Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Ticket Fiasco Explained (Sort of)

Today the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee (BOCOG) held a press conference to talk about the ticket fiasco that happened yesterday.

Rong Jun, director of the Olympic Ticketing Center first read a statement that was very similar to what was published in the media today. He said in the first hour the system was inundated with 8 million hits online, 3.8 million phone calls and numerous people lined up at Bank of China branches.

He went on to say that they didn't expect such "over-enthusiastic" people anxious to get Olympics tickets and then apologized, saying they would correct the problem and provide a better service for their "distinguished" customers. He even got up in front of the media and bowed.

Then the foreign journalists went on the offensive. The Wall Street Journal asked to explain the reason behind the suspension of ticket sales last night. Rong said it was because the database processing system was not able to process so many requests at once which led to the system crashing.

He admitted they were expecting 1 million hits per hour, but did not point the finger at either the ticketing center or the ticketmaster company that is helping BOCOG set up the ticketing system.

Reuters asked since the lottery system worked well the first time, would the Olympic Ticketing Center consider doing this again. Rong replied they were only following the example of other Olympic host cities who sold tickets in three phases, first with a lottery and then the other two on a first-come-first-served basis.

The director would not disclose exactly what the new ticketing plan would be, but that they would take into consideration "people's feedback and criticism" and increase the database processing capacity. Neither would he reveal by how much the processing capacity would be increased. And no it wasn't a problem with the server or bandwidth.

He would only say that the plan to resume the second batch of ticket sales would be announced November 5.

While it's good to see BOCOG bravely addressing the media on this fiasco, thinking only 1 million people would go online at once is very naive.

Behind the scenes someone's head is probably rolling at this moment...

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Olympics Tickets Round 2

Today was two of getting Olympics tickets.

The first session was in late June. You had to fill out a ticket request form online or paper, submit it and then hope that you would get something.

People were supposed to pay up by mid September, but a newspaper article said there was an unusually high number of people who didn't purchase the tickets either by Visa or cash at the Bank of China. As a result the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee (BOCOG) decided to be lenient and give people until sometime in October to pay up.

Those tickets that still weren't purchased would be put back into a pool for people to snap up in the second round, which was today.

And the only way to get them was to go online, call the ticket office, or go to a designated Bank of China branch and wait in line. First come, first served.

But, as I predicted, the system crashed soon after 9am when the sale started.

All of us in the office were constantly refreshing our computer screens hoping to get into the system. I started after lunch and then restarted after 4pm when I managed to get logged in. But then when I requested tickets, the system took forever to process. It finally told me that the ones I chose were not available. I tried again, choosing different price ranges or different events. Again the same message. Thinking three's a charm, I made another attempt, but it said my choices weren't available.

The online ticketing system should be able to tell you which ones are "taken" so you can try and get something else. I say "taken" because they will only be snapped up after the person pays up in two days' time.

BOCOG probably did this after a headache trying to decide who got which tickets in the request form. But it's no good when you want to sell tickets online and your system crashes. Think about it -- the most populous nation in the world and millions of them are trying to get tickets to the biggest event their country has ever seen.

This is a good experience for BOCOG to get their logistics up and running properly. They probably don't want their system to crash when the real event happens.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Close Encounters in the Park

I met up with a friend who was staying at the Grand View Garden Hotel in the southwest side of the city. It's known as the place where the Dream of the Red Chamber television series was shot.

It's tucked inside a neighbourhood complete with a park next to it. And before the sun went down I did a little exploration of it.

Overall the upkeep is quite good, and clean. In the summer it's probably bustling with people, but yesterday the weather turned sharply colder and not many wandered in. Those who did were bundled up to protect themselves from the chilly wind.

There's a beautiful pond in the middle with pavilions and walkways around it. There's also a small rose garden with roses still blooming at the end of October. Leaves were turning yellow and a few orange, either clinging onto the branches or fallen to the ground.

While it's a nice place to have a stroll, it was kind of disconcerting to see people trying to make a living inside the park. Near the entrance was a shoddy stage where a very young girl who probably didn't make the cut in an acrobatics troupe was doing her own little show of contortions. It was very sad to see her doing this act in the cold and she didn't seem like she enjoyed performing either.

At another end of the park, a young woman asked me if I wanted to dress up in imperial-style robes for a picture. She obviously didn't have much business today. There was also a marriage procession -- men carrying a chair with a woman in it -- complete with Chinese musicians for fun.

I didn't wander through every inch of the park since it was getting cold and decided to make my way out. But before I reached the exit, an orange striped cat made a beeline for me and circled me. He meowed and I crouched down and petted him. He continued circling me and was eager for a good scratch behind his ears.

I did this for several minutes and some passersby remarked how friendly he was with humans. He's probably the resident cat in the park and he does do some good PR.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Posh, the Dosh and the Ugly

Last night Hong Kong upscale department store Lane Crawford held a bash to celebrate the grand opening of its Beijing location.

Situated in the financial district, it's nestled in between banking buildings and five-star hotels like the Westin and Inter-Continental.

From the Fuxingmen subway station, it took us a good 15 minutes to get there by foot. I guess this Seasons Place mall is not expecting plebeians to come here and gawk at the designer stores and prices.

But back to the party...

The entrance was lined with tall good-looking men in black suits who just stood out there in the cold next to tall mirrored pillars.

The only way to get in was to have an invite and then get a special stamp on your hand that could only be seen under a special light.

From then onwards Moet and Chandon flowed freely, canapes floated around and chocolates devoured.

Lane Crawford's interior looks very swank, with marble floors, creative spaces and light fixtures. The room with jewelry cases was dimly lit with a wall back lit and in front were black pieces of wood stacked together that looked like black cork. Another room selling funky sneakers had a moving track from the ceiling displaying both shoes and clothes. You had to look up to see the whole selection and a bench was nearby so didn't have to strain your neck.

And yes - everything in that store was expensive. I don't think I looked at anything less than 2,000 RMB (US$267). The store had everything from Paul Smith suits to Armani, custom-ordered Pumas, Pucci, and Stella McCartney.

