when you're in a hurry.

And next year could be quite interesting with thousands of visitors rushing from one venue to the next to catch events. Either overseas guests are going to have to put up with this laissez-faire approach, or someone will have to tell the Chinese that time's a tickin'.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

More Yummy Food

We visited Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant again last night.

And we were seated upstairs which has a maze of private and semi-private rooms. But once you're up there, service starts becoming sketchy, probably because there's less supervision. And we weren't thrilled with our waitress who had just about lost her patience with us trying to slightly modify dishes.

Nevertheless, we did order half a roast duck, vegetables in a broth with roasted garlic, black rice with diced dace and vegetables, and this tofu dish, half with the yellow Japanese tofu filled with XO sauce, the other white tofu with preserved vegetables in it. Each was served on a spoon and the plate covered in a smattering of beans.

And then tonight we went to Din Tai Fung at Shin Kong Place.

We had the famous xiaolong bao (steamed pork dumplings), shrimp wonton, a rice dumpling, steamed vegetarian dumplings and pea shoots cooked as requested with less oil.

The dessert of steamed buns filled with black sesame was fabulous. The bun was fluffy and light, the ground sesame filling not too heavy. We also had eight treasure glutinous rice which was also delicious and stuck to our stomaches as we waddled out the door.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Swarming the Sights

Some friends are visiting Beijing and they wanted to go to the Summer Palace today so I joined them.

It was definitely a test of patience combined with the hot sun.

We arrived at noon and already there were bus loads of sweaty locals and tourists alike jostling to buy an admission ticket. That was a sign of things to come.

Everywhere we wandered through the sprawling former Imperialist grounds, swarms of people either followed us or were already there. They lined the Long Corridor, a covered wooden walkway that has a delicately hand-painted ceiling; families sitting around, munching on watermelon or popsicles, young people taking vanity photos with scenic backgrounds; wheel-chair bound visitors carried up stairways; students wearing uniform T-shirts on a field trip.

The Summer Palace has a number of things to see, including a Buddhist temple on top of a hill. We managed to escape most of the crowd, but even then there was a number of people there to see the five-foot high Buddha complete with four heads, and 24 arms. The gold paint was flaking off the statue and people continued to take flash photographs even though staff tried to tell them not to.

And as we were trying to leave, there were more people arriving, probably because it's cooler in the late afternoon. As we were leaving, we saw a board saying that an estimated 389,000 people visited the grounds yesterday, and today there were probably a few thousand more.

The ironic thing is that the Summer Palace was built for the Royal family to escape the heat and busy life in the Forbidden City.

But now it's become a destination for an outing -- for a good number of Beijingers eager for a taste of the Imperial lifestyle.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Where are the Fashion Police?

I've noticed lots of women, young and old wear these ankle-high nylons with their sandals or heels.

While they believe wearing these prevent blisters, I personally find them an eyesore.

Sometimes you see a woman putting so much effort into dressing nicely with a beautiful top and skirt, or glamorous-looking dress, and on their feet are these nylons with strappy sandals or heels.

Either they wear more comfortable shoes or suffer for their beauty. Those nylons have got to go. Pronto!

Word of the Day: Chao Zuo

Today my colleagues and I were talking about celebrities or people who do publicity stunts to get noticed.

And the Chinese word is chao (3) zuo (4). Chao means to "stir-fry" while zuo means "to do".

It makes sense. A publicity stunt really is creating something quickly, and the hotter the better.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Impressive Watering Hole

Yesterday the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee (BOCOG) showed a group of journalists what it's doing to create a sustainable environment for next year's Games.

They took the media to the Qinghe Water Reclamation Plant, which is in the north of the city. Before they could inspect the actual plant, reporters had to sit through a series of presentations that explained 90 per cent of Beijing's sewage is treated and up to 46 per cent of the water collected is reused in a variety of ways.

The city has four of these treatment plants and two reused water pumping stations processing 2.5 cubic metres of water per day and using the reclaimed water for industrial cooling, agricultural irrigation, watering the city's plants and washing cars. This significantly cuts down on Beijing's dependence on the lakes and rivers in the surrounding area.

