Monday, March 31, 2008

The Olympic Odyssey Begins

The Olympic flame for the Beijing Games is in the Chinese capital.

And what a welcoming ceremony the Chinese presented for a non-human object.

The flame, carried in a special lantern, was flown in on a chartered flight from Athens to Beijing and got the red carpet treatment.

A crowd of well wishers were on the tarmac frantically waving Chinese and Olympic flags as the president of the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee (BOCOG) Liu Qi carried the lantern down the steps.

Then the flame and a delegation were driven in a specially-painted van to Tiananmen Square.

At the square, hundreds of invited guests watched the ultimate Chinese show -- women in strange lime green costumes complete with fuchsia flowers on their bottoms endlessly twirled plates on sticks, while people in white did an acrobatic routine that included throwing each other through the air.

Some men demonstrated their sword-dancing skills and dancers dressed in minorities costumes danced together like one big happy family.

When they finished the 20-minute show, the van with the flame still hadn't shown up. So there were several minutes of shots with nothing happening.

After some agonizing silence -- blame Beijing traffic -- the flame finally arrived and the rest of the proceedings went ahead, including several speeches by Liu, a representative from the International Olympic Committee and Vice President Xi Jinping.

Then President Hu Jintao had the honours of taking the torch, lighting the cauldron and then passing the torch to Olympic gold medallist Liu Xiang standing in short sleeves and shorts on a breezy spring day. He ran 200 meters with the flame and then that was the end of the broadcast.

Tomorrow the flame begins its around the world trip, starting with Almaty.

What? Where?

You know, the capital of Kazakhstan.


Sunday, March 30, 2008

Journalistic Conscience

With the Tibet situation in the last few weeks, I heard some foreign experts in state media were refusing to participate in the government's propaganda drive.

Many newspapers, and radio and television broadcasts are telling mostly one-sided stories about the riots, saying the victims were Han Chinese and showing images of monks and Tibetans brandishing swords and destroying shops.

At one English-language newspaper, some foreign staff refused to edit or even touch Tibet-related stories which they considered outright lies, while others doing voice overs for TV news stories pushed the work onto others in the name of journalistic integrity.

But not everyone can avoid their duties, like those whose jobs it is to read out the news and must read the script exactly as it's written.

Luckily I haven't had to deal with this situation, but I would probably refuse to work on stories that I didn't consider balanced or at least correct.

It's one thing to work for state media, where guidelines are clear on how things should be reported, but quite another to be an accomplice to a media machine churning out stories that aren't true.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Rock the Jing

Tonight we checked out some rock 'n' roll Beijing style and it seems like language is not a barrier when looking for a good time.

Three local bands played at 2 Kolegas, which is located inside a drive-in place. Once you go past the winding forested path it leads to several freestanding bars, pubs and cafes. The movie theatre is in there... somewhere.

After paying 40RMB cover charge, we walked into 2 Kolegas which looked like a high-ceilinged basement, with brick walls, posters hung on the walls and ceiling, and old sofas and chairs. The bar sold a myriad of drinks but most people had bottles of beer or the odd vodka tonics.

The crowd was mostly people in their 2os, more than half were Westerners. They were a weird bunch, nerds, geeks, misfits and the odd good-looking person. There was even a rugrat, a guy with long straight hair, the top covered under a knitted hat. And a Chinese woman desperate for attention stripped off her jacket and sweater to reveal a lacy top with spaghetti straps that no one seemed to appreciate.

Around 10pm the first band, The Fire Billoon started playing. The trio was led by a guy on the guitar with big curly hair. For a Chinese guy we speculated his coiffure might be a wig, but in the end we weren't sure. They played mostly angry music with the lead singer/guitarist screaming into the mic.

Then about an hour later Shake Hands with Danger got on stage to play their set. The Caucasian musicians have a loyal fan base and pretty soon the place started rocking. Some songs were new material I hadn't heard before and then they finished with my favourite Love of War.

We were going to leave after, but one of the Shake Hands band members said the next band up was really good so we decided to stay a bit longer.

The Chinese band is called PK14 and they had an even larger following, mostly Westerners. The quartet is made up of two guitarists, drummer and a lead singer who makes nerds look cool. He has thick horn-rimmed glasses and wears a short-sleeve shirt. And once he starts performing, the audience is entranced.

