Friday, November 30, 2007

Here we go Again

The Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee (BOCOG) announced details of how the second round of 2008 Games tickets would be distributed.

On October 30, the system crashed due to the first-come-first-served basis online and in Bank of China (BOC) branches. Red-faced officials had to deal with an angry and frustrated public when ticket sales were suspended.

Days later, the Olympic ticketing centre issued an apology. The then director, Rong Jun even stood up and bowed to the media during a press conference.

Today the new director made his appearance. Zhu Yan explained that due to public comments, the ticketing centre is now reverting back to the lottery system for some 1.8 million tickets, and taking applications from December 10 to 30. Ticket requests can either be made online or at 1,000 designated BOC branches.

However, each applicant can only make requests for up to "two competitive game sessions", getting up to four tickets each. That means the maximum number of tickets each person can ask for is eight.

It's a definite drop from the original 50 in the ill-fated first-come-first-served policy. A BBC reporter asked if it was because officials were concerned about people selling their tickets to make a profit. Zhu replied that while it was a concern, their main aim was to make more tickets available to more people.

He also couldn't promise the seats would be together, and that children two and under didn't need a ticket.

Another asked if it was possible to find out which events were already sold out. Zhu stopped short of naming specific events, even saying that high demand events had a few seats left. He promised information would be made available on the website, without giving a time frame.

The director added that the public was so enthusiastic about the Olympics and that they should also support the less popular sporting events. That way they could have a high chance of getting tickets.

It was a big hint that BOCOG needs more bums on seats.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Still in Denial

Today the Ministry of Health released its report on the HIV/AIDS epidemic in China, two days before World AIDS Day on December 1.

It says there were 223,501 registered cases by the end of October this year, 50,000 of which are new cases. Some 62,838 have full-blown AIDS.

However, according to an estimate by the health ministry, the World Health Organization and UNAIDS, there could be as many as 700,000 people in China infected with the deadly virus by the end of 2007.

The report claims there's such a big discrepancy because people are reluctant to come forward and get treatment.

That's because if they want treatment, they have to identify themselves, which easily makes them a pariah. Due to lack of education, others don't want to have anything to do with them and for some, the lack of social networks is worse than death.

The Chinese government claims it will step up efforts to educate groups like homosexuals, migrant workers and drug users. It has also promised to provide anonymous testing, free treatment for the poor and ban discrimination on those with the virus. But the situation hasn't changed much.

Xiao Dong, a gay AIDS activist in Beijing, is still struggling to do his grassroots work. He and his group go out to gay bars and hand out free condoms and talk to people about HIV/AIDS and how to practice safe sex.

He and his seven-member team only get 14,000 RMB (US$1,896) a year from the government. Xiao and his friends have shelled out 110,000 RMB (US$14,900) of their own money to keep their organization going.

So, if the government really wants to get tough on fighting HIV/AIDS, it really should be doling out funds to grass roots groups like Xiao's. They're the ones who are really out there pounding the pavement and reaching out to a sector of the population that is vulnerable to the virus.

The government also needs to change its attitude about HIV/AIDS so that more people won't be afraid to get the help they need.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Who's Cuter?

The mascots for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games were unveiled yesterday.

And the trio are, from left to right: Sumi, an animal spirit, Quatchi, a sasquatch, and Miga, a sea bear. Strange, but true.

Miga is a combination of an orca or killer whale and the "spirit" or Kermode bear. Quatchi is a big furry animal that a few people claim they have spotted, but have yet to prove the "big foot's" existence. And then Sumi is a mix of an orca and thunderbird, the mascot for the Paralympics.

They look.... Japanese. Not that that's a complaint. It's just an observation.

My colleague thinks they look much better than the Beijing Olympic mascots, called Fuwa. "We have five. That's too many. And Vancouver's look like real animals," she said.

She's not a big fan of Bei Bei, Jing Jing, Huan Huan, Ying Ying, Ni Ni. She'd rather just have the panda as the official animal of the Games.

With the 2008 Olympics still 253 days away, it looks like she'll be stuck with the Fuwa for a while yet.

Where's the Polisher Part 2

After work I went to Ito Yokado, a Japanese department store near my home.

It's great for staples, especially homeware and basic clothing. By the way I got my humidifier there. Originally I was set on buying one that was 100 RMB (US$13.52). But then a woman selling a different brand of humidifiers managed to persuade me to buy a more expensive one. What sold me was that it had a water filter in it. Originally it was 238 RMB, but she sold it to me for 206 RMB.

She said the filter was good for two years. And then what? I asked. Can I buy another filter here? No, she replied. Oh. Maybe by then I'm supposed to want another humidifier.

Then I headed to the basement where the supermarket is. And there was a stack of these biscuits on sale.

It literally says putao jia ceng bing or literally "grape press on both sides layer cake".

But as you can see from the picture, it's not grape, but raisins. I guess there's no word for dried grapes.

I didn't buy a pack, but they probably taste good.

Campus Life

At the University of International Business and Economics, I came across these hot water thermos.

It seemed like they were standing around waiting for their owners to collect them.

At the university there isn't any hot water in the dorms. Students have to carry these thermos to a place that has automatic dispensers. And it's not free either.

For showers, they have to carry their toiletries with them to the men's and women's shower stalls. In the summer it's OK to waddle around in a T-shirt, shorts and flip flops. But I can imagine it's a drag to have to bundle up to go take a shower and then bundle up again to go back to the dorm.

And I thought I had hot water problems.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Cheap Thrill

Public transit, especially during rush hour can create intense physical intimacy without taking your clothes off.

I wrote before about feeling flattened like a pancake on the bus home. But today was even better.

