Thursday, January 31, 2008

Bubbling with Excitement

Earlier this week the National Aquatic Center was completed after four years of construction.

And tonight I got a sneak preview of the Water Cube.

Officials say the venue for swimming, diving and synchronized swimming cost 1.02 billion yuan, and they are definitely paying for a showy building.

It's the bubbly outer surface that makes the place so unique. And at night it glows with a blue hue, making people curious of what's going on in there.

But unfortunately when you get inside it looks like any other swimming venue, with one pool for diving, the other a rectangular 100m pool with lanes.

Today was the start of the "Good Luck Beijing Swimming China Open", a test event where swimmers from around the world are trying to qualify for August.

Many of the top contenders were not there, like the United States, Australia, or Canada. But countries like China, Japan, Korea, and then Mexico, Spain, Estonia, Finland and Kazakhstan dived for the opportunity to try out the pool.

The venue seats 11,000 people and tonight several hundred sat in the stands to watch the event. Or was it to check out the building?

When the heats began, with the men's 100m butterfly, hardly anyone was clapping. You could hear the swimmers stroking their way up and down the pool and perhaps some light applause when they finished.

It looked much better on the big screen with underwater shots, or following them as they made their way across the pool and then declaring who finished in which lane.

However, the swim coaches and fellow swimmers tried to cheer their compatriots on with whistles and soon the audience realized they really should be urging everyone on. But they were partial to the Chinese swimmers, shouting "jia you!" or "keep going!"

The young staff looking after the swimmers' things worked in military precision, even synchronizing when they pick up the plastic boxes and marching off. Others working in the media section handed out a stream of papers with the swimmers' qualifying times and final results printed on them.

All of a sudden, the event was over; the finals are tomorrow. Staff started cleaning up and people filed outside.

The area outside the Water Cube isn't finished yet so while there is a bus stop, there's no infrastructure in place for people to wait for taxis. We had to wander up the street to finally flag one down. And even then we had to go a ways before being able to make a U-turn to get to where we wanted to go.

Although the venue's completed, did anyone think about how everyone was going to go home?

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Company Bonding

This afternoon our office held Spring Festival celebrations before most people disperse to go home for the holidays in the next few days.

In Hong Kong, this usually involves going to a Chinese restaurant and eating a 10-course banquet dinner. There's games, a lucky draw, and those who've had a bit too much to drink, go up on stage and sing a karaoke number.

But in Beijing the festivities are more modest and earnest.

After lunch, we filed into a conference room which was set up with a stage and rows of chairs along the three other sides of the space. There were also small water bottles and snacks as refreshments.

The podium featured a flower arrangement very similar to the ones government officials get at big congresses.

First on the program was the boss who gave a 40-minute speech accompanied with a power-point presentation. He went over our achievements in 2007 and then the goals for this year.

Thankfully things got more interesting after that.

Some "model workers" were chosen and they were awarded laminated certificates, while those who completed five years' of service were handed pieces of crystal with their names engraved on them.

There were lucky draws for things like quilts and thermoses, and those quick on the draw answering trivia questions about the company won chocolate bars.

But the best part were the presentations made by each department.

Some sang songs, others added a dance routine complete with costumes. One group performed a clever Chinese poem about the economy, and another modeled outfits using plastic bags and paper.

The last skit was the best -- a parody about the office but set centuries ago complete with long robes and swords.

These were all done in good fun and the audience cheered everyone on.

Perhaps the staff would find the boss's speech more memorable if he performed it like a rap -- short, sweet and to the point.

Monday, January 28, 2008

White Wash

While some people are fretting they can't get a train ticket back home, others with tickets are wondering if they will get back in time for Spring Festival.

Snowstorms have swept across eastern, central and southern China, creating severe weather conditions not seen for 50 years.

Shanghai is covered deep in snow, and blackouts have caused the cancellation of electric trains in Hunan Province. Railway officials in Guangzhou predicted some 600,000 people would be stranded in the southern Chinese city. Many travelers are finding a spot in the train station to wait for their delayed trains or under nearby flyovers.

Meanwhile, government officials are scrambling to get coal and food to areas that need it the most.

Although the transport department tried to prepare for the holiday rush with extra trains and buses, officials may not have predicted or planned for extreme weather.

Hopefully everyone will get to their destination and back safely. But for now everyone will have to sit tight and hope for better weather, which weathermen aren't predicting in the near future.

Some people might be stranded far from home for Spring Festival, thanks to Mother Nature, or global warming.

Maybe this will be the wake-up call China needs to realize that more pollution into the atmosphere creates extreme weather situations like the one we're experiencing now.

And all the accurate weather forecasting in the world can't solve all the logistical problems China is facing, in this, the busiest time of year.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Devil Juice

Today I took a tour of a factory that makes erguotou, a white spirit that has up to 65 per cent alcohol.

The brand is Niulanshan, literally "buffalo fence mountain", in Shunyi, north east of Beijing. The area is also home to Yanjing Brewery and Hyundai.

Erguotou literally means "second wok head", or second distillation.

The grain sorghum is coarsely ground before being boiled in giant vats for about 20 minutes. The first batch has over 70 per cent alcohol which is very dry and leaves a burning sensation in the throat.

That batch is dumped and then after five days the grain is boiled again and then left to ferment in grave-like pits in a room. For a light flavour, the grain is placed in pits lined with ceramic tiles; to create a stronger flavour, the sorghum is placed in mud-caked pits for a more earthy taste. This second batch is called erguotou.

After the second fermentation period is over, the grain is distilled and includes flavours from walnuts, longans, Chinese wolfberries, red dates, western ginseng and sugar.

