Friday, August 31, 2007

Banking on Reforms... Soon

The banks here are open seven days a week.

You'd think this was fantastic. But it's because these financial institutions can't keep up with the number of customers going through their doors during regular business hours.

While the simple solution would be to hit the ATM for cash, but more often than not, they've already been drained dry by other customers so you have no choice but to line up.

And as I have described before, utility companies don't have their own accounts system and would rather the banks collect the amounts owing for them.

So that's why there's a line up. All the time.

Once you walk through the door, press the button for a number. And in my case just after 4pm on a Sunday, it was number 549. They were serving number 502.

The ATMs I visited earlier were flat out of cash so I had to wait.

There is a TV screen showing financial news to keep you occupied, but I dozed off instead.

And just before 5pm my transaction was completed in two minutes.

There are other banking hassles. For instance, transferring money from one branch to another is practically unheard of. According to a friend of mine, the branches don't talk to each other; you have to go to the other branch and tell them you want to transfer money, instead of them calling each other. They are the same bank, after all.

When I got here, my employer I insisted I use its bank to get paid by direct deposit. And to pay my utilities I had to set up an account with another bank. ATM cards are almost like credit cards. The average person probably has accounts in three different banks.

Also wiring money out of the country is a big undertaking. The only bank that will do it is Bank of China, and it's a 100RMB service fee on top of the transaction. A colleague transferred US$600, but doesn't know if it got to the States or not.

Internet banking is painfully inconvenient too. You can't just go onto the website and register. You have to fill out an application form at the bank. And once it's approved, then you can get Internet access to your bank account. But even then, I don't think you can even pay bills online or transfer money.

If China wants to become a strong economic power, it also has to have a more efficient banking system that is flexible, accurate and customer service-oriented.

The Construction Bank of China has pledged to add more tellers at windows during peak hours, but more needs to be done at the national policy level so that we all don't have to line up, seven days a week just to do some simple banking.

Or you could just do what another coworker did: Get a safe and be your own banker.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

A Sign of Things to Come

When I got here over four months ago I was complaining that the subways didn't have much signage. While this form of public transit is a great people mover, once you step off the trains, you don't know where to go.

The map showing the location of the station and its exits is so vague that it's like Russian Roulette picking a way out and hoping that's the one you wanted.

It hardly compares to the Mass Transit Railway in Hong Kong where there are lots of signs, and exits are clearly marked with the destination you're looking for.

But things are starting to change in the Chinese capital.

When I went to Fuchengmen station I was surprised to see it brightly lit, with colourful signs and buildings clearly listed at each of the exits.

It made the whole excursion a significantly more pleasant experience.

Obviously these changes are happening in anticipation of the Olympics next year. And it's a welcome transformation that I hope will happen sooner than later.

Now if they could replace the fans with air conditioning in the carriages...

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

About to Hatch

The National Grand Theater is a striking contrast to Tiananmen across the street on Chang'an Avenue.

While the entrance to the Forbidden City features traditional Chinese architecture, with its tiled golden roofs, red walls, and straight lines, the National Grand Theater is the complete opposite.

Nicknamed "the egg", this opera house is a giant titanium dome surrounded by a shallow lake. When we went by it, workers were trying to fill the sectioned pools with water. Others were madly sanding down the bottom of the pools, creating a giant dust storm into the atmosphere.

Even though it isn't finished yet, the theater looks pretty cool, like an egg floating in the water.

Costing 2.688 billion yuan (US$356 million), it's designed by Frenchman Paul Andreu and it will hold 6,500 people.

The striking design was meant to put Beijing on the map, like what the Sydney Opera House did for the city Down Under.

But the giant egg might be overshadowed by the Bird's Nest or the National Stadium.

Hey -- wait a sec -- where did all these avian themes come from? Or is it just a coincidence?

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Critical News Blackout

This morning I decided after work I'd run on the treadmill at the hotel gym I go to.

I got out of the office at 5:30pm sharp hoping to catch a bus to get there by 6pm.

But when I got on the bus 10 minutes later, the bus assistant who makes sure everyone pays the fare, non-chalantly announced the bus wasn't going to stop at the hotel and neither was it stopping at Ikea either, the stop before.

So I had to get off at the next stop and soon after got on another bus.

But that bus assistant didn't tell me the bus wasn't going the usual route either. So I ended up in my neighbourhood somewhere, and no where near the hotel.

I had to take a taxi to get there. The frustration was already boiling inside me. This had never happened to me before. Had the route change been announced somewhere on the news and I didn't know?

So I finally got to the hotel and was relieved to be able to pound out my annoyance on the treadmill while watching the BBC, a banned network for Chinese residents.

But when a story came on about German Chancellor Angela Merkel criticizing China on HR, and I don't mean human resources, the screen immediately went black.

I looked around to see if anyone else was as surprised as I was, but the other people in the small gym were busy looking at other shows on TV. Moments later, the BBC was back on, as if it was a technical glitch.

It's good to know the cenors are on the ball when it comes to sensitive news. But can't someone tell me if my bus isn't going to go the route it's supposed to?

Monday, August 27, 2007

Waiting for the Main Event

This weekend when I walked by Tiananmen Square just after 5pm, many people had gathered around the flagpole. They were waiting for it to be taken down.

We asked what time that would be.


Two hours to wait for a flag to be lowered?

But apparently it's the flag raising ceremony that gets an even bigger audience. People young and old, and those visiting from other parts of the country flock to the square, spending the night and then at the crack of dawn watch the formal procession of soldiers as they put the flag on the flagpole and send it flapping into the wind.

It's considered a small patriotic gesture a Chinese citizen could do.

I have yet to witness this spectacle.... and hope to eventually!