First the water is separated from the sewage, then it goes through a "membrane" system, a series of fibrous material and then the water flows into a carbon filtration tank and is oxidized with ozone to make it relatively clean. The water is not fit for human consumption.

This water will be used at major Olympic venues, for example watering the plants, washing cars, or filling ponds.

The water treatment plant was pretty impressive, with giant tanks outside and inside holding wastewater to reclaimed water. The left over sludge is processed into fertilizer for agricultural use.

Not all buildings in Beijing use the reclaimed water yet, as not all the pipes have been laid to distribute it. But once that happens, the city will definitely be ahead of many others who are still trying to figure out how to recycle water or find the money to build the infrastructure.

In Case of Jaws...

At the Military Museum, there were exhibits of various artifacts, from old wooden rifles, a copy of Mao's writings, to a tree trunk that was in a picture during the Japanese invasion in northern China in the 1930s.

There was also a glass case showing the survival gear given to soldiers if they parachuted into the water. Among the items was a life jacket, a flare, food, and this "Drive Off Shark Agent".

I don't know exactly what it is... but the red colour would probably attract the sharks to come over so you'd have to use it anyway...

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The PLA Celebrates 80 Years

The People's Liberation Army, or PLA is celebrating its 80th anniversary this week.

And foreigners were invited to a special event for them at the Military Museum. The event is titled "Our Troops March Towards the Sun".

Various diplomats and uniformed military attaches were there, mostly from countries like Thailand, Myanmar, Israel, Zimbabwe, and Pakistan to be enlightened by the PLA's military might.

We were taken through a slew of exhibits starting from when the PLA was founded in 1927 to the technological advances of airplane, tank and ship simulators and satellites, to saving lives in natural disasters.

What was also interesting was that ordinary Chinese could recite major historic events in their country's history, or even explain the many martyrs or heroes in the PLA who have become larger than life.

One saved a boy from a well, but at the cost of his own life; another was diagnosed with terminal cancer and yet is determined to pass on his knowledge through teaching. There was a picture of an older surgeon just out of the operating room. We asked if he was the retired military doctor who told the world about the real SARS situation in China. The minder accompanying us wasn't sure.

For a military museum it was quite informative and had interesting displays, from models of tanks, planes and submarines in some strategic formation, to pup tents and old rifles.

The Chinese government spends 17 per cent of its overall budget on military spending. It looks like every yuan is well spent. There was nothing frivolous -- no champagne, tea or water for parched guests as they wandered through the large exhibition.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Frozen Treats

Bellagio is a swanky dessert place in Sanlitun, near the clubs. It's open late so hungry clubbers inevitably end up here to continue scoping out the good looking men and women.

You can eat meals here too, but this place is better known for its desserts. The eatery offers mostly shaved ice with a variety of toppings, from fruits to beans. It's so hard to choose with the menu filled with pictures.

The most famous dessert here is a giant mountain covered in red bean, green bean, berries, and coconut milk drizzled on top. It takes at least four people to finish it.

Another good one is shaved ice with mango, a delectable combination. I also had the passionfruit smoothie, which is ice and passionfruit blended together. It was in a huge glass that would have been ideal for two people. Needless to say I had a brain freeze a few times.

They also do hot desserts, like ground almond pudding, and red date tea.

Yum yum.

6 Gongti Xilu
Chaoyang District

Monday, July 16, 2007

10 Ways to Beat the Heat

Beijing is known for its hot summers and cold winters. Sounds like Toronto.

But so far I've only experienced the heat with temperatures well past the 3o-degree Celsius mark.

And when the sky is clear, you can be sure it's going to be dry hot. And when it's overcast, it's humid hot, which is very similar to Hong Kong.

Everyone has their own strategy to beat the heat. For most of my colleagues, they're content with staying at home all day with the air conditioning on watching TV, surfing the Net or watching DVDs.