The erguotou that has about 30 per cent alcohol is quite mild and relatively easy to drink, while the 65 per cent one is sharper in taste and burns the throat. A shot definitely warms the stomach.

We saw the workers shoveling the sorghum in bare antiquated conditions. The vats and vents looked like they should have retired decades ago. But our guide insisted it was important to retain the old fashioned way of doing things rather than using modern equipment. And it didn't seem it was too far from the traditional method, save for a bit of old machinery here and there.

Finally we got to see the bottling and packaging assembly line. The green glass bottles were filled, then women quickly topped them with metal caps which were then placed one by one in a machine that screwed them tightly. These bottles were then checked against a bright white light, labelled and then white protective sleeves slipped over them.

If a bottle didn't look quite right or the top wasn't screwed on properly, the bottle was opened and the contents poured into a small sink.

Mostly women, these employees were working hard on a Sunday, a few weeks before Spring Festival when liquor like this is in high demand.

Many people buy high quality spirits and cigarettes around this time and give them to high officials in an opportunity to curry favour with them in the near future.

And what do all these officials do with stacks of cigarettes and liquor they couldn't possibly finish on their own? They sell it of course. Some entrepreneurs go around to these officials' offices, buying up their giant horde of goods at cheap prices and then sell them in small stand-alone shops around the city. These are in turn sold as much as 50 per cent off in a regular store, but just as good quality.

No tour is complete without a trip to the store. The prices were about the same as a grocery store selling this fiery water. The small bottles are 3 RMB (US$0.46), while big bottles that have the erguotou aged for 15 years is 88 RMB (US$12.20).

Liquor is more of a drink for the older generation Chinese; the younger and wealthier ones prefer beer and Western wine. Despite the changing demographic, the demand for this strong drink is still high.... for now.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Little Emperors and Empresses

I took a picture of this boy as his father tried to take a picture of him in front of a Chinese New Year display in Wangfujing.

The boy was restless; he yanked on the strings keeping the two characters on the right standing up and ran around in a frenzy. His dad tried to tell him to stop but his son wouldn't listen. He only paused briefly for this picture.

Parents here have no control over their children. Part of it is because they aren't very good at disciplining them.

I've seen them at fast food restaurants. The children order lots of food which their moms and dads buy and in the end much of it is left untouched. And no one tells the children they should finish what they ordered or that it was a waste of money.

At a restaurant at the Great Wall, a father tried to tell his son to finish his food and instead the son, holding a wooden stick that held a sausage, ran over to his father and tried to poke him in the eye. Neither parent spanked him or told him off; they just told him to sit down, but not without him trying to jab his father a few more times.

When I dined at Annie's, a family-style Italian restaurant, two mothers chatted as their children, a boy and a girl, ran around the dining area talking loudly. They moms just ignored them as if they were at home, and not in a public space.

I don't quite understand why the parents do this -- many of them surely weren't raised like this? Spoiling their kids won't help the situation.

When they get older, they find it hard to get along with others because they've had it their way for so long.

Some fall into depression in university if their grades are failing and don't know how to deal with the situation without their parents to help them.

Others get married soon after university -- even at their parents' urging -- in the hopes of having a grandchild. But these older Emperors and Empresses can't even look after themselves. Some even have their mothers come clean their apartments and buy groceries for them because they already spent their monthly salary on clothes and gadgets.

But many of their marriages don't last long. The divorce rate among those born around 1980 are the highest of all the age groups because they can't get along or learn to compromise.

These situations are exactly what psychologists and sociologists predicted over 25 years ago when China first implemented this social experiment.

Although President Hu Jintao is pushing for a "harmonious society", the next generation doesn't have the social skills to create the utopia he was thinking of.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Rich Attitudes

Last night my friend and I did our usual routine of dinner and a massage.

We ate at a hot pot restaurant. Traffic was so bad though, that both of us were late. Luckily when I called the restaurant, the staff were fine with that. When I arrived first, they were very hospitable, giving me a warm wet towel to defrost my hands and even a small plastic bag for my cell phone so it wouldn't get dirty on the table.

My friend was unsure of where the restaurant was and I waved to a waitress who cheerfully gave her directions on my cellphone.

She finally made it and we quickly ate and then left for our appointment.

One of our masseurs was our regular one and after our massage, my friend gave him some small boxes of chocolate for him to celebrate Chinese New Year. He was so grateful and kept wishing us a happy new year before he left.

But after we got dressed and came down the stairs to pay the bill, we could hear an argument brewing in the reception area.

"I wish I could videotape this," my friend whispered to me.

A well-dressed couple in their early 40s were arguing with the staff. They demanded to have a special receipt for tax purposes and wanted it now.

The manager tried to explain that it would take them some time to find the papers and process it.

But the woman didn't accept the excuse. She tried to belittle him, saying what kind of manager does he think he is.... what kind of business is this... and adding expletives in between and jabbing her finger at him accusingly.

The man with her tried to calm her down but she kept demanding this receipt now. In the end the man told her to leave and he escorted her off.

Meanwhile the staff at reception were trying to do their job, heads down and quiet as mice. The manager kept his cool, but he was probably quaking inside, wondering how to resolve the mess and hope that woman would never come back again.

It's rich people like her that make Beijing ugly. They think the can demand whatever they want and if they scream loud enough, they'll get it. In their minds money talks. And unfortunately in this money-hungry city, most of the time it does.

In restaurants, you don't call the wait staff, "miss" or "young man"..... here they answer to fuwuren, which basically means "servant".

And the louder you call, the faster they'll come to your table.

Hopefully in time wait staff will have enough of bending over backwards to the rich obnoxious customers and expect to be treated like a human being instead of a dog.

They don't get tips, so why cater to the rich when others treat them more humanely?