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Sanitized Religion

A short walk away from the Lu Xun Museum is the White Dagoba Temple or Bai Ta Si.

From a distance it looks impressive, with its stupa, a large bulbous white structure towering over the hutongs below.

The admission was 20RMB, and compared to the Lu Xun Museum which was only 5RMB, the Bai Ta Si was disappointing.

Like the Lama Temple, there wasn't much explanation of this Buddhist temple and its four halls. A long covered hallway along one side of the property expounded on how thanks to Zhou Enlai, this Tibetan structure was saved and it is one of the major cultural relics of the city, near Tiananmen Square.

Some of the staff are devout Buddhists. One had been kneeling to a Buddha statue before we came in and she quickly took her seat to monitor us instead. Others were eager to make an extra yuan or two. The rest of the alcoves were used to sell things, from Buddhist prayer beads to paintings and garish-looking carvings. There's a bronze bell in one of the courtyards and if you wanted to strike it, that's 6RMB please.

The temple itself hardly looked ancient. The interiors of the hallways had all gotten relatively new paint jobs, and some statues had the gold leaf treatment recently too. Meanwhile, the hall holding 10,000 Buddhas was dark and musty, with dehumidifiers trying to keep these relics from decaying.

So as the Chinese constitution says there is freedom of religion, more people are taking up other faiths as their belief in Communism fades. My friend told me that even former president Jiang Zemin has been spotted visiting a Buddhist temple near her friend's home.

Perhaps he's covering all bases to ensure his place in the afterlife, one way or another.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Soul of the Nation

Today my friend and I visited the Lu Xun Museum in Fuchengmen, in the southwest side of the city.

It's located near the subway station and is one of three houses the acerbic writer used to reside in Beijing. This particular home was one he designed himself in 1924 for him, his mother and first wife.

And next to it is a great museum filled with interesting photographs, original books and essays he wrote, some clothing and at least four of his desks. One of them is his elementary school desk on which he carved the character zao, or "early" to remind him not to be late for class.

Lu Xun is his pen name, and his given name was Zhou Shuren. His grandfather became an official during the end of the 19th century, but was later accused of bribery. And when his grandfather became ill, Lu Xun had to take the family possessions to the pawn shop to sell in order to buy expensive Chinese medicine that later turned out to be ineffective. Lu Xun remarked at the time that he quickly realized how harsh life could be.

However, because of Lu Xun's intelligence, he had the chance to study medicine in Japan. And not only did he learn Japanese, but also Russian, English and German, well enough to translate books. He was also quite an artist, drawing sketches and appreciating prints made from woodcuts.

He came back to China to teach and as he saw the country going through profound change during the New Republic, he wrote about the unjust things he saw. They were all fictionalized in many of his short stories, like "Diary of a Madman" and "The True Story of Ah Q".

It wasn't explicitly explained in the museum, but when he taught at Beijing Women's Normal University, he met and fell in love with one of his students. They eventually married and had his only son when Lu Xun was 49.

He died in 1936 of pulmonary tuberculosis. And at his funeral, his coffin was draped with a white sheet with the characters that read "Soul of the Nation".

Chinese students today are taught Lu Xun's biography, read his stories and memorize poems about him. That's probably because at one time the Kuomintang (KMT) banned his works, and also Chairman Mao admired Lu Xun's work.

He may have written his critical stories almost a century ago, but his writing still resonates today.

In "For Future Reference III", Lu Xun chided self-deceit in Chinese characteristics and urged people to be more open:

"We should read this, reflect and analyse ourselves to see whether he has said anything correctly or not, then make reforms, struggle and change ourselves without asking others for their forgiveness or praise. So we shall prove what the Chinese are really like."

Friday, August 24, 2007

Designing a Statement

Aside from the various Olympic venues either in the midst of construction or renovation, other major buildings are undergoing face lifts too.

And the State broadcaster, CCTV will look uber cool.

Here's a picture of it the other day from a taxi. At the moment it looks like two leaning towers that won't meet. But they will.

They're actually two L-shaped towers linked at the top and the bottom at an angle to form a loop. And the mad genius behind this is Rem Koolhaas of Office for Metropolitan Architecture.

The larger of the two towers will be for CCTV offices, and broadcasting centre, while the smaller one will house a hotel, visitor's centre, a large public theatre and conference facilities.

The total price tag? 850 million euros (US$1.16 billion).

And of course, it will be completed by next year's Olympics.

The Chinese government is definitely making a bold statement with this mind-boggling piece of architecture. It may not look functional, but CCTV's dissemination of information will definitely look tres cool.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Odds of Finding a Job

There are many stories in the media about fresh graduates having difficulty finding their first job. And many of them have resorted to working in an area not related to their study at all.

One story reported how thousands applied to become one of 40 assistants to foot masseurs.

Are there not enough jobs for educated people?

It seems the universities and colleges have been churning out graduates since 2005. Back then there were 3.38 million and this year there are 4.8 million. While these post secondary institutions claim 70 per cent of the graduates have found employment, that's not true.

According to Jim Hao, HR consultant with, a recruitment website, he says that number is "too diluted". "They even calculate post graduates who are studying as having a job."

He also blames the instructors and professors as not being aware of the real needs of the marketplace and not arming their students with the practical knowledge they need to not only get a job but also perform well in their careers.

But he does add that those grads who never thought they'd have any job prospects do have hope of using their degrees. Hao cites a travel agency was looking for a history grad to help promote new travel destinations through their knowledge of history.

While there have been some reports saying that some grads have trouble finding employment because their expectations are too high, Hao disagrees. "We had an online survey asking people if they would prefer a job that had a high salary but was unstable, or a job that had a low salary and stable," he explains. "Seventy per cent of grads preferred the latter choice. So I think they are realistic."