I crammed myself onto the back of the #408 bus and thought the doors would close behind me. But a man pushed me further into the bus so that he could squeeze in too. Until the next stop, I was arching my back as some women's shoulders were jutting out in front of me and the man behind me didn't give me much breathing room either. Too bad I wasn't enjoying the moment so much.

Some people got off at the next stop, but even then the bus was still packed until my stop.

Thankfully, everyone was wearing thick winter coats so we were all practicing safe intimacy.

But with the flu bug going around, a few people were coughing which was a bit unnerving.

Public transit is cheap (US$0.14) which is great especially for people with low income levels. But with the crowded buses, you can't blame others who have the means to buy cars.

Apparently there are some 1,000 new cars on the road each month and earlier this summer we hit three million already.

The government is trying to get people more environmentally conscious and take public transit. But at the same time it has a major stake in the car industry and encourages people to buy these vehicles.

While there is no easy solution, perhaps taking cars off the road and putting on more buses would help us all enjoy our commutes more and do our bit to save the planet. It just depends on the will of the government. And unfortunately, it doesn't look like its heart is going green anytime soon.

Whatever happened to a green Olympics? Or is that only for two weeks in August?

Monday, November 26, 2007

Hacking Our Throats

Many of us are coughing in the office.

I recently had the flu and now still have a lingering cough. Others are hacking away perhaps getting over their colds.

One theory for the irritated throat is that since the heat was officially turned on on November 15, the warm air has sucked all the moisture out of the air, making it drier than usual. Oh yes and the pollution is accumulating in the air, with no chance of precipitation in sight.

I've resorted to drinking lots of chrysanthemum tea, while one colleague has installed a humidifier on her desk (in the shape of a blue elephant so the mist sprays out of its trunk), and occasionally spritzing her face.

"My skin feel so dry," she complains. Gotta keep that complexion fresh somehow I guess.

A foreign expert who has been here for a shorter time than me claims he has a lung infection. He used to be a smoker and explained that he now feels as if he were lighting up again. He sounds like he has a stuffed up nose rather than a sore throat.

Another foreigner tells me he has coughing fits at night keeping him up until two or three in the morning. Other than the coughing he doesn't think he's sick. And yes it only happened recently.

I think I may break down and buy a humidifier for my home. For now I have the dual purpose method -- since I have to hang up my laundry to dry, I put the damp clothes in my bedroom in the evening and presto! The next morning they're all dry.

But I don't think the blue elephant is for me.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Foreign Devils

Foreigners in China, or Beijing at least have a strange existence here.

In some cases, they are reluctantly welcomed for their superior English skills and in others they come here to set up their company's office.

And overall most of their expat packages are several times more than the average Beijinger. Foreigners' benefits can include things like housing, car and driver, ai yi (maid or housekeeper), a return ticket home, and health insurance.

So it's no wonder many locals resent expats coming in, costing their companies a lot of money, or getting perks they can only dream about.

But at the same time, there are some foreigners like myself who are interested in getting to know the Chinese better, at least beyond the work environment. But many of my colleagues are in a rush as they have a long commute, or they need to save money and eat dinner at home.

One expat friend told me today that the locals in his state-owned company were so annoyed by the number of holidays the foreigners were entitled to, that management decided to cut the days down to avoid more resentment. But this only brewed more furor on the expat end.

While it's true my friend and my salaries are considered high, they are no means exorbitant. By Chinese standards we live quite well. He even has an ai yi clean his apartment, wash his clothes and iron his shirts every week.

But at the same time, we're taking major pay cuts compared to North American standards -- I'm making a third of my previous job's salary.

Everything's relative, but in the end I wish the locals would understand that some of us aren't here to be obnoxious expats, but to witness the changes China is undergoing and try to make sense of it all first hand.

We're trying to bridge the gap, not exacerbate it.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Duly Noted

The Donald paid his annual visit to Beijing this week.

Donald Tsang, Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region gave a status report to both President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao separately.

The Chief Executive of Macau, Edmond Ho, also briefed the two senior leaders.

Tsang outlined his plans for Hong Kong in the next five years, told them the outcome of the recent district council election (the Pro-Beijing camp won), and the progress on constitutional reform.

In front of the cameras, Hu praised the bow-tied leader for developing the city's economy, improving people's livelihoods and raising the level of democracy. It's not clear exactly what kind of democracy he's referring to.

An interesting observation is I have never seen a senior leader whip out a notepad and pen to take notes until Tsang did yesterday. Most people would think his assistants would do the dictation for him. Or have an MP3 player recording the conversation.

But from the news footage, it looks like Tsang wants to make sure he's got the leader's words down correctly for his own records.

Or maybe he's writing down a shopping list of things to get at the Silk Market?

Friday, November 23, 2007

The Unharmonious Society

At my office, my colleagues on the whole seem to be a tight group.

They do lots of group activities, like play volleyball, basketball, go on company-organized outings and eat in the canteen together.

Everything's fine when everyone does his or her job. Nothing more, nothing less.

But once someone aspires for more or has an opportunity to get ahead, friendliness turns to hatred.

One of my coworkers is going to the United States in the next few weeks to get his Masters in mechanical engineering.

But he hasn't told anyone except me.

He told me that when other people resigned from the company, the ones left behind were very angry, jealous that others had a chance to get another job or go abroad to study. They were hardly supportive or inspired to work hard or try something new.

And he's worried the same will happen to him if word gets out.

He has told the company he's visiting his father in the US which is true.

But after a while, people are going to wonder why he isn't back. He naively hopes they'll forget about him so that they won't hate him.

So while President Hu Jintao keeps saying the mantra "harmonious society", repeating it over and over again doesn't have the desired effect.

They've become empty words in a place where people don't want their social order to change, unless it benefits them.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Bullish for More

The European Union Chamber of Commerce says its members are overall optimistic about doing business in China, but want a more level playing field.

