Sunday, September 30, 2007

Making the Numbers Add Up

The Chinese government has a number fetish.

It uses numbers to describe its economic development, with "year-on-year increase" as its favourite phrase, meaning a rise compared to the same period the year before.

Not only does the country have a gross national product reported constantly, but every Chinese province has one too.

Earlier this year President Hu Jintao floated the idea of calculating a green GDP, to show economic development at the cost of the environment. This would have been a world's first and Hu had hoped this would show local officials that sustainable development was more important than just economy.

But the idea was killed before economists could crunch the numbers; some officials and experts complained that since there was no formula in place, how could they even begin to calculate a green GDP.

And now the government wants to quantify harmony.

In 2004, the Chinese Communist Party adopted the idea of "building a harmonious society" as a way to judge its leadership.

According to the article in Chinese media, "a harmonious society is defined as a socialist democracy, with rule of law, social justice, honesty and credibility, balancing human activities and natural resources."

But since then, many Chinese citizens aren't feeling the love and are becoming more skeptical about the government actually serving the people's interests. And hence bureaucrats think quantifying social harmony in numbers might make the achievement seem more black and white.

However, experts quoted in the story don't think this can be done, saying social harmony has more to do with relationships between different social groups which can be difficult to measure numerically.

We'll have to see if this idea will also be shot down or reports will surface about an X per cent year-on-year increase in social harmony thanks to the government's policies.

Stay tuned.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Congestion Conundrum

Today rush hour home was pretty bad.

I followed my new commute route, taking a bus to get onto the fourth ring road and then waited for the 101.

Then it turned out the 101 went the old route and I could have caught it in front of my office.

Never mind.

The 101 bus was absolutely packed. I squeezed in at the front of the bus, standing right by the windshield. And there were a few other bodies behind me too.

On top of that traffic inched along, and at points stood at a standstill for a while. It was not the most pleasant experience to be crammed like sardines for over half an hour.

Meanwhile, people in cars, usually only with the driver in it or another passenger, gave us smug looks as if to say: ha ha I don't have to take the loser cruiser anymore. I have a car.

But they too were caught in the same traffic jam as us.

Beijing is laid out like a square cobweb, with the Forbidden City in the middle. There are rings emanating from it, second, third, fourth, fifth and even sixth ring roads, with arteries crossing through them diagonally.

The only way to get around is to get onto one of these ring roads to the direction you want to go and then plunge into the web again to get to your destination. That's why traffic is horrendous.

On top of that, the capital has over three million cars on the road. That's at least a million too many.

The government doesn't stop people from buying cars and instead tells them not to drive so much. That's because it has a direct stake in the car industry. Granted more subway lines are opening up in the next few months leading up to the Olympics, but when the average salary is 3,000RMB (US$399) a month, taking the metro which is more than triple the bus fare, is not an option.

The government should really limit the number of cars on the road, and put more buses on so that commuters don't have to cram onto the bus, because they don't know when the next one will come.

But car owners think they have a right to drive their status symbol despite the effects it has on the environment. And yes, that's an attitude you'll find in developed countries too.

However, the Chinese government does have the power to fix things. Last month's four-day trial of taking half the cars off the road was executed swiftly and almost everyone obeyed. Ideally this exercise should be made into policy. But for now it doesn't seem like the government has the determination to improve the situation for the long term.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Set the Canary Free

For the past few days I have been watching with interest the latest developments in a South Asian country whose people are trying to create change.

What was most endearing was reading that the symbol of the country was able to see her people united in her cause.

But at the moment we don't know exactly where she is and now there is chaos on the streets.

Governments around the world have condemned the hard line action, but no one has proposed a solution.

One of this country's biggest financial investors is the one I am living in now. And it has been relatively silent.

It could have enough influence to stop the bloodshed, but it all it has done is called for "restraint".

The people are calling for change. They have had Buddhist-like patience up until now.

And the only person who they trust is hidden away.

I only hope this canary will be set free from her cage and fulfill her destiny to lead her people.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Commuter Confusion

Usually there are two buses I can take from my office to get home, the 101 and 201.

The 1o1 is an old rickety yellow bus whose gear box has gone through so many gear shifts it groans and grinds with frustration but shifts gears with resignation. In the summer it's hot because there's no air conditioning and makes you wish deodorant was a prerequisite for passengers.

The 201 has air conditioning, but if it's cool enough they open the windows instead which is fine, but is just as crowded. It's a more updated bus, that sometimes has a TV screen for bored commuters to stare at.

A few weeks ago these two buses started to veer off from the usual route. I asked a colleague about it and he said that maybe they were finishing their shift so they went another way. But during rush hour? They have to go home and eat, was the reply.

It happened a few times and I was tired of having to walk 20 minutes to get to the mall where I know which buses can take me home.

Then I realized by reading the Chinese on the bus stop sign that the 201 didn't go by my place anymore.

OK fine. So from now on I was sticking to the 101.

But then yesterday I waited for half an hour for the 1o1 before I realized it didn't stop in front of my office anymore. I couldn't find the bus stop sign for it.

