Friday, February 29, 2008

Dynamic Duo

Many kids grow up learning a musical instrument.

But how many actually become professional musicians?

And how many siblings are professional musicians who travel together?

Katia and Marielle Labeque do.

The sisters play the piano and tonight they performed in Beijing at the Forbidden City Concert Hall.

Unfortunately the auditorium wasn't full, but the audience made up for the empty space with generous clapping.

After the Beijing Philharmonic played Hector Berlioz's Le Carnaval Romain, space was made on the stage for two grand pianos.

Then the duo came out. Katia the younger one in a long white coat with large sleeves that had black lining, while Marielle wore a tight-fitting black jacket with a giant bustle at the back. Both wore cigarette pants and heels.

They performed Francis Poulenc's Concerto in D minor for two pianos and orchestra. From the beginning Marielle attacked the piano and seemed to display more passion for the music than her sister, jumping up from her seat or throwing her head back in rapture.

In sections of the piece, it sounded like Balinese music, which was interesting to hear on the piano.

Afterwards, the audience kept clapping and the sisters rewarded them with the Hungarian Dance on two pianos. They performed it with such precision, one would only think siblings could accomplish that.

More clapping ensued and they played a Japanese song sitting at one piano. They played one more encore before finally leaving the stage.

This performance is part of their Asian tour through Seoul, Guangzhou, Suzhou, Beijing, and ending in Shanghai tomorrow.

While Marielle is the more classical pianist, Katia has also experimented with jazz, performing with Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea.

What also unites the two sisters is the KML Foundation they established in 2005. It aims at furthering research and enlarging the repertoire for duo piano repertoire. The foundation is also for children to learn more about classical music.

Hopefully they will come back again soon with their infectious love of music.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Not Quite Role Models

A Chinese diver and her coach are under fire for their behaviour during the FINA Diving World Cup last week.

Guo Jingjing and her teammate Wu Minxia easily clinched the women's synchronized 3m springboard last Sunday at the National Aquatic Center, or Water Cube.

But during the press conference, Guo hardly illuminated reporters with her thoughts, only speaking a total of 20 words to answer four questions.

Her coach Zhou Gang defended the 22-year-old diver, asking the media "for their understanding" and that Guo was "under great pressure".

But a Xinhua article criticized the coach for overprotecting the diver. Other media chimed in, calling Guo "arrogant" and "impolite" when she refused to elaborate and cooperate with reporters.

"It's a shame for us," said Zhang Lei from West China City Daily. "We could have very good communications with divers from other countries. Every one of them is so friendly and willing to share their feeling with us.

"But look at our divers like Guo - it's like we owe something to her, like we are begging for something from her. And she also showed impatience with us."

"As a professional athlete she represents not only herself, but the team, the sport and even the country," Xinhua said.

"No matter how brilliant her achievements or how popular she is, she still needs to ... respect others."

Another warned Chinese coaches have to teach their athletes how to deal with the media, especially with the Olympics coming up.

So while the venues are practically ready, volunteers are practicing smiling non-stop, and the government doing its bit to try to ease air pollution, the athletes will need to do some media training before August.

If they want to be seen as ambassadors for their country, which is also hosting the big international event, then these athletes will have to learn how to be gracious too.

After all, isn't that what the Olympics is all about?

Otherwise, as Xinhua says, "If they still behave like what they did last week during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, they will be laughed at by viewers worldwide."

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Still Going Strong

The Worker's Stadium near Dongsishitiao will be the venue for the soccer matches for the Olympics.

When it was built in 1959 it was hailed as one of China's top architectural feats, as it was one of the largest outdoor stadiums at the time.

In the late 80s it underwent a renovation and has held many events including China's National Games, the 11th Asia Games and 13th Asia Cup for soccer.

Top musical acts have also performed here including the godfather of Chinese rock, Cui Jian and Taiwanese singer Jay Chou. Celine Dion will grace her presence at the stadium when she comes through in April.

Today the stadium was unveiled to the media for a sneak peak, but there weren't many visible upgrades to the actual stadium except the new lighting system that meets FIFA standards.

The coloured plastic seats were covered in dust as construction workers were still building a frame to house a giant screen. The clock at the south end of the stadium wasn't working and the turf looked sadly yellow.

Nevertheless, officials praised the stadium for its hardiness and how it's a major landmark in the city.

However, the meeting rooms and VIP areas looked like they'd been spiffed up. The carpets were plush, deep red adorned with unattractive floral designs.

The floor coverings were so new that red fluff from the carpets caught on everyone's shoes, making their soles red.

Someone needs to tell the managers the carpet needs vacuuming....

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Art Transcends Politics

Tonight the New York Philharmonic made history, performing in Pyongyang, North Korea.

It is the first time such a large American delegation has entered the Communist country.

Its leader is elusive, and because the country is hidden from foreign eyes, reports of food and energy shortages are heard of but not confirmed, and there are many stories of people desperate to escape the poverty.

So when the American orchestra was invited to come perform there, it was seen as a signal of a warming of relations between the US and North Korea.

Conductor Lorin Maazel led the musicians in playing both countries' national anthems and then a program of Wagner's Prelude to Act III of "Lohengrin", and Dvorak's "New World" Symphony, which was commissioned and premiered by the orchestra in 1893.

And of course the NYP performed George Gershwin's "An American in Paris", and did an encore with Leonard Bernstein's "Candide" overture.

No one is sure if leader Kim Jung-il attended the concert, but many senior government officials were there.

The orchestra had performed in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Kaohsiung, Taipei and Beijing before coming to Pyongyang. Journalists tried to get more thoughts from Maazel about his upcoming historic concert, but he refused to give any hints.

However, in a commentary in the Wall Street Journal, the 77-year-old wrote:

I have always believed that the arts and their exponents, artists, have a broader role to play in the public arena. But it must be totally apolitical, nonpartisan and free of issue-specific agendas.

It is a role of the highest possible order: Bringing peoples and their cultures together on common ground, where the roots of peaceful interchange can imperceptibly but irrevocably take hold.

If all goes well, the presence of the New York Philharmonic in Pyongyang might gently influence the perception of our country there. If we are gradually to improve US-Korean relations, such events have the potential to nudge open a door that has been closed too long.

Maazel's prediction was spot on.

And after the concert, many who attended were very emotional, ranging from excitement to elation and sadness. Some wept afterwards.

Hopefully this concert will give political leaders on both sides the inspiration to reach out to each other and have honest, open talks.

The power of art knows no bounds.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Pinyin Turns the big 5-0

This month the romanization of Chinese characters called pinyin turns 50.

The Chinese media claim it has helped over a billion Chinese learn how to read and write. However, not all Chinese know the romanized alphabet so the actual numbers are sketchy.

Nevertheless, it has definitely helped foreigners like myself relate Chinese characters with the romanized alphabet and get my pronunciation are accurate as possible.

That's all thanks to Zhou Youguang, a 102-year-old balding man who lives in Beijing.

The jovial Zhou still speaks great English and still works hard everyday, reading and writing, albeit with a handy magnifying glass.