That's according to their European Chamber Business Confidence Survey 2007 in which they questioned over 200 enterprises, large, medium and small.

The main message, according to the chamber president Joerg Wuttke, was that European companies are doing well in China, but they could be doing better.

He stressed the enterprises here are not producing goods and services for export, but for the China market. This explained why many had a strong focus on research and development.

"Investment is expanding," Wuttke explained. "It's bullish with companies expanding beyond first tier cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou to second and third tier cities."

While more companies are profitable, the amount was less than last year.

He then went on to describe the challenges European companies are facing.

One major problem was recruiting and retaining staff, leading to higher costs. Wuttke said in the case of engineers, while there are 350,000 graduates in this field every year, not many can speak European languages. On top of that, Chinese universities don't offer much practical training so many fresh grads don't have the work experience necessary to get hired. As a result the ones that have these two skills can pick and choose where they want to work.

Another was that more than half of the companies surveyed were negative about the implementation of the World Trade Organization (WTO) pact. They claim they are still waiting for a level playing field to happen. Another irritant is the lack of transparency on the part of the Chinese government. This makes it difficult for these enterprises to plan their strategy or even be clear about regulations that sometimes change without reason.

Companies were also concerned about intellectual property rights (IPR), claiming the business environment hasn't improved much in this area. Wuttke says the EU Chamber is hopeful for a better legal system that specializes in things like copyright and environmental laws and higher penalties are enforced.

On the whole, Wuttke says European enterprises are seeing stiffer competition from Chinese ones, as the latter are starting to produce goods similar in standard to European ones. While the EU companies may not like this trend, it's benefiting the consumer in the end. Which is why the EU Chamber is pushing for more industry sectors to open up as well as revaluating the renminbi.

It looks like Wuttke is lobbying both Chinese and European officials hard. But with the slow pace China moves on trade policies, he may have to be a bit more patient to see his wish list of things to come true.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Literary Darling

This is 10-year-old Adora Svitak. She's American-Chinese, her mother originally from Sichuan Province, and her father's family from the Czech Republic.

Svitak is already a published author with Flying Fingers, a compilation of her stories that she launched in Vietnam recently.

The bright girl started writing almost six years ago, putting pencil to paper, but her output of stories increased exponentially after she got a laptop and began typing up to 60 words a minute.

Seattle television station Komo 4 did a story on her and then she was soon on the interview circuit with Diane Sawyer and Oprah Winfrey.

And in all her interviews, Svitak is poised, very mature, and easily comes up with an answer for every question.

She obviously loves reading and writing, having read some 2,000 books and could practically write non-stop, using everything around her as inspiration. And she tries to spread her passion to other children, even carrying a power point presentation on her sticker-covered laptop to teach kids how to write.

Her mother Joyce is anxious for her child to get as much exposure as possible. She explained Svitak raised US$30,000 in Vietnam for needy children to buy books and her daughter was written about in all the newspapers there.

What's also interesting is that this morning Svitak and her mom paid a visit to New Oriental, a Chinese company that specializes in teaching English. They are currently in talks to possibly use the literary prodigy's teaching methods.

So while the girl from Redmond, Washington may claim she's basically an ordinary kid, she has big ambitions -- to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Her publicity campaign has already started.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Searching for Shangri-La

I just finished watching a documentary called Searching for Shangri-La. It's about American Laurence J Brahm, an old China hand who goes on a physical and spiritual journey looking for the Shangri-La James Hilton described in his book Lost Horizon.

Hilton describes a place where buildings with golden rooftops reach the heavens and Brahm goes in search of this destination, wondering if it's a figment of Hiltons' imagination or reality.

Most of the movie feels like an ego-driven one, as there are numerous shots of Brahm trying to look deep in thought, or showing off his fluency in Putonghua. And just in case we've forgotten who this white guy is, his name comes up periodically along with the other people he interviews.

But at the same time it's a road trip where he travels through Tibet, Sichuan, Yunnan, Lijiang and Zhongdian and meets artists, musicians, Buddhist monks and nomads.

He asks them all where Shangri-la is. And many of them say it's in your heart, when you have renounced materialism, meditate and drink yak butter tea.

The film also goes off on a tangent about how people in the West look for a spiritual answer and they get inspiration from the East, modify it or modernize it to make it seem New Age. They cite examples of music, saying Enigma's break out song Sadeness is actually based on Tibetan chants. They say this style of music evolved because sheep herders were usually alone with the animals with no one to talk to all day so they sang to fill the expansive land.

They also talk about how Westerners think meditating everyday will lead to enlightenment when they live in cities that are hardly spiritual. Chinese artists try to find places that aren't "polluted" so that they can freely find themselves and their art. That's why they drift to more remote areas free from distractions.

By the end of the documentary there is no real resolution or conclusion so the viewer is left wondering what the whole point of this film is.

So for the record, Shangri-la is where you are, and what you make of it. Sounds like the Eastern version of searching for the meaning of life.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Fighting Against Violence

This coming Sunday is the international day for the Eradication of Violence Against Women.

And already the Chinese media are gearing up to trumpet the country's efforts in dealing with this issue.

However the numbers are frightening. According to statistics from the All-China Women's Federation, some 35 per cent of China's 270 million families have reported domestic violence. And what is interesting to note is that urban areas are reporting as many cases as the countryside. There are incidents involving all income and education levels, and mostly result in beatings, burned by cigarettes, disfigured by acid and sexual assault.

The government is changing the marriage law and the law on the rights of women to include domestic violence; and the police are more accountable for helping those in distress. However, what really needs to be done is putting laws in place that make it easier for perpetrators to be convicted and for victims to get the social services they need.

Right now the government allows NGOs to set up women's shelters across the country. But more hotlines need to be set up and make women aware of these services so that they know where to go.