But here's my list to keep cool:

10. Wear clothes you don't mind sweating in. That's what you're going to do, so might as well feel comfortable perspiring.

9. Carry Kleenex with you at all times. It helps to have these tissues on hand to wipe your brow when sweat is pouring down your face.

8. Bring water with you everywhere. My thermos has been indispensable - it keeps my water cold, even after several hours. It's my little portable oasis of relief.

7. Use your umbrella. Back home, I used to think Asian women were weird for hiding under their parasols even for a few minutes in the sun. But once I tried it here, I carry mine everywhere. It's instant shade that I'm sure cuts down the temperature on my head by a few degrees.

6. Cut your hair short, or put it up. Makes sense.

5. Jump into a pool. Hopefully the nearest swimming pool isn't too crowded. Otherwise it's a test of your patience with kids and parents oblivious to others trying to swim a lap or two.

4. Have an ice cream or popsicle. It's a cheap way to cool down and treat yourself.

3. Freeze a bottle of water. It's so nice to have cold water when it melts, but then the outside of the bottle starts to build condensation too so you have a pool of water on your table. Which is why I use a thermos instead. But it's still a good idea.

2. Turn on the air conditioning at home. I turn it on when I'm eating lunch or dinner (otherwise I start perspiring) and in the evening. What's weird is that when I sleep I have to bundle up to avoid catching a cold from the air con!

1. Shower often. After a hot day outside, you can't beat the feeling of being clean, especially just before bedtime.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Just Passing By

Here's a picture of Tiananmen with bicycles, cars and buses whizzing by an updated portrait of Mao Zedong.

He looks rather glowing. It must be the colourful background.

Maybe it's to make up for the fact that his mausoleum is closed at the moment for renovations. It won't be open until late September.

Wandering Around

This afternoon I had hoped to explore the Underground City (Di Xia Cheng).

It's a maze of tunnels built in the 1960s, apparently able to hold 60,000 people in case of a nuclear attack.

But I had trouble finding this unique attraction. I tried to follow the directions in my guidebook, but came across several rundown hutongs, or Chinese-style old houses with tiled roofs, and some of them even in the process of being demolished.

I asked two taxi drivers to take me to the Underground City, but both had never heard of it.

So I kept walking down the main street and came across an ancient gate.

It turns out it's called Zhengyangmen, or Qianmen, "Front Gate". It's a landmark where the emperors used to pass when they went on their way to the Temple of Heaven from the Forbidden City. But because I got there just five minutes past four, the ticket office for the giant watchtower just closed so I was unable to go up and see a more panoramic view of the city.

But there was plenty to see on the ground, with little kids waving China flags, people posing for pictures or just hanging out.

Here's a picture of Zhengyangmen with someone's giant kite, one of many people were flying in the hazy sky.

I'll just have to find the Underground City another day.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Dancing the Night Away

Just outside of Hou Hai is a giant plaza.

During the day hacky-sac players kick around a rubber ball with feathers on it.

But in the evening, it's transformed into an outdoor ballroom.

People young and old, but mostly in their 50s and 60s waltz, cha-cha and foxtrot to all kinds of Chinese music blasting from a speaker.

One man had an intricately choreographed way to dance with two women; a young lady looked elegant in a flowing red dress; and some women teamed up to dance with each other.

Most impressive was an elderly man probably in his late 70s or even early 80s. And he danced like a young pup. He had no problem bending down and doing Russian-like kicks, or grabbing his younger partner and skipping around in a circle. More amazing was that he hardly broke a sweat. Perhaps he was a dancer in his earlier years and this was his way of keeping those memories alive.

He's definitely young at heart and enjoying every moment on the dance floor.

A Sneak Peek for Free

Near the entrance of Hou Hai are some restaurants and clubs.

And here were a number of migrant workers standing in a line staring at something at a club called Sex in Da City.

When you looked from where they stood, you could see through a see-through curtain a scantily-clad woman pole dancing on top of the bar.

This was a new form of entertainment they hadn't seen before.

And it was their one inexpensive way to get some kicks out of the city nightlife.