So I had to wait for the 201 (which was crowded), took that for two stops and then got off and waited for the 101. Thankfully it came after a short wait.

Another coworker explained that it was because the two buses went to the same stops that they had to change it. And also a new subway line will begin service near our office soon so some bus routes have been diverted to service this area, and perhaps that's what happened to bus 101.

But for me, now my commute home is more complicated.... I can either take two buses or walk over 10 minutes to get to the 101 bus stop.

What really kills me is that there was no notification on any of the signs that the routes had changed or that there was now no 101 bus stopping in front of my office.

Did I miss something?

The city is trying hard to get commuters to take more public transit for environmental and traffic congestion reasons. But when they keep changing routes without telling people, how are they going to know where to take it?

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Fruit of Patience

Here's a picture of a pomegranate tree on the grounds of the Lu Xun Museum.

Street vendors have been selling them as well as supermarkets.

And apparently the best pomegranates are from Xian, north east China. If you buy a whole box of them and keep them individually wrapped in plastic bags, they will keep for several months.

What's interesting about Chinese pomegranates is that when you slice them open, the colour of the pearly fruit range from a translucent creamy colour to light pink and ruby red.

In the last few days I've been trying to finish some pomegranates on my own. And this bejeweled fruit is definitely a test of your patience.

Probably the best way to eat them is plopped in front of the television and ever so slowly pick at the fruit, ruminate over them and then spit out the tiny pits. I think it takes me a good 45 minutes to get through one.

I wish there was a more efficient way to get at the tiny juicy bits, but perhaps that's part of this fruit's charm -- seducing you to delicately explore and be rewarded with what treasures lie beneath.

Two more pomegranates to go.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Software Reprogramming

My friend who is a flight attendant, flew in late yesterday afternoon.

We met up for dinner at Ding Tai Fung and had a fantastic meal.

The dishes we ordered included xiaolongbao or steamed pork dumplings that were absolutely delicious and delicate, fresh stir-fried vegetables, dan dan mian or noodles with peanut sauce and a tad spicy, and "lion's head" or a meatball with pork and minced water chestnut in a chicken broth with vegetables.

For dessert we had white steamed buns with ground black sesame paste inside.

Overall the service was friendly and fast, everything neat and tidy.

Then my friend went to the bathroom.

She came back and told me she saw a well-dressed mother holding her son sideways as he peed into the sink.

He was about five or six-years-old, old enough to stand on his own and do his business in the toilet.

My friend was so shocked she didn't know what to say.

Then the mother explained to her son that the taps at the sink were turned on by sensors and he said that he wanted to wash his hands himself. So while she is well-dressed and somewhat educated on hygiene, why is this woman holding up her son so that he can pee into the sink?

This is a perfect illustration of China at this moment: while everything looks great on the outside -- the decor, quality of food and relatively cleanliness -- the culture and thinking of the people need to change.

And with the Olympics coming next year, this software programming has to be updated.

The sooner the better.

Monday, September 24, 2007

A Scam of Olympic Proportions

Some relatives from Australia asked me to send them some Beijing Olympics merchandise for their kids.

And of course the fuwa or five "friendlies" are the perfect gifts for little ones.

But it's a drag buying these Olympics souvenirs. It's a scam that's driving me crazy.

First of all, if you want to get a T-shirt or a bag or pen with all five of the mascots on them, it's next to impossible. The marketing committee was too clever in creating five characters and so the merchandising department designed five different kinds of pens, bags, shirts, hats and so on.

It makes it hard to decide what to buy as I don't want to have to choose one fuwa over another. They all look the same to me.

Second, while there are many stands in department stores and even at the Silk Market selling Olympics souvenirs, each one sells slightly different merchandise.

You have to go to every single store to see if you like what they have. And if they have it, you have to buy it. Because there is no guarantee that the next store you encounter will have the same thing.

In the past three days including today I have gone to three different shops. And they don't have exactly what I'm looking for. Most of them have the coin and pin collections which are utterly useless for elementary school-aged girls. While one store has one style of mug, the other has a different design with different handles.

And the service varies with the stores too. They range from very friendly and try to be helpful to completely indifferent which I encountered tonight. How these staff are hired I have no idea. But if the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee is spending so much time and effort training Olympics volunteers and staff, could they not put a little more training into the staff who sell souvenirs?

But more importantly, could someone please explain why every store has different merchandise? I feel like I have to visit every single one in the city to find what I want. And that's a frustrated shopper's nightmare come true.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Modern Chinese Master

Xu Beihong is one of China's best known 20th century artists.

I got to know him through his paintings of horses.

My father has a copy of one of his works of a horse trotting towards the viewer. It looks lively and energetic, with the wind flying through its mane.

Many credit Xu for bringing traditional Chinese painting back into fashion. Originally from Yixing, Jiangsu province, Xu learned the art form from his father, as well as calligraphy. Later, Xu junior studied western-style painting, and taught at Beijing University's Art Research Association. He taught that only the realist approach from western-style painting could revive Chinese painting.

He then studied in Paris and Berlin before going back to Shanghai for his first solo exhibition that established him as a modern Chinese artist.