The biggest obstacle is the cultural problem of not wanting to make family strife public, which is why many women still endure the abuse. But they need to know that their mental and physical scars aren't worth saving face.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Sowing the Seeds of Hope

Dr Jane Goodall has arrived in Beijing for a week-long visit to China.

Known for her ground-breaking research on chimpanzees in Tanzania, Goodall now travels the world some 300 days a year, spreading the word about environmental and animal conservation.

And she specifically focuses her message on young people, which led to the establishment of Roots & Shoots, an education program in 1991. There are now more than 800 of them in 98 countries, with over 300 R&S in China.

Some of these groups, ranging from elementary, secondary and university students came from Shanghai, Dalian and Tianjin as well as Beijing to show Goodall their environmental projects.

They ranged from planting trees in Inner Mongolia, to conserving rain water, feeding bears in a zoo with a pinata filled with fruit, and making crafts out of aluminum cans.

The famous scientist was dressed warmly in a large red coat and her silvery hair tied back loosely in a clip. When she arrived at Beijing City International School Goodall received applause from the students and they practically mobbed her, trying to take pictures and getting her to autograph pieces of paper.

She handled the attention quite well, and visited each of the booths and praised the students for their work.

The event then moved to the theatre where she gave a speech encouraging the audience to continue their conservation efforts as they are the next generation.

She said they were like roots and shoots, like the name of her program, growing and taking root and then breaking through tough barriers to grow.

Then she told a story about a chimpanzee who was taken from his mother when she was shot dead. He was nicknamed "Old Man" after enduring 15 years of tests scientists conducted on him.

He was left to retire in a zoo on an island with three other female chimpanzees. A zoo keeper called Mark was to look after them but was warned not to get too close because they didn't like humans.

So he fed them by throwing food at them. He later noticed they got excited and hugged each other when he rowed the boat towards them. So Mark gradually brought his boat closer and closer to them until he could hand a banana to the Old Man.

He then stepped onto the island and nothing happened to him. Later on, he and Old Man made physical contact, grooming each other.

Old Man even had a baby chimpanzee with one of the females.

One day Mark was on the island but he tripped and fell on his face near the baby. The mother was horrified and came to rescue it, but not before biting Mark on the neck, thinking he wanted to harm her child. The other females followed her lead, also biting him on the leg and arm.

When Old Man came, Mark thought the chimpanzee would surely kill him. Instead the animal pushed the three females away so that the zoo keeper could get off the island and row back to safety.

Goodall said that if a chimpanzee, after all the years he was treated badly by humans, could bridge the gap and look after a man, we humans who are even more intelligent, should do the same, if not better.

It was a message that resonated with the audience and hopefully that will spur them on to continue their green efforts.

But the fight for funding, especially non-profit organizations in China is tough. Only foreign companies step up to the plate and make contributions as there's no such thing as tax breaks for charitable donations. Non-profits do get some donations in kind by local companies, but those are few and far between.

The Chinese government is looking at creating a charity law. But this needs to be established soon, otherwise the momentum for non-profits like Goodall's will quickly fade when in fact they're making a huge impression on young people who are eager to make a difference.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The X Factor

The other day my colleague and I went to the Silk Market to buy a few things to take home. He wanted to buy some fake designer wallets and I needed to get some polo shirts.

We went to a stall with a good selection of wallets and he promptly tried to charm the staff with all the Chinese he knew. He then told her which company he worked for, hoping that by telling her he lived here, she couldn't rip him off.

But she thought he had an expatriate salary.

She punched in the number 30,000 in her calculator saying she thought this was the amount he made each month.

We had to laugh because we work for a local company, and she assumed that all expats had fat bank accounts.

But we had to really work hard to explain to her that no way did we make that much -- not even our two salaries put together would even come close to that amount. Whether she believed us or not wasn't clear.

If we did make that huge number, would we be shopping for knock-offs at the Silk Market?

The X factor was brought up again when I had coffee with a local friend today. She told me she knew some foreigners and met their circle of friends.

"They think they are so superior to us," she said indignantly. "They are treated here like kings and they think they are so great compared to us."

I had to tell her that I couldn't stand these people either. I explained some of them aren't particularly smart -- their companies need someone here so they offer to go or just end up here. And their expat packages are so large, and the cost of living in China so low, that they really do feel like they are royalty and it all goes to their heads. They have no concept or have no interest in the average person's life in Beijing or care to even learn Chinese.

Many live in houses -- just like suburbia USA -- just outside Beijing, and never really have to come in contact with the Chinese. It's a weird existence, but it fulfills their shallow needs.

These expats are giving the other ones -- like me -- a bad rap.

And the Chinese, like the staff at the Silk Market will continue to hold onto stereotypes of expats here. It's a huge gap that might never be bridged.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Splashing Out at Blu Lobster

With a milestone birthday coming up and a colleague leaving, I thought it was apt to celebrate in style.

I'd read some rave reviews about Blu Lobster at the Shangri-La and had to try it.

And it definitely was a meal to remember.

The restaurant is on the ground floor, but for a Friday night it was quiet. Once you walk in, the stunning cascade of hanging glass pieces lit by blue and yellow lights is impressive.

We sat pretty much in the middle of the restaurant with a dining table inside the wine cellar and private room off to the side.

Once we sat down, we were offered Veuve Cliquot Champagne to start.

The six-course tasting menu (700 RMB or US$94.30) is definitely worth trying. And once we ordered, the culinary journey began.

It started with an amuse bouche trio of watermelon gazpacho in a test tube, with hints of garlic and onion; a cracker with a sculpted dollop of foie gras topped with chopped nuts; and raw oyster with a passion fruit mousse.

We were also served a basket of bread - white, wheat and spice bread, which was dark brown. The bread could be dipped in olive oil, rock salt, an aubergine paste in olive oil, and a pumpkin spread. The spice bread was on the crumbly side, and had a subtle spiced flavour.