Pizzas in Hou Hai

As you can tell, Hou Hai is fast becoming my favourite Beijing haunt. I think it's because of the relaxed atmosphere, with so many things going on there, from the wonderful smells emanating from the restaurants to the singers performing cheesy numbers in the bars, the stalls selling Mao posters; and the people wandering the area, young and old, each finding their own adventure in Hou Hai.

A friend took me to a pizza place hidden among the hutongs. She had only been there once before and had forgotten exactly where it was and tried to locate it before I arrived.

The lotus flowers are just in bloom now and their brilliant pink petals are a beautiful contrast to their giant green leaves.

And just past the lotus flowers is Hutong Pizza, just off an alleyway.

It's a quaint old place, with many colours of paint on the beams. Local and expats frequent the place, which serves thin crust pizza, my favourite.

We started with Caesar salad, but it was Chinese style with cherry tomatoes, slices of cucumber and slightly toasted bread cubes. Nevertheless it was still refreshing.

Then arrived the main course. We ordered a small pizza with two toppings -- one was spinach with mushrooms and onions, the other with parma ham, artichoke hearts and olives.

The square pizza was sliced into triangles and both toppings were good, but I have to say the parma ham one was better. The former didn't have much spinach, but more mushrooms and onions instead.

Needless to say we were quite full after that and decided to take a walk all the way around the lake.

We stopped periodically to see some landmarks like a temple and a store selling Buddhist books and Chinese tea; children were crouched around pointing at what looked like a dead dragonfly; some men were still out on the water in the dark having their evening dip; and others had fishing lines cast in hopes of catching something in the water.

If Hou Hai wasn't so far from where I live, I think I'd hang out here more often. Each time I go I see or experience something new.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Celebrating an Idol's Birthday

One of my colleagues Jennifer is obsessed with Olympic athlete Liu Xiang.

He won the gold medal in the men's 110m hurdles at the 2004 Athens Summer Games. Originally, the modest Shanghainese had only hoped to make the finals.

And just a few days ago Liu won a race in Lausanne, Switzerland, at 13.01 seconds, beating American Anwar Moore who clocked in at 13.12.

Liu will be competing in Liverpool, England this weekend.

The poster boy for the Chinese Olympics, he is young, good-looking and a gold medal athlete to boot. He's gotten lots of endorsements and contracts worth millions of yuan.

But back to my coworker.

Jennifer absolutely adores Liu. She has his picture as her desktop picture, reads every bit of news about him, even staying up late to watch his 13.01 second win the other night. She was recently in Shanghai and visited the university he attended. It's an understatement that she was thrilled to walk the same halls he did.

I love to tease her about Liu and she takes it all in stride. She said she admired him from the moment he competed in Athens and has been following him ever since.

Today is his birthday, which coincides with the sixth anniversary of when the International Olympics Committee announced Beijing would hold the 2008 Summer Games. She pointed this out this interesting fact to me.

So we decided to celebrate his 24th birthday (he is only a few months younger than her) with an ice cream to beat the heat.

At the grocery store we found a chocolate coffee-flavoured ice cream he was endorsing so of course she had to have that one! And yes, she savoured every bite.

Happy Birthday Liu Xiang!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

State Secret

Yesterday the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee (BOCOG) held a press conference updating the media on the construction of the various venues.

And there wasn't much to say except that 27 of the 31 Beijing-based buildings either new or renovated were practically finished for the start of the "Good Luck Beijing" sports events next week. That's when athletes will actually test out these venues for the next two months so that engineers and designers can fine tune them for next year.

However, when a foreign media reporter asked about the total cost of the renovation and construction of new venues, she was given a vague answer, saying that everything was on budget and on time. The official gave no figure, or even a range of numbers.

Another German journalist tried to press again for a number. And the reply again, was reiterated, but this time a hint was added that the total budget was less than the cost of the construction of the Sydney 2000 Games.