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Great Migration

All everyone can think about now is the Spring Festival, or chun jie.

It's the equivalent of Christmas or Thanksgiving, where the large majority of the population go back to their hometowns for what used to be the only holiday in the entire year.

The most popular modes of transport for the majority of people are the trains and buses. And currently there are long lines at ticket offices to get a ride home.

Getting a ticket is the great equalizer. It's hard to book a ticket on the phone. Internet booking isn't even available yet. You have to do it the traditional way of first come, first served. Oh and make sure you bring cash too.

And if they can't get a ticket from these offices, they may turn to a scalper. Then they have to be extra wary to make sure it's a bona fide ticket otherwise they'll not only be short of money but also a way to get back to their hometowns.

Some 179 million people will take the train, over 1 billion on buses, and 22 million taking flight.

While transport officials have promised extra trains, buses and planes on standby, it probably will not be enough to meet the demand.

Nevertheless it's an amazing migration of people across a country for the most special time of the year.

Hopefully everyone will get home safely to their loved ones and back again.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Stylish Mice

Hong Kong Disneyland is celebrating 80 years of Walt's fairytale kingdom come true.

And guess what? This coming Lunar New Year is ushering the Year of the Rat.

To mark the special occasion (and grab the amazing marketing opportunity) Hong Kong Disneyland gave Mickey and Minnie a dress makeover.

They enlisted the help of Hong Kong designer Vivienne Tam to create new outfits for the rodent pair as shown in this Xinhua picture.

While Tam was chosen for her hometown roots, she is also know for her clever fusion of East and West. Tam created controversy over 13 years ago when she designed T-shirts featuring Chairman Mao with pigtails, and a bee on his nose among others.

In any case, she definitely injected some fun into Mickey and Minnie's new silk clothes and perhaps that can help the embattled amusement park to entice more visitors to go there instead of Ocean Park...

Shock to the System

Stock markets are plummeting around the world with fears of the United States sliding into a recession.

Today the Shanghai Composite Index fell by around 354 points or 7.22 per cent, while the Hang Seng Index suffered an even bigger loss of 2,061.23 points or 8.65 per cent.

The US market opens this morning and so it'll be interesting to see how it reacts to two straight days of losses in Europe and Asia.

The big market players probably started selling off days or weeks ago, knowing a big correction would be made in the so-called bubble market in China.

Those left holding the bag are mostly individual investors who don't know much about the stock market. Many of them just assumed the Shanghai Composite Index would just keep climbing. Or because it's the Olympic year, the government would make sure things would be rosy.

How these investors will react to the loss will be telling in the next few days.

Ping An Insurance has a plan of raising 150 billion yuan through new issues of stocks and bonds. But diluting the market makes the value of its shares drop even more. And not everyone can afford or dares to invest in the market now.

Some analysts think China will weather the financial storm because it isn't as exposed to outside markets. But exports will definitely be affected. Americans won't be clamouring for as many Chinese-made goods as before when they finally start saying the R-word.

Another optimistic outlook for China is that it has started developing more trading partners in the Asia region. However, those customers are just as exposed to the US markets and Chinese exports may be affected indirectly.

Either way China is now being pushed -- reluctantly or not -- into a real capitalist market situation.

It is beyond anyone's control now. It just depends on how bad people think a possible recession will impact the US.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Clearing Snow Beijing Style

This morning we got more white flakes.

And I didn't know how they cleared the snow until now.

There aren't any shovels. It's even less hi-tech than that.

Workers use twigs tied together made into coarse brooms to sweep the snow away to clear a path.

Not only do these natural brooms keep municipal cleaning costs down, but probably work just as well as a store-bought ones.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

200 More Days to Go

Beijing is celebrating yet another milestone today with 200 more days to go.

And what are Chinese people's wishes for the Olympics?

In an Internet survey, the top 10 were:

- To see Athens gold medallist Liu Xiang repeat his win at the 110m hurdles

- To become a torchbearer for the Beijing Olympics

- To watch the opening and closing ceremonies with family and friends

- A successful Olympics

- To pose for photographs in front of newly-built Olympics venues

- See the Chinese women's volleyball team successfully defend its Olympic title

- Smooth road traffic during the Games

- Count me as an Olympic volunteer

- To be photographed with sports stars and getting autographs

- To exchange Olympic pins with people from other countries

The pressure is on Liu Xiang, the poster boy of the Chinese team. No wonder he's currently in seclusion for training.

In some way the media is to blame for whipping up Olympic fever. There are non-stop Olympic-themed ads on the television. Almost everyday there's a story related to the Games.

On the bus, those with small TV screens not only show ads trying to tug at the heart strings showing past Olympic victories and defeats, but also stats of how many medals each country won in past summer Games. Some short programs even show the history of the modern Olympics, scenes of when Beijing was announced as the 2008 host city, or showcase the members of the women's volleyball team.

One wonders if all this excitement will dissipate once the Olympics is actually here. Being excited for seven years takes a lot of energy to sustain.

10 Winter Survival Tips

Beijing winter has really set in. A few days ago we had snow and even before then the temperatures overnight were dipping to -9 degrees Celsius, -2 degrees during the day. Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.

The capital will be in this deep freeze at least until March. And then we'll have to brace for the sandstorms.

But until then, here are my top 10 ways to keep warm:

10. Layers - It seems like a lengthy process putting all the clothes on and then stripping them off. For example, I wear thermal underwear, two pairs of socks, shirt, sweater, vest and then scarf and coat before walking out the door. Your body will thank you for it.

9. Long coat - The best investment I made at 169 RMB (US$23.33). Everyone wears these long ugly coats, but hey -- they keep you and your butt warm.