Our first course was a salad that the server explained was made with 42 ingredients. I don't know what all of them were, but it definitely included mixed greens, edible flowers, cubes of aspic, watermelon, tomato, and beet. The salad also had an egg that was poached perfectly -- just slightly runny.

The next course spiced things up with a lobster risotto with fresh chilli, a spoonful of avocado ice cream and coconut bubbles. Really! We had to mix the frothy white and light sauce with everything in the bowl. There was also a piece of lobster tempura. For me, the risotto was on the spicy side, and our server should have asked us if we had any dietary concerns. Nevertheless it was still an intriguing combination.

This followed with a plate that consisted of a slab of fresh foie gras, braised eel and three thin slices of toast. It was a strange mix and we ended up eating the eel separately from the foie gras.

We were now half way through our meal, and to cleanse our palates, we were served martini glasses filled with star anise rum jelly cubes with dried and iced pineapple covered in coconut milk. The small rum cubes were delicious and the dried pineapple was a wonderful contrast to the smooth jelly and coconut milk.

New Zealand lamb was next and unfortunately was slightly overcooked. But the meat was tender and filling, along with the ravioli -- more like a pastry, filled with spinach and a Spanish egg yolk.

And if that wasn't enough to fill you up, two desserts followed. The first was visually stimulating. The server filled a glass of dry ice with coconut milk (there's a theme here), which bubbled over onto a dollop of white pepper ice cream and a frozen square of ripe mango covered in pastry. The pepper ice cream was delicious, not sweet and a toned down pepper flavour.

The other dessert was a playful finish that literally burst in your mouth. A small slab of chocolate mousse made with a coffee blend was accompanied by shavings of chocolate and frizzy candy. When you put the candy in your mouth it was literally tingling inside and made fizzy noises. So not only was there a play on textures, the smooth chocolate mousse and the crunchy candy, but also sound too. It made us feel like kids again, eating candy we'd just bought from the grocery store.

The staff also prepared a birthday cake for me and came over to sing Happy Birthday in Chinese.

And time flew by -- our dinner was three and a half hours long, but it didn't feel like it at all. The amazing food, engaging conversation and sophisticated atmosphere were the perfect ingredients for a memorable meal.

Blu Lobster
29 Zizhuyuan Road
6841 2211

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Keeping the Chills Away

Beijing is definitely getting colder, hovering between 2-10 degrees Celsius.

And this is only the beginning.

I'm bundling up just to go outside - and that means wearing a long sleeve long john top, long sleeve shirt, sweater, padded vest, scarf and coat.

The long john bottoms are ready to go on at a moment's notice.

I still need to get a long coat, preferably down to my knees, and some warm gloves. I may be able to survive without a pair of boots. Oh yes, and a hat to keep my brain from freezing.

Today I went to the China-Japan Friendship Hospital to get a flu shot. It was organized by my office after I complained other staff got it and I, their foreign expert, wasn't offered the jab.

The hospital is actually a series of buildings, one for teaching, one for pediatrics, emergency, surgery, and so on. And of course all the building signs are in Chinese so it was a bit of a struggle for me to find the immunization clinic.

At first a young girl in a traditional nurse uniform complete with the paper hat told me the clinic was on the ground floor and go north. So I went down stairs and headed north but that was the emergency ward.

I asked a security guard and he told me to go out of the building we were in, head north and then after that I didn't really understand what he said. I wandered out and headed in the right direction, but again there were several buildings in front of me. I picked one where I saw a few people coming in and out. And then I saw the characters matched the ones on my piece of paper. Bingo.

In the hallway I saw at least a dozen anxious parents with their babies bundled up probably waiting for some shots or a check up. I thought I was supposed to be in that line, but was told to go to another room where two women in uniform sat at two desks.

I showed them my piece of paper, telling them my company sent me. The first woman copied my name (which was spelled wrong on the paper) into a book and then asked me to sign my name on some form of which I was given a copy. I have no idea what it says.

She asked me if I had a fever, but I did say I just got over a flu. Oh that's fine, she said. Just checking.

Then, in front of everyone, I basically had to strip half way so that the other nurse could have access to my upper arm and give me the jab. I barely felt it and instead of giving me a cotton swab, she gave me a cheap Q-tip to press on my arm for a minute before putting my clothes back on again.

So hopefully I've done almost everything I can to keep warm and healthy for the next few months....

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Rocking in Beijing

The Chinese capital has an eclectic music scene.

You can hear everything from country and jazz to rock, 80's pop, covers and metal. Lots of metal.

And there's several foreigners who play with Chinese bands, but few purely expat bands.

One of them is Shake Hands with Danger and they're pretty good.

They only started up five months ago and mostly play at a bar near the university district in the northwest side of the city.

The band was started up by two guys from the China Daily newspaper and they found a keyboardist and drummer.

Most of their music is pretty dark, talking about war and gunfights. They say their main inspiration comes from the Sharon Stone movie The Quick and the Dead.

But the band's sound is great. It's loud, but it's definitely head nodding music, with a few catchy tunes.

Although they play to a mostly university crowd, they do wonder at times if their lyrics are getting through to their audience.

The lead singer, Ben Davey, definitely had the "frontman" look, with the white shirt, skinny black tie, fitted jacket and cigarette black jeans. Oh and don't forget the pointed cowboy boots.

He jokes that he gets mistaken as a bad version of Corey Haim, but if Shake Hands with Danger sticks around Beijing long enough, he might get a gaggle of girls running after him down the street recognizing him for his musical looks.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Got any Bright Ideas?

In his address to the 17th National Party Congress of the Communist Party of China, President Hu Jintao urged his people to move forward in innovation.