Fresh grads also prefer civil servant jobs, or "iron rice bowl" jobs. Hao said last November, 530,000 students in 31 provinces competed for 12,700 jobs in the civil servant exams. That's a ratio of 42 to one. Two years ago it was 35 to one.

He continues to say that in the past companies used to have few choices of qualified recruits. "They would get some fresh graduates and then make them all junior managers," Hao explains. "But now there are too many applicants, too many choices. They don't know which one is better. So they put them all on the production line or front line and see how well they perform."

That may explain why some of the staff at the Sephora store near where I live are actually management trainees and will be weeded out according to their sales ability. This may not be what they signed up for, standing for hours on end and persuading customers to buy beauty products. But this is the industry they've chosen to be in.

But probably most importantly, Hao says young graduates today, the "post-80's generation," have trouble adjusting into the workforce due to lack of teamwork and communication skills. "They are generation Y -- more direct, open-minded and have different communication styles that may not suit the company."

It sounds like both parties will have to adjust and learn from each other in order to work harmoniously and successfully in this "market economy".

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Cheese Please

Yet another friend was leaving the office and I decided one of his last meals should not be in the canteen.

So I treated him to lunch at the Southern Minorities restaurant down the block from our office.

We originally picked light dishes -- diced tofu with tomatoes and green peppers; and beans stir-fried with small potatoes. And for a dash of spice, we each had a small bowl of dan dan mian, noodles in a spicy broth with peanuts.

But we picked one of the most deadliest desserts on the caloric scale -- deep-fried goat cheese.

Six lightly deep-fried slabs of cheese were served with a small dish of sweetened condensed milk.

I took one piece, dipped it in the thick, creamy sauce. And once I bit into it, it was actually two thin slabs of cheese with dessicated coconut inside. It was such a delightful surprise, combining two different textures in each bite.

My friend, a cheese fan, was in absolute heaven, throwing his intention of eating more healthy out the window. He even ate four pieces, as I was done after two.

And in the afternoon I could still feel those two slabs of deep-fried goat cheese settling nicely in my stomach.

After work, I went for a swim in a vain attempt to work off the dessert!

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Feet Aching for a Foot Massage

One of my colleagues was leaving China for good and wanted to have a foot massage before she left.

There was supposed to be one in my building, but the security guard told us it closed shop six weeks ago. I found this strange since I could have sworn I saw a sign advertising its prices everyday when I came into work.

But my friend knew of another place -- her Chinese teacher told her about -- so we went in search of it near our office.

At first she thought it was near Wu-Mart, the Chinese version of Wal-Mart, but there was no sign of a "big foot" billboard anywhere. Then we thought it was near KFC, but it wasn't there either.

She remembered her teacher describing the place as having a sign with a giant foot and it said "foot massage" on it.

We walked for almost an hour in the humid heat, wandering back and forth, looking for this giant sign, but it was nowhere to be found.

I finally spotted a small awning with a white cloud and against a gray background in black letters it said "foot massage".

We walked down the stairs of this posh-looking place with shimmery gold fabric undulating from the ceiling into a clean plain establishment filled with rooms.

We were shown into one of them that had two giant reclining chairs. Two young men placed basins of "medicinal tea" by our feet and we soaked them in the hot concoction. It was a soaking our sore feet truly deserved.

After several minutes the men reappeared again, washing our feet with their hands and then wiped them dry. We reclined back but not without a heated pad filled with beans that was placed around our necks.

The masseurs brought out their tool boxes complete with lamps and started cleaning our feet before doing the actual massage. And we laid back, watching a show on CCTV on musicians performing Chinese folk music. It was visually interesting and matched the atmosphere of where we were.

But then the show was over. And of all things "The Sound Of Music" followed afterwards. It didn't start from the beginning, but from the part where Maria starts teaching the children how to sing. It was so bizarre, but also so enchanting to watch the young Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, that my friend didn't want to leave!

We told the masseurs that we had a lot of trouble finding the place. And they explained that they had changed the sign a few weeks ago because of the Olympics. Authorities are cracking down on places that may offer services other than massage. That explained why the sign was less obvious. And perhaps why the place in my building was no more.

When we emerged into the evening air refreshed, it turns out the massage place is only a 10-minute walk from our office. And only 156RMB (US$20.55). Next time we know.

Back in Business

I'm back.

And with a new password too.

Who knows why this glitch happened. All I know is that it's good to be back online at home.

What else is back?

The horrendous traffic.

After the four-day test to get half of Beijing's cars off the roads, everyone was eager to get back behind the wheels of their vehicles and create a huge traffic jam during the morning and evening rush hours.

It was back to inching across the highway and people jammed into buses.

The sky looked about the same to me as you can see from the picture, but air quality officials said there was a noticeable difference, saying that the air quality was Grade II, suitable for holding international events. It was a way for Beijing to save face after International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge said events might have to be postponed if the air quality was bad.

And in a hope to keep people out of their cars, city officials are about to launch a bike rental program. Fifty thousand bicycles will be available for a 100RMB (US$13) one-year contract plus a 400RMB deposit. They claim they have piloted the project in 31 locations in Beijing.

While it's a great idea, I wonder if this project will sustain itself in the long term in this city where people are more concerned about the status symbol of the car than leaving less of an eco-footprint.

I hope they prove me wrong.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Virtual Frustrations

I tried to get my Internet connection started this morning at home, but it didn't work.

So I thought I may have mistakenly changed the password, so I typed in a new one. But that didn't work either.

At 9:30am I brought this problem to the attention of the HR staff in the office I work at.