"People call me the father of pinyin, but that's not true," he says with a laugh. "I'm not the father of pinyin, I'm the son of pinyin."

He developed pinyin by chance. When the Communists took over in 1949, he was working in a New York bank and decided to come home and help rebuild his country.

At first he thought he would be helping with the economy, but with his interest in languages, he was instead was entrusted with creating a way of teaching illiterate people.

And apparently literacy levels are down to 10 per cent from 80 per cent in half a century.

When Chairman Mao began his purges in the late 1950s, Zhou says he was lucky he wasn't teaching economics otherwise he would surely be in prison for 20 years.

However, during the Cultural Revolution he was sent to the countryside and as soon as he was rehabilitated he picked up where he left off -- reading and writing.

Even though he officially retired when he was 85, Zhou still publishes a paper every month and doesn't plan to put down his pen anytime soon.

Duo xie ni, Zhou Youguang xiansheng! (Thank you so much, Mr Zhou Youguan!)

Sunday, February 24, 2008

No More LV for You!

Chinese tourism officials are telling their compatriots not to shop at Galeries Lafayette in Paris.

That's because a newlywed couple from eastern China's Zhejiang Province was there on February 11 and were accused of using forged currency.

They went there to buy something at the posh retailer and the cashier claimed their bank note was counterfeit.

The couple was then taken to the police station where, according to a Xinhua story, the husband and wife "were questioned and searched insultingly".

However, a bank expert examined the note and proclaimed it was real.

After they were released, they were still determined to go back to the same store and again produced the note, where again the cashier refused to accept it.

As a result, Chinese tourism officials made pronouncements, saying people and tour groups traveling to Paris should not visit the store.

The president of Galeries Lafayette, Paul Delaoutre made a formal apology to the couple and promised them a new tour of the French capital. So far there's been no response.

He added the Chinese are the biggest foreign consumers in the upscale department store and all necessary measures would be taken to prevent this incident from happening again.

If the Chinese are the biggest spenders at LaFayette, one wonders where that money came from. Also, the personalities of very rich Chinese can be very demanding, if not downright crass. That may have been enough for Parisian staff to stick their noses in the air and refuse to serve them.

But we'll never know what really happened.

The "boycott" of Lafayette won't last long -- the Chinese still want their Louis Vuitton bags and Hermes scarfs.

Spreading the Word

Not many people read Chairman Mao's Little Red Book anymore, but to be a true Chinese Communist Party member, patriots read the "Practical Manual for Propaganda Work".

Published by Red Flag Publishing House, the 2003 copy outlines the goals of propaganda, mainly to make sure everyone knows what the country's goals are, guide people in their thinking, and be positive in its slogans.

It warns, "The Internet has an even greater impact on people's thinking. People outside mainland China are always plotting ways to infiltrate China ideologically. We need to strengthen our management of news sites and other websites".

One interesting section is on propagandizing foreigners:
  1. Feeding propaganda to foreigners is done differently from domestic propaganda work. The first task is learning about your propaganda target, keeping in mind that the targets of foreign propaganda are different from the targets of domestic propaganda. The approach will also vary according to the country or area of the person.
  2. Take a subtler and gentler approach. Present facts and let them draw their own conclusions. Explain what the foreigner doesn't understand, even over simplifying it if necessary. Avoid using propaganda slogans or saying things that might cause disagreement.
  3. Make use of visitors to China to spread the propaganda message overseas. Be sure to give the foreigners only what they can accept. Take that what they see and their experiences in China will, when they return home, help to build an image of China in the minds of the people of the world (p. 118).
  4. Other methods include arranging interviews for the friendly foreign press, submitting articles to Xinhua and other Chinese publications aimed at foreign audiences and attention to the positiveness of TV programming on the closed circuit TV system of hotels frequented by foreigners (p. 118-119).
  5. Make sister city arrangements with foreign cities.
  6. Plan tourist group itineraries so visitors will get a positive impression of China.
  7. Arrange for tour group guides and interpreters to subscribe to foreign language Chinese magazines destined for foreign audiences.
Sometimes my colleagues do #2 on me, trying to impress on me various facts and figures about China, like its ever-growing GDP or certain sightseeing spots. But try as they might, I impress on them that numbers don't mean anything to me when a good chunk of the population is still living under the poverty line and that people need more education before the country can move ahead.

They concur and then I can see them wondering what their next propaganda tactic should be.

I must be a hard nut for them to crack.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Enlightened Inspiration

Beijingers are flocking to the National Art Museum to check out the Dunhuang Art Exhibition.

The Dunhuang grottoes or caves in Gansu Province, central China, are filled with murals and some statues featuring Buddha and his disciples in various situations or illustrated stories about Buddha.

These grottoes are basically on a sheer mountainside along the Silk Road. It's believed Buddhism from India came along this route and inspired many artisans and followers to leave their artistic impressions of the religion in the caves.

The 735 grottoes were built and decorated from the 4th to the 14th centuries. It wasn't until 1945 that conservation work began and many artists began the painstaking work of reproducing the murals.

And their efforts are now on display in the Chinese capital.

The museum is wrapped up in a picture of the Dunhuang caves, hoping to give visitors the impression of visiting them.

I had heard the museum had over 5,000 visitors a day going through this exhibition. Not prepared to put up with the crowds, I woke up early today and took a taxi to the museum before it officially opened at 9am.

There was already a big crowd there, about 70-80 people by the time I arrived at 8:30. And I saw staff were beginning to let people in, so the line to buy tickets went quickly and soon I was inside.

In the lobby there was another big rush -- this time for audio guides. By the time I reached the front and asked for an English one, the staff said they didn't have any.

That was disappointing -- if you want more foreigners understand Chinese culture, you have to make it more accessible.... especially in a national museum.

However, it wasn't really necessary and turned out to work to my advantage.

The beginning of the exhibition was choc full of people, with audio guides stuck to their ears listening to every word. I wandered relatively quickly at my own pace, losing the crowd.

At first it was strange to look at reproductions, but they were honest ones -- if a face was missing in the original, they didn't attempt to guess what it looked like. If there were places that were chipped, that was also painted in the copy to make it look as real as possible.

The best part was wandering in the several rooms that were created to look like the actual grottoes, including the ceiling. They were all covered in various scenes with Buddha or included sculptures, and towards the curved ceiling were hundreds or even thousands of disciples sitting next to each other.

Some of the murals looked roughly painted, others showed considerable skill, even painting the hairs on men's beards. There was even a reproduction of a giant sleeping Buddha, some 14.4m long.

Most of the colourful murals had a large Buddha surrounded by his smaller-sized disciples as they enjoyed a performance of dancing and music. Attendants all wore flowing robes and made various offerings to him.

What was also interesting was that some of the designs on the borders framing these murals looked very Western. Some reminded me of the wavy floral motifs on Florentine notebooks. If they were taken out of context, one would think they came from Europe.

Overall I had a wonderful experience going through the museum without encountering too much obnoxious behaviour -- some people chatting loudly on their cell phones, or taking pictures with flash when there were signs everywhere of a camera with a line through it. However, even the staff weren't vigilant enough in warning people either, something that should be stepped up so that visitors understand they should obey the rules.