He mentioned the fields of science, technology and medicine, as well as business. The Chinese leader wants the country to be an innovator, not a follower. It echoes the development path of Japan, Taiwan and Korea.

But in order to encourage and stimulate new ideas, free thinking should be encouraged early on, instead of forcing children to conform to the status quo. And at the office, top-down management is prevalent here. It's the boss who has the 'creative' ideas which he assigns his underlings to execute.

And the staff aren't allowed to question or suggest something different. They must do what they are told.

It's not exactly a nurturing environment.

And that's why many of my colleagues find work a bore. They just want to get their tasks done and get out of the office.

Which begs the question: How can innovation happen when creativity isn't the order of the day?

Monday, November 12, 2007

Toilet Training

Although China may be building modern skyscrapers, colossal dams, churning out fancy cars and five-star hotels, its people still use squat toilets.

Even a swanky local restaurant will have holes in the floor for its wealthy patrons to squat over.

And my office, a modern building has these toilets too.

Fine, I can deal with that. I have my own strategy of going to the bathroom.

First I make sure it has toilet paper. If not, I go back to my desk and grab some tissues.

Next I roll up my pant legs and make sure every piece of clothing and footwear is out of splashing distance.

Then I aim (the best I can) into the hole.

Every once in a while, there's a bit of a splash on the floor and I clean that up.

But lately, someone in the office has been making a mess on the floor. Today there was a giant puddle no where near the toilet and the culprit didn't even bother to try and wipe it up.

There is staff who come by periodically through the day to mop up the bathroom floor, but this latest episode was late in the day and the cleaning staff had left.

I don't understand why this person is making a mess when they've had years to perfect the art of squatting. Even I'm not a seasoned one and have yet to make a puddle like the one I saw this afternoon.

But more importantly, why don't they wipe up their own mess? Or are they one of these only kids or 'child emperors' whose parents always cleaned up after them?

Sunday, November 11, 2007

CCTV Update

I passed by the new CCTV building this afternoon. The sky was "foggy", but more like smoggy.

The construction crew are in the process of connecting the two slanted towers together at the top in an angle, and it's almost complete.

It's a crazy building and I wonder how functional it really is. But I have to give them points for eye-catching. It's definitely a looker.

Singles Day

Most of the Western world is remembering their war dead today, November 11.

But in China, they're celebrating another day -- Singles Day.

That's because if you look at it in Roman numerals, it's 1111.

I don't know what you're supposed to do for Singles Day except that I would think it's a sad way to recognize those who don't have a significant other.

There are some articles in the media meant to cheer up those who aren't coupled yet by listing the benefits of being single.

This is a society that pushes young people in their early 20s to get married so that their parents can have grandchildren as soon as possible. Women in their 30s who still aren't married are labelled spinsters.

Having Valentine's Day and Chinese Valentine's Day is already bad enough. We don't need Singles Day to remind us that we're singletons. Unless you're going to give us tax breaks or throw us a party, forget it.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Vocal Self-Expression

Going to KTV or karaoke is not my thing for a past time, but for many young Chinese it's something they don't mind splurging their meagre salaries on periodically.

I didn't understand why they liked cramming into a small windowless room, and sit there for hours listening to others sing or croon themselves.

But I do now.

Watching my colleagues last night, many of them sprang into life, revealing another side of them I hadn't seen before. Shy or quiet people suddenly burst out into shouts or singing along loudly. Closet singers became stage performers with amazing voices.

For them this was their brief moment in the spotlight and admired by their friends.

Most of these twenty-somethings live at home and their apartments are too small to have this kind of entertainment. Perhaps their parents find this frivolous. Others room with one or a few other people and need to escape their matchbox-sized rooms.

At work, they are told to obey the boss and do whatever he tells them to do. Many don't look happy in the office, just trying to complete their workload for the day, the week, and then live for the weekend.

So KTV for them is the best and most cost-effective way to spend an evening. They can eat and drink as much as they want and sing their hearts out, perform their favourite singer's songs and have a few laughs.

In a way it's a sad state of affairs when young people pay to have fun in a small room. But KTV gives them an outlet in empowering them to express themselves any damn way they please.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Friday Night Singalong

I just came back from my first Beijing KTV experience.

And it was quite posh... well sort of.

Near our office on the Fourth Ring Road is a spanking new building called Party World. Once you walk into the lobby it feels like a wannabe four-star hotel, with crystal chandeliers (complete with green trim), a reception desk with glittering tiles on the back wall, leather sofas, marble floors and uniformed staff.

After we "checked-in", we were escorted to the elevator to the fifth floor where our room was for the evening. And almost immediately, most of the group went either to the third or sixth floor to get food cafeteria style (all you can eat), while a few of us stayed behind and warmed up our vocal chords.

Each room has leather sofas, marble tables, a mini stage in the corner with padded leather and three microphones. There's also a private washroom next to your room (complete with urinal and sit-down toilet), and all these controls to either call wait staff or dim the lights. If you wander outside, you can easily get lost in the maze of rooms if you don't remember your room number.

Almost every song imaginable is available on the computer, from Japanese to English, Korean and of course Chinese. It's hard to think of something to sing when you're used to flipping through a song book. But it's neat to see many versions of a tune available and pick the one you're most familiar with.

I then wandered to the sixth floor and was horrified by what I saw. The buffet was basically a free-for-all, and most of the Chinese men were butting in front of me to grab a spoonful of curry or pasta even though I was there first.

There were also food stations and I stood there watching a woman fry eggs when a man came by and demanded, "Are they done yet?" She quickly put the half done over-easy eggs on his plate before he could complain.

What was most frightening was the noodle section. You could choose which raw ingredients you wanted with a selection of noodles in a broth. I was about to order when I watched the female staff put the raw ingredients, like fish balls, meat and noodles in the bowl before transferring them into the individualized hoppers in a boiling vat of stock.