It wasn't until I went up to see them just after 2pm did they say, "Oh I forgot to tell you. The technician is coming to your place at 3pm to fix it."

That got my flames of anger ignited.

But since I wanted my Internet connection, I agreed to go home at the appointed time.

The technician did show up, but said there was nothing he could do. There was something wrong with the password and he didn't know why. He said my landlord has to go to his office and get the password again or another password.

I asked an American friend here if they had problems with their ADSL connection. He said they did, and it was password-related, but again didn't know why.

The system of doing things here is so ludicrous sometimes you have to wonder if anything ever gets done. Or they just create busy-body work for a bloated workforce in a State-owned company.

Hopefully something will be done by tomorrow.

Or you will continue to hear my rants!

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Expat Life

In the over four months I've been here, I haven't had too much trouble adjusting to living in Beijing.

OK - I am still struggling with being understood with my broken Putonghua, but that will come with time and practice.

And I am getting used to paying for my gas, electricity and water in weird and wonderful ways.

But the hardest thing so far for me has been meeting people, particularly expatriates.

Maybe it's because I'm not 10 years younger and hitting the bars and clubs every weekend. Or that I'm not living in the centre of town.

Many of the of the foreigners I meet are in their mid to late 20s or early 30s, still eager to party. They mostly come from Australia, the UK and a few from the United States. And with them they bring their insecurities.

I must admit at times I have a hankering to complain about the way the Chinese do things. But sometimes I feel like other expats take it one step further and have to constantly show off their superiority, or they are somehow better than me - be it money, skill, language or marital status.

And they tend to congregate in cliques that are hard to penetrate.

At times I want to shout, "Hey people! We're all from somewhere else, so can we just all play together?"

But at the same time, as my friend in the US likes to say: "Expats are like cheese. There are all different types, so you have to select them carefully, according to your own personal tastes. And a lot of them just stink, and so you don't want to indulge in those types, because the smell can stick to you."

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Another Hidden Culinary Gem

Taxi drivers here hate going to Gulou Dong, or the Old Bell tower area, which is near Hou Hai. That's because there are many hidden hutongs or narrow alleyways leading to siheyuan, or courtyard houses which have been transformed into restaurants.

And the taxi driver we had tonight wasn't paying attention to the map we showed him. At first he tried to drop us off in the vicinity, but someone who had been to the restaurant before said it was far away and she refused to get out. Finally he got us closer, but not without complaining.

Hidden in an alleyway called Xiaojingchang Hutong is a restaurant called Dali. It's a typical courtyard house, with one side enclosed with air conditioning (thank goodness). And the rest of the diners eat outside (almost in the dark) under the large plants and tiled roofs, with a small fountain running near the washroom. You almost feel like you're in a hacienda in Mexico.

Since we had a large party, we were in the enclosed area and had several tables cobbled together like a banquet table. The restaurant serves Yunan cuisine and one colleague from Kunming said the dishes weren't quite authentic, mostly because we ate western style, with large plates instead of a bowl.

Nonetheless, the food from a set dinner was quite the feast. And only 100RMB a head. Dishes just kept coming and coming to satiate our hungry bellies.

We started with thin slices of Chinese sausage and tofu in soy sauce. This followed with slices of fried cheese (sort of like Mozzarella); stir-fried egg with heads of chives; green papaya salad; deep-fried mint; button mushrooms cooked with cloves of garlic that were wrapped in a banana leaf; fried diced chicken in a bed of chillis and garlic; fried fish; boiled chunks of lamb flavoured in a citrus dipping sauce; prawns cooked with cherry tomatoes and chillis; stems of morning glory stir-fried to perfection into a stringy green mass; cold spicy rice noodles with generous lashings of lime juice; and stir-fried asaparagus.

Most of the dishes were quite spicy, and we washed them down with Dali beer and I also had a mug of lime juice which was so refreshing.

So while we had a horrible experience with the taxi driver, the meal was well worth it. I hope next time getting there won't be such a hassle.

No. 67 Xiaojingchang Hutong
Gulou Dongdajie

Friday, August 17, 2007

Idyllic Traffic

Today was the start of the four-day test to get some 1.3 million cars off Beijing streets today.

All cars with license plates ending with an even number were not allowed on the roads. And what a difference it made.

I was worried that other people who usually drove a car would be fighting over cabs, so I purposely left my apartment 15 minutes earlier.

It took less than five minutes to flag down a taxi and once we got onto the fourth ring road, traffic was a breeze.

As you can see from the picture, on the highway we weren't bumper to bumper and I got to work in record time: 12 minutes.

And after work during rush hour, I took the bus to meet some friends and again traffic wasn't bad. However, the subway was jammed with people, particularly at Jianguomen station, a transfer point for Line 1 and Line 2.

Now if only everyday traffic could be like this...

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Bicycle Rush Hour

Here's a picture of the evening rush hour... on bicycle.

It's not quite the sea of bicycles that used to be the picture of China 15 years ago, but it's good to see many people still taking this environmentally-friendly transit option that is also very cheap.

Perceptions and Reality

A colleague is leaving to pursue a fellowship on human rights in Sweden. It's a two-year program sponsored by the UN.

We sent him off gourmet style at Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant. I know... my third time here, but it's one of the best restaurants in Beijing. And this time in addition to duck, we had this dish of stir-fried bamboo shoots with preserved vegetable, presented with bamboo!

Over Carlsberg and good food, my coworker asked me what people's perceptions of China were in my homeland.

The question put me on the spot and I knew I had to walk a fine line. You want to tell the truth, but at the same time, lessen the blow.

I said that there is talk about China becoming a superpower, economically, politically and militarily. While it hasn't reached that status yet, the country is definitely one that cannot be ignored in geopolitics.