A contemporary of Lu Xun, Xu was also caught up in politics, and according to the Communists, the Kuomintang banned Xu's works. He supported the Communists and created many paintings of allegories alluding to their cause, and sold his work to raise money to fight against the Japanese. For his artistic efforts, Xu has been praised as a patriot and there is a museum near Hou Hai dedicated to him.

In front is a bronze statue of him holding a palette and paintbrushes, looking serious and determined.

However, the inside of the museum is a bit disappointing. Right in the foyer is a gift shop pushing all kinds of gaudy trinkets as well as cheap imitations of Chinese paintings, thankfully not of Xu's.

Also, there aren't many good examples of his work on display. Apparently his wife and family donated many of his paintings to the museum, but only a handful are typical Xu paintings. This is probably because many of his works are in the hands of private collectors and other museums.

The paintings are put behind glass enclosures that aren't carefully monitored for humidity, and in some rooms, supervisors have fallen asleep or finding their reading material more interesting than guarding what little precious treasures they have.

His allegorical paintings remind me of Bibilical ones, exaggerating movements and facial expressions to illustrate a point.

But it's his sketches that are most impressive. He not only captures the likeness on paper, but also the emotion, perspective, light and dark. Most memorable are the portraits he did of his children when they were young.

It's too bad that this museum has neither the resources nor the energy to spruce up the place.

Xu deserves a better tribute.

Xu Beihong Museum
No. 53, North Xinjiekou Street

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Beijing's Ambassadors

I got into the taxi this morning and saw this new sign on the dashboard.

It says "I am smile messenger" with the Olympic logo at the bottom left and some pictograms of some of the sports that will be showcased in 2008.

I remarked to the taxi driver this was the first time I'd seen this sign and asked him what it meant. "I'm a smile messenger," he said, repeating the mantra.

"Do you know how to speak English?" I asked him in Chinese.

"No... only a few words," was his reply... with a smile.

I jokingly asked him if he was practicing his smiles, as I've heard that volunteers for next year's Games have been told to train their mouth muscles to smile several hours a day.

He didn't know what I meant.

First of all, if a taxi has this sign, particularly in English, I would expect the driver to be able to speak some English, not a few words.

Second, the brilliant team behind this ambassadorial campaign didn't get a native English speaker to polish the tag line...

So close... yet not quite.

Friday, September 21, 2007

A Patriotic Duty

The Chinese media are hailing casino tycoon Stanley Ho today for rescuing the bronze horse's head from the Sotheby's auction block next month.

He reportedly paid HK69.1 million (US$8.84 million) for the bronze piece which was apparently plundered from Yuanmingyuan, the Summer Palace by French and British troops back in 1860.

And the Macanese did the patriotic thing by giving it back to the motherland.

"I feel honored to have played a role in saving lost Chinese cultural relics from overseas," the 85-year-old said in a statement.

Meanwhile, heritage officials are racing against time to preserve ancient relics from being destroyed by the effects of the US$25 billion Three Gorges Dam.

These archaeologists are madly trying to unearth as many pieces from the Yellow River Plain, also known as the "cradle of Chinese civilization". In 2010, water will be pumped down a 1,300km tributary to the Yangtze River that cuts through this plain.

The water will flood many historic sites dating back to the Xia and Zhou dynasties, dating back 3,000 to 4,000 years.

According to a report, heritage workers have cleared out more than 2,000 tombs, temples and cultural sites, and relocated 10,000 pieces of ancient copper, jade and bone objects. But apparently this is only the tip of the iceberg.

And not only are they trying to race against the clock, but are also competing with looters.

"Some of the excavation tools these modern grave robbers use are even more advanced than those the archaeologists are using," an official was quoted as saying.

Lack of funding and manpower has not only led to the slow pace of unearthing these treasures but also preservation work.

If the country is so keen to reclaim its cultural heritage, why not look in its own backyard and preserve what it already has?

Instead of saving a horse's head from the auction block, Mr Ho could have possibly saved thousands of relics from being wiped out in three years.

But of course buying back looted treasure is seen as a much more patriotic act than digging up one's own soil.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Green Traffic Week

Right now, in 108 cities across China, it's supposed to be Green Traffic Week.

Places like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou are supposed to be encouraging commuters to take buses, ride bikes or walk to work, school or wherever they need to go starting this past Monday. It's supposed to culminate into "No Car Day" on Saturday September 22 where there will be special zones for bicycles, taxis and buses from 7am to 7pm.

As the national English-language media reports, the week-long exercise is to raise residents' "awareness on energy saving and environmental protection" because the country's cities are plagued by traffic congestion and pollution caused by too many vehicles on the road.

And according to the Ministry of Construction, this exercise will take place at this time every year from now on. An official said this will save 33 million litres of gas and cut emissions by 3,ooo tons.

Each city only needs to adopt one green measure to promote green traffic, but the article doesn't explain what those possible measures could be.

Apparently in Shanghai they have asked government officials and those working in State-run enterprises not to drive private cars.

But so far this week in the Chinese capital I haven't seen much of a difference in traffic patterns. It all seems like business as usual. And there haven't been many reports of valiant commuters sacrificing their cars to take public transport either.