One wonders why there is such a strong refusal to disclose a number. Perhaps the amount is too big for the average Chinese to swallow, or it's easier for the government to spin the numbers later since no figure was released in the first place. It almost sounds like a state secret.

However, one thing's for certain -- with the abundant cheap labour, the venues will definitely be completed on time, regardless of cost.

Arguably the Best Duck in Town

On the recommendation of a friend in Hong Kong, a girlfriend and I tried out Beijing Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant in Dongsishitiao, near Swissotel.

It's a swish-looking restaurant. When you walk in, there's a giant open kitchen where you can see blanched whole ducks hanging on hooks waiting to be roasted in fiery ovens that chefs carefully tend to. Once they're cooked golden brown, the ducks are quickly taken out and another chef tips them over to release the extra oil and discreetly wring their necks.

The dining area is also sophisticated-looking, with dark-stained Chinese furniture, uniformed staff talking into headsets, and carved wooden window frames.

A chef came, donned a face mask and proceeded to precisely cut the bird delicately into consistent slices. The skin was practically translucent with hardly any fat on it. He presented them perfectly on a bed of lettuce.

We were given a bamboo steamer with thin pancakes as well as two small bread pockets covered in sesame seeds for us to stuff the duck in. There was also as an array of condiments, from finely sliced cucumbers and onion, to mashed garlic, radish, sugar and plum sauce.

The duck was so good. The skin was crunchy and the meat tender and moist. There were no bits of fat in between. It was one lean duck. It definitely is a close contender to the Peking Duck I had at Man Wah, the Chinese restaurant in the Mandarin Hotel in Hong Kong.

We also ordered stir-fried Mandarin fish in rice wine sauce. Slices of poached fish were swimming in a pool of sauce that had too much cornstarch in it. While the fish was perfectly cooked, the taste was half sweet and half sour.

But the stir-fried pea shoots with garlic were perfect. The fine shoots looked delicate and had a sweet taste. Next time just duck and a vegetable dish are enough for two people.

So if you come to Beijing, I will take you to Da Dong!

Beijing Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant
1-2/F, Nanxincang International Plaza
22A Dongsishitiao, Dong Cheng District

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Ducking Around in Hou Hai

I snapped this picture at Hou Hai, literally "the back lakes" which are near the city center.

It's where people eat and drink at the bars and restaurants lined around the lakes, or even take a dip.

And here are some people taking a joyride in a duck-shaped paddle boat, with a real bird not far behind.

Wondering What to Eat

Today China executed its former head of the State Food and Drug Administration for taking bribes for approving an antibiotic blamed for at least 10 deaths and other substandard medicines.

The government gave Zheng Xiaoyu, 62, the heavy sentence in hopes of showing the world it's getting tough on food and drug safety.

This is fine and well, albeit an unusually serious punishment, but it still does not solve the country's problem in making sure the products it produces for consumption at home and abroad are safe to eat or use.

What is missing is a series of checks and balances, more inspections from overseas clients and more qualified Chinese inspectors.

When I go to the grocery store, I have no idea what is safe to eat. At least I know in North America, most companies take it upon themselves to notify customers if something is wrong with their products.

But here in China, it seems like everyone's more concerned with making a quick buck than making quality goods that people will appreciate and continue to buy. Vegetables are covered in pesticides, pork and beef may have come from sketchy environments. Even products that are labeled "organic" aren't necessarily bona fide organic. Fish and seafood are mostly from polluted waters. Even bottled water can't be guaranteed as clean.

So what to eat?

In a way it's good -- I feel like I've lost weight as evidenced by my loose-fitting pants. But at the same time, it's scary wondering if you're eating the right thing, not just eating a balanced diet.

But most importantly, after years of indoctrination or culture, the Chinese have learned not to question authority, or question things in general.

If they began to question things or double-check things more, then maybe the current situation would really start to improve. Just creating more bureaucracy and more paperwork for people to stamp isn't enough to improve the system. While the central government has the right idea of trying to make changes, it doesn't always filter down to the front line, where the chain of events always starts.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Beasts of Burden

Here's one of the many donkey-horse crosses that are used for pulling loads across the city. They are supposed to be restricted to the outer ring roads, but some of their owners dare to bring them closer to the city centre in order to sell their goods, mostly fruit.