There were bottles of Champagne on each floor -- make that cases of the bubbly, along with a makeshift cocktail bar, and DJ booth.

But probably most interesting was the people watching. There were many Europeans there, mostly French and Italian, along with well-heeled Chinese.

I wish the Fashion Police were there as they would have been horrified by the outfits the women wore. Many of the women seemed like they were competing to see who could bare the most skin or wear the highest heels. They wore sleeveless dresses as if they were going to a cocktail party, not a store opening. Overall the men were in suits, but one Chinese man was in a white sleeveless muscle shirt complete with his belly-button sticking out.

But probably the worst offender was a young Caucasian woman in a dark suit with high heels, straight chin-length hair that had a mishap with the scissors. The worst part was that under her suit she wore a grey top that barely covered her tiny breasts and made her look pregnant. She was a potential wardrobe malfunction waiting to happen.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Suiting Up

All week my coworker was anxiously wondering how his jacket and shirt were doing. He was particularly concerned because the tailor didn't call all week.

But this afternoon we headed back for his fitting.

And it looked good, the charcoal grey jacket and the pink shirt was a subtle complement. The jacket can be buttoned up, left open or buttoned part way. It even looks good with jeans. He was very pleased. We asked the tailor to take in the jacket a bit for a more tapered look.

Then we left and he told us to pick up the shirt and jacket on Friday or next Saturday. Again he said he wouldn't call. Just come, he said. We left excited and satisfied.

But when we were in another store, my colleague realized the tailor didn't do anything to the shirt. So we went back and got that more form fitting too and shorter so that he could wear the shirt out instead of tucked in.

The tailor probably thought we were being too fussy, but then he also knows, the customer is always right.

"Mei wenti", "no problem" was always his answer.

Music to my colleague's ears.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Let the Pre-Olympic Bashes Begin

Today there are 286 more days to go to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

And a group of kids got into the spirits of things today.

The International School of Beijing (ISB) held an "International Olympic Day" to kick off a year of events and curriculum around the international sporting event.

The school is in Shunyi District, near the airport and is a giant compound complete with tour buses to ferry the kids to and from school, security guards everywhere and a giant stadium.

Tom Hawkins, head of the school explained that ISB has 1,850 students from 50 nationalities from over three years of age to 18. So in order to celebrate its diversity, the institution holds an international day each year.

"But with the Olympics next year, we thought we'd combine the two and make it an International Olympic Day," he said proudly.

Most schools in Beijing start around late August, but because of the Olympics, they won't start the school year until after the Games are over. Hawkins added that the US Olympic Volleyball Team will use the school's facilities to train and that some students will be translators at the Games.

Today's event was to kick off a year of Olympic-themed studies in many disciplines. For example, in visual arts, one of the designers of the torch talked to students about how they came up with the design and the cultural significance behind it; in PE classes they would try some of the sports events; and they would also learn the history of the Olympics.

But today's "mock" opening ceremonies was quite impressive. Held in the giant stadium complete with a track and semi-covered stands, the students were dressed in white, black, red, green, blue and yellow T-shirts to make the Olympic flag on the field. It would have looked better from an aerial view. Hawkins joked earlier they should have had helicopters to take a better shot.

They marched to the Olympic theme and even had three students read out the Olympic oath in English, French and Putonghua.

Then some participated in a dragon and lion dance, running around in circles or greeting the audience. We saw them rehearse this twice so I'm sure they were wiped out by the time they had to actually do it in front of their parents.

Even more impressive was the traditional release of doves, except the school released probably a thousand pigeons instead.

Not only that, the school designed and made its own torch and cauldron. And one of the parents is two-time Olympic gold medal diver Gao Min. She was invited to light the cauldron after a torch relay was run around the track.

In the evening they were planning a potluck dinner and even fireworks.

It's pretty amazing to see a school put on such a lavish event. But then again everyone else is doing it, so why not?

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Making Old New Again

In Hou Hai, there are many hutongs, or old Chinese houses that are falling apart and some being demolished.

And what's taking their place? New ones.

As we walked around the Back Lakes, we saw this construction site in full swing. Construction workers use the cheap but durable plastic material as makeshift aprons as they cut and fashion cement bricks into the right size and shape.

While we're pleased to see the theme of traditional Chinese architecture continue in this old area of Beijing, it's disconcerting to see them manufacture the past.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Bottom Line

An article in the country's English-language paper says that children don't know anything about personal financial management.

In "Children lack basic financial know-how", Zhang Xiaodong, a researcher with Beijing Cairentang Educational Research Center studies children's psychological health.

And she did a study -- albeit with a very small sample -- and discovered that many children have no idea where their family's income comes from or how to look after their own finances.

She interviewed 44 12-year-olds from a leading primary school in Beijing along with their parents, indicating that even children from well-off families have no clue about money management.

Zhang's survey revealed that 43 per cent of parents, most of whom are professionals, have never spoken to their children about family incomes or expenditures. In addition, only 28 per cent had told their kids about bank accounts, and 23 per cent about saving money.

"This is quite an urgent issue, especially as Chinese families are getting richer following the country's economic growth," she said. "Children are inclined to cultivate bad habits, such as desiring brand names and measuring everything in terms of money. They are in danger of growing up without ambition."

While Zhang only surveyed 44 children and their parents, it's not too difficult to see that her study probably reflects the majority of Chinese middle class families. In shopping malls here I've seen many parents easily succumb to their kid's demands for everything from soft drinks and candy to toys and clothes.

One would think that the best way to teach money management is to open up a bank account for the child.

As telling them how much their parents make, that could be a touchy subject. Or maybe it's because they don't want to disclose to their kids exactly where the money comes from.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

More Ducking Around

Last night a friend took me to another restaurant known for its roast duck.

It's called Xiang Man Lou, and near the Ding Tai Fung restaurant in Dongzhimen District. The best thing is to tell the taxi driver to take you to Yu Yang Hotel which is across the street from the eatery.

We tried to make a late reservation, but they wouldn't take anymore and we'd have to get there and wait.

Luckily we didn't have to wait too long as the wonderful smells emanating from the tables were getting our appetites going.