Maybe Green Traffic Week is just too green of an idea to be a reality... in Beijing.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

10 Years, 10 Concertos

Today the upcoming Beijing Music Festival held a press conference at the Beijing Olympics Media Centre. The 10-year-old event is somehow related to the summer Games, but I'm not quite sure how. But then again every other thing in the capital has some kind of tenuous link to the Olympics.

And the organizers got the two stars of the show to speak -- pianist Lang Lang and conductor Daniel Barenboim.

The 25-year-old Lang Lang will perform 10 piano concertos in one month starting September 21, including works by Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky and Chopin. Apparently this feat has never been done before and BMF artistic director Yu Long is thrilled that Lang Lang will take this challenge on, accompanied on the stage with Barenboim.

Unfortunately tickets for all the Lang Lang concerts were sold out two months ago, showing that this young pianist has no trouble getting an appreciative audience.

Aside from the platitudes, it was clear Barenboim was thrilled to be in China to perform for the first time.

"I was born in Argentina and when I was 10-years-old, my family moved to Israel in 1952," he recalled. "It was the first time I heard of China as many players in the Israel Philharmonic escaped from Germany and went to Shanghai."

He also mentioned that one of his first encounters with Chinese musicians was when he met Yehudi Menuhin's son-in-law, the pianist Fou Ts'ong. "From Fou Ts'ong to Lang Lang, Chinese musicians have a natural warmth with music that not everyone has."

One reporter asked Barenboim if he thought music could create political and social change. But he gave a cryptic answer.

"Music cannot be used for anything," he replied. "It does not become communication or anything... but something can become music. You cannot speak about music, only express it in sound. It cannot be used for political issues, but rather what we can learn from music.

"When people play in an ensemble," he continued, "each person expresses himself to the fullest and must simultaneously listen to others. Music can have a behavioural effect on society. It's not music education, but education through music."

He went on to talk about his music school in Ramallah in the West Bank. The children learn discipline through music and they also learn how to sing and to be creative. "It has been proven that when children are occupied with music, you awaken their thinking capacity."

Someone else asked Barenboim what he thought of Lang Lang's playing, as he has taught the pianist for the past six years. He jokingly replied Lang Lang was "no good". But in all seriousness, Barenboim said the concert pianist is a breath of fresh air in the classical music world. "He's a natural talent. He has a curiosity to learn. There is a lot he can learn and he is learning as much as he can."

From that comment it sounds like this teacher-student relationship won't be ending anytime soon.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Invoking an Imperialist Dynasty

While Beijing has become one giant construction site gearing up for the main event, the Olympics, its central government is also keen on establishing its dynastic power.

Back before the Republic in 1911, let alone the establishment of the People's Republic of China, ordinary people were not allowed to have houses with gold roofs and red columns -- only members of the royal family could. No one could build houses or buildings higher than those in the Forbidden City.

But today, the nearly completed Terminal 3, part of Beijing Capital Airport, has a golden roof and red columns.

Restaurants entice wealthy diners by offering Imperial-style menus or at least a lavish enough decor to make them feel like they're dining rich.

Currently the city is constructing a gate near Tiananmen Square, like the old imperial watchtowers. There used to be one there, but the Communists knocked it down. And now they are rebuilding it to hark back to the Qing Dynasty.

Today's star pupils who do well in the college entrance exams are called jinshi, or promoted scholar, like those who successfully sat through imperial civil service examinations.

Sotheby's is having an auction early next month and one of the most contentious items on the block is a bronze horse's head. It was apparently stolen from a water-clock fountain from Yuanmingyuan, the imperial summer palace in 1860 when British and French forces set the palace ablaze and plundered its treasures. There are estimates the horse's head could sell for as much as HK$80 million (US$7.7 million).

The Chinese Communist Party has ruled China for almost 58 years and it's interesting to see how keen the government is to invoke the past to solidify its future.

Is it because the socialist mantra is wearing thin, or some how China's imperialist past has a much richer history? Or perhaps they think they are giving visitors what they want, a more imperial-looking city?

Many tourists have remarked to me that these manufactured or revamped buildings are hardly impressive; in fact they find it disappointing that the Great Wall at Badaling is all fixed up, or that the Forbidden City is repainted, and almost all the rooms empty.

Is it too late to tell the Chinese that tourists would rather see the real deal than something that's supposed to look authentic?

In the meantime the craze for things imperialist is intriguing in a time when the gap between the rich and the poor is even wider than ever...

Monday, September 17, 2007

Home Style in Hou Hai

Hou Hai has a number of restaurants and bars, from the rambling old decor of hutongs where customers can sit on old couches on the roof to modern glass places complete with funky artwork.

But at the entrance of Hou Hai, on the right, is an eatery known for its home-style food. Called Han Cang, it's a Hakka restaurant and locals have recommended it to me on many occasions so of course I had to try.

If the weather is nice, there are tables outside for dining al fresco. Inside the two-storey restaurant are dining areas that are a bit on the noisy side thanks to the cement floor and glass windows. The decor is rustic, but homey and so is the food.