8. Cashmere - Wool sweaters are so itchy. Why not stay warm and bundled up in soft cashmere instead? There are some at the Silk Market at around 300 RMB (US$41.40).

7. Hat - Some say you lose 40 percent of your heat from your head. And here it's essential to prevent a brain freeze. Literally.

6. Boots - those with fur in them make your feet look cool on the outside, and toasty warm on the inside. That said I bought a pair a few months ago but haven't worn them yet. Maybe I should wear them tomorrow...

5. Hot Pot - Feed your stomach and keep the winter chills away by dining over a bubbling broth and drink it afterwards to heat you up even more.

4. Hot water - I fill my thermos with hot water and carry it wherever I go. It's a great way to drink some when you're standing at the bus stop and the bus seems to take forever to come.

3. Hot chocolate - The hot chocolate at Starbucks is a decadent treat complete with whipped cream and chocolate sprinkles.

2. Take a shower in the evening rather than morning - I'm a morning shower person, but now I take them after dinner because it's not as cold as in the morning when I'd rather stay in my warm bed just a few minutes more....

1. Face mask - It not only gives you some protection from the fine particulates in the air, but also keeps your nose and mouth from freezing. It feels hard to breathe at first, but just take deep breaths and you'll be fine.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Celebrating in Style (Not)

This past week several high-profile visitors have come to China.

Late last week it was Indian Prime Minister Mamohan Singh, Pacific Command Commander-in-Chief Timothy Keating of the United States and now British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

In the case of Singh and Brown, they were pushing China to reduce the trade deficit by buying services or new technology.

And Keating was not only building a stronger relationship with China's military, but also trying to get to the bottom of the Kitty Hawk affair. But he didn't get far on the latter.

To celebrate their success, Brown and Singh each were photographed with their Chinese counterparts holding a glass of champagne.

The glasses are the wide brim ones that wine connoisseurs cringe at. That's because the aroma from the bubbly is completely lost when people drink it.

They are also considered so 1970s.

Can someone tell the protocol person in charge of alcohol for these lavish dos to order some champagne flutes? As a country trying to establish itself on the international stage, showing a bit of style would prove China's not just the world's workshop. It's got pizazz too.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Modern Duck

The most famous Peking duck restaurant in town is called Quanjude.

They have locations all over the city and the main branch on Wangfujing shows off pictures of people like US President Nixon dining there when he came for his historic visit in 1972.

Since then every other tourist has made the pilgrimage to the place to try the famed bird.

The restaurant's history dates back to 1864 in the Qing Dynasty and now it's more known for its various duck dishes, from Peking duck to braised web feet, duck hearts and livers.

And Peking duck is best prepared by roasting the duck over a fire made with wood from fruit trees to give the meat a sweet flavour.

But this is all changing with the "time-honoured brand" going electric.

The ducks prepared at Quanjude will now be cooked -- in electric ovens.

This development was made in order to maintain consistent quality, as Quanjude went public last November to expand its business across the country.

The company sells some 3 million ducks a year and raised 388 million yuan (US$52 million) on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange. Looks like investors are banking on the roast duck business to take flight.

But back to this modern development.

The electric ovens are computerized and were jointly developed by Quanjude and a German company.

In order to retain the fruit smell and taste, natural fruit juice will be sprayed on the ducks prior to roasting.

Before Peking duck lovers shun Quanjude completely, the restaurant promises a few locations in Beijing will continue the roasting tradition.

However, knowing that your bird came out of an electric oven just doesn't have the same exotic flavour as one that was prepared the same way it was over 140 years ago.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Snowfall in Beijing

Today we got our first real snowfall of the year. Or the season.

There was a small dump early last month, but it was washed away by the late afternoon.

However today the white flakes (some say gray due to the pollution) came fast and furious soon after I arrived into the office this morning.

The city got a light dusting of the white stuff that has since stayed on the ground.

My colleagues had told me horror stories of how traffic grinds to a halt when there's snow because vehicles don't have snow tires, so I was worried about getting home.

However, by late afternoon the snowfall stopped and roads on the whole were clear. I got home at a reasonable time (just over 45 minutes) by bus.

While the roads were wet, it will probably turn to black ice tomorrow making it a treacherous commute. But I'll worry about that... later.

I took home some Laba zhou, or Laba congee a coworker made two days ago to celebrate Laba Festival.

It's a Buddhist event on the calendar celebrating the day Sakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism reached enlightenment after eating this porridge.

My colleagues don't know much about the significance of the event, but just that everyone eats this concoction with their families.

And it's a nutritious porridge -- some contain up to 29 different ingredients. But the one I had was still tasty, with green beans, peanuts, lotus seeds, barley, rice, red dates, and kidney beans.

Apparently hundreds of Beijingers lined up in the cold early morning on Tuesday at the Yonghegong Lama Temple to receive a free bowl of Laba porridge.

It's considered good luck to have a bowl from the Buddhist temple, but also a nutritious way to feed the body. The porridge is full of protein, amino acids and vitamins.

And for me to have it on a chilly day today (-2 degrees Celsius to -8 degrees) was perfect.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Warning Bells

Today stocks in China fell sharply after Citigroup released a report that it suffered US$9.8 billion in losses in the fourth quarter due to the sub-prime mortgage crisis.

The Shanghai Composite Index fell 2.81 per cent to close at 5,290.60, and the Shenzhen Composite Index 2.42 per cent to end at 1,538.35.

Citigroup's news caused major US indices to drop as well; the Dow Jones Industrial Average declined 2.17 per cent, Standard & Poor's 500 index fell by 2.49 per cent, and Nasdaq Composite Index dropped by 2.45 per cent.

Europe and Japan followed suit. Hong Kong fared the worst, plunging by 1,386.93 points to finish at 24,450.85, a drop of 5.4 per cent.