He grabs the microphone stand and swings with it, alternatively singing and rapping the Chinese lyrics. Meanwhile the audience are bopping up and down, a mini mosh pit who can't get enough of the metal sound. The songs veer on angst, lots of bass and drums.

It was intriguing watching the mostly Western men in their mid to late 20s jumping up and down nodding their heads even though a majority probably didn't even know what the lead was singing about.

But that's the beauty of music -- if it speaks to you in some way, you're in the groove.

Earth Hour?

Apparently in North America at least, Earth Hour will be observed tonight at 8pm. Environmentally conscious participants will shut everything using some kind of energy source, be it electricity and gas, for one hour.

No lights, no TV, no movies, video games, and horror of horrors, no Internet connection.

While it's an admirable thought to give Mother Earth a break for 60 minutes, someone forgot to tell China about the idea.

There's been no word here about Earth Hour, and it's strange considering the country will be hosting what it promises will be a "Green Olympics".

Having 1.3 billion people cut down on their energy consumption would have been great, but probably not feasible in this place where most people don't have much understanding of what they are doing to the environment.

Part of it isn't their fault -- their government keeps talking about being more environmentally friendly but doesn't give its people practical steps to pitch in to save the planet. The only looming deadline is June 1 when people will have to pay extra for shopping bags.

But in a small development -- my apartment complex has bins outside with labels "to recycle" and "not to recycle". A few days ago when it was really windy, the top blew over only to find the bin for recyclables was stuff in plastic bags. I couldn't tell what was inside them.

These bins should really be on every single floor of the 28-storey building in each of the four buildings. But it's a start.... I guess.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Still in the Dark

The unrest in Tibet on March 14 still hasn't allowed us here in China to have access or uninterrupted access to foreign media sites.

A few days earlier I was finally able to view the BBC website and Canada's Globe and Mail. But not anymore.

I'm still having trouble reading my Yahoo emails. As soon as I log in the page either lets me view a few emails before going blank or goes blank immediately. It takes several minutes before allowing me back in, again only temporarily.

Yesterday the Chinese government allowed some foreign journalists up to Tibet on a press trip to see what had happened a few weeks earlier. But even then we're not allowed to read what they saw.

The AP bureau chief, who is on the trip, reported several monks disrupted a government press conference today to say the riots were not instigated by the Dalai Lama and they knew they might be arrested for speaking out.

While the Chinese government is trying very hard to give the semblance of having everything under control, things are falling through the cracks.

A few days ago when the torch was lit for the Beijing Olympics, some protesters managed to kick up a fuss during the ceremony by unfurling a flag with images of handcuffs in the shape of the Olympic rings, while the president of the Beijing Olympics Organizing Commitee Liu Qi was making a speech.

Apparently he was a very good actor and didn't let the scuffle faze him.

But this wasn't shown to Chinese viewers -- the unchoreographed scene was quickly cut away to stock footage about the torch relay.

Nobody is going to rain on China's parade.

However, there are plans of protests happening in when the torch arrives in San Francisco, and if French President Nicolas Sarkozy decides to not to attend the opening ceremonies in Beijing, it might be a quiet blessing for the French to also voice their dismay at China's handling of Tibet when the torch goes through Paris.

One has to wonder if the Chinese really realize the possible negative effects of hosting the Games, or are they burying their heads in the sand and hoping somehow it will all go away come August.

In the meantime the rest of us here want to have our Internet access back. But it looks like China is going the way of the latter.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

City Scavengers

On the streets, particularly during the evening rush hour, there are hundreds, thousands of men and women pedalling wagons piled high with neatly stacked cardboard, canvas bags filled with plastic bottles, discarded electrical equipment, and even building materials.

They are Beijing's recyclers.

A few of them set up shop in front of my apartment complex and stand or sit all day waiting for people to come by and give them things, or they wait for the garbage collection to go through it for anything they think they can get money for.

My apartment building, and I'm sure many others don't have separate bins for separating garbage, so I do it myself, putting them into plastic bags and hope someone picks them up and puts them to good use. There is no education for residents to separate their garbage and so it's left to these scavengers to pick through garbage or even possibly injure themselves just to earn a few extra yuan.

They then collect their goods, from used magazines, bottles and even sheets of glass and peddle them to the west side of the city where there is a recycling centre.