We ordered several Hakka dishes, from salt baked chicken, tender and flavourful, not salty at all; fish marinated in a sweet soy sauce with peppers and sealed in aluminum foil and steamed that was absolutely delicious; slices of beef wrapped in lotus leaf; fatty pork braised with preserved vegetables that was quite authentic; prawns baked in rock salt and presented in a small wooden bucket, and gai lan, or Chinese broccoli.

These were washed down with two bottles of Qingdao beer and rice that had been steamed in round shallow bowls. Unfortunately we were too full to try the Hakka pancakes for dessert which would have taken 30 minutes to prepare. Oh well.

Another delicious feast recorded for others to salivate over....

Sunday, September 16, 2007

A Born Performer

For Chinese opera fans, making a pilgrimage to Mei Lanfang's home is a must in Beijing.

He is considered the best opera singer, actor and dancer of female Peking opera roles. Mei was born in 1894, and his father and grandfather were both well-known opera performers.

With his early training in this art form, Mei already established himself in his teens. However, he rose to even greater fame when he brought Peking opera to the West, particularly the United States, Japan and Russia.

In his home, a siheyuan, or courtyard home, there are pictures of him posing with the likes of Charlie Chaplin (sans mustache) and Mary Pickford. He even got an honourary degree from the University of California.

In his later years, he spent most of his time teaching, creating a "Mei Lanfang style", where he documented in photographs the exact hand gestures and poses for certain situations, from holding a particular object to signifying emotions like shyness with the position of the fingers.

His home also exhibits numerous studio poses complete with costumes and makeup, along with some actual silk robes he wore on stage. Mei was also a painter, as there are many scrolls showing off his art work that are pretty impressive.

The man also had time for his personal life, as there is a family portrait of him, his wife and four children, who lived in Hong Kong during the Sino-Japanese war.

There are many photographs of him swearing an oath to the Chinese Communist Party and posing with a bust of Chairman Mao. But they pale in comparison to the colourful life he lived on stage.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Lighting Up

Tonight we had dinner in Hou Hai, the back lakes. And afterwards we walked around to check out the nightlife scene.

We saw some lanterns floating in the sky and encountered some bare-chested men who wanted to sell us the lanterns. After a bit of bargaining, we managed to get two for 15RMB, originally asking 30RMB each.

There are large and small ones. The small lanterns are still quite large, about one metre tall. When you take them out of the package, they're made of thin red paper and shaped like a squarish balloon. At the bottom is a wire shaped like a circle and in the middle of it is a square piece of material, sort of like wax.

Once the lantern is spread out on its edges, you light the square and after a short time, the hot air from the flame naturally lifts the lantern out of your hands. And depending on the wind, it can fly quite high up in the sky. If not, it catches fire and self-destructs, the burning ashes falling into the lake.

These lanterns will be very popular less than two weeks from now when Mid-Autumn Festival rolls around on September 25.

Moon cakes, lanterns and a perfectly big, round moon. Can't wait.

Friday, September 14, 2007

A Grand Feast

This being Friday night we decided to splash out on a banquet for three.

And the destination? Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant.

We started with some appetizers - cold duck webs that were deboned and blanched, then dipped into a spicy mustard sauce; prawns sauteed with preserved vegetables, but these were on the salty side and the only criticism of the meal; and roasted eggplant, the big fat round ones sliced and cooked until they were soft and marinated in a sweet dark soy sauce.

Also on our table were spinach in a broth with roasted garlic cloves; pictured above is pork (the neck muscle of the pig) that was barbecued and dipped in a sweet and sour sauce; tofu filled with either preserved vegetables or XO sauce; and lotus root filled with glutinous rice that were soaking in osmanthus so it was very flavourful and fresh.

Of course we had the main event - roast duck, thinly sliced with a crispy skin and tender meat, wrapped in thin steamed pancakes and garnished with all kinds of condiments from cucumbers and onions to Chinese radishes, garlic, sugar and plum sauce. There were also sesame pockets - hollowed out buns topped with sesame seeds to stuff with the duck too.

As if that wasn't enough, we were also given a complimentary dessert of a fresh fruit platter and a cup of black jello called turtle jelly which is good for cooling your body.

The damage along with a small bottle of Qingdao beer came to 352RMB (US$46.82).

Now that's a feast with great food and superb service.

Too bad my stomach can't handle it everyday....

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Stars Come out to Play

Tomorrow night basketball fans (and there are many of them in China) will be eagerly watching China vs the US charity game, pitting Yao Ming against Phoenix Suns' Steve Nash.

According to the story, after a Rockets-Suns game in March, Nash went up to Yao about doing a fundraising game for kids in China. Their agents and the NBA hashed it out so that other players like Carmelo Anthony, Greg Odin, Bonzi Wells, Baron Davis and Leandro Barbosa will come to Beijing as well. They will play against the Chinese men's national basketball team.

The money raised from the game will go to three different charities: Chi Heng Foundation, a Hong Kong-based group that works with children orphaned by parents who have died of HIV/AIDS; the Special Olympics, for mentally disabled athletes; and the China Youth Development Foundation that helps orphans.