Before the exhibition I already had an interest in seeing the Dunhuang grottoes. One of my favourite artists, Zhang Daqian went there to copy some murals.

And now I'm even more keen to see the real thing, hopefully in the near future.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Go for It

The other night I learned how to play the game Go.

Its origins are from China over 3,000 years ago and the story goes an emperor wanted to teach his son strategy and developed this game.

Also known as wei qi in Chinese, paduk or baduk in Korean, and igo in Japanese, the game is played on a giant wooden board with squares and uses black and white stones.

While the game has Chinese origins, it was taken to Japan 1,200 to 1,400 years ago and perfected. This explains why many of the game's terms are Japanese.

Basically the objective of the game is to acquire as much territory, or empty space as possible while preventing your opponent from getting territory or attacking you.

Pieces can be placed anywhere on the board, but each one is specifically placed on the intersections of the grid, not inside the rectangles.

Beginners start on a 9X9 board and eventually progress to a 19X19 board where a game can take from an hour to several days to complete.

The game is pretty simple to play, but at the same time it's a fascinating study of patterns and teaches players about sacrificing pieces for greater gain.

American Greg May founded the Beijing Go Club seven months ago when he wanted to find other expats to play with in the city.

He used to be an avid chess player but when he discovered Go, he was hooked. He finds Go much more sophisticated, saying chess is just about memorizing moves, whereas Go is more creative and philosophical. Computers can't beat humans at this game, because the possibilities are so numerous that a computer doesn't have the capability to process all of them.

The night I went there were a few new people eager to play and a few regulars. It was a casual meeting with music playing in the background, and if people were interested, they could chip in to buy Chinese takeout for dinner.

May was a great teacher and my short lesson inspired me to try out my new skills.

The next day after lunch, I played a game of Go with my colleague who has played a few times. And maybe with beginner's luck, I beat her outright.

I may have found a new hobby.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Big Bang

Today marks the end of the Lunar New Year festivities after two weeks.

Traditionally on this day there are lantern festivals (deng hui) in parts of the city. But mysteriously this year they have been cancelled and people can only see them in the suburbs. The reason given was because of the upcoming Olympics. Huh?

Four years ago 37 people died at a stampede during a lantern festival in Mihong Park in Beijing. A person stumbled on an overcrowded bridge which lead to confusion and the stampede.

Many of the people killed were children.

Tonight, despite the lack of lanterns to gaze at, people are not giving residents any peace and quiet, filling the sky with the lights and explosions of fireworks. It's the last night they are allowed to set them off and by golly they're setting off the entire stock.

But the brilliant display hasn't been without casualties.

In the first seven days of the Spring Festival, some 434 people were injured from setting off fireworks, according to The People's Daily.

There are no regulations of where people can set them off. They are persuaded to do it in open spaces, but the definition of open space is relative.

After work I was walking to the bus stop when a young girl of about six was setting off firecrackers on her own on the sidewalk. There was no adult nearby at all. And she had no regard for anyone walking by as she lit them and threw them on the ground.

And when I got home, there were giant explosions near my apartment building -- because someone was setting the fireworks off just across the street, not considering if the explosions would hit the nearby buildings.

It's no wonder places like Hong Kong ban fireworks and then put on an excellent show at Victoria Harbour on special occasions like these. It's a 20 minute show, set to music and all professionally done. And best of all, no one gets hurt.

Safety regulations here are lax. What's even more strange is when a society that only permits couples to have one child allow their only child to play with firecrackers on her own without any adult supervision.

I've seen many parents letting their children sit in the front passenger seat of the car without a seatbelt. Or they hold the child in the front and let them put their face up to the windshield while the car is moving.

The government isn't doing enough to educate its people to be safe, civil citizens. For example, the media tells people to be more environmentally conscious, but doesn't tell them to recycle paper and plastic, or to avoid catching diseases, people should wash their hands after finishing their business in the bathroom.

The ability to disseminate information is there, but there's no content.

Or is it because people are so jaded by what they watch and read that they don't listen anymore?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

No Laughs, but Tears

Last night I was shocked to hear of Hong Kong comedienne Lydia Shum Tin-ha's death. She was 60.

She was suffering from bile duct inflammation, and liver and gall bladder cancer.

Shum was diagnosed with cancer over a year ago and was in hospital since October when she collapsed in her home.

It's sad to see another Hong Kong luminary gone. Affectionately known as "Fei Fei", Shum was known for her heavy build, black horn-rimmed glasses and infectious humour.

She didn't have her looks to reply on, but her quick wit and clean humour.

Shum was born in 1947 in Shanghai, the fifth of eight children of a wealthy family. At the age of 13, she started performing and went on to host over 5,000 variety shows on TVB and ATV in Hong Kong. She also had an English-language sitcom in Singapore called "Living with Lydia".

In 1987 she had her daughter Joyce who was later sent to Vancouver, Canada for schooling.

Over a year ago I was in Vancouver walking around a mall downtown when I saw Fei Fei from behind with her daughter.

They were just out shopping and spending some mother-daughter time.

Just by watching her on TV you could tell she was very personable, caring and of course funny. Her jokes weren't mean-spirited, but universal and witty.

She was definitely one of the most hard working entertainers in Hong Kong. And everyone will miss her.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

15 Minutes of Fame

This picture shot photographer Liu Weiqiang to fame two years ago when it was chosen as one of the top 10 most impressive news photos of 2006 by CCTV.

He claimed he took it a week before the opening of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, with Tibetan antelope running across the meadow.

And now he's admitted it's fake and he and his boss, the chief editor of the Daqing Evening News in Heilongjiang Province have resigned.

People started to notice something was wrong with the photo. When they magnified it, they saw a thin red line where the two pictures joined together.

And zoologists raised doubts as they said Tibetan antelope are easily disturbed by even the slightest noise, and the ones in the photo looked calm.

After all the criticisms, the 41-year-old Liu finally admitted he used Photoshop. But didn't want to take full blame, saying the original intent of the picture was for a poster, but then it was published on several websites for free.

First of all, why didn't the award-winning photographer explain from the beginning that the photo was doctored for publicity purposes? And when it was chosen by CCTV, didn't any judges raise any concerns?

Apparently when he was interviewed by the Chinese state television network, Liu even said he had waited for eight days and nights in the uninhabited land of Hoh Xil, situated more than 4,000 metres above sea level, to capture the shot.

Liu was probably so caught up in the attention he was getting that he and the paper felt no need to give any explanations.

But also this incident shows how people try to weigh their chances of getting caught and are prepared to take the risk than be honest.

It also illustrates the lack of critical thinking people have, a basic skill of questioning things. It was only later Liu's ruse was exposed.

This story echoes the South China Tiger photo which was also exposed as a fake recently.

A man claimed he took photos of a rare tiger several months ago in Shaanxi Province. The Shaanxi Forestry Department awarded Zhou Zhenglong a 20,000 RMB prize for the photo.

But then people on Internet forums thought it was so strange for a tiger to pose for a photo. And one discovered the photo was exactly the same as the one on his old calendar.