I added that people are concerned about Chinese-made toys that use dangerous materials, and that they wonder if the food they are eating is safe.

My colleague and his friend pointed out that some kind of watchdog needed to be put in place, some kind of checks and balances. But at the same time they worried that if this supervisory body was set up by the government, there would be more opportunities for corruption and bribery.

It's a tough call. There are so many thousands of producers, from those of food to clothing and toys. It's so hard for a watchdog to have enough inspectors and enough "mechanisms" (their favourite jargon for checks and balances) that it's almost impossible to regulate these industries thoroughly and to a consistent standard.

The two used the same excuse that China is so large, with so many people. While that's true, there has to be some kind of way to make sure top-down decisions are carried out effectively and efficiently. The government tries to show it's doing something through reports in the media, but it's only when we see with our own eyes the changes do we believe real reform is happening.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Word of the Day: Jia You

Everyone in the office is using this word these days. Jia(1) you(2) literally means "add oil".

When people are overwhelmed by the amount of work they have to do, they'll complain about it together. And when the ranting session is over, they try to cheer themselves up by saying jia you! jia you! There's nothing else they can do except press on.

It's another way of saying "keep going!" or "keep up the fight!"

Give a Hoot, Don't Pollute

Ba Shang isn't flooded with tourists yet, but the locals haven't quite grasped the importance of keeping the place clean and tidy.

This picture of garbage left around was quite common around clumps of houses. And it was even more disturbing to see pigs, roosters and ducks scavenging through the trash for food.

While we were horseback riding, the horse owners, who guided our equines, smoked and threw the butts on the ground. One had a water bottle, drank some of it, and offered it to another person. He refused the invitation for a sip, so the first guy just threw the bottle on the ground, still filled with water.

Ba Shang has the potential to become a fun tourist destination for people in Beijing. But if the locals just leave garbage lying around, the scent of waste will overpower the natural fresh air.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Ba Shang Nightlife

Ba Shang locals know how to party.

They might not have heat in their guest rooms, but they have some kick ass fireworks, a giant bonfire, bopping dance music and of course karaoke, or K-TV.

After dinner, the staff at our guest house set up several coal-fired spits and on each put a beheaded lamb carcass on a rod and started roasting it. They sear it all over first before marinating it with spices including cumin and paprika, and then scoring it into rectangles for easier extraction. And then it was put back on the spit and turned occasionally. When it was done, the meat was ripped off with chopsticks. While it was flavourful, there was mostly fat than meat. We washed it down with Yanjing beer.

For a North American touch, I brought along marshmallows for roasting. And it was a hit. Many thought it was "mianhua tang" or cotton candy. And once they tried the golden brown soft marshmallows on a stick, they were hooked. It's a good thing I bought two bags...

It was so odd to hear "Funky Town" in a place hundreds of kilometres from Beijing but here it was blaring away and to be honest the beat kept us moving and warm too. The temperature started to drop and it was nice to be near the fire.

A few people tried their hand at K-TV -- grabbing the microphone and starting off with "Friends, I hope you will enjoy this song." Some made fools of themselves like us trying to sing Michael Jackson's "Heal the World," while others took it seriously and sang high-pitched Chinese songs that were hardly festive.

And then there was the dancing. It mostly consisted of people joining hands and running around the bonfire. The atmosphere was very high school -- clumps of people situated in different areas of the cement patio chatting with each other and periodically mingling with others.

But the best part was the stars. I could clearly see the bright stars shining against the velvety dark sky.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Questionable Hygiene Standards

State media reports that the China Cuisine Association is calling for restaurant owners and diners to abandon the use of disposable chopsticks to save trees and help create a green Olympics next year.

Apparently China produces some 45 billion pairs of wooden chopsticks every year, using up 25 million trees.

Many restaurateurs and their customers prefer using disposable chopsticks because it's more hygienic.

But on my recent trip to Ba Shang with my colleagues, their eating habits showed me otherwise.

While we shared dishes spinning on the lazy Susan, they didn't take a portion of food from the plate and then put it in their own bowl. Instead they picked a piece from the dish with their chopsticks, put it in their mouths and then picked another piece before moving onto the next plate. Sometimes they would try to pick up some food, touch it, but then pick up another bit of food instead. It was like the equivalent of double dipping.

They obviously haven't learned from the 2003 SARS crisis about cleanliness -- that germs can spread through saliva, and that comes from their chopsticks.

So while the Chinese would rather use disposable chopsticks, they really aren't dining in the most hygienic way.

Don't even get me started on not washing their hands after using the bathroom!

And I'm not talking about uneducated peasants. I'm referring to young, university educated people who don't think what they're doing is questionable.

Trying to change the culture of cleanliness won't happen in the short term, which either means an epidemic will spread very quickly in China, or the people will be exposed to every known bacteria that they will be immune to almost anything.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

A Dose of Fresh Air

My company took a bunch of employees north to the Bashang Plains in neighbouring Hebei Province.

It was a six hour trip by bus going there, and then over eight hours getting back, which is why this post is going to be short.

But once we got there it was fantastic. As you can see it's an idyllic countryside, with rolling hills covered in a verdant green carpet, sheep and some cattle munching on grass, and horses carrying visitors along trails.

From what I could tell, there isn't much of an industry here except a tourist trade that will soon be booming with "resorts" springing up. I say "resorts" because they will probably be like two to three-star hotels.

The one we stayed in barely merited one star. The rooms were semi-clean and had a squat toilet with a shower overhead. The shower had no hot water. The bathroom had only two thin hand towels, two cups and a very slim piece of soap. But you could do some channel surfing (all eight channels) on a sleek colour television.