Tickets ranging from 200 to 800RMB (US$26.62-$106.50) are already sold out. But if you're willing to shell out 1,600 to 4,800RMB (US$213-$639), there's still some seats left...

Here's a picture of Nash in action in a Nike ad.

On the left it says "left?" "right?" And then on the other side it says, "both wrong".

Post Game Report:
I caught the third and fourth quarters of the game on CCTV5, the sports channel here. And it turned out that the North American and Chinese players would periodically change sides so at one point Steve Nash was playing with the Chinese.

It was interesting to see the players' names in Chinese on the back of their jerseys. Only Yao Ming had "Yao" on the back of his...

In the end the Chinese Basketball All-Star Team beat the All-Star Charity Gala Team 101-92, and including an auction, raised US$2.5 million.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

This Looks Familiar...

Today the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee (BOCOG) invited the media to a preview of Terminal 3, or "T3" at Beijing Capital Airport.

And from the looks of it, the complex is a dead-ringer for Hong Kong's International Airport in terms of design. Architect Norman Foster is the brains behind this second version of the marble, glass and steel structure so it's not surprising that it looks... so similar.

The entrance ramps, the check-in counters, long corridors are practically replicas of the Hong Kong one. It also includes a light rail train that will transport passengers from Dongzhimen to the airport in 16 minutes.

The only thing that looks different is the ceiling. Instead of triangles, Terminal 3 has super long lines running from one end to the other lengthwise. It's a lot of lines. And the ceiling has the odd triangle window that allows natural light in.

To make the airport more Chinese, the main columns outside are a deep red, while the roof is golden coloured, harking back to the architecture of the Forbidden City.

It's definitely a majestic place.

While the first few operational days of the Hong Kong International Airport were a bit rough around the edges, problems were sorted quite quickly.

Hopefully there will be enough qualified personnel to run T3 as efficiently as possible. That test will come in February 2008 when it opens.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Teachers' Day

September 10th is Teachers' Day in China.

Students and former pupils send cards and gifts to their teachers and professors as a sign of respect and admiration for giving them the knowledge they need to succeed.

And this year the government says it's concerned that not all students across the country are getting the education they need, especially in the rural areas.

Premier Wen Jiabao encouraged students from underdeveloped areas to serve their hometowns so that they could get a good education.

But what incentive do teachers have to work in the countryside when the average teacher's salary in those areas is 800RMB (US$106) a month? And even then, the money isn't necessarily paid on time as it's doled out by local governments who don't always have the cash on hand.

According to the national English-language newspaper, 60 per cent of the total 11 million teachers work in rural areas in near poverty conditions.

There was also a profile of a teacher in Wuning County, East China's Jiangxi Province. The 53-year-old man picks up his students in his wooden boat and rows two kilometres to reach his one-room school.

And not only does he teach 14 elementary school students, but cooks lunch for them as well.

But wait -- there was an even more compelling story from Baijing County, in South China's Hunan Province. This teacher also teaches in a one-room school but lost his arm from trying to help build a new school. He had a mishap with an axe and his right arm had to be amputated.

Not only can he write with his left hand, but also carries his students through the treacherous mountain paths during winter storms, and catches poisonous snakes for money to help poor students.

While the central government clearly wants to show the unwavering dedication of these teachers, it also shows how severely underfunded these teachers and schools are.

Why can't the government raise the pay of these incredible mentors and pay them directly instead of through local bureaucracies? What the country needs the most right now are more people with knowledge.

And teachers with a well-deserved salary are a start.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Ducking for More

A friend took us to a Beijing style restaurant for what else - Peking duck.

The place, a chain of eateries is aptly named Roast Duck King and we went to one in Dongcheng District.

When you walk in, it doesn't feel like a restaurant; it's a hallway that leads to several private rooms, many full of men carousing with maotai and beer.

We started off with a few appetizers including a "salad", which was actually cherry tomatoes, cucumbers sliced lengthwise, carrot sticks, Chinese radish (fuchsia coloured) and lettuce that you dip into a thick dark sauce with chopped garlic.

Another dish was a dark brown seaweed marinated with sesame oil and soy sauce with sliced cucumbers, and cold duck webs that were deboned and generously drizzled in a slightly spicy mustard sauce.

We also had a shallow pot of yellow fish braised in a thick sauce topped with chillis, but it wasn't spicy, onions and garlic. And inside the soupy sauce were corn bread fingers that were on the dense side.

Finally the main event. The roast duck was already thinly sliced and presented on a duck-shaped platter. There were steamed thin pancakes to wrap them in, or crispy sesame buns and garnished with a plum sauce, sliced onions, garlic, cucumber and even sugar.

The skin was very crispy and not too much fat, while the meat (only bits of it) were moist.

We also had duck soup, a white coloured broth with vermicelli and vegetable, and deep fried bits of bone with meat on them that were delicious because they were marinated with white pepper and spices.

This Roast Duck King restaurant is pretty close to Da Dong in quality. But when it comes to the entire dining experience, Da Dong still rules the roost.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Shanghaied Again

I think I've dined at Ding Tai Fung for half a dozen times now and each time I leave with a satisfied grin on my face.