The Forestry Department admitted they jumped the gun on publicizing the pictures before authenticating them -- but they refused to proclaim they're fake.

And Zhou still insists, "The photos are 100 percent genuine. They are absolutely not fakes!"

Who looks worse -- the duped or the dupee?

Monday, February 18, 2008

On the Defensive

Instead of letting the Spielberg fiasco die quietly, the Chinese are on the defensive, keeping the story alive.

China's ambassador to Sudan gave an exclusive interview to the Xinhua News Agency, saying "we have been making unremitting efforts to help solve the crisis [in Darfur]."

Li Chengwen listed what China has been doing, including working closely with the United Nations, having direct talks with the Sudanese government, proposing peace talks between the various parties involved, and sending troops to keep the peace.

He added China has donated 80 million yuan (around US$11 million) in aid, helped dig 46 wells and build 20 small-scale power plants.

And therefore, Li said, the international community cannot say China is not doing its part.

However, he neglected to mention China is one of the biggest investors in the Sudan and also supplies weapons to the African country.

Nevertheless, the chorus trying to tone down Spielberg's exit continued with International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge saying the Olympics is a sporting, not a political event.

"His [Spielberg's] absence will not harm the quality of the Games. The Beijing Games are much stronger than individuals."

Rogge also warned athletes would be punished if they used the Games as a political stage.

The British Olympic Committee (BOC) recently tried to force its athletes to sign a contract promising they would not speak out against China otherwise they would be kicked out or not included in the national team.

This sparked immediate outrage and the BOC had to back down.

Most athletes know they shouldn't be making political statements at the Olympics. They just want to compete against the world's best. And hopefully get a sponsorship.... or two.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Party's Over Folks

This past Tuesday was the end of the Chinese New Year holiday. Most people trudged back to work the next day.

Migrant workers are making their way back to the cities this weekend.

And most of us are still thinking about the good time we had during our break, be it going home to visit family and eating home-cooked food, or traveling to other destinations.

However, that doesn't mean people should still set off fireworks. Ever since I got back, as soon as dusk falls, I hear a boom in the distance. And the explosions keep happening all over Beijing even past midnight.

We all have to work the next day, folks.

One might argue that in their home town their New Years' festivities are longer than the government mandated one. Some say they continue celebrating until the first day of the second lunar month.

But here in the city the holiday has come and gone and we should all focus on getting back to work and of course everyone's favourite upcoming event, the Summer Games.

So while I don't mind the decorations of red bulbous lanterns and New Year greetings plastered all over doorways and windows, the fireworks should really stop. Although the government allows fireworks to be set off, didn't they set a time limit?

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Can You Give me a Hand?

This tai chi master is holding the string to dry some laundry at Hou Hai. But from this angle it looks like he's beckoning someone to help him hold the line for him...

Die Hard Polar Bears

On Chinese New Year Eve I took a friend from out of town to see one of my favourite haunts, Hou Hai, or Back Lakes.

It was a crisp cold morning and the lake had frozen over. Many people were already out skating, or chair skating. The ones who weren't brave enough to skate sat in chairs with mini skis on them and used poles to push themselves around. Little kids sat on chairs shaped like seals or ducks that their parents pushed from behind.

There was even a game of ice hockey going, with players in a mish-mash of padding, some with helmets, some complete with jerseys. The area they were playing in was hardly regulation size, but suited the purpose of shooting the puck around for fun.

We walked further along, just past Soong Ching-Ling's house, when we saw a man in his swimming trunks rubbing down his red skin after a dip.

Could it be? Even with the lake frozen over?

We rushed over to the side of the lake and sure enough there was a small watery area the size of a kiddie pool.

And there was another elderly man about to take a dip. He wore old school swimming trunks that were brown complete with buttons.

Another woman and the two of us shivered as we watched him calmly take his flip flops off by the water and climb down as if it was over 20 degrees in the water. Then he fell into the lake and did a brisk breaststroke in the small circular area.

He splashed around for a few more minutes and then got up and didn't even need a towel to keep himself warm.

He explained he'd been doing this everyday for the past 18 years after he retired. He explained the cold water was good for blood circulation, and after doing it everyday your body gets used to it. Not only that, he hasn't had any problems with his joints, pointing to his elbows and knees.

Then he wandered to where his partner was to towel off and change, while we continued on our walk, and my friend vowed not to complain about being cold anymore.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Political Game

The Chinese came back from Spring Festival holidays to discover the possibility the opening and closing ceremonies of the summer Olympics might not be as amazing as they hoped.

American director Steven Spielberg made a public announcement withdrawing his involvement from the Beijing Games as an overseas artistic advisor.

He said he never signed the contract the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee gave him almost a year ago. In that time he has tried to persuade President Hu Jintao to step up efforts in bringing safety and peace in the Darfur region in Sudan.

But for Spielberg, this and possibly the public humiliation campaign actress Mia Farrow threatened to implement, China hadn't done enough for Darfur and he declined to be further involved in Beijing's coming out party.
At this point, my time and energy must be spent not on Olympic ceremonies, but on doing all I can to help bring an end to the unspeakable crimes against humanity that continue to be committed in Darfur. Sudan' s government bears the bulk of the responsibility for these on-going crimes but the international community, and particularly China, should be doing more to end the continuing human suffering there. China' s economic, military and diplomatic ties to the government of Sudan continue to provide it with the opportunity and obligation to press for change. The situation has never been more precarious - and while China' s representatives have conveyed to me that they are working to end the terrible tragedy in Darfur, the grim realities of the suffering continue unabated.

The Chinese took some time to respond, and finally called Spielberg's decision as "regretful".

The government has decided to blame the director for linking the Olympic Games with politics and questioned why people are connecting this upcoming international event with an African country.

"It is understandable if some people do not understand the Chinese government's policy on Darfur," said Foreign Affairs spokesman Liu Jianchao. "But we can't accept that some people want to use this as an opportunity to link Darfur to China's Africa and Sudan policies, and even to the Beijng Olympic Games."

Liu elaborated by explaining China has offered $11.1 million in humanitarian aid to the Darfur region, that China is working with the UN to resolve the conflict and has even sent troops there.

But to add a scrappy voice at the back of the room, a Chinese-language newspaper called Global Times said Spielberg's decision to bow out due to political reasons "disgusted" ordinary Chinese.

"Western exploitation of the Olympics to pressure China immediately provoked much disgust among ordinary Chinese people," the paper said.

"The vast majority of Chinese people have expressed bafflement and outrage at the Western pressure. In ordinary Chinese' eyes, it is totally ridiculous to place the Darfur issue, so many thousands of kilometers away, on China's shoulders," it said.

Although China is trying very hard to control its image abroad, it will not be able to stop the continual bombardment of criticism from people outside the country.

China and its people need to understand that once you put yourself up on the world stage, others start to take notice and expect you to be accountable for your actions.

And the Chinese need to understand critics don't just do this to China -- anyone is fair game.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Not Quite Posh

On my last evening in Shanghai, I went to one of the better Shanghainese restaurants in town.