My friend felt the ducks here are better than Da Dong, with hardly any fat between the skin and the meat. "They're cheaper too," she added. "This place does traditional duck and that's the way I like it." I had to try for myself.

While the restaurant is relatively clean and service is pretty attentive, it's no where near the standard of Da Dong. But the duck and some of the other dishes we ordered were pretty lip-smacking good.

We started off with some vegetable appetizers, from chopped lettuce with sesame sauce, and some pickled cucumbers. We also ate a stringy salad called Tiger's grass. The duck was then rolled on a steel cart to our table and the chef deftly sliced the duck meat and skin onto two plates. And yes the meat was very tender and the skin crispy. The pancakes weren't on par with Li Qun, but held our delicious duck well.

Another very good dish was pork gristle that was minced and then braised for a long time that literally melted in your mouth. The only fall back was that it was a big portion and after having lots of duck there wasn't enough room to eat more of the pork. We also had sweet and sour pork which does sound kind of funny eating in China, but it was pretty good, deep-fried big chunks of pork in that signature orangey-red sauce complete with chopped peppers and pineapple.

The duck soup was presented with Napa cabbage and vermicelli.

We washed all that down with Harbin Beer, a very clean tasting drink that was very refreshing.

In the end the bill came to 266RMB (US$35.44) for four with leftovers. We had to roll out and take a short walk to digest our feast.

Xiang Man Lou
19 Xinyuan Xili Zhongjie
Chaoyang District
6466 0896

Monday, October 22, 2007

Concert Etiquette 101

Last night I went to watch pianist Lang Lang play one of his 10 concertos as part of the 10th Beijing Music Festival. As part of the month-long event, he is performing 10 concertos with different orchestras and conductors. And he has memorized them all.

I was thrilled to get a ticket as he's always a big draw in Beijing. I got the second most expensive ticket at 480RMB (US$64), while the top ones were 880RMB (US$117).

Having arrived at the Poly Theatre early, I wandered around the lobby and was surprised to find very expensive jade carvings for sale, from pendants to sculptures. Of course there were also Lang Lang CDs and books about Chinese culture available.

Then I went upstairs to get to my seat. When the attendant took my ticket stub he asked me if I brought a camera and I said no. He also reminded me to turn off my cell phone which I thought was good, as many Chinese are notorious for leaving them on during a concert.

And when I sat waiting for the concert to begin, a recorded message was played at least three times in Chinese and English. For some reason there were 14 rules for the Chinese, and only 11 listed in English. The rules included no wearing slippers in the auditorium and wear neat clothes; turn off your cell phone and no photography allowed; no eating and drinking in the auditorium, if you must leave the room, do so between movements, and so on.

I thought that if this announcement was played as many times as it was, the audience would get the message. But I was wrong.

One thing I need to add is that the attendants don't help seat patrons. They only take their ticket stubs. They should really seat them so that they know where potential offenders are. Also, it prevents people from taking someone else's seat, thinking they won't show up. This happened several times last night and if this is a common occurrence, why not do something about it?

But I must commend the attendants for doing a good job anyway. As soon as the lights dimmed, one young man watched for people taking out cameras or cell phones to take pictures. He had to warn a woman more than once to stop taking video of the concert. He leaped into action to stop another from taking pictures from her cell phone.

I would love to rave to you about how wonderful Lang Lang played. He performed Prokofiev's Piano Concerto no. 3 with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jonathan Nott. Lang Lang came out in a black suit with sparkling lapels and pocket flaps. He alternatively attacked and caressed the piano keys, meanwhile soaking in the moment as if it was his last concert.

We all clapped like mad, getting him to come back out for an encore and he finally pleased his fans once more with a profound piece that I'm ashamed not to know the composer as he didn't tell the audience. Again it was a dramatic piece of music that ended so softly, that we all had to take a moment to catch our breaths before clapping and shouting again.

But my concert experience would have been even better if the couple behind me on the right hadn't distracted me from watching a brilliant talent at play. They were in their 50s, not particularly fashionable, but not shabby either, having probably paid the same amount as me for tickets.

When the orchestra finished its first movement, the couple began talking. They weren't whispering, but talking. I turned around and gave the woman a dirty look and they stopped.

But then after the second and third movements, they continued talking. I don't know what they were talking about. The second time I turned around, I looked straight at the woman again, but she looked right through me as if to ignore me.

Also another two men behind me on my left were talking too. I turned around to look at them but didn't get much of a response back.

Then when Lang Lang was performing, the man remarked to his wife, "ta tan de bu cuo," or "he's not bad [at playing the piano]." Uh, yes.

After a while, I heard strange electronic noises. I turned around and saw the husband using his cell phone. I told him to turn it off. He just looked at me and didn't do anything. The fashionable woman sitting next to me repeated what I said and he grumbled yes.

But he didn't. Because as soon as the intermission came, he was playing with his cell phone again.

He didn't come back after the 20-minute break, but his wife did and probably she didn't have anyone to talk to, she was restless and couldn't stop kicking the chair in front of her or playing with her program. Again the couple next to me had to tell her to stop.

When I go to a concert, I am there to watch the artist perform to the best of their ability and appreciate the moment. And I assume that most other people are there to do the same thing.

But when nouveau riche Chinese people think they can just buy tickets to whatever they want, they need to understand the protocol that goes along with it. And that the rules also apply to them. My 480RMB experience was almost ruined by people distracting me from the main event.

I don't know how this can be remedied in the short term. But after the concert, I did thank the attendant for doing a good job. I'm sure he'd have more stories to tell than me.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

A Run of Mass Proportions

This Sunday morning it was very chilly outside and thousands of people like me gathered at the National Olympic Sports Centre for the 2007 ANA Beijing International Marathon.

No.... I wasn't doing 26 miles, but 10K.

Overall the event went smoothly but the organization of it was marred by many problems.

First off, foreigners who signed up for the run had to pay US$55 to participate, whereas locals only had to pay 30RMB (US$4). I complained about this to the organizer in an email who replied back saying I wasn't the only one who pointed this difference. They added that it was the Chinese Athletic Association that had set the prices and it was too late to change it.