There was also no heating in the room and it got quite cold at night.

And the food at this hotel wasn't quite delicious, but just enough to keep our stomachs from growling at night.

But back to the scenery. Isn't it gorgeous?

Some of us went hiking up the hills and I was so surprised I wasn't tired at all. Then it hit me -- the air was so fresh, my lungs were filled with clean oxygen.

Now if I could only get hits of this air periodically, living in Beijing would be even better.

Friday, August 10, 2007

The Evens and Odds of Traffic Congestion

Beijing has just announced its plans on how it will take 1.3 million cars off the road next week in a bid to try to improve air quality and traffic congestion. It's the city's attempt to take almost half of the three million cars off the road as part of its pre-Olympic tests.

The trial will run for four days, from Friday August 17 to Monday August 20. The plan is for cars with license plate numbers ending with an odd number can only be driven on Friday and Sunday, while even numbers are allowed on the roads Saturday and Monday.

This applies to all Beijing-registered cars as well as those from outside the city. And of course emergency vehicles, fire, police and ambulance as well as public transport are exempt.

While the intention is there, can traffic congestion be really tested on two days which happen to fall on a weekend where people aren't in a rush to get to work? Also, there will probably be many CEOs and other bigwigs who may think this plate number business doesn't apply to them at all and will refuse to take public transit.

Air quality and traffic congestion can only be truly tested during a typical week and four days is not enough of an indication whether air quality has significantly improved or not.

Buses and subways are already crowded. And despite the promise of 700 to 800 extra buses on the road during the trial period, taxi drivers will probably make a killing as people used to driving their cars will refuse to hop on a bus.

It's a status thing they can't and won't shake off.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Eaten Alive

A colleague asked me if I wanted to be nibbled by fish.


All she knew was that you sit in a wading pool and these little fish nibble dead skin off your body. A man's dead skin is a fish's meal.

It was too intriguing to pass up so I went.

It's in a swimming resort area outside the Fifth Ring Road called Xiedao Sea Recreation Center. It's a giant compound complete with an outdoor water park, an indoor one with a 50-metre pool, hot tubs and the fish nibbling, a conference centre and restaurants.

The admission to the indoor pool area was 38RMB, and to be nibbled by fish was an extra 48RMB.

We were then instructed to give our shoes to an attendant who supplied plastic slippers to us and then we were led to the changing rooms and given a locker key. After donning our bathing suits and a quick shower to rinse off, we headed to become the main event.

Another person led us to a relatively large circular kind of hot tub with shallow water. And lo and behold there were the little fishies, called tou'er qi. They're almost two inches long and ready for nibbling.

We gingerly stepped in and the attendant encouraged us to sit at the bottom. But we had to get used to it first.

The fish swarmed our legs and we immediately felt this crazy stinging sensation. It wasn't sharp pain, but as if there were little dull needles were gently jabbing us. And couldn't help but laugh because it was such a strange feeling being eaten by little fish.

We eventually lowered ourselves down so that they could cover more ground. And they were totally focused on nibbling us everywhere, from our backs and legs, arms, hands and even the soles of our feet. It was especially ticklish in the armpit area and I had to shoo them away.

We sat there until our fingers turned into prunes, for over an hour. And the fish didn't stop at all. They kept nibbling us -- or as the Chinese like to say, kissing our skin. I'm wondering if we have microscopic hickeys all over us.

In the end we couldn't decide if we felt exfoliated by all that nibbling. It was definitely not a relaxing experience, but an interesting one. Afterwards, we soaked in a warm hot tub which made up for the tingling sensation from the fish.

The only downside to the place is that the staff don't help you get a taxi so you have to walk so far to get to a major street to flag one down.

Other than that it was well worth trying a nibbling sensation.

Beijing Xiedao Sea Recreation Center
No. 1, Xiedao Road
Chaoyang District

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

The Countdown Begins

China threw a huge bash tonight to celebrate the one-year countdown to the 2008 Olympics.

The event was held at Tiananmen Square, all lit up with Chairman Mao's portrait overseeing the festivities.

There were the usual patriotic speeches about how China has progressed and how thrilled they were six years ago to be chosen the host city of the 2008 Summer Games.

And there was lots of singing and dancing. Hordes of dancers in colourful costumes danced frantically as if their lives depended on it, and singers sang in piercing voices. Most of the performers wore traditional Chinese costumes, from the Peking Opera ones complete with dramatic makeup to pairs of young people dressed as playful lions.

China's bright star, Lang Lang performed the Yellow River Concerto on a red grand piano. He wore a bright red jacket like the ones worn by high school bands. He looked like he'd put on some weight, with a double chin developing... nevertheless he played magnificently as usual.

Throughout the performances, fireworks went off intermittently against the overcast sky.

International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge sat through the entire event, mostly without much reaction. Perhaps he was still jetlagged, or tired from sitting outside in the hot summer air.

Or maybe he was thinking of following through on his warning that if the air quality is not good enough next year, he will force Beijing Olympic officials to postpone events.

Now that would be a show stopper.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Going Au Naturel

This is a common piece of wardrobe babies wear in China.

Their parents put them in these bottomless pants so that if and when nature calls, just spread'em.

There's no need for diapers -- and in a way it's a good thing as our landfills wouldn't be able to handle much more.

But that also means kids urinating anywhere they happen to be -- in the bushes or right on the sidewalk.

I can't quite figure out of it's more sanitary to do it this way. But it definitely means potty training at a very young age.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Promoting the Games Home and Abroad

This evening the Beijing Olympic Organizing committee (BOCOG) welcomed 10 families to the Chinese capital.

Five were from China, five from overseas, including the United States, Argentina, Germany, and South Africa.