With the sub-prime mortgage crisis and low December retail sales in the United States, people may have to start using the R-word soon.

And while China is on the whole mostly isolated from the rest of the world markets, it is holding over US$1.5 trillion in reserves.

Also its eager rookie investors may begin to realize that playing the stock market really is a gamble.

Today's newspaper had a story about how 70 per cent of China's 136 million investors are low and middle income earners.

In a survey conducted last month by Beijing-based Securities Association, almost 10 per cent of new investors who entered the market last year never considered possible financial losses.

They might be sweating bullets now.

There is a big concern among stock analysts and financial experts that Chinese investors are not knowledgeable enough about the stock market and just think it's a way to get rich quick.

Seventy per cent of these people make less than 5,000RMB (US$690) a month.

And if they're putting a lot of their hard-earned cash into a market that may have ended its bullish streak, there might be more financial woes to come.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Moral Dilemma

Over a month ago, an acquaintance I met in late September contacted me.

She explained her son in sixth grade was entering an English speech competition and could I edit his speech.

I replied of course and even recorded the speech for him to listen to get the pronunciation right.

Last week she called me while I was on the bus. She said he passed the competition and could I help again? I asked her to email me and I would look at it as soon as possible, assuming it was something else I would edit.

She wrote the message in Chinese. When my friend translated it for me, it turned out she was asking me to write her son's assignments for him. They included two dialogues and two short speeches in English.

I really didn't feel comfortable doing the work for him. How could I, a native English speaker, write like a 14-year-old where English is his second language? So I asked my friend to reply, politely saying it would be best if he could write the assignments and then I would gladly correct them, as it would be in his best interests to learn that way.

However, the anxious mother wrote back with a desperate plea. She basically said all the other parents were writing their children's assignments; and if her son didn't do well in them, then his chances of getting into a good high school would diminish greatly. Please help me, she reiterated.

My reply was similar to the first one and she again emailed an almost identical plea.

In the end I said I couldn't write the assignments, but would be happy to edit his work.

I didn't hear back for a few days until I received her email with some attachments.

It turned out she forwarded work her friend wrote in the guise of a young student.

Not wanting to create more of a fuss I edited the assignments. Finally her son emailed a speech to me that I also corrected.

I sent them back without receiving a word of thanks.

While I can understand there's a lot of pressure for children to enter good schools here, they won't be able to survive once they get in. Or what about when they get to the next level? Will their parents have to find means other than their children's own academic ability to get into a better high school or university?

But apparently it doesn't stop there.

A month ago a biology professor from Yale University complained in an open letter to students at Beijing University complaining about widespread plagiarism.

Stephen Stearns, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, taught two classes in Beida this past fall. And despite warnings, he still found a few papers that were plagiarized outright:

It [plagiarism] corrodes my relationship with you because I work hard to be a good teacher, I take time to prepare good lectures, and I spend many hours providing detailed feedback on essays. It is hard work. You cannot imagine what it is like to correct the details of the 500th essay until you have done it yourself. I do that to help you learn to think more clearly, to express yourself convincingly, and to develop your intellectual power, your ability to understand the world. I also do it because I value you, I value your ideas, and I think the world will be a better place when you can all think clearly and behave intelligently. Later in life, some of you will be leaders with important positions. I want you to be competent and honest, for I have seen too often what terrible things can happen when leaders are incompetent and dishonest. Leadership aside, I want all of you to be able to create value in your lives, whatever you end up doing, and you cannot do that if you deceive.

While some have commented that the rest of Stearns' letter is self-righteous, he has good intentions.

I also want to help. Many people here want to learn English. And in the office a number of the people I work with specifically speak English to me in order to practice their language skills.

But I cannot bring myself to help someone cheat outright, even if it hurts his chances of getting into a good school.

He will never learn what is right or wrong, or be accountable for his own academic and later work performance when his parents condone or are even complicit in trying to help him get ahead.

And he is only one of many.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Homey Italian

For many expats, Annie's is an institution.

It offers pretty good Italian food and I soon found out, at decent prices.

There are four locations, and the one near me, in Lido, is upstairs. I went there the other night for a late meal after a workout at the gym.

It wasn't too busy and I was seated in a cozy booth by the window big enough for four.

The pasta menu is quite extensive, offering everything from fettucine al fredo to arrabiata, pompodoro and basic meat sauce. There's also gnocchi and ravioli.

There are also a variety of wood-fired pizzas to choose from, which I'll probably try next time.

What's great is that some of the pastas have half servings which enticed me to order a starter of a green salad, also a half portion.

It arrived doused in balsamic vinegar and olive oil, but it was fine, with tomatoes, rocket leaves, artichoke hearts and cabbage leaves.

I chose spaghetti alla puttancesca and it came in the perfect size, the pasta cooked al dente and was piping hot, topped with a basil leaf.

The sauce was great, except for the canned black olives, but it included anchovies, tomatoes and lots of garlic.

Service was cheerful and on the whole attentive.

Including a small glass of draft beer, the bill came to 50RMB (US$6.88).

Annie's (Lido)
Jiangtai Lu

Fired up for Food and Fun

Tonight my friend took me to a hot pot restaurant, practically a staple eatery in Beijing.

And especially now with the weather dipping to -9 degrees Celsius overnight, cooking around a fire is a good way to keep warm.

However, she didn't just take me to any typical hot pot restaurant. This one has a bit of pizazz.

The staff are all very hospitable, welcoming customers as they come through the door and instantly serve them with hot towels, ask them what they'd like to drink, and even give them a plate of cut fruit to start.

The menu is basically a giant sheet that diners indicate what they'd like and in what amounts. Luckily we can have half orders and for two people that's plenty.