And then I had to pay this money into a bank account but in Renminbi and the thought of having to line up at a bank and do this transaction was not something I wanted to do.

Luckily the organizer agreed to accept my US cash in person and I thought that was the end of that.

But the weekend before the National Day Holiday, the organizer sent out an urgent email to notify us of the route change.

Originally the start was supposed to be at Tiananmen Square. But because of the 17th National Party Congress of the Communist Party of China, the route had to be moved elsewhere. And on top of that, those who had signed up for the 8K like myself were now going to run 10K.

Again I complained about this but the organizers said that's the way it's going to be. Also, there would be a time limit of one hour and 30 minutes to finish 10K. Those who didn't would be picked up by broom buses so that the streets could reopen. I wasn't even going to get a timing chip either. I've participated in runs where everyone regardless of their ability got one. But I guess logistically the Chinese haven't figured out how to do this on a mass scale.

Anxious about my ability to finish 10K, I trained hard the weekend before and ate pasta.

This morning I woke up early and got to the race start around 7:30am. Lots of people were already there, almost all Chinese except for the odd foreigner. We dropped off our running bags at designated tents and then headed to the start.

There were lots of people like me dressed in orange Nike running T-shirts. Others wore white, bright yellow or maroon.

The marathoners started at 8am and those of us in the 10K group started at 8:18am. I started off slow and kept that pace even though lots of people ran ahead of me. As we ran out of the stadium, there was a stage area on the right where some officials stood and waved at us. A dramatic song from Mao's era rang out from speakers, probably some kind of motivational tune.

We then turned right and headed over a bridge where we could see the National Stadium or the "bird's nest" and the Aquatic Centre, shaped like a square bubble. Ahead of me, it was amazing to see a large black sea of heads bobbing up and down.

Sprinkled along the route were mainly migrant workers who were working on construction projects in the area. Some were dressed in jackets with a hard hat, others looked like they just got up and watched us with bemused looks. Some young people, cheering on their fellow university students shouted "jia you!" or "keep going!"

By the 5K mark where the first water station was, many people started walking but I kept going. I was impressed to see an elderly woman with a younger one, perhaps her daughter and son running together. At one point I also ran with an elderly man who kept going in his cotton sneakers.

Then we turned around and went back to complete the 10K. More people came out to see us but not much cheering or clapping that you'd find in North America. There were buses and cars ready to take over the roads as soon as we were done. They were really serious about the broom buses.

In the last kilometre I picked up the pace and finished at 1:24:15.

I got my running bag and then headed into the stadium to see the first marathoners finish their race. Again not a big turn out but at least the cheers made up for it.

Then getting home was another logistical problem. The stadium is located by the Fourth Ring Road, making it difficult to flag down a taxi. I had to walk almost another kilometre before I was able to grab one.

In the end I'm pleased I finished 10K without stopping, but it wasn't worth US$55.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Made to Measure

One of my male colleagues wanted to get a jacket and shirt made, and dragged me along for a second opinion.

He wasn't ready to deal with the zoo-like atmosphere of the Silk Market so we headed to the next place I knew of, a shop in Wangfujing.

There were hundreds of bolts of fabric, mostly silk for women, but at the back left corner was the men's section.

He knew he wanted a mandarin-collar jacket in charcoal gray and a shirt to match. And when we went through the fabric, I picked one of the most expensive ones, a soft cashmere wool. It would have blown our budget. The saleswoman, who also spoke English, helped us find a cheaper wool fabric in just the shade we were looking for.

We balked at the price for making the jacket and shirt, and tried to bargain. But she said this was a "time-honoured brand" store, having been around for 100 years and guaranteed quality so price was not something to mess around with. But seeing as we weren't tourists needing a suit in two days, they fudged the numbers so that the total was closer to our budget (526RMB for the jacket, 300RMB for the shirt).

Then we headed over to another section for cotton fabric. Strangely enough, there wasn't a big selection of bolts for men's shirts. You'd think in the land of cotton there would be more to choose from. After going back and forth and discussing prices and then colours, we finally settled on a white cotton with lots of tiny pink dots so it looked pink from far away. The pink would soften up the charcoal gray and also work as a shirt on its own.

After paying for the fabric and labour all up front, a tailor took my friend's measurements quickly and methodically, even drawing diagrams for the jacket and shirt so we were all on the same page.

The fitting is next weekend so I'll let you know how it goes.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Feast in Old Beijing

Last night we went to Qianmen, just south of Tiananmen Square in search of Peking Duck.

In between Qianmen and Chongwenmen subway stations there's what looks like a deserted road lined with old hutongs. Some have roofs that are badly in need of repair, while others look empty. This is the real and old Beijing.

A block or two into the street, is "Li Qun Roast Duck" hand written on a brick wall on the right. Turn right and then on your right is a bright naked bulb leading to warm smells from an open oven where ducks lined up and roasted over an open fire with wood from fruit trees.

At first appearance the packed eatery looks small. And with many diners standing around the crowded room waiting for the next table, it seems like you'll never get to eat the delicious-looking food. But in fact there are a few rooms hidden off to the sides. Even if you make a reservation you can't be late. Even if you're 10 minutes late your table is gone.

This is what happened to us. They called us to say the table would be given to someone else. It was frustrating not having them keep the table for us another few minutes. We had to wait an agonizing 15 minutes before my friend came up with the brilliant idea of sharing a table with an American couple and their guide and driver.

It was their first trip to China, and the New Yorkers had already visited Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tibet, Xian and now Beijing was their last stop. They had just gone to the Great Wall at Badaling and were looking forward to Simatai, where there are more original parts of the wall in tact.

And they found this restaurant in a travel magazine. This was their first Peking duck experience and loved it.

After Da Dong, nothing compares to their duck. But I must say the pancakes at Li Qun were far superior -- they were paper thin and moist. We did really well, polishing off our two plates of a whole duck, bok choy with mushrooms, chili pork with peppers, and deep-fried rice cakes with shrimp.

Even though people were still standing around waiting for the next table, staff didn't shoo us from ours as we sat chatting. Outside a large group from Hong Kong complained to staff they had waited for an hour and even called long distance to make a reservation. And outside, there are pictures of many diplomats, and even former US Vice President and now Nobel Prize winner Al Gore has come here. So it seems this place is well known far and wide.