Called Jade Garden, this particular location used to be a supper club so there is a small stage at the back of the dining room and a balcony area upstairs.

And in one corner of the room near the stage is a grand piano and a pianist tinkling on the ivories while diners tucked into their meals.

However, all the tables on the bottom floor are big round ones so the diners are more concerned about food and conversation than listening to the poor pianist trying to play some classical pieces.

At one point a young boy wandered next to the musician who basically babysat him through a good part of the evening.

It's too bad because the tables upstairs are smaller and would probably stop and applaud the pianist if given a chance to hear the piano in the more intimate space. But there's no way a grand piano can fit up in the narrow area.

And then so many people -- mostly men -- were smoking up a storm as well. The clouds of smoke created a gray haze in the air which was hardly appetizing.

All that smoking made me wonder if the staff and other customers realized the chances of contracting lung cancer through second-hand smoke.

But everyone was more concerned about Spring Festival and wishing each other good fortune and good health. One wonders when the Chinese will wake up and realize no amount of money can buy a long and healthy life.

Artistic Enclave

My guidebook highly recommended checking out 50 Moganshan Road, an area where artists are struggling to get noticed.

So in the mid-afternoon I tried to find it, near the Shanghai Railway Station.

However, there wasn't any direct way to get there, but it seemed too close to hail a cab so I thought I'd walk it.

It took me almost an hour to find this place, which is right by the side of the Wusong River which snakes through north Puxi.

When I finally found the area that had hardly any signage, it reminded me of Factory 798 in Beijing, but much more compact.

However, being Spring Festival, most of the galleries and studies were closed which was disappointing, but not completely.

One ceramic artist Wang Shuhui graduated from Jingdezhen Ceramics Institute, a place known for its fine porcelain. He has created a series of ceramic jiaozi or boiled dumplings that are decorated with intricate designs in mostly blue and white.

In his artist statement he explains his hometown in Shandong Province is known for its jiaozi and special events, like Spring Festival are marked by eating this northern food.

The Chinese, at holidays, kindly treat relatives and friends, always make jiaozi to eat. Especially on the lunar New Year's Day, after the whole family's paying a New Year call, they sit together in a circle, make jiaozi while chatting every happened [sic] things, often bring in the happy talk and laughter, has meaning of greatly the endless enjoyment. Therefore people often regard jiaozi as the symbol of propitious and happy reunion.

Xie Rong is a 37-year-old photographer based in Shanghai. He has done many portraits of the city changing, mostly of old houses demolished to make way for new developments.

This isn't a new theme, but he is trying to document what's happening. There is a sense of loss and fear of being forgotten in the black-and-white and colour photographs. Most of the pictures feature rubble in the foreground and gleaming new towers behind it.

He also shot a series of portraits of migrant workers, but their faces are slightly distorted; it's like he asked them to move their heads as he clicked the shutter. That's because he wants to show there are millions of these people in the country, but we don't stop to get to know them and their faces.

From the limited amount of art I saw in Shanghai, Xie and Wang seem like promising names to watch out for in the future.

Warm Greetings

At the Grand Hyatt Shanghai at the Jin Mao Tower in Pudong, Chinese characters greeted visitors.

What was unusual was they were not only in old Chinese script, but also written with brush and ink, a rarity these days where text messaging is more popular.

Inside the lobby of the five-star hotel behind these characters was a giant piece of paper with fu or good fortune on it, also in Chinese calligraphy.

It's good to know some are still trying to preserve the traditional ways of doing things no matter how posh they are.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Culinary Letdown

My friend's brother was in Shanghai recently and recommended we try a Shanghainese restaurant called Yuan Yuan.

We didn't go to the location he went to, but another one in the Kah Wah Building off Huai Hai Road and Xiangyang Road.

It's in an office building and takes up the first two floors.

The night before we tried to go, but they didn't take reservations and was already packed. So we decided to go relatively early for lunch the next day.

When we got there we heard the sounds of someone cutting their nails with a nail clipper. I was thinking if it's the hostess, we're leaving. It turned out to be an old man sitting in the lobby reading the paper and grooming at the same time.

The young woman said if we wanted to have dim sum then we should eat downstairs, or for a proper lunch to head upstairs. We opted for the latter and got into the elevator.

Although there weren't many diners in the Chinoiserie room, there was a strong smoke smell already. We tried to avoid one table with a smoker, but then we could smell the cigarette of one of the cooks at the back. So we ended up right by the door.

The menu looked promising with lots of pictures and stars by many of the items suggesting they were the restaurant's signature dishes. One of the appetizers included aloe in orange juice.

However it took us over 10 minutes to get the waiter's attention to take our order. The servers either ignored us or pointed to the only waiter in the room. It seemed no one else was qualified to do the job.

He stood at one table at the other end of the room for a long time. We told one of the servers we wanted our order taken, but the waiter didn't make a beeline for us, but for another table instead.

Finally he arrived to take our order and got us tea. From the moment we sat down up until this point no one asked us what tea we wanted to drink.

We decided to be adventurous and try dates stuffed with glutinous rice. This appetizer was slightly sweet covered in a syrup sauce, but was quite filling after eating a few of them. We couldn't finish it.

The sweet and sour ribs were promising, alternatively savory and sweet in one bite. It took a while before our next dish came - xiaolongbao. The filling included crab meat, but it wasn't fresh and not very flavourful.

The fried buns were redeeming and were alternatively crunchy and tender inside with a pork and vegetable filling.

We also ordered barbecue pork pastries and turnip puffs - strips of turnip wrapped in a pastry - but both of these dishes were hardly warm and were disappointing.

At one point a waiter came by and put hand towels packaged in plastic on our tables and my friend noticed it was written down on our bill. She asked another server to take it away and we made sure the charge wasn't added to our tab.

In the end we opted not to stick around for dessert, thinking it would take forever to arrive. The bill came to 168 RMB for two.

Perhaps other locations of this restaurant are better, but we weren't very impressed with this one.

Yuan Yuan
1-2/F, K Wah Centre
No. 108 Xiang Yang Road
5108 337

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Scene Surveyor

As I browsed Dong Tai Lu antique market, I looked up and saw a small dog checking out the scene below.

Private Dining

An area in Shanghai popular with tourists and mostly the expat crowd is Xintiandi.

Located south of Huangpi South Road, it's part of the French Concession, where old European buildings were renovated to house modern and sleek restaurants and shops.

I first saw the development almost completed in 2001 and now it's extended another block and has a boutique hotel attached to it.

Beijing has nothing like it which makes me wish there was something like that in the capital.

Hong Kong developer Shui On put money and care into the project and the results are evident with the numbers of people who go through the area everyday.

There's everything from Starbucks to Hong Kong Italian restaurants Va Bene and Ye Shanghai; there's also boutiques selling tastefully chosen antiques and souvenirs.

And one of the restaurants there is very elegant, but for some reason always has more staff than diners.

It's called SOAHC, but I don't know what those letters stand for. Perhaps it should be called Dragonfly since the insect is used in the logo.