Soon afterwards our chosen dipping sauce of sesame arrived and our server even helped us add chopped coriander and spring onions into it.

And a giant square vat of soup base complete with mushrooms, some Chinese herbs and coriander arrived. We were each served some of that broth as we waited for it to boil.

We had a kind of meat that was a specialty of the restaurant. I couldn't tell if it was beef or lamb as it didn't have a strong taste, but also what was interesting was that no matter how long it was left in the pot, it was still quite tender, marinated in lots of spices.

Also in the pot were Chinese vegetables, bamboo shoots, shiitake mushrooms, seaweed, fish balls, and tofu. We also put in slices of sweet potato, that when boiled, tasted like squash.

But the highlight of the evening had to be the noodles.

A young man came by and took out a rectangular piece of dough from a box. He pulled it both ways and then ... began dancing. He twirled the now long doughy ribbon, twisting it around him, flinging it like rhythmic gymnasts doing the ribbon dance. Finally he pulled the thick noodle apart to make it thinner, broke it in half and put it in our pot.

The best part was watching a young girl watching him.

After we were filled to the brim with hot food, our server gave us another plate of fruit -- watermelon, oranges, kumquat, longan, and cherry tomato.

For two and a bottle of beer the bill came to 132RMB (US$18.17).

A great deal considering we had fast, attentive service, good food, and of course a culinary acrobatic performance.

Hai Di Lao Huo Guo (Hai Di Lao Hot Pot)
2/F, Hua Shang Building)

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Portable Cafes

I went to Wangfujing today to find some deals and wandered into Artistic Mansion, my new favourite shopping destination.

After wandering the discount section at the sixth floor, I managed to score a pair of Asics runners for 349RMB (US$48).

Back outside, as I walked along the boulevard, I was surprised to see many encapsulated cafes. They all seemed to offer hot and cold drinks in a small enclosed space, obviously to give people a little respite from the cold air.

These portable cafes aren't just tents -- they're made with glass, metal and powered with electricity.

Some are square, others rectangular. This one is tunnel-shaped and has lots of windows to allow customers to continue their favourite past time of people watching as they sip their drinks.

Prelude to a Storm

Yesterday the media checked out the just completed Beijing Olympic Basketball Gymnasium.

While the inside is pretty much spic and span -- with plastic still covering most of the upper seats -- the outside surroundings aren't quite finished yet.

When the wind blew, it kicked up fine dust into the air, creating a mini sand storm. Beijing is victim to giant sand storms in early spring, when sand from the Gobi desert finds its way to the capital.

People have to wear masks, hats and scarves to protect themselves. Some even walk backwards to prevent sand from getting into their eyes.

It's something I have yet to experience.

But in the meantime, seeing the amount of dust on the construction site and the thousands of migrant workers exposing themselves to these polluting conditions can't be good for their lungs.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Dunkin' Box

This morning domestic media were invited to check out the Beijing Olympic Basketball Gymnasium at Wukesong, west of the city.

Just off the fourth ring road, visitors have to walk through a construction site and pass by the Olympic baseball stadium before reaching a striking gold-coloured box.

The building is actually covered in hundreds of narrow steel columns that are wavy to create texture and according to one of the architects, movement. And each of the columns are perforated with small holes to allow natural light into the lobby area.

Inside, the basketball court looks like any other regulation NBA court that holds 18,000. The wood floor is actually made of wood panels from Germany that can be taken apart to make an ice rink. The architect didn't know how long it would take to create ice, but suggested it would take a short time.

Suspended from the ceiling is a 22-tonne collection of lights, four giant LED screens and speakers.

The Chinese national men's and women's basketball teams will have the home advantage being able to adapt to the court. And it's hoped after the Olympics the gymnasium will be used for NBA games.

The management company looking after the gymnasium organized the press conference, inviting a number of dignitaries for an inspection. They included the deputy mayor and Beijing Olympic officials.

They each gave different versions of the same speech, basically praising the completion of the venue and how the upcoming Games was such an historic event. Mercifully each speaker was relatively short.

Afterwards they wandered off on their own private tour and presentation, while media were forced to stay behind for several minutes. One of the press organizers gave instructions to reporters, saying that stories on the gymnasium were embargoed until the following day, and how the stories should portray the venue in a positive light. He even gave an email address -- a Yahoo one at that -- for media to submit their stories and that they should text message him when it was sent.

This being the domestic media he could dare to say that. With foreign media, he would be at their mercy.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Educational Posse

Many Chinese actors on the mainland are dreaming of Hollywood.

Becoming big in China isn't enough. They want to follow in the footsteps of Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Chow Yun-fat, Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi.

At first Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon star Zhang was reluctant to learn English, perhaps thinking her acting skills were enough to get her into Tinseltown.

But she quickly realized directors weren't interested in her arrogance. However, director Rob Marshall took her under his wing for Memoirs of a Geisha and apparently now she's spending half a year in New York studying English.

Her interest in the language probably increased significantly when she started seeing Aviv Nevo, reportedly one of the richest men in the Big Apple.

Today there was a story in China Daily profiling actor and singer Huang Xiaoming, a cute-looking guy who has ambitions of Hollywood according to his official website.

And to help him learn English without having to go to class, he hired aspiring American actor Zachary Overline.

The 23-year-old claims as soon as Huang met him, he offered Overline a job on the spot.

Overline gives the impression he lives the glamorous life, following Huang on movie sets, whether they be in Shanghai one day, and Hong Kong the next.

And he prides himself on his methodology, constantly getting Huang to talk in English and often repeatedly throwing in the same concepts and vocabulary so that he will remember them.