Then when it was ready, she used the SAME bowl to put the cooked food in and handed it to the customer. I was so shocked I lost my appetite and only had a bowl of Chinese-style Russian Borscht and fried rice.

So what looks good on the outside, is not necessarily the same on the inside.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

The Limited World Wide Web

YouTube is back on in China.

For a few weeks, the website joined the list of other blacklisted ones like Wikipedia, BBC and any non-Chinese blogs, such as my own.

There's debate as to why YouTube was blocked.

It happened around the time of the 17th National Party Congress of the Communist Party of China. And some theorize that because the CPC was worried there would be leaks of who would be in the running for President Hu Jintao's job in five years' time, that access was denied.

Others hypothesize this occurred when the Dalai Lama was in Washington to receive the Congressional Gold Medal -- America's highest honour to civilians. They believe there were clips of the Tibetan spiritual leader on YouTube and didn't want the Chinese population to see it, over and over again.

Another theory is that the Chinese version of YouTube was launched in the summer and by blocking the original site, more traffic would go to the domestic one, artificially boosting hits.

But I just discovered that a few days ago YouTube was back on ... as mysteriously as it was blocked.

It's annoying having someone dictating what you can and can't see. Which is why I try to watch BBC World at the hotel gym as often as I can.

It's my own little act of defiance.

There's only so much state-media I can take, when it's all good news, all the time.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Hooray for Hacks

Today China is celebrating Journalism Day.

Some state-owned media took time to recognize the day with rhetorical speeches about the profession and senior editors passing down pearls of wisdom to cub reporters.

What these media outlets should be doing is pay their reporters more. If they were, then these journalists wouldn't be so easily swayed by hongbao, or red envelopes that many companies routinely give to these money-starved hacks. Some envelopes contain from between 200RMB to several thousand, depending on the industry sector.

If they got a significant pay raise then we wouldn't be reading stories that read like press releases in the paper.

Of course they also need lessons in critical thinking, but then that would be ambitious.

On the other end of the scale, foreign journalists in China must be allowed to report on whatever they hear or see.

While on paper the government promises these overseas reporters can practically go wherever they want in the country, several have reported goons following them or throwing them into black cars with tinted windows, questioning and then releasing them in the middle of nowhere.

And in many of these personal accounts, the reporters mention several times that the cars that followed them or they were forced into were black Audis.

Do the branding executives at Audi realize these stories are giving their car a bad name?

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

The central government's agency called the State Environmental Protection Adminstration (SEPA) will do an assessment of five regions and five heavily polluting industries to try and curb the impact they're having on the environment.

Some 39 experts will study how much economic development has affected the areas of the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River; economic zones to the west of the Taiwan Straits; along the Beibu Gulf in South China; the Bohai Rim in North China; and Chengdu-Chongqing.

From the data gathered, these experts will help form eco-friendly national policies that could also assess government officials' work performance. That's because the central government wants to tie in environmental impact as part the evaluation of who gets a promotion or demotion.

While all this is well and good, the article doesn't provide any specifics on how the assessments will be made, who these 39 experts are, and how officials will be held responsible.

What's a bit more disappointing are the five regions that are chosen. There are hydro-electric projects along the Yellow River, but the one getting the most attention now is the Three Gorges Dam and how the river banks are considered unsafe and some four million people have to be relocated along the Yangtze.

I don't know much about the Beibu Gulf and along the Taiwan Straits, while preliminary oil exploration has been done in Bohai Rim, actual extraction hasn't started yet. The only heavy-hitting evaluation will be Chengdu-Chongqing, which are major cities near the Yangtze, using up a lot of the power generated from the Three Gorges Dam.

This plan is just a baby step in trying to determine a small fraction of what economic development has done to this country's environment. In one way it's a naive way to keep the numbers relatively low. Or in another it maybe too frightening for the government and its people to find out what they've really done.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Picture This

I took some visitors to Factory 798 to see what China's contemporary artists are doing.

And similar to my first visit, there's lots of see, but not much of it very good.

Lots of it references Chairman Mao, contrasting his images with the capitalistic society of today. Others experiment with sexuality, one including a realistic statue of a naked woman complete with hair on her head and on other parts of her body, sitting in a chair with legs open. Another did large-size monochromatic portraits with the word "AK-47" in various shades to create the image. The painting technique was excellent, but the name of the weapon was disturbing.

In an interesting twist, an English woman exhibited wood block prints with a strong Chinese flavour. For example, there were dragons with man-made satellites instead of clouds around them.

The gallery assistant explained that this artist hadn't been in Beijing long, but wanted to do prints using Asian style wood cuts, but printed on heavy paper from Italy.

She went on to say with a tinge of criticism that the Chinese art scene is developing too quickly. There is no main message or meaning behind the artists' work. It seems like they are just trying to create something in order to be noticed -- to become the next Yue Minjun.

Yue is famous for his pink laughing faces and most recently his controversial painting "Execution".

It features men in their underwear being shot at by men who pretend to hold rifles in their hands. It's a direct reference to 1989 and inspired by Francisco Goya's "The Third of May 1808: The Execution of the Defenders of Madrid".

And a few weeks ago this painting fetched over US$5.9 million in an auction, the most expensive contemporary Chinese work sold under the hammer.

While it made a lot of money, at least this painting makes a strong statement that no one can deny.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

A Plethora of Pizza

Last night after work my colleague and I checked out a pizza place by the Worker's Stadium near Sanlitun.

It's called Kro's Nest and this is its newly-opened second location. The first one is in Haidian District, where many universities are. Kro's Nest is known for its cheap and good pizzas and so we wanted to try them too.

The new location has a strange entrance at the side of the building which is very dark and hardly welcoming. But once you pull the giant door open, you enter a cozy place that feels more like a pub than pizza parlor.