I took a picture of this one at Factory 798, waiting for his owner to return. He looked sad and tired, his eyes drooping. He looked pretty lean -- maybe all that muscle? But his hooves told me he had walked further than most humans.

His hooves were hardly looked after and he was in a bad need of new horseshoes. So not only was it probably painful for him, but also grueling labour dragging a load behind him.

I wonder how you tell your owner you badly need two new pairs of shoes in order to do your job properly?

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Creative Work Space

Near where I live is Factory 798, an abandoned Soviet-era weapons factory where artists have taken over many of the high-ceilinged spaces to showcase their work.

Some areas have fallen into disrepair which in a way is part of the charm of this bohemian arts community. And some galleries and cafes are chic with their clean cement floors and stylish flower arrangements on the tables.

But back to the art. Some range from the bizarre - one performance artist by the name of Dai Guangyi was pictured hanging upside down and used his hair as a brush, to poignant, black and white photographs capturing the lives of Tibetan farmers by photographer Lu Nan.

The prices of the artwork weren't listed. One gallery had two prints by Yue Minjun - known for his pink cartoonish laughing faces. Each one was going for 40,000RMB (US$5,262). I guess that's relatively cheap as his work is fetching high prices at auctions.

So I was on the hunt for the next Yue Minjun, but the place was so large and not every gallery was open on a Sunday that nothing really did strike me. But then again I'm no art appraiser either.

What was interesting to see was that these artists, mostly in their 30s and 40s were fascinated with Chairman Mao, the Mao suit, contrasting Communism with commercialism, repression and sexuality. These were the themes in many of the pieces I saw.

One artist named Yi Deer showcased photographs of himself covered in gold paint and wearing a gold Mao suit and sunglasses. His exhibition called "The flagman in Golden Fairytale", showed him standing in a forest, standing atop an abandoned State-owned factory, or sitting by a statue of Mao.

Another, Liu Liguo, has an obsession with bums. His porcelain works had a giant plate filled with small peaches and in the middle was a pair of bum cheeks. Or a vase of flowers with an ass sticking out of it. Frivolous and sexual... or is it sensual?

Perhaps these artists are trying to show us how fast Chinese society is moving away from its original values of socialism and Communism, in some ways mocking it, and in others pushing the boundaries of self-expression.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Shave and a Haircut

When you leave the National Art Museum from a side exit, there's an outdoor barbershop in full swing.

This customer had just had a shave with an old fashioned razor, and the barber was now cutting his hair.

There are clumps of hair on the ground and they just seem left there... or maybe they're swept up at the end of the business day?

But getting a haircut on a hot day is a good (and stylish) way to beat the heat.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Getting Priorities Straight

I finally got my electricity situation sorted.

But not without another big hassle.

Today my electricity meter was at less than 50 units. So I tried to reinsert my card into it again, but nothing happened.

I went back to the HR department to complain.

Soon afterwards, my landlord picked me up from the office and took me to the same bank I went to last week, China Construction Bank. And this time the teller at the window said my electricity card was empty and needed to add money on it.

So why did the teller last week tell me I couldn't add more money?

My landlord was subtly mocking me for misunderstanding how things are done here.

We then went back to my apartment because the meter on the water heater was just below the "1" mark and because the water heater periodically shuts off and I get cold water, I thought it was a sign to add more water.

But the engineer, or shall I say one of the property manging staff couldn't understand why I would need to add more water.

"When it gets to zero then you add more water," he said.

"I'm supposed to wait until I have no more water and then add it? Why can't I just add more now?" I asked.

He refused to help me. I demanded to know how long it would take for the meter to go to zero. Again no answer.

Then I complained that periodically when I take a shower the water turns cold because the water heater shuts off and the only way to get the water heated again is to get out of the shower all wet, run to the kitchen and hit the "reset" button.