"I ask him questions that make him think or keep him talking," Overline explains. "The next hour I find a way to bring the same topic back into conversation, to refresh his memory. We do this a couple of times. When you speak aloud, apply it to what is going on in your life, you will have good results."

So if you've always wanted to rub shoulders with Chinese stars, now's your chance by tutoring them in English. No textbooks needed.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Hording the Plastic

The Chinese government announced an interesting edict on Tuesday.

Starting on June 1, supermarkets and stores will be banned from giving out free plastic bags and the production of ultra-thin plastic bags will end.

In a notice on the central government website, China uses too many plastic bags and fails to dispose of them properly, wasting valuable oil and littering the country.

The Chinese have a term called "white pollution", referring to the mostly white plastic bags that float around in the sky.

The government wants consumers to use cloth bags and baskets, or if they must, purchase a carrier bag from stores and supermarkets.

Apparently the Chinese use three billion plastic bags a day which equals to five million tonnes or 37 million barrels of crude oil to produce plastic packaging.

It's a drastic move that shows the government is concerned about the environment and also using its natural resources carefully.

And currently plastic bags are used recklessly. For example, at fruit and vegetable stands, people are encouraged to place a different item in a separate plastic bag so you end up with four or five small plastic bags that are then put in a large one.

The supermarket I shop at gives out relatively small plastic bags to bag your groceries so you are forced to use more than if they gave out bigger ones. They also plastic wrap many things that don't need so much packaging.

However, most people use plastic bags for garbage at home so many people are probably going to start hording their plastic bags from now until June.

At the same time I wonder what will happen to companies that manufacture plastic bags and the employees who earn their living there. They will have to change the nature of their business or get new jobs.

It will be interesting to see how the public reacts to this new regulation. In a country where environmental awareness is not very high, some people may be shocked by this new situation.

While it's a bit drastic, I hope the government will continue on this road and start pushing for other environmentally-friendly regulations. They can start with state-run canteens and telling them to stop giving away paper boxes and disposable chopsticks.

In the meantime I'm going to keep every plastic bag I've got. I'm going to need every single one of them.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Gounding Global Possilibities

This afternoon an interesting vote took place.

Shareholders of China Eastern Airlines were asked if they accepted a proposal by Singapore Airlines and Temasek, the Singaporean government's investment arm to buy a 24 per cent stake of China Eastern at HK$3.80 (US$0.49) a share.

Even though the sale was approved by the Chinese government, the parent company of Air China, China National Aviation Company (CNAC) put in a last minute proposal of HK$5.00 a share.

Both Singapore Airlines and CNAC are fighting over China Eastern as it's based in Shanghai, and they see the potential of creating a hub in the cosmopolitan city. There is a growing domestic air travel market in Shanghai that both companies want a stake in.

For China Eastern shareholders, the choice was a no-brainer and they rejected the Singaporean bid, claiming it was too low.

Some see the Singaporean interest in China Eastern as threatening to national economic development and look at the move as a protectionist one.

However, on the other side, China Eastern is missing a huge opportunity to become more competitive in the global travel market.

Singapore Airlines is consistently rated as one of the best in the world for its service, quality and safety.

And if China Eastern shareholders were taking a more long-term approach to their investment, they would find that Singapore Airlines management would help turn the domestic carrier into an even better one. It would also help introduce it to the global market.

In the long run that would make China Eastern worth much more than HK$5.00 a share.

But around 77.6 per cent of shareholders rejected the Singapore bid in favor of patriotism and/or short-term gain.

It's yet another troubling sign that people are only interested in today, not the future. Or they don't want globalization to take place on their turf -- leaving them behind and unable to effectively compete on the world stage without outside help.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Taking Precautions

I've filled out the China customs forms many times but never really read the fine print carefully until now.

On the back of the orange-coloured form there is information of the kinds of things the government doesn't want coming into the country.

Titled "Articles Prohibited from Importation in Accordance with the law of the People's Republic of China", the list includes typical things as: arms, ammunition, explosives, counterfeit currencies, poisons, opium, morphine, heroin, marihuana [sic], fruits, vegetables, and food stuff and medicine from epidemic stricken areas.

It also adds these other items that people are not allowed to bring in:
Printed matter, films, photographs, gramophone records, cinematographic films, tapes (audio and video), compact discs (audio and video), storage media for computers and other articles which are detrimental to the political, economic, cultural and moral interests of China.

I don't know how gramophone records can be subversive, but did the government know gramophones are for sale at the Panjiayuan antique market? Or is it like Singapore where you can chew gum, but you just can't buy it?

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Man on a Mission

I was in good company today when I flew back to Beijing.

Canadian Minister of International Trade, the Pacific Gateway and the Vancouver-Whistler Olympics David Emerson took the same flight.

He checked in himself, carrying a Vancouver Canucks bag along with a suitcase.

In front of the cameras he shook hands with Chinese diplomats who escorted him to the security gate. Then later I saw him on his cell phone, having changed into a blue sweater and jeans. Most people completely ignored him, which probably suited him just fine.

This week Emerson will travel to China, Mongolia and Hong Kong to pursue trade and investment opportunities.

And during the week he is probably hoping to establish better relations between Canada and China since Stephen Harper took office as Prime Minister.

Harper undid the aggressive stance the Liberals took in creating stronger ties with China, instead giving the country pretty much the cold shoulder. And then things got worse when Harper met with the Dalai Lama in October.

And as one of the last developed nations yet to get ADS from China, Canada is majorly losing face in this big opportunity to cash in on Chinese tourists.

While Emerson has a tough road ahead of him, he's the right man for the job. With his previous experience as a Liberal, perhaps he'll be able to smooth things over between the Chinese and Canada.