Li Qun
No. 11, Xiangfeng Hutong
Qianmen Jie (East), Chongwen District

An Open Invitation

Netizens, people who post comments on websites or write blogs have talked alot about the ongoing 17th National Party Congress of the Communist Party of China.

And one of them, called Little Fire Dragon, has ignited some interest on the People's Daily's Strong China Forum. He published a post called "Mr. General Secretary, Please come to the Strong China Forum to share your thoughts with netizens."

The post was visited more than 200,000 times. And here was one of the most popular comments:

If General Secretary Hu does come, I have two questions that I would like to ask him, though I am not sure I will have the honor to be answered. My questions are as follows:

First, the relationship between the Chinese people and the Chinese Communist Party. I think without the Chinese people there will be no Party. As Chairman Mao once said, "Water can run without fish, but fish can not swim without water; water is the Chinese people, and fish is the Chinese Communist Party. " The Chinese Communist Party was born for the interests of Chinese people, as well as to safeguard the people's interests for survival, development and advancement. So when there is a conflict of interest between the people and the Party, the people's interest should override the Party's interests, right?

Second, Chairman Mao once said, democracy, and only democracy, is the way to get out of the cycle of rising and falling dynasties. The Chinese Communist Party has repeatedly pledged to strengthen the building of socialist democracy and rule of law. In my humble opinion, everything needs a good plan in order to be well executed. For example, we have developed a "three-step strategy" for China's economy. We also need strategic planning for the building of democracy and rule of law. When will this plan be introduced?

I don't think Mr Hu has waded into the discussion. Perhaps he's a bit busy this week.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Living Life to the Sax

In Hou Hai we heard many different kinds of music.

At first there was a small group of Chinese musicians and a singer performing Peking opera songs under a tree.

Then further along a man played the bamboo flute.

But the best was Mr Ma.

He was playing 1920s and 1930s songs on his saxophone.

He played so well we asked him to perform another tune. And he eagerly complied.

Not bad for having picked up the instrument over six years ago.

We particularly liked the old school worker uniform complete with sneakers. Very retro.

Capturing Beijing's Past

Kuang Han is a 46-year-old artist who is passionate about hutongs, the narrow alleyways and homes many Beijingers live in.

He does fantastic sketches of them, some in detail of doorways, others impressions of neighbourhoods that recall a simpler time.

We met him this afternoon in Hou Hai and he explained that as a person from Jiangsu Province, he was fascinated by hutongs when he first came to Beijing. He couldn't help but start sketching them and has done so for almost 20 years.

"When I sit there and draw the hutongs, the residents come over and tell me who lives in the house that I'm sketching, and tell me about their lives," he explains. "That inspires me to capture more of them on paper."

He has sketched hundreds of them, often going back to the same area only to see it change. With the demolition of hutongs a hot topic in Beijing these days, Kuang says it's a dilemma. On the one hand he thinks they should be preserved, but on the other knows that these old living areas are not properly equipped with running water and sanitation, making them barely habitable.

What's interesting is that Kuang only uses graphite pencils and paper. "Originally I started painting them in watercolour. But I found that the hutongs are more monochromatic than colour so I turned to using pencils instead. They help me capture the feeling and the gray colour of the hutongs."

In his studio, Kuang uses a graphite pencil and shaves it to create a straight edge like a screwdriver. He uses this pencil to draw broad strokes on the paper. Then he will use a traditional pencil for more detailed work.

His large pieces take over a month to complete and sell for some 180,000RMB (almost US$24,000). He's sold most of his work over the years to both Chinese and foreigners who appreciate his passion for hutongs. When asked how he feels when he sells his pieces, Kuang puts his hand over his heart and replies with a pained look on his face, "tong ku", "it's painful".

But he seems to be doing well with his art. I discovered him through his artwork published on the cover of blank notebooks sold at the Capital Museum gift shop. He has allowed a Hong Kong-based company to print them on notebooks, postcards and bookmarks that are sold in museum giftshops.

When you look at his work, you can easily see the passion and care he takes in capturing the hutongs, a piece of Beijing that hopefully will not be soon forgotten.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Psst! Want to be a Chinese Billionaire?

I've got a business proposition for you.

A friend observed that the bicycles here have no lights, let alone reflectors. Its riders rely on either ringing their bells, using an electronic device that makes a noise or on whistling to get pedestrians to jump out of the way.

And now that it's getting dark earlier and earlier it's hard to see these cyclists trying to do the green thing and pedal home on human power.

It's shocking that the government hasn't decreed by law that people who own bikes should have lights or reflectors -- after all -- less accidents on the road would benefit the economy, right?

So here's the deal: there are some 500 million bicycles in Beijing. And if you can produce some LED lights or reflectors for as little as 2 RMB (US$0.26) each, you can soon become a Chinese billionaire.

The only catch is persuading the relevant officials this is a win-win situation.

Or maybe you can say it's an environmentally-friendly way to create a harmonious society.

Now that's worth spinning.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Sardine Effect

The Chinese should really be in the Guinness Book of World Records for the numbers of people who manage to squish their way onto buses everyday. India is probably their closest rival.

I thought I had already experienced being packed in like sardines. But today was definitely it.

I decided to take a bus route I recently discovered, bus 408 that takes me straight to my gym instead of my having to walk another 10 minutes.

But when the bus arrived, it was already packed and as we tried to cram on, others wouldn't or couldn't budge. The driver told us to go to the back and I managed to squeeze in with the door closing right behind me.

Even though I was holding onto a pole, I didn't really have to -- we kept each other in place by the number of passengers on the bus.

People grumbled about being squished together, but we all knew it was temporary. What was interesting was that everyone tried to help each other out in this tight space.

"Xia ma?" or "Are you getting off?" is a common question on buses and subways. When someone needed to get off, we tried to adjust our bodies so that the person could make his or her way to the door. When they successfully extricated themselves from the vehicle, people would holler to the driver to close the back door so we could continue our journey.