Again he said just press the button again.

"So you expect me to get out of the shower, all wet and press the button?"

The landlord and the building manager just looked at me like this was the way they did it, so why can't I?

I can get a massage, a pedicure, buy just about whatever materialistic thing I want here, and yet it's such a challenge to get basic utilities -- water and electricity.

There's so much talk about China becoming the next superpower. It has the numbers to support that possibility, with the double-digit GDP growth, a frenzy over companies launching their IPOs, the military sending rockets into space.

And yet day-to-day living (for me anyway) is hardly customer-oriented in this "market economy".

But this is just how things are done here, and I'll just have to accept it. Even though it's the most backward thing I've encountered so far, more so than squat toilets.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Labour of Love

Xiao Dong is a 31-year-old with a crew cut that badly needs a trim, and there's a few white hairs sprinkled in between.

He's a gay HIV/AIDS activist who works at the Chaoyang Chinese AIDS Volunteer Group. The small cramped office is in a medical clinic next to the China Disease Control, with which he works closely.

The activity room has some impressive pictures of former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Bill Gates visiting the centre. Gates was most recently here in April, but didn't make a donation to this non-profit group that gets absolutely no government funding.

Xiao and his band of volunteers are trying to educate homosexuals, sex workers and migrant workers about sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS.

They hand out brochures along with condoms to the areas that the above groups hang out. He admits the gay community has been receptive to their work as he explains that they're more educated and understand that they need to take precautions to have safe sex.

He's more worried about the other two groups who don't know about syphilis, the number one STD in China, and then HIV/AIDS. Xiaos' group also tries to educate drug users about the need to use clean needles and offers a free needle exchange.

The young man started doing this volunteer job after some of his friends contracted HIV/AIDS and felt "someone had to take responsibility."

The clinic also gives people free tests and consultation.

Officially there are 3,000 cases of HIV/AIDS in Beijing, but Xiao thinks it's over 20,000 as many either don't know they have the disease or don't want to register with the government to admit that they need help.

In a 2004 report, the World Health Organization said that of the estimated 840,000 cases of
Chinese living with HIV/AIDS, the biggest group, 42 per cent, are drug injection users, not homosexuals.

And yet in China there is a widespread perception that HIV/AIDS a gay disease, not something heterosexuals can contract.

There's even a dispute over the actual number of gays in Beijing and China. While the country's foremost expert, Zhang Beichuan, professor at Qingdao University says there are 300,000 homosexuals in Beijing, he believes there are between 30-52 million in the country.

But if you tell an average, educated Beijinger there are 300,000 gays in the city, he will adamantly refuse to believe it, even though that calculates to two per cent of the population. Even 100,000 is 100,000 too many.

And this is the uphill battle Xiao faces everyday.

When asked what his family thought of him doing this job, he curtly replied that he could do whatever he wanted. He paused and then added, "It makes me happy and lonely."

"Happy because I get to help so many people, and lonely because many friends stopped associating with me because of the work that I do," he explained.

May grassroots activists like Xiao know that their work is not in vain. There are so many more people they need to reach out to.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Mobilizing Team Spirit

At the subway platform I saw this billboard ad for Adidas. It encourages viewers to support the men's 10m diving team.

With the city gearing up for the Summer Games next year, it's not surprising to see so many advertisements revving up the Olympic spirit.

But what's interesting about this particular ad is that for me at least, it harks back to the revolution days mobilizing the people with the big character posters and simple wood block prints that were mass produced.

Or maybe I'm just looking too deeply into this message to get people to buy into Addidas.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Hidden Culinary Gem

Near my office tucked away in an alley is a wonderful Yunnan restaurant.

I would have never known about it had my colleague taken me there for dinner tonight.

And unlike most of the eateries in the area that have greasy floors, kitsch Chinese decor and staff garbed in peasant-like outfits, this one is ultra modern. You have to press a button before a sliding glass door lets you in and when you step in, another one slides open to reveal the dining area. The floors are concrete, with minimalist decor that's more Asian-looking than Chinese.