With two-way trade between the two countries reaching $42 billion in 2006, up 15 per cent from the previous year, maybe more money will inspire more talks.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

New Lingo

The Ministry of Education listed some 170 popular phrases created over the past year on the Internet.

Here are some of them reflecting the social changes in China happening now:

Dink-Pet Family (dingchong jiating): A couple who doesn't want a child, but raises a pet.

Car Slave (chenu): People who save and spend most of their income on their cars.

House Slave (fangnu): People who spend most of their income on paying their mortgages.

Podcasters (boke): People who offer downloads of videos on their blogs.

Flying Fish Clan (feiyu zu): Those who abandon their domestic successes and choose to study in top universities abroad.

College Stayers Clan (laixiao zu): College graduates who remain on campus but don't want to study or work.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Airing Dirty Laundry

My friends asked me if I had heard about the CCTV incident.


Apparently I missed a big story late last week.

CCTV, the China Central Television network made a big announcement launching its Olympics coverage.

But it got more exposure than it bargained for.

As popular sportscaster and sports director Zhang Bin addressed the audience, a woman in a brown duffel coat came onto the stage. It was his wife, Hu Ziwei, also a well known sports anchor.

She grabbed the microphone and told the audience that two hours earlier she found out her husband was cheating on her:

… I am here on the stage not as an anchor, but as the wife of the person beside me, Mr. Zhang Bin.
Would you please spare one minute and listen to me?
It is a special date for the Olympics Channel and for Mr. Zhang Bin.
But for me, it also a special day.
Just two hours ago, I found out that Mr. Zhang Bin is having an illicit relationship with a woman other than me.
The coming year is the Olympic year, and the whole world will be watching China and Chinese people.
But a French diplomat has mentioned before that China won't become a powerful nation until it can export its value system.
If Chinese people don't have a great leader to build their value system, then what sense does it make?
Please allow me to finish my words.
Is this the way you treat a weak and poor lady?
I have one last thing to say
Let's fight politely.
But that French diplomat mentioned before, China won't become a great nation until it can export its value system.
Standing before us is the prim and proper Mr. Zhang Bin … but he is not able to face himself
and not even his harmed wife
I believe that if China wants to be a great country
... Do you guys have any conscience left?
Leave me alone!
This the last Sunday left (before 2008).
Tomorrow, everybody will begin spending a long vacation, but Zhang Bin and I are not able to do that...

(Other voice): We TV presenters are like a family, how could you?

I'm sorry. I wish everybody a happy new year. I apologize to Director Zhang (Heping, of CCTV Sports).
I hope this won't bother the next athlete to come on stage.

Zhang stands there stunned as his wife talks and several men go up and try to get her to move off stage, but she refuses.

This part of the clip didn't make it onto the official airwaves, but somehow ended up onto the internet where I saw it on the Wall Street Journal.

It's fascinating to watch this spurned woman do this as a way to get back at her husband, but in the process horrifying/titillating those who witnessed it.

It's also a wake-up call for the Chinese government, that even if something is rehearsed and well-planned, things can still go awry.

Looks like they'll have to go back to the drawing board if they don't want any slip-ups eight months from now.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Doing PR for the Motherland

For my trip home, I brought back a big suitcase. And it was full of gifts.

There was hardly enough room for my clothes.

The Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee or BOCOG should give me brownie points for buying up all kinds of souvenirs, from the mascots in stuffed animal form, to T-shirts, mugs, cushions, slippers, crayons, notebooks, pencils, and fridge magnets.

Needless to say they were a big hit with family and friends who were more than happy to get a piece of upcoming Olympic history for a Christmas present.

However, some did ask jokingly if these were actually legit items or if they were fake.

It's interesting to note when I shopped for these items, especially the stuffed animals, to see out of the five mascots, the panda, called Jing Jing, was the most popular. That's because it was always missing from the shelves.

It's not surprising since most people equate China with the panda, and not really a fish-like creature or a thing with a fireball on its head. Jing Jing really is the cutest of the quintet.

So hopefully the Olympic souvenir shops will put out more of the pandas.

Otherwise it'll only be seen on the black market.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Something to Celebrate

The countdown to the Olympics really begins now with 2008 finally here.

And the Chinese are celebrating another milestone. You can't have too many of those when the world's attention will be focused on Beijing in just over eight months.

The city just managed to have 246 days of "blue sky" this year, beating the 2007 target of 245. The last day of the year was relatively clear.

I've tried to do a bit of research on how a "blue sky" is calculated, and it's very complicated. Apparently it has to do with the number of pollutant particles in the air. But there's no straight-forward calculation for the description of something that should be simple enough when it's called a "blue sky" day.

You'd think Beijing would flunk it easily with its hazy gray skies most of the time, especially in the summer.

However according to the Municipal Bureau of Environmental Protection, Beijing is improving its air quality every year. It claims back in 1998 when it started the "Defending the Blue Sky" campaign, there were only 100 "blue sky" days.

The environmental watchdog adds 2007 only saw three heavily-polluted days, compared with 13 the year before.

By replacing coal heaters with natural gas ones, and lowering transit fares so that more people will take subways, the capital believes this has contributed to the increase in "blue sky" days.

And officials say January, September, October and November had the most "blue sky" days. But what about the other months, particularly the ones in the summer? And what about a few days ago when the air quality was so bad that children and adults with asthma were warned not to go outside?

Senior officials have told meteorologists their jobs are on the line when it comes to accurate weather forecasting.

So either the scientists are fudging the numbers, or the officials are moving the goal posts. What Beijing considers a "blue sky" would never fly in North America or Europe. The air quality measurements would probably go off the charts according to their standards.

One wonders if the "blue sky" count is a PR exercise for the foreigners or the Chinese.

Either way it's spin that could soon unravel.