Inside it's like walking into an early 20th century European parlour, with dark wood antique chairs covered with fabric cushions, lavish place settings are different colours, thick drapes and western oil paintings on the walls.

This setting probably makes it difficult for Chinese people to understand or appreciate this fine dining restaurant.

The menu features Shanghainese food and it's very delicately presented.

For appetizers, we had pork cubes and minced spinach that was wrapped in bean curd skin and then sliced into bite-sized rolls.

Then we each had a bowl of soup featuring finely sliced tofu like pieces of thread. The thick soup also had strands of vegetable and it came piping hot and delicious.

We also had sliced pepper beef cooked in a lotus leaf that was very flavourful and a touch spicy, stir-fried morning glory vegetables and braised yellow fish in a thick sauce with giant cloves of garlic.

To finish the dinner, we had ground walnut pudding which had a roasted taste, and flour rice balls in a sweet soup of rice wine and osmanthus.

Throughout our meal, a singer sang mostly Teresa Teng songs accompanied by a pianist on a baby grand.

She sang very well, but only got applause from us -- the only diners in the entire restaurant.

123 Xing Ye Road
(86 21) 6385 7777

Going Loonie in Shanghai

These past few days people were busy buying candy and chocolates to give to people to celebrate the Lunar New Year.

And one favourite is chocolate coins.

At a department store on Nanjing Road I spied some shiny Canadian loonies, or one dollar coins.

Too bad they weren't real....

Monday, February 11, 2008

So Close, Yet So Far

Last night my friend and I had dinner at one of my favourite Shanghainese restaurants Ding Tai Fung.

They have a few locations in Shanghai and the one we went to is in a giant mall appropriately called Super Brand Mall (Zheng Da Guang Chang) in Pudong, right by the Pearl TV Tower.

And after dinner we were hoping to have a drink at the Grand Hyatt in the Jin Mao Tower, currently the tallest building in the city. We wanted to have drinks up at Cloud Nine, a bar on the 58th floor.

But we and many other people had the hardest time trying flag down a taxi outside, which is basically a giant roundabout.

Either people ahead of us managed to catch one, or someone just happened to get out of one.

We had to stand closer to the road in order for the taxi drivers to see us, but that was perilous with buses and cars that could easily run us down if we didn't get out of the way.

There was no orderly system for taxis to come pick up passengers and it was a total free-for-all.

And then there was one taxi driver, who rolled down his window and demanded people tell him their destination. He didn't like ours (a very short cab ride away) and drove off complaining he wouldn't make much money.

He did that to many other people. They had to run behind him to catch up and he obviously didn't like where they wanted to go either because he kept circling the area, taunting would-be customers when he could have done maybe two of three tips ferrying people from the mall.

It was ridiculous that so many of us were trying to catch a cab around 9pm and yet no taxis available.

So in the end we decided to walk to the hotel. But when we were half way there, we encountered a giant highway and there was no path for pedestrians. So we thought we'd walk through the subway, but the exit to the Jin Mao Tower was blocked as an HSBC building is being constructed in the area.

We had to walk all the way around again, a longer way until we finally reached the hotel. It was a nice walk, but very annoying there wasn't enough signage to explain to people how to get there by foot.

It's probably a way to keep the riff raff out, but for people like us who couldn't flag a cab in the first place, it was a frustrating experience to say the least.

Then by the time we got there, it was past 8pm so we would have to pay 120 RMB each as a minimum charge. In the end we decided a massage was more important and skipped the drinks altogether.

With the construction going on for at least another year, it will be an annoying experience for others who just want to have a taste of the high life at the Grand Hyatt. I wonder if they'll notice a drop in the clientele due to greedy taxi drivers and not many wanting to plod a long way to the hotel.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Shopping Spree

This morning I headed to the Dong Tai Road antique market, a short taxi ride from my hotel.

The vendors were just setting up so I browsed around looking at their goods. They are very similar to the ones at Panjiayuan in Beijing, but better quality.

Thinking I'd only make small purchases, I bought a piece of embroidery, very elaborate and a big piece for 380RMB. And then a piece of what looks like jade, double sided with a bat for 80RMB.

It's good to go in the morning because the vendors want to make a first sale and will basically give you whatever price you want... within reason.

However, as soon as I saw rice bowls with butterfly designs on them, I was unable to resist temptation. They're white with handpainted butterflies on them, inside and outside the bowls. The vendors all claim they're from the Qing Dynasty, but I'm not sure about that.

I bought two, and then later at another vendor saw four plates with the same butterflies. I got the set of four and then had to buy two more bowls to match. The woman who sold the two extra bowls to me also urged me to buy a big platter as well.

Now I have a set of four butterfly bowls and plates and platter. Dinner party anyone?

I also bought an old black alarm clock complete with the two bells at the top. It has a beautiful face that looks very European. It probably had a new paint job, but it still works well. That was also 100RMB.

Luckily I had to meet a friend for lunch so I had to go. And now I have to figure out how I'm going to lug all my purchases home.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Hometown Boy

As I was making my way to the Humble Administrator's Garden, I saw a cool modern building. It was the Suzhou Museum.

And I soon realized it was an IM Pei building, as he continues his motif of triangles all over the compound.

So I had to go in a check it out.

While Pei was born in Guangzhou, his family is from Suzhou. It was opened in 2006.

The design of the museum is simple, refreshing, reflective and elegant.
He tried to bring in as much natural light as possible and then shielding the precious objects with wooden slats on the ceiling.

There aren't many objects in the museum, but what they have is impressive. There is a small collection of beautiful bronze artifacts and jade dug up from a tomb in Zhongshan in the late 1970s.

While there are security staff milling around, they aren't active in stopping people from taking pictures. They're probably more concerned about people stealing than damaging the objects with flash photography.
Everything is in English and Chinese, even a movie about the museum and how the tomb was found.

And outside there's a small garden made of rocks that look like mountains, a pond with carp and bamboo trees.

The museum is another gem in the town, if not for what it holds, but for its design.

Garden Retreat

Suzhou is know for its waterway canals and silk production, but also its gardens. There used to be 100 of them, but only a handful that are restored and charge admission. But they are well worth it.

When I arrived at the Suzhou train station I jumped into a taxi and asked the driver to take me to the Garden of the Master of the Nets (Wang Shi Yuan).

But he was reticent. "Why do you want to go to a small garden? You should go to the Humble Administrator's Garden (Zhuozheng Yuan)."
My guidebook had suggested it and I told him so. He kept trying to sell me the latter one, but I'm glad I went to Wang Shi Yuan.

It's described as small, but I don't think it's that tiny. It used to be the residence of a retired official in the 18th century and inside are numerous rooms and courtyards including a pond in the middle. The furniture is beautiful and the wooden screen doors frame the nature outside.

Another garden I visited is called Blue Wave Pavilion (Cang Lang Ting). It's one of the oldest gardens in Suzhou and dates back from the 11th century.

One person who used to own it was scholar Su Zimei, who named the place after a poem by Qu Yuan.

When I entered I heard a Chinese flute and singing. In one room a group of opera enthusiasts were gathering for singing and music.