We didn't make a reservation and the manager said we'd have to wait until 9pm. 9pm??? Thankfully he said if we didn't mind, we could eat at the plastic tables and chairs by the entrance. We grabbed the last table and oogled at the pizzas.

They are gigantic to say the least so you'd better be hungry when you come. The large ones are as big as a truck tire. And I'm not exaggerating! Just watching the servers deliver them to hungry tables was a daunting sight. One slice would be enough per person.

As there were only two of us, we settled for the medium size and could even have two different toppings on each half the pizza. There was a variety, from all cheese, to Hawaiian, and vegetarian. We settled on Meghan's Special - spinach, cheeses, black olives and an olive oil base. The other topping was Kro's Nest Special - meatballs, onions, salami, green peppers and cheese.

We also ordered French fries - the slim McDonald's kind, and a Chinese version of Greek salad - cabbage with cherry tomatoes, onions and black olives with grated feta on top. The server asked us if we wanted Thousand Island or Balsamic Vinegar dressing. Uh, the latter please.

They also had many beers on tap, the cheapest, Tsingdao at 15RMB.

Lots of expats frequent this place as well as many beautiful people having a bite to eat before hitting the clubs nearby on a Friday night. Many people walked out with doggy bags - or in this case pizza boxes.

Our fries came almost instantly followed by the salad which we had to mix the dressing ourselves. For some reason we waited for quite a long time for our pizza. But we didn't mind watching the staff throwing the dough in the air and orders from upstairs put on a clip that slid down a line to the bar.

Finally the pizza came and we were overwhelmed. I started with the Meghan's Special which was choc full of cheese and didn't have much flavour or texture. But the Kro's Nest did making it the more tastier of the two. We also asked for the thick crust and I was pleasantly surprised to find the edge of the pizza didn't break your teeth. Instead it was thick and fluffy bread that was delicious.

But after two slices -- actually I only ate half of the second one -- I was stuffed. Maybe if we didn't order fries I would have been able to finish the second slice. But there were still two more left.

So we each got a pizza box and carried our slices home for our lunch the next day.

And interestingly enough, the slice of Meghan's Special tasted better as a cold pizza...

Kro's Nest
Gongti North Gate
VICS Club South
6553 5253

Friday, November 2, 2007

China's Health Challenges

The Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) says China has a series of chronic illnesses to deal with, including cardiovascular, cancer, diabetes, tobacco, obesity and environmental health threats.

Dr Margaret Chan gave a briefing to the press today about her five-day trip to Beijing. She alternatively praised the Chinese government for its efforts on improving healthcare but at the same time urged it to do more.

"China is making good progress," she said, "but it has serious health problems and it must keep working on it. The WHO is ready to provide technical assistance."

She went on to say tobacco is a big problem worldwide, topping all mortality compared to tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and malaria combined.

"China has one-third of the world's tobacco smokers," Chan said. "And if the government does its economic assessment right, it will realize the health burden of problems like lung disease far outweigh the revenue from tobacco sales. It's in the country's interest to control tobacco."

Chan did elaborate on specific measures the government could take, such as increasing tobacco tax, ban tobacco advertising and make it hard for people to get cigarettes. But she didn't disclose whether she explicitly told health officials to do this.

As for other chronic illnesses, the WHO chief said these afflictions were previously only problems in affluent countries, but are now found in low and middle income countries, such as China.

"We're now seeing the 'double disease burden' - communicable diseases and chronic diseases'," she said. "Globalized trade and marketing have a huge impact on people's behaviour."

Chan added the WHO is giving the Chinese government advice on how it should reform its healthcare system.

"China needs to find its own model," she explained. "What works in one country may not work in China, mainly because of the sheer size of the population."

Her big concern for China is the wide health gap between the rural and urban areas, with many in the countryside falling into poverty because of high medical bills. She urged the government to do more to help the rural population as recent WHO research shows disease is the source of poverty for 30 to 50 per cent of the 737 million rural population.

The government is trying to address this with a Rural Cooperative Medical Scheme, where each subscriber is funded 50 yuan (US$6.40), 20 yuan contributed each by central and local governments, and 10 yuan by the individual.

"This is small compared to other parts of the world," Chan noted, but added she hoped China would design a healthcare model relevant to the rural areas.

She suggested perhaps the government could come up with different healthcare models for different parts of the country. For example in cities like Beijing and Shanghai, some medical services could be privatized, whereas the minimum basic care could be given to other parts of the country.

"China is sensitive to the WHO telling them what to do," she hinted.

After the press conference I told some of my colleagues what Chan said. They commented the main problem is that people don't go see doctors because they don't trust them.

"They might charge you more money because you have a more serious illness, or you have to buy several hundred yuan of medicine, like antibiotics that you might not need," they said.

Sounds like the best medicine is preventive one -- don't get sick.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Bundling Up

Years from now I'll remember very clearly when the winter chills settled into Beijing.

On Saturday night there was a crazy rainstorm complete with thunder and lightning. The next day the sky was clear, but temperatures plummeted. I was just warm enough during the day visiting Panjiayuan, the outdoor antique flea market, but it was chilly just standing in the shade.

In the evening, I was literally shivering and turned on the heat at my place.

But after that night I turned the heat off again and am managing to keep warm... so far.

However at work, the central heating in the office building hasn't kicked in yet. I was told it won't be turned on until November 15.

Apparently it's a central government decree, that they can only be turned on when the national bigwigs say so in order to save energy. This also applies to air conditioning.

But would you rather have a bunch of freezing people who have a high chance of catching a cold and spreading it in the office, than warm ones who are more productive? Imagine how that could affect the GDP?

For now I'm wearing an extra quilted vest, but others are even wearing their coats in the office. I wonder if the offices of the central government are just as cold?