I was pleased to see everyone as civil as possible in this crazy but daily situation. And that made my commute less stressful.

Now if only the municipal transportation department could see we clearly need more buses on the roads so that people don't have to cram onto them. But then again when they're paying 1 RMB (US$0.13) or less for the ride, what do you expect?

The Big Pow Wow

It's been talked about for ages and finally the 17th National Party Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) is underway.

Thousands of delegates representing their communities across the country are gathered in Beijing to discuss China's plans for the next five years.

Political pundits and academics are more interested in the side show of who will succeed President Hu Jintao -- in five years.

It's interesting to hear and read the specific words these officials choose to give hints on where China is going.

Hu's current phrase is "the scientific outlook on development", while his predecessor former President Jiang Zemin's is "Three Represents". These mantras are vague enough to be interpreted in any way and apply to any situation imaginable. However I don't know how "the concept of scientific development" will help the poor unless he has some kind of scientific formula to recalculate a new definition of the underprivileged.

What's also interesting is the current use of the words xiao kang, which means "moderately prosperous society".

It's a modification from former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping's "to get rich is glorious" in the early 1980s.

With many people complaining about the widening income gap between the rich and the poor, perhaps xiao kang is a subtle message for the Chinese to aim for moderate or modest wealth rather than lavish displays of money.

Or perhaps it's a subliminal message to those officials to tone down their corruption activities so that less will have to be punished. Having to dismiss or even execute officials for taking bribes makes the CPC look bad.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Wine and Cheese in a Chinese Vineyard

The Chinese Culture Club is a non-profit group that organizes classes and tours for mostly expatriates looking for a bit more beyond the usual tourist sites.

And yesterday I joined a bus tour to Hebei Province where there is a vineyard and winery. Two hours north west of Beijing, Sino-French Chateau produces grapes used to produce such wines as Great Wall, Dragon Seal and Dynasty. It's a joint effort by the Chinese and French governments after Premier Wen Jiabao visited France in 1997 and wanted to have a winery near Beijing.

While it rained as we left the Chinese capital, blue skies and clean air met us in Huailai County, a rural area with not much around except fields and a relatively underdeveloped town.

Thirty-year-old Zhao Desheng is the vice-general manager and wine maker. He first showed us the distillery where they crush the hand-picked grapes and then put the juice into stainless steel tanks. We just missed the end of the harvest season, which was moved up a few weeks earlier. Global warming may have had something to do with it.

Huailai County is 500 metres above sea level, and the relatively cool climate and well drained soil is considered good for growing grapes.

We then got to try six bottles, two whites, four reds. They ranged from plonk to impressive.

I'll just tell you the ones we liked. The others were hard to drink because they needed to breathe more or just too tart. The 2005 Chardonnay was pale yellow, fruity and smooth. It had a crisp finish.

We also liked the 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon that also went down easy but had a slight tart after taste.

Everyone raved about the 2005 Marselan. It had a deep wine colour, again slightly tart, but very smooth. Marselan is a relatively new grape varietal created by cross-breeding Cabernet Sauvignon with Grenache.

Unfortunately the Chardonnay and Marselan wines were not for sale. Zhao said it was because production levels were very small. Too bad.

While we were tasting, we weren't served any bread or crackers, but Swiss cheese. I guess that's the Chinese impression of what wine tastings are like.

Afterwards we continued the eating and drinking with a simple lunch of cold cuts, sliced cucumber, pate and lots of bread.

Then we wandered through the vineyard and Zhao showed us the grapes for Chardonnay, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir. They had already finished harvesting, but there were a few bunches left on the vines here and there. They were small and very round, with big seeds and plopping them into your mouth, they were like little round bubbles filled with juice.

An older Frenchman on the tour who lives near Chateauneuf du Pape in the Rhone wine region, was very impressed by the winery and inspected everything from the tanks to the grapes.

Zhao also showed us the cellar, a small room above ground with French oak barrels that are apparently 7,000RMB (US$932) each and can only be used for three years. They bottle their wines using cork.

The winery has only been in operation since 1999 so it has a ways to go. But from what we tasted, there is some promise that could lead to more wine than maotai on dining tables.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Many More to Come

Today marks the 300-day countdown to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

And the Beijing Olympic Committee, known as BOCOG issued "countdown products" that include commemorative pins, and precious metal pieces like gold that have the number 300 on them along with the Fuwa characters, the five animals of the Games.

Of course there are only 2,008 of them. So get yours today.

But wait -- there will also be more on sale for the 200, 100 and 10-day countdowns.

The marketing department should also offer ones for the 88 and 8-day countdowns too. Wouldn't those be more auspicious considering the Olympics will be held on the eighth day of the eight month?

On the Line

A few days ago subway Line 5 opened near our office.

Our neighbourhood no longer has to depend on buses or taxis to get around.

Previously I had to take either bus 62 or 119 to Yong He Gong or Andingmen stations respectively, and as a result was at the mercy of the traffic conditions. It could take a good half hour to get to the subway station.

But now, less than 10 minutes' walk away is a subway station, Hui Xin Xi Jie Nan Kou that links to Line 2 in three stops.

And this brand-spanking new subway is reminiscent of Hong Kong's Mass Transit Railway (MTR).

It has glass partitions to prevent people from falling into the tracks; the train is roomy and designed similar to the MTR, including the air cooling system inside; bright lighting; and stops are clearly labelled inside the train and at the platform.

When I took it the other day it wasn't too packed considering it was rush hour after work. But when I transferred to Line 2 THAT train was filled to rafters.

But this new line will change the face of our neighbourhood in time. It's cut at least 15 minutes from my commute from the office to any subway stop. And for some of my colleagues that means 20 minutes more time sleeping in bed.

On top of that subway fares have been cut to 2RMB (US$0.27) from 3RMB (US$0.40).

Unfortunately for me, the new subway line hasn't affected my commute to work as I secretly hoped.

But maybe with more new subway lines starting up in the next few months, perhaps more commuters will see this as a more viable option not only to get to where they want to go, but also help the environment.

I know I'm being idealistic, but I keep hoping.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Bridging the Gap

This year may mark the 10th anniversary of Hong Kong's return to the motherland, but the cultural divide is still a wide one.