The rest of the garden was huge, with a fabulous pavilion on a hill in the middle, complete with rocks with holes in them and the pathways made with small stones creating mosaics on the ground.

While it was quite chilly in Suzhou today, there weren't too many people in these gardens so it was a relaxing and pleasant experience. It was definitely a quiet retreat from the big city.

The Great Equalizer

Today I took the train to Suzhou. And it was definitely a plebian experience.

I got to the train station around 8:10am and found ticket counter number 10 where the service is in English. She said there was a train going at 8:37 but standing room only... so I took it. The only return ticket she could get for me was 9:39. Oh boy. But for 37 RMB total, you can't really complain.

After getting my bag scanned and going through a metal detector that were probably only looking for weapons and explosives, I ran to the platform and got on my train.

The area for standing is so small. I squeezed in between two train carriages and waited for the journey to begin.

A family was parked in the same area as me, carrying many piece of luggage. A well-off Shanghainese woman also got a standing ticket but was annoyed at seeing luggage everywhere preventing her from finding a decent spot to stand in.

When a train attendant complained about the bags blocking the passage way, the bitchy woman also chimed in until eventually the average income family moved their bags.

I was pushed along further up front towards the seating area, while that woman took my spot.

But karma really does happen because for over an hour she was stuck listening to a cranky baby that wouldn't stop crying for most of the trip.

Across from me a young boy sat on a bag and played games on his mom's cell phone. He was so frustrated that he couldn't get a higher score.
Then he got bored and borrowed his dad's PDA where he also played games and listened to music.

Finally after over an hour and a half later, we arrived in Suzhou and I could feel the blood had settled down at my feet.

After that train ride I had a sense of what Spring Festival travelers had to go through... it's a tough slog, but for many this kind of travel is a necessity, not a luxury.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Cruisin' Along

One of my to-do things in Shanghai was to take a cruise along the Huangpu River.

And this afternoon I crossed it off my list.

However it was quite hard to find. I read my guidebook, telling me to buy a ticket near the bulbous pink Pearl TV Tower. But the area around the gaudy construction was all blocked off selling admission tickets to the tower.

So I wandered to the promenade and took a few pictures of the Bund. Although the sun was out, the sky was still hazy.

However as I was walking back towards the Pearl TV Tower and a Wild Insect Museum, a man in uniform was shouting about a cruise about to begin. So I ran to the ticket booth, paid my 50 RMB and headed down the gangway onto a miniature cruise ship holding about 50 passengers.

They already took up most of the seats inside in on plush white leather seats complete with a TV screen. So I wandered up to the back and took a seat.

Unfortunately like many Chinese waterways, the water in the river is completely polluted, a ghoulish looking mixture that's almost dark grey.

Soon after the boat started moving, people started crowding around where I was trying to take pictures. They were more interested in taking pictures of Pudong, the new area where all the ultra-cool buildings are instead of the Bund, which I was more keen on.

The European architecture of the Bund is Shanghai for me. The colonial buildings still stand proud despite modern ones peeking or trying to overshadow them in the background.

They represent the past, while Pudong is the future. But they must co-exist otherwise there is nothing to show Shanghai's direction.

On the one side are the former Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank and emerald-green roofed Peace Hotel, and the other is the Gotham-like Jin Mao Tower housing the Grand Hyatt and next to it an even taller building in the midst of construction that looks like a giant bottle cap opener.

Wonder if that means Shanghai is ready to party or unleashing its financial prowess to the world?

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Style over Class

This morning I flew to Shanghai to celebrate Chinese New Year.

I almost didn't go because of reports that it was inundated with snow and the city was unable to handle the heaviest snowfall it's had in 17 years.

But by the time I arrived, the sun came out and there was hardly any snow on the ground save for some piles here and there on the sidewalk.

My hotel is a short walk to Nanjing Road, the major shopping strip in Shanghai that leads to the Bund.

The place was absolutely packed with holiday shoppers, but apparently it's always busy.

There's also lots of sales too making it a prime time to be here.

However, even though the Shanghainese may claim to be more sophisticated than their northern cousins in Beijing, they certainly aren't as polite.

On the subway platform, they pushed their way into the trains as others were still trying to get off.

And for some reason commuters can't buy transportation cards with stored values in them. Everyone has to line up at the ticket counter to buy one. The line moves smoothly but a man chose to butt in front of me so he could buy seven tickets.

There are automated machines as well but as this was my first time taking the subway I wanted to make sure I was getting the right ticket.

So while Shanghai has all the pizazz and glamour, it isn't quite as efficient as Beijing in some respects.

We can all learn from each other.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Taking Cover

The Year of the Rat is about to begin.

And Beijing is booming. Literally.

All over the city people are setting off millions of firecrackers and fireworks.

As I write, there's a mini fireworks display in front of me. They seem to be the short and stubby kind, hardly rising above 10 storeys, but they're a colourful spectacle to say the least.

However, when you're not in the warm comfort of your own home and out on the street, hearing the loud booms around you can be a scary experience. It almost feels like you're in a war zone, wondering where the next explosion will be.

Firecrackers are like giant sparklers in the night, and their brilliance is soon quickly over. Afterwards streets are littered with tiny pieces of red paper, and one wonders who will be cleaning that up.

People are going mad for these traditional bangs as they're meant to scare away the evil spirits for the new year.

Fireworks and firecrackers were previously banned in the city until everyone was up in arms about it and the municipal government allowed people to set them off again last year.

Now there are make-shift stands on street corners selling everything from small firecrackers to giant boxes that when lit set off fireworks.

The loud booms were already echoing in the sky a few days ago -- both day and night -- and tonight's the big night. I and many other people (and animals) won't have much of a restful sleep.

Perhaps everyone is hoping this the Olympic year will be even more auspicious so they're setting off more fireworks than usual to prevent the evil spirits from even thinking of setting shop in Beijing.

Or perhaps as a sign of their growing wealth, people want to show how much money they can burn. Literally.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Crisis Management

The snowstorm is still grabbing headlines.

But now the veneer of the government praising the people for their hard work is wearing thin.

Many people in central China are living in primitive conditions without any electricity or running water. They are getting tired, cold and hungry, as food shortages are becoming more evident.

Lots of transmission towers are down and foreign media are reporting that these structures couldn't bear the weight of the snow and ice as they were placed so far apart from each other due to economics.

Millions are still stranded at railway stations and after waiting for days they are demanding to go home.

The government is trying to blame the chaos on the weather, but part of the situation was man-made.

The Chinese were grumbling about inflation so the government kept the prices of oil, electricity and water low. In turn it wasn't financially viable for small energy producers to keep going; so they either shut down or reduced output.

As a result there are coal shortages and now miners have to work through the Spring Festival so that people can have heat.

However the government is trying to put its own spin on the situation, saying the unexpected cold weather led to not enough coal meeting demand, and not being able to transport it around quick enough.

While officials are trying to persuade migrant workers not to go home for Spring Festival, some don't even have places to live in. Many of the factories that hired them are closed and didn't expect them to come back.

There's a huge gap in social services where in western countries non-governmental organizations like the Red Cross or Oxfam would step in and provide emergency shelter and food.