The wait staff all wear stylish black shirts and pants with a long sash around their waists.

My friend recommended we get the eggs cooked on hot stones. And this very hot platter arrived with hot rocks on it and the waitress poured the scrambled egg with chives onto the platter and mixed the rocks around until it was cooked. Delicious and fresh.

Another successful discovery was mixed vegetables stir-fried with barley. Finely diced mustard seed vegetables with tomatoes were mixed with barley which was refreshing and not too bland either.

The highlight was steamed crab, two small crustaceans that were cooked with lemongrass leaves and a hint of chilli so it wasn't too spicy. Thankfully most of the chopped pieces were cracked for us, but we asked for a cracker that was needed at times. What was also wonderful was that the staff constantly changed our small plates as we ate more crab.

It was the perfect meal to a long day at work, and with good conversation, a dinner to remember.

Southwest Minority Dishes
No. 21 Bei Shi Cheng Dong Lu
Chaoyang District

Monday, July 2, 2007

Modern Chinese Painting

There was a gallery in the National Art Museum that featured contemporary Chinese paintings.

And this one caught my eye.

It was the only one to feature tall modern buildings in it.

That's what I call Modern Chinese Art.

Art Appreciation in China

In Beijing, 2007 is the Year of Spain and King Juan Carlos was recently in town to inaugurate the opening of an exhibition called "From Titan to Goya" at the National Art Museum.

So yesterday I thought I'd take a look at some national art treasures from the Museo Prado and Museum of Madrid.

And thousands of other people had the same idea.

When I got outside the museum at the bottom of Wangfujing, there was a line-up in front of the ticket office. Apparently letting customers buy tickets inside is a no-no.

And once inside the museum, it was mayhem at best. Instead of orderly, quiet art enthusiasts, the galleries were filled with people crowded around each painting, listening on their audio tour headphones, talking loudly on their cell phones, or trying to take pictures of the 400 year-old paintings with their mobiles. Luckily many staff were on hand to stop them.

The descriptions of the paintings were off to the side so I had to read the descriptions first before appreciating the work. There was lots of jockeying for position to view each piece.

Most of the paintings were gorgeous, especially the still lifes by Goya and Velazquez. The ones of fruit looked so real, while the portraits of aristocracy or royalty revealed so much about their opulent lives.

I also saw Belgian artist Rene Magritte on the fifth floor. His works were so bizarre that many Chinese couldn't relate or understand what he was doing. I just like his concept of challenging our perception of reality.

The Surrealist once said: "An obvious incident may be hidden by the surface embedded in the imagery."

He made lots of photographs, sculptures, paintings, sketches and even entertainment posters advertising movies, plays and musicals.

I wonder what he would create if he lived in today's world of photoshop and computer generated images. He was definitely ahead of his time.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

A Decade of "One Country, Two Systems"

While China enthusiastically celebrates the 10-year anniversary of Hong Kong's return to "the motherland", tens of thousands of the territory's citizens marched through the streets of the city.

They along with former Chief Secretary Anson Chan demanded universal suffrage, and called for Radio Television Hong Kong or RTHK to be allowed to continue broadcasting. And the fiery Cardinal Joseph Zen made his debut at this year's march, after Pope Benedict XVI called for the Chinese government to allow Roman Catholics on the mainland to freely practice their religion.

While daily life in Hong Kong is basically the same, the former British colony has moved closer in line with the mainland. And for some Hong Kongers, it's an uneasy feeling.

On June 30, 1997, they were proud to become Chinese. But at the same time, they were switching masters.

I remember Prince Charles soaked as he stoically stood in the pouring rain; Chris Patten bowing his head, and President Jiang Zemin beaming in his proudest moment.

There was the fear of the People's Liberation Army storming into the city, but thankfully that was unfounded. And the last of the Union Jacks disappeared from view.

It was one huge party, but soon after with the Asian Financial Crisis and avian flu, the honeymoon was over.

I love Hong Kong because it's so resilient. And I hope the people continue to fight for what they believe in.