One Hong Konger told me when she went to a five-star hotel for a posh culinary event in Beijing, she was surprised to see many of the mainland guests, who had paid 2,000RMB (US$266.30) each were wearing T-shirts and jeans, when she wore a cocktail dress.

Then when they got tired of standing around eating hors d'oerves and drinking wine, they crouched down in the middle of the ballroom. She wanted to tell them if they were tired, they could sit in the chair.

When dinner was served, prepared by Michelin-star chefs, wine was served at the table. And my friend and her fellow diners swished the red wine in their glasses to let it breathe.

A woman at the next table wanted to emulate them, but when she tried to swirling the wine in her glass, it sprayed out all over the table.

I hope no one was wearing white.

Many Hong Kongers try to distance themselves as much as they can from their northern cousins. Some may think this is an arrogant attitude, while others say the differences are so great, the chances of fully integrating culturally is next to impossible.

However, money talks and no one in the Special Administrative Region can deny that China calls the shots when it comes to the Hong Kong economy.

Hopefully someone will teach them how to swirl wine in a glass properly and wear proper attire to high-class events soon. It's in everyone's best interests.

The Wealth of Love

We spotted this Maserati in the parking lot of the International Finance Centre.

What caught our eye was the license plate: IOU.

Then my uncle told me that he recently read in the newspaper that this particular plate was auctioned off for some HK$800,000 (US$103,183).

A father-in-law bought the car and plate for his daughter-in-law for giving him a granddaughter.

And you thought the reward of motherhood was unconditional love.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Sushi Merry-Go-Round

As soon as my aunt and uncle picked me up from the Airport Express in Hong Kong, they asked me what I was craving for. My immediate answer was sushi.

There are a few Japanese restaurants in Beijing, but I don't quite trust their standards in handling raw fish. So to err on the side of caution, I waited until going to Hong Kong to fill up on sushi and sashimi.

And they took me to a very popular place in the International Finance Centre, or IFC . If you get there too late, you have to wait for a while. It's best to go just before the lunch and dinner rush.

It's called sen-ryo and it's actually a kind of bar serving conveyor-belt sushi. On one side are chairs facing the conveyor belt like a sushi bar, and on the other side are small booths. Ideally it's best to sit in a booth so that you can have private conversations, otherwise everyone can eavesdrop on what you're saying.

At every booth and at the bar, there are black round containers that have matcha, or green tea powder. Put a small scoop in your cup and then add water from a hot water dispenser right in front of you. There's a wooden box filled with thin slices of ginger, as well as bottles of soy and a small ceramic pot with fresh wasabi in it.

Then the dining begins by choosing small plates off the conveyor belt. They range from tuna maki rolls, to California ones, sushi with either raw or cooked prawns, unagi, octopus, and eel. And of course there's sashimi, like salmon and tuna. You can even get cooked king crab legs. There's even sardine sushi topped with some spring onion to cut the smell, and small chunks of fish liver and rice wrapped with seaweed.

They are served on small plates with two pieces each, six for maki rolls. So if you're still hankering for more of what you just ate, there's more coming down the line again.

But that's not all. There's other things you can order on the menu too, including a small variety of miso-based soups, including salmon and clam, both very delicious, particularly the salmon one which was sweet in flavour.

For dessert there's green tea, red bean and black sesame ice creams, but both times I went there I didn't have enough room for it.

The bill is calculated by the number of plates stacked up at your table and the colours, from green and gold, silver and pink. On the whole it's quite reasonably priced considering most of the dining experience is do-it-yourself.

While it's definitely worth the wait, it's best to go early so your tummy isn't growling for too long.

Shop 3099-3100
Podium 3
Two International Finance Centre
(852) 2234-7633

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Standing Tall

Here's a picture of the Legislative Council Building in Central with the Bank of China Building on the left, and tycoon Li Ka-shing's Cheung Kong Building on the right. These two giant skyscrapers also tower over the old Bank of China Building on the far right, which now houses the China Club.

This to me is Hong Kong: Old and new, British and Chinese. Each firmly standing their own ground in this ever evolving city.

Hong Kong's Loo Culture

My basic rule of thumb is when I'm out and about, the number one choice is to use hotel bathrooms. And in Hong Kong, with a number of four and five-star hotels around the city, it's easy to ensure a clean, flushing experience.

Shopping malls and restaurants could be on the questionable side, but passable.

I was last in Hong Kong in May. But this time I noticed the bathrooms, particularly in restaurants and shopping malls are worth raving about.

They are very clean, on the verge of spotless to the naked eye. And in many of the stalls there are toilet seat covers and toilet seat cleaners (pictured left). As the diagrams suggest, grab some toilet paper, push the dispenser for this cleaning agent and then proceed to wipe the seat clean.

My relatives from Australia remarked about the cleanliness of the loos when we made a trip to one of them. I explained that after SARS the city is paranoid of catching the virus again and its citizens have become well educated on the need to have good hygiene.

If only this clean culture could be extended to their cousins on the mainland. Most of the toilets in Beijing -- even in high-class restaurants -- are squat. In some ways this can be cleaner, but not when someone using the toilet before you doesn't aim properly.

But a good start would be to get everyone to wash their hands after their business. Even if it's a number one.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The Race to Watch

The showdown is less than two months away and the race is heating up.

On December 2, Hong Kong will have a by-election for the Legislative Councillor seat left vacant by the death of former Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) Chairman Ma Lik.

And the two main candidates in the race are former Chief Secretary Anson Chan, and former Secretary for Security, Regina Ip.

Chan, known as "Hong Kong's conscience", had pondered the possibility of running against Donald Tsang for Chief Executive. She withdrew her name at the last minute and instead set up a think tank, believing this was an effective way of influencing government policy.

But now she says she believes the best way to create change, particularly in pushing for universal suffrage, is to actively participate in the political process.

Her main platform is getting Hong Kong full democracy by 2012, an idea that the mainland is not keen on.

While she probably has the popular vote, having publicly demonstrated in the streets to push for universal suffrage, Beijing doesn't trust her, as she used to work for Hong Kong's last governor, Chris Patten.