But the Chinese government is distrustful of others, or perhaps wants to make sure its people know the hand that feeds them.

With the Lunar New Year coming in a matter of days, all the Chinese want is their loved ones safely at home, enough food to eat and heat to keep them warm. If the government doesn't make significant progress in giving people what they want, they may begin to wonder who really is in charge.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Double Take

I saw this headline on Xinhua's website and then had to read this story twice before realizing it was a sad error the polisher didn't catch:

Most Chinese and their organs in Chad evacuated to Cameroon

BEIJING, Feb. 3 (Xinhua) -- All overseas Chinese organs and most Chinese compatriots in Chad were evacuated to the territory of Cameroon, according to Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao here on Sunday.

Chinese embassy in Chad organized the evacuation, he said.

Liu said nine embassy staffs and a few overseas Chinese remained in Chadian capital N'Djamena at present, and the Chinese Foreign Ministry and embassy in Chad would help them evacuate as quickly as possible.

Heavy fighting broke out Friday near the Chadian capital between government soldiers and an allied rebel force hostile to President Idriss Deby in Massaguet, about 50 km to the northeast of the Chadian capital.

For some reason the Chinese like to describe government bodies or organizations as "organs"...

Trying to Go Home

Hundreds of millions of people are attempting to get home for the Lunar New Year which starts on Thursday.

But the heavy snowfalls in the last few weeks have made the journey perilous or near impossible.

Power lines are covered in thick icicles, many transmission towers have collapsed under the weight of the snow, causing power outages and forcing electric trains out of commission.

Roads are icy and dangerous to drive on, and some airports shut down.

Parts of central and eastern China are blanketed with snow, while the south is miserable with relatively cold temperatures and rain.

The images of the hundreds of thousands of people standing at the Guangzhou railway station are amazing. They are mostly migrant workers, many of whom have not gone home to see their families for years. And they are determined to get on a train.

They don't know when their train will start and they don't want to lose their place in the huge crowds.

The authorities are trying to persuade them to stay behind in the southern Chinese city to spend Spring Festival, but at the most important time of the year, traditions are hard to shake off.

President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have made the rounds, trying to show concern for the people.

In some respects it's working, but giving some face time isn't enough to quell the frustrations of ordinary people who just want to get home after standing in line for days.

The People's Liberation Army is feeding people, handing food and water to people stuck on the roads. In one foreign media report, sharp shooters are using sub machine guns to knock ice off power lines.

The police are trying to keep things in check at train stations, but in Guangzhou one person died in the stampede to get onto a train today.

The government has stopped short of declaring a state of emergency; it wants to show it's got the situation under control. They don't want the world to see China falling apart especially seven months before it hosts the Olympics.

Hopefully this natural disaster will be the strongest point yet to the government that climate change is happening right at its doorstep. It needs to take more responsibility for its environment.

It also shows how fragile China's infrastructure is. At the best of times it's barely holding itself together; and now with the biggest snowstorms the country has seen in 50 years, it needs contingency plans and better logistics planning.

It's really the people themselves who are showing the most resilience. Their determination to get home is admirable and I hope they do make it back in the next few days. They deserve the opportunity to see their family, especially after all they've gone through.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

An Attempt to Spark Change

Smoking in China is as much a part of the culture as spitting or squatting on the street.

At restaurants, patrons will light up without any regard for his fellow diners. They even puff in hospitals, right under a No Smoking sign.

Once a man got into the elevator with me with a lit cigarette. And then he puffed on it the moment he got off.

It almost seems like smoking is an inalienable right of the Chinese.

But soon that will not be the case anymore in Beijing.

The municipal government is looking into passing a law banning smoking in public places, including restaurants, hotels, hospitals, fitness centers, toilets and schools. Anyone caught violating the law will be fined 50RMB (US$6.90).

This is all part of the government's pledge to have a smoke-free and Green Olympics.

In a report on China Radio International, some smokers were interviewed and said of course they wouldn't smoke in public places. And besides, one added, it's for the good of society.

Where do they find these people?

What's interesting is that China was awarded the Games seven years ago. In its bid, Beijing promised a non-smoking Olympics, and now less than 187 days to August 8, the government is pushing this smoking ban.

How it will be enforced is also questionable. While there are 350 million smokers in China, there's easily several million of them in Beijing.

Either we'll see more smokers butting out, but more likely we'll find more closet smokers itching for a puff anywhere they can get it.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Spinning the Enthusiasm

Yesterday I blogged about my visit to the National Aquatic Center and how the audience seemed more interested in checking out the venue than cheering on the swimmers.

Today's China Daily has a story on page 5 with the headline: "Water Cube draws huge crowds".

But the story doesn't quite match the heading:

It was still an hour before opening time, but that did not stop a large crowd from braving Beijing's freezing temperatures for a glimpse inside one of the city's top Olympic showpieces.

Families, couples and tourists huddled up yesterday afternoon outside the two ticket offices at the Water Cube, hoping to be among the first members of the public to see inside the venue for Olympic watersports.

First in line was a middle-aged woman from Gansu province, who was spending Spring Festival in the capital.

"I've been here for an hour, since 3:30 pm. I just want a ticket for myself. I want to go in there and see for myself," Hua Lijun said.

The ticket offices finally opened and minutes later, a beaming Hua held the ticket and fought her way through an envious crowd.

The opening treat at the Water Cube, officially known as the National Aquatics Center, was the preliminary rounds of the "Good Luck Beijing Swimming China Open" meet held last evening.

Many saw the cheapest tickets - 50 yuan ($7) - as a real steal to get a taste of the bubble-like padding on the walls and ceiling, made of ethylene-tetrafluoroethylene plastic pillows, for which the Cube is now famous.

The enthusiasm for yesterday's event comes amid a larger feeling of anticipation as the Olympic Games near.

The online ticketing system buckled under the pressure in October and sales had to be suspended due to the overwhelming number of applications.

Those who failed to get their hands on tickets through a lottery last year have had to settle for a tour during trial events.

The Bird's Nest, or National Stadium, which will host the opening and closing ceremonies of the Games, is scheduled to open its doors next month.

All 26,000 tickets to the opening ceremony were snapped up in the first phase of ticket sales last summer.

Ticketing officials said demand remains very high, and is centered on key events.

As expected, not everyone who stood in line was as lucky as Hua.

Wang Shujuan said she left her home in east Beijing at 9am yesterday for the morning phase of ticket sales for the Water Cube.

She took the subway, the bus and walked some distance before arriving at the swimming venue at 1 pm, only to find the ticket office closed for six hours before opening again in the evening.

"No one told us the office would be closed during the day," the frustrated 63-year-old said.

More than 200 tickets were sold in two hours yesterday morning, Wang Hongjian, a volunteer on morning shift at the ticket office, said.

Shen Ming, another member of the ticket sales team, said: "This is one of the hottest events so far."

No where does the story say exactly how many people attended the event last night and how enthusiastic the crowd was.

It only makes the assumption that the anticipation for the Olympics is creating more enthusiasm.

Did that reporter and I watch the same event?