Up until today I've gone to the one in Shin Kong Place, an exclusive shopping mall complete with every designer label you'd wish you could buy if you had the money. Hence the shops are all empty.

But the other Ding Tai Fung restaurant is in an off-the-beaten path place in Dongzhimen, in the north east side of the city. It's at a turn off from the main street and interestingly enough there are many other restaurants there too.

Automatic sliding glass doors open at your arrival and because I booked a table the day before, we were seated upstairs. Diners who want to be seen probably request the ground floor.

We were seated at a booth, which, unfortunately is not ergonomically designed. The seats are too far away from the table, forcing you to lean forward so that the food won't drop into your lap.

But other than that the service is attentive, efficient and fast.

We ordered dried tofu that was braised in a sweet soy sauce with a sprinkle of edamame beans; a portion of drunken chicken that kept a nice delicate wine flavour; and finely chopped spinach and tofu.

Of course we feasted on xiaolong bao, the pork dumplings wrapped in a delicate skin, dunked in a soup stock before adding vinegar and slices of ginger to pop into our hungry mouths.

Another new favourite is xiaolong bao with hairy crab meat. We also had a bowl of braised beef with tendon in a clear broth with noodles. The noodles were cooked al dente and the beef tender, but not much taste.

Finally for dessert, a pair of steamed sesame buns, white on the outside, and finely ground black sesame filling inside.

Ding Tai Fung is so consistently good I could almost eat here everyday -- with a few workouts in between.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Preparations for the Party

Next month is the 17th national congress of the Communist Party of China.

Already the domestic media are toning down criticism, especially on things like toy recalls and food safety.

And the police are going to be busy for the next month.

Police chief Zhou Yongkan says the Chinese police will intensify its crackdown on "hostile forces and evil cults."

According to a Xinhua story:

"All police should strengthen information collecting work to closely monitor and strike hard on overseas and domestic hostile forces, ethnic splittists, religious extremists, violent terrorists and the Falun Gong cult so as to safeguard national security and social stability," Zhou, minister of public security, told a police meeting.

He warned "the country was going through a period of outstanding disputes among the people, increased crime rates and complex struggles against hostile forces".

Many uncertainties remain, Zhou said, adding that it was "an arduous task to maintain social harmony" although he acknowledged that the overall social and economic development situation was largely favorable.

It is important for police to secure the state at all times. But making this announcement at this particular time is interesting.

Although Zhou says "domestic hostile forces" are extremists and the Falun Gong, one of the real threats to a "harmonious society" is the income gap.

The rich are getting obnoxiously richer and the poor barely surviving on meagre salaries. It's creating a class system with prejudices attached.

While the government has started addressing the needs of the disadvantaged, the actual measures are just a few drops in the bucket.

More needs to be done to ease the anger and frustration to prevent them from boiling over. Soon.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Where's the Polisher?

This picture was taken in the women's washroom of an upscale mall called Shin Kong Place.

It says "bumf box" and below the label are paper towels.

I just looked up what bumf means in the the Merriam-Webster online dictionary:
Etymology: from bumf toilet paper, short for bumfodder, from 1bum + fodder
chiefly British : PAPERWORK
So while the intention is correct, the word isn't quite right. The Chinese characters are correct for paper towel. I wonder where they got bumf from...

Where's the language polisher when you need one?

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Mixed Messages

Earlier this week, the chief of the State Administration of Work Safety said "poor planning" was to blame for the 172 miners still trapped underground in the Huayuan mine in Xintai, East China's Shandong Province. There are nine other miners trapped in another mine with no latest reports.

This is a complete 180 degree turn from what other government officials said previously, blaming the accident on "natural disasters".

A China Daily article on August 22 says:

Preliminary analysis of experts showed the coal mine flooding which has trapped 181 miners at two pits in East China's Shandong Province since Friday is a natural disaster, Minister of Civil Affairs Li Xueju said at a press conference on Wednesday.

"China currently has no compensation system for people killed and injured in natural disasters," Li said.

In a China Daily story published today, safety chief Li Yizhong had a different opinion:

"The root is some local authorities and companies have failed to take sufficient action to tackle safety loopholes and build a sound early-warning mechanism," the chief of the State Administration of Work Safety said on Tuesday.

Learning from these "bloody lessons" will prevent "accidents triggered by natural disasters," Li said.

In a circular issued last Friday the State Council urged mines that risk being flooded to stop production when typhoons land or there is torrential rain.

The circular also asked mine owners to identify hidden natural dangers and remove them.

The Provincial government now admits that the 172 trapped miners will not be found alive, three weeks after floodwater filled the main shaft.

During the rescue effort, officials said they would pump water out as fast as they could, but an expert commented that with the pump they were using, it would take at least 10 days to pump a million cubic metres of water out.

This is a sad story because officials didn't keep the families abreast of the situation, leaving them frustrated and venting their anger by breaking windows of the mining company's offices.

Domestic reporters were told to leave the accident site by their bosses, and editors were told to get the latest news from Xinhua, the official state media.

Damage control is difficult to do in life and death situations. But no matter how ugly the circumstances may be, people need to know the truth.