They were all winners of the "Olympic Families Tour Beijing" contest, where they had to write blogs about why they wanted to come to China and website users voted on which families should win. As one of the South African winners put it, "They [BOCOG] kept us busy writing all the time."

Having just arrived today, they are here for a one-week visit to see Beijing as well as Qingdao and Hong Kong, which are also hosting Olympic events next year.

Many expressed their enthusiasm for being here. One of the families already has the Atlanta Games under its belt and was eager to soak in more of the Olympic spirit in Beijing.

But it was the many Chinese families that were especially keen on being part of this contest.

One couple unfurled a 12-metre red banner from a hospital with hundreds of patients' signatures on it; a young boy expressed his wish of creating a painting to commemorate this event; and a physical education teacher mentioned that his birthday was the same day as the opening ceremonies.

The 2008 Olympics are definitely the pride of the Chinese and it's obviously shown on their faces and in their words.

Let's hope for their sake it goes off without a hitch.

Commuter Chaos

The sky has been trying hard to rain these past few days, looking overcast, cool and misty. Or is it pollution?

And finally late this afternoon, thunder boomed and lightning struck and soon afterwards it started raining. And then raining harder and harder.

It was a welcome relief, like a pregnant woman finally able to give birth.

But then the commute was hell.

My colleague and I needed to get to Haidian district, the west side of the city for an Olympics press conference welcoming 10 families who won a contest to visit Beijing. Five were from overseas, five from within China.

We hoped to get to the hotel at 7pm so we left at 6:20pm.

Although the rain had already stopped, traffic inched along because many of the roads were flooded. Our taxi driver tried to get us through any possible routes but they were either jammed or so packed that at one point we had to U-turn and go back the original street we were on.

It was absolutely ridiculous.

As I have mentioned before, either the city has a badly managed drainage system or there is no existing drainage system, creating lakes in the middle of the road and thus preventing vehicles from crossing.

And all the while my colleague kept whining even though I kept telling her it was no use.

In the end we finally arrived at 8:15pm, almost two hours later.

Luckily the event only started 15 minutes beforehand, half an hour later than scheduled.

But if this is the kind of situation the city faces next year, then what? How will they manage tens of thousands of visitors in Beijing when the streets are flooded and people are trying to get from one venue to another, let alone commuters who just want to get home?

Drainage is something Beijing Olympic officials may have neglected to put on their to-do list. They're making the city as green as possible planting lots of trees and reclaiming water from sewage treatment plants. They're building amazing looking venues and training an army of volunteers to look after visitors. But what about proper drainage for the roads so that people can get around without traffic chaos? Even if they do take one million vehicles off the road, that still doesn't help the flooding situation.

It's a problem that urgently needs to be addressed now.

There's still time...

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Say Cheese Chinese Style

After my friend made her successful (and heavy) purchase, we came across this adorable girl whose mother was also selling "antiques".

We asked the girl to smile for us.

And instead of saying "cheese", the Chinese say qiezi or "eggplant".

Centre of Attention

When tourists or foreigners go to Panjiayuan, the antique flea market to bargain, they have to bear in mind everyone will be watching them.

The locals are curious to see what trinkets the lao wai or foreigners like to buy. But what really draws a crowd is watching them bargain.

My American friend knows she'll be the centre of attention and hams it up for the crowd.

She spied a pair of black rectangular cut stones with dragons carved on them. They're used as paper weights for calligraphers or painters. And she wants to use them to hold down her cookbooks.

"Duo shao qian?" she asked the older man in a singlet with a few front teeth missing.

"Wu bai [500RMB or US$66]" he replied.

She immediately put her hand on her chest and had an over dramatic look of shock on her face.

He smiled and handed her the calculator, telling her to punch in her price.


He violently shook his head and waved his hand downwards, saying it was too low. And he handed back the calculator to her.

A crowd had gathered around her as she again punched in 50. They laughed and wondered if this was going to go anywhere.

She continued to stand her ground as the calculator was passed back and forth and he kept waving his hand and complaining she was asking too low a price.

But the old man played along and eventually lowered the price to 300, 280 and then 200. She also complied by raising her suggested price to 75 and then 90.

Finally they came to an agreement of 150RMB (US$19.82).

The audience was impressed by her skills and there were a few shouts of approval.

She gave him two-one hundred bills and then asked about a pair of long narrow bars made of silver with the animal zodiac on each of them. They are also used as paper weights.

The bargaining continued again. She knew he wouldn't give her change back so she managed to bargain to 50RMB and gave him the opportunity to punch that final number in the calculator.

In the end she thanked him profusely and he smiled a wide grin with his one upper front tooth showing.

The dramatic comedy was probably the highlight of his day.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Fixing Beijing's Software

Tonight I took the subway and then taxi to get home.

It was the first time I encountered no taxis at the subway station. And while I was patiently waiting, five other people just stood in front of me or walked ahead and caught taxis, totally ignoring the fact that I was trying to form a queue.

Granted one woman was pregnant, but there was no excuse for the four others to sidestep me as if I wasn't even there and grab a taxi before me.

Interestingly, just before I was fuming about queue jumping, I had just read an article in City Weekend, a bi-weekly magazine, giving an assessment of what Beijing needs to do to get ready for its international scrutiny, one year from now.

"Most Chinese are confident about the hardware for the 2008 Olympics," says Ge Chenhong, a government advisor and professor at Renmin University, "but they remain more skeptical about the 'software' -- Beijing's ability to improve residents' behavior."

A Beijing Olympics Organizing Committee staff member gave me the same opinion and worries that things like taxi drivers not speaking English, people spitting, dirty toilets, and queue jumping are going to leave a bad impression on visitors when they descend in the Chinese capital next August.