And directly at odds with her is Regina Ip. During her tenure as Secretary for Security, Ip tried to pass Article 23, which was supposed to be an anti-subversion law eerily leading towards a policed state.

That was when the first of many July 1 full-scale demonstrations began in 2003, with everyone from children to seniors, and students to professionals, flooded the streets of Hong Kong Island to protest against Ip and then Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa's leadership.

Eventually Tung shelved Article 23 and Ip resigned, licking her wounds by studying a post-graduate degree in California.

But now she hopes to make a political comeback. Ip also promises some kind of democracy, but doesn't elaborate much possibly due to her pro-Beijing stance. However, she is a bit of a wild card too, known for her outbursts and seemingly condescending comments. She once said: "Adolf Hitler was returned by universal suffrage, and he killed 7 million Jews."

While it might seem obvious who the winner will be, locals are saying the race will be too close to call.

Either way the results will determine how much Hong Kongers want universal suffrage. And Beijing will be watching the proceedings closely.

What's interesting is that there's hardly any news about this election race in mainland Chinese media. They probably don't want anyone to get any bright ideas...

Monday, October 8, 2007

Passion in a Dangerous Time

Many of my Hong Kong friends asked me if I had seen Ang Lee's latest movie, Lust, Caution (Se, Jie).

It is currently playing in the city, but won't be released in China until later this month.

And knowing the Chinese censors will be all over the R-rated movie, I made an effort to see the film which recently won the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival.

Set during the Japanese occupation of China during the 1940s, a group of naive college drama students plot to assassinate a Japanese collaborator, played by Tong Leung Chiu-wai. The students, led by Mando-pop singer Wang Leehom put their ingenue, newcomer Tang Wei up to the task of seducing the cautious Mr Yee.

Their relationship is a game of cat and mouse, each daring and luring the other into a more vulnerable state. Some critics complained about the excessive and explicit sex scenes. While I agree the scenes were extensive, in a way they were necessary to describe the progression of their relationship as well as how intense and complex their physical and emotional liaison was.

I loved the fluid mix of Mandarin, Shanghainese, Cantonese and English in the movie, demonstrating how cosmopolitan the well-to-do were during that time.

While a friend of mine complains casting Wang in the movie was wrong because of his Chinese-American face, I still think he was convincing as an idealistic person who is full of determination. Joan Chen was fantastic as the Shanghainese tai tai who is stuck in a life of mahjong and gossip. And Leung's eyes were soulful like a faithful dog. He also looked fit and trim for his bare all scenes.

Best of all is Tang, who makes a dramatic transformation from a plain school girl to playing a sophisticated woman. She has the classic Chinese face found in those advertising posters of that time which is probably why Lee picked her for the role. But also her acting was amazing, evoking a range of emotions from indifference to wild passion.

For me, Lust, Caution is not as good as Brokeback Mountain, but it's definitely up there as a film that makes you think about the roles people play and who is really deceiving whom.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Conspicuous Consumption

During the "Golden Weeks", wealthy mainland Chinese flock to the shopping mecca of Hong Kong and spend their money like there's no tomorrow.

Dressed in their domestically designed threads, they invade designer boutiques like Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Chanel, and Prada. And then they come out triumphant, loaded with shopping bags in each hand.

At the Tod's shop in Pacific Place mall, I saw one man whip out a thick stack of one thousand dollar Hong Kong bills from his pant pocket. And his friend took out his gold-coloured credit card and they proceeded to fight over who was going to pay. I really wanted to ask them to buy me a pair of the Italian shoes.

Macau is also seeing tons of mainlanders going to the casinos and gambling their newly-found riches. I've heard reports that some even boast out loud how much they frittered away on the tables.

What's interesting or scary, depending on how you look at it, is where all this money is coming from. Many think they are laundering it and want to show off how much they can spend.

They know the consequences of acquiring conspicuous wealth through questionable means. But perhaps they figure the chances of being caught are worth the thrill of buying enough Gucci purses, Chanel suits and Louis Vuitton wallets to last more than a lifetime.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Nostalgic for the Good Ol' Days

The last time I was in Hong Kong, people were protesting the shutting down of the Central Star Ferry terminal and moving it further down the street near IFC or International Finance Centre.

The locals were mourning the loss of a Hong Kong institution that was in a fantastic location, right by the Hong Kong Post Office and near the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Central.

So this time when I took the Star Ferry to Tsim Sha Tsui, I had to walk another 10 minutes to the ferry piers where you can take other boats to the outlying islands as well as the Star Ferry.

The ferry terminal is new but is trying to look colonial style which is quite odd. There are flashy store signs jarring with the old clock tower and the old ferries themselves. And to get to the upper deck of the ferry, you have to climb several flights of stairs from street level which is a bit annoying.

If I had known, I would have taken the sky bridge which is connected to the Hong Kong Post Office and taken me directly to the ferry terminal.

Oh well. Live and learn.

But I do miss that old ferry terminal.

And I'm sure millions of others do too.

Almost a Smooth Ride

Yesterday was the start of the week-long National Day holiday in China. According to Xinhua, some 150 million Chinese will be travelling around the country or overseas.

And I joined the crowd, flying to Hong Kong.

I was very worried about hordes of people at the airport so I left my place a bit earlier. The roads were fine... until we got to the toll booth. After that we inched along the highway. I was anxious things would get worse.

But eventually my taxi made it to the airport at the time I had hoped to arrive.

The departure area wasn't as chaotic as I had anticipated, maybe because I was there at 7:30 in the morning. Checking in and passport control went very smoothly with short waits. I was very impressed.

There were lots of airport staff around to help people, from putting small bottles of liquids into plastic sealed bags to directing them to gates or selling merchandise. And they were all pretty much polite and friendly.

At our gate, we had to be transported to the plane on the tarmac and again this was done in an orderly manner too.

Three hours later we landed in Hong Kong after a relatively smooth (and quiet) ride.

So it looks like Beijing Capital Airport is capable of handling big crowds... probably a practice run for next year.

If only they could do something about the traffic to the airport. But then again the airport train is almost completed and that could alleviate the congestion.