It makes the bitter pill a bit easier for everyone to swallow.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Crane City

This picture was taken in Dongzhimen, in the north east side of the city.

And there's five cranes in this shot where a series of apartment towers are being built.

So imagine a whole city filled in cranes. That's Beijing madly trying to finish all its major building projects before the Olympics.

That's so that the air will be slightly clearer before the Games begin.

Well, that's the plan...

Visual Eyesore

This building is possibly Beijing's ugliest one.

And yes, it's a government building - the China Travel Service (CTS) Hotel.

The gray hotel is topped with gold-coloured tiles. But what has to be the most bizarre thing are these turrets on the corners. I wonder what having a corner room is like with all those angles on the windows.

The building is located near a major four-leaf clover freeway so I pass by it quite often. And it's a piece of architecture I wish I didn't have to see! While it does stand out, it sticks out for all the wrong reasons.

Hopefully CTS will want to update its look and get with the times. Soon.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Cracking Down on Pyramids

A recent article in the English language state media says that pyramid selling is becoming rampant in the country despite a number of crackdowns.

The government is also considering revising laws to impose heavier penalties on those engaged in this kind of multi-level network business.

"Pyramid selling, outlawed in the country about 10 years ago, is still serious. And it's growing," says Gao Feng, deputy director of the ministry's economic crime investigation bureau.

"We call them economic cults," Gao continued. "They can turn a normal person into an idiot."

A few days later in the subway I saw many billboard ads like this one from Amway. I think it says that if you buy the beauty night creams on the left, you can get a choice of one of the evening handbags on the right.

Amyway is all over the place here. Tonight I came home and got a flyer in my mailbox advertising Amyway Visa cards with the Bank of China.

So I'm wondering if the government knows that Amyway does multi-level selling...

Monday, September 3, 2007

Going Domestic

My employer makes sure we enjoy working and playing by organizing many sports activities after office hours.

I joined the tennis group and we play once a week at a university which happens to be across the street from us.

And for the past month and a half I've been playing with shoes for running, not for tennis.

So this weekend I was on the hunt for court shoes. I checked out Nike and Adidas, only to find they were on the expensive side, over 500 and 600RMB a pair. And honestly, Beijing being on the dusty side, I wanted shoes I didn't mind getting roughed up.

On a whim I checked out Li Ning, one of China's top sportswear manufacturers which also makes NBA apparel and shoes. It's not an official sponsor for the 2008 Olympics, but will be fitting out many of China's teams as well as sports channel CCTV-5.

It's trying to emulate the big boys. Nike has the swoosh, while Li Ning has a kind of wavy tick. Adidas' tag line is: Impossible is Nothing, and Li Ning's is Anything is Possible.

And the domestic brand's selection was not bad, but what got me was the price.

Following the advice of my brother, I tried on several pairs, trying different shoes on different feet until I settled on this pair for 329RMB (US$43.60).

Admittedly the colour wasn't the selling point, but the comfort and cushioning.

I'll try them out later this week and let you know how they did on the court.

In the meantime I wonder if this means I'm becoming sinicized...

Sunday, September 2, 2007

A Civilized Sunday Afternoon

This afternoon I decided to go hotel hopping.

I hit swanky Wangfujing - Beijing's version of Fifth Avenue - and checked out a few of the city's top hotels.

First off -- The Peninsula and Grand Hyatt look like their Hong Kong counterparts. In terms of architecture and designer label stores, these five-star hotels pretty much have it. There's lots of marble, beautiful flower arrangements and lots of water fountains.

But in terms of service, Beijing hasn't matched Hong Kong's impeccable service. Hopefully in time it will.

Taking a break from window shopping, I decided on afternoon tea at The Pen. It wasn't exactly The Pen in Hong Kong, but it had the same prices -- 135RMB (US$17.89) for afternoon tea complete with finger sandwiches, scones and dessert.

I asked for just scones and was served ONE scone with condiments. The clotted cream looked yellowish until I realized it was butter, with a raspberry and a sour mango jam.

The scone was average - very flaky and uneventful. But it was nice having lots of tea -- several cups' worth. And no wonder. The tea was 45RMB (US$6).

I expected to see lots of tai tais (ladies of leisure), but instead saw mostly men enjoying afternoon tea too. They would get up periodically to the washroom or pop into Prada and Louis Vuitton and buy something. And of course they were smoking too even though it was a non-smoking section.

Oh well. This was probably as close to a civilized afternoon as I could get in Beijing.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

China's Poster Boy

The pressure is mounting on 110-metre hurdler Liu Xiang, but he seems to have great momentum this year.

Last night he became the first Chinese to win a gold championship in eight years. He beat his closest rival, American Terrence Trammell in 12.95 seconds.

According to my colleague who is arguably Liu's biggest fan, his strategy is to come from behind and win. She was worried that his being in the outside lane, lane 9 would be a hindrance to him. But instead he even had time to look across to see Trammell slightly behind him at the finish line.

And now expectations are higher for him to repeat his Olympic gold performance next year.

So far he's taking it all in stride. Literally.

He's definitely one to watch next year. Not only is he fast, but is cute, gives good sound bites to the media and is humble. What more could the Chinese team want?