It's hard to imagine these people are able to survive on these meagre earnings that they have to work so hard for. But at the same time I have to salute these people who are helping the city decrease the amount of garbage it accumulates daily. They are the ones who are really making Beijing green.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Cracking the Egg

I attended a cello recital last night at the National Grand Theater and for the first time had a chance to check out the Egg, as it's fondly nicknamed.

As one colleague pointed out, the dome-shaped building really looks beautiful in the evening, with the glowing lights and reflection in the water.

It's really convenient to get there, as the exit C from subway stop at Tiananmen West takes you right to the entrance. You have to descend into the Egg to get in and last night there were hordes of people, some just passing by and taking pictures, and others like me going to the venue with camera in hand.

Once inside there's a giant hallway, but patrons have to go through a metal detector and have their bags checked in an X-ray machine. No liquids or food is allowed and many people had to abandon unopened bottles of water and a bag of chips. I had to dump my thermos half full of water into the garbage.

On both sides of the long hallway are exhibitions about the history of the National Grand Theater, how Zhou Enlai had thought of having this kind of performing arts venue since the early 1950s, and pictures of the construction and design of the place by French architect Paul Andreu.

The main section of the theatre is for big productions and currently Puccini's opera Turandot is on stage. In this production, a Chinese composer was asked to create a Chinese ending to the Oriental story.

Off to the left is the Concert Hall where I saw cellist Wang Jian perform. The staff are all dressed in a grey uniform complete with a scarf around their necks making them look like flight attendants, a step up from the drab usher uniforms. On the whole the staff are attentive and helpful.

The Concert Hall is a good space for choral concerts or solo to quartet recitals. There is a pipe organ, as the pipes are proudly displayed at the back of the stage. Meanwhile wood is used all around the stage to create a warm sound. The ceiling is a bit strange with quasi-organic relief curves in grey plaster tiles.

However, the seating isn't much to rave about. I'm not a tall person and there was barely any leg room for comfortable viewing. It was an ideal situation for people to contract deep vein thrombosis if they didn't change the position of their legs periodically. I wondered if those sitting through the opera next door had the same kind of seating as us.

Again the audience's behaviour was far from stellar. Even though an announcement was made before the concert for patrons not to take pictures, talk, or walk out during the performance, many didn't think the rules applied to them.

Many took out their cellphones or cameras to take pictures. The ushers had a new weapon -- a red laser pen they shone on the phone or camera that distracted the offender, but only temporary. They ignored it and then tried to take a shot again, and the attendant had to run up or down the aisles to physically stop them.

One woman near the stage sat in the aisle when the concert began. An usher asked her why she wasn't sitting in her seat and she complained someone else was in her spot. The usher then asked the alleged offender for her ticket and in the end it turned out it was correct. The woman sheepishly went back to her seat only two rows back.

What was also outrageous was people walking out of the venue even as the performer was playing. They just walked out without any respect for the artist who has spent years honing his craft. They didn't have the patience to wait until the movement or piece was over.

More announcements need to be made before the performance, perhaps even getting a senior manager to stand in front of the crowd, thank them for coming and then politely ask them to turn off their phones, not talk and not walk out during the show.

Also the attendants, while there were already quite vigilant, need to be even more militant and really reinforce the rules so that people understand their behaviour needs correcting.

I've been to about four concerts now and my patience has been tested each time. It hasn't gotten to the point where I have lost interest in going because of the audience, but it really is a turn off.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Musical Calling

Music has always been a part of cellist Wang Jian's life.

His father was a cellist and began teaching him when he was four-years-old, by giving him a violin with a pin at the bottom.

Wang Jian's musical talents soon led him to study at the Shanghai Conservatory when he was nine-years-old.

As a child he was smaller than the others and at times would play "incorrectly".

"I was small for my age, and it took me more physical effort to play the cello," he says, having to shift his position to compensate. "But I wanted to make the sound that was in my head, and I didn't care how I did it."

It was a year later when he was noticed by violin virtuoso Isaac Stern who made his Oscar-winning documentary "From Mao to Mozart" in 1979.

"I had no idea who he was, but I was happy that he kept yelling, 'Bravo, bravo', after I played," recalled Wang. "He kept in touch with me until his death [in 2001]."

Stern encouraged the young boy and helped pave the