I have to agree.

While the venues are going to be amazing -- from the main stadium nicknamed The Bird's Nest to workers madly 'greening' the city by planting millions of trees and flowers -- people are going to be frustrated, shocked or amused by what they see, hear and smell in this city.

By the same token, China is a developing country and has come so far in a very short period of time. There are definitely rough edges that have yet to be smoothed over. While the Chinese are fiercely proud of hosting the Olympics, the spitting, littering, urinating on the street and queue jumping are not going to stop overnight.

And visitors might just have to accept this as part of the most populous nation's effort to reach some kind of international standard.

Friday, August 3, 2007

A Driving Epiphany

I just finished reading a book called "A Season in Red", by Australian Kristy Needham.

It chronicles her three months of working as a reporter for China Daily, the national English-language newspaper.

And in it are many observations similar to my own as well as some harrowing tales that I hope I may never encounter.

Towards the end of the non-fiction novel, she describes the driving habits of the Chinese:

"Foreigners tend to get upset with Chinese driving," continued our
travelling companion. He introduced himself as Luo Bin, a university

It was the understatement of the year. One of the most confronting
aspects of daily life in China was the complete disregard for rules,
or human mortality, on the roads. A nation of novice drivers had been
let loose en masse as car ownership suddenly came within reach of the
middle class.

The problem was, they had carried the attitudes and techniques that
worked for a rolling sea of bicycles into the fast lane with them. It
was a combination that was proving increasingly deadly as more and
more people got behind the wheel in the world's fastest growing car
market, which also boasted the world's highest traffic accident death
toll. (pg. 195)

And as soon as I read that, I realized she was bang on. No wonder drivers weave in and out of lanes, or straddle lanes if someone enters their lane. The bicycle-riding mentality has remained ingrained.

It all makes sense now...

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Chinese Chess in Hou Hai

We came across two men in a Chinese chess game... many parks have almost exclusively men playing this game. I don't know how to play it, but it definitely requires alot of strategy.

By the way the guy on the left (green) won the game.

Cool Dining

At the entrance of Hou Hai, at the north gate, there is a Starbucks which does a brisk business with tourists and locals alike. Too bad it's so tiny you have to fight for seats.

But further down is a strip of stylish looking restaurants and one of them is South Silk Road, serving cuisine from Yunan Province.

Inside are large comfy lime green chairs, floor to ceiling windows, and even water cascading down underneath the stairs. During the day the staff wear basic black and white uniform. But for dinner they change into brilliant fuchsia sleeveless outfits decorated with silver buttons and black sashes, from Yunan.

You can also dine outside right by the lake where the water lilies are blooming now. However, we ate a late lunch and wanted to escape the heat so we sat inside near the window.

While the menu is mostly spicy, you can ask them to tone down the amount of chillis. We
ordered pea shoots that were cooked in a broth and flavoured with Chinese ham; "crossing the bridge" noodles, which were thick udon-like rice noodles with ham, and vegetables in a broth; banana pancakes with a sweet osmanthus honey-like dip; and dried beef chillis with deep-fried potatoes.

We were taken aback when the waitress asked us if we had any dietary requests -- this was a first, but now I notice that all restaurants are doing this. Probably a new decree that came down from some government department. But it's good that they are asking. So we requested less oil in the cooking and for the most part they complied.

The noodles weren't much to rave about, but the pea shoots were cooked perfectly and had a clean taste. The pancakes were great with a distinct banana flavour and the sweet dip was wonderful -- if only there was a bit more of the sauce for all eight pieces. The dried beef chillis looked like it would be a fire-breathing experience as they were covered in coarsely chopped dried chillis. But in fact it had a mild taste and quite good. The thinly sliced potatoes were mostly oily and not a good complement to the beef.

With two beers and good conversation, we enjoyed a two hour lunch that was cool and filling.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

A Year to Go

Today the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee (BOCOG) announced its plans for the one-year countdown to the Games.

There are a number of celebrations starting in the next few days, with community-oriented fitness events and performances. Even Qingdao, Shanghai and Hong Kong have their own celebrations.

On the evening of August 8, Beijing will have a "splendid" gala at Tiananmen Square, exactly a year to the opening ceremonies.

Zhao Dongming, head of BOCOG's cultural events department gave a brief outline of the program which starts at 7pm. It includes performances by pianist Lang Lang, an Inner Mongolian will play on a traditional instrument, a Swedish artist will sing "China Moon", and 100 singers will debut "We are Ready", a song composed especially for the one-year countdown.

International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge will also attend, inviting some 200 delegates from National Olympic Committees worldwide.

BOCOG also has a contingency plan in case it rain -- the festivities will move indoors to the nearby Great Hall of the People.

And if you can't be here in person, CCTV will broadcast the event live.

But the upcoming celebrations were not on the minds of the various foreign journalists who came out of the woodwork to attend the press conference.

A BBC journalist said he'd heard that Steven Spielberg was thinking of pulling out of organizing the opening ceremonies. But spokeswoman Wang Hui and Zhao both said this was the first they had heard this.

Another from CTV asked if BOCOG was concerned about the environment and if they had any comments. All Wang would say was that this issue was being tackled.

One brought up the city's plan of taking one million cars off the road this month to see if it was possible to significantly reduce traffic congestion, and was asking when this strategy would be implemented. Wang would only reply that they were still talking about it.

And a French reporter asked how the number of "blue skies" in Beijing were calculated. Wang said this was an international standard so there was no skewing the numbers. But there were no further details on this "blue skies" standard.

With these kinds of questions on the minds of the foreign media, it looks like BOCOG will have to do more than window dressing to create a more favourable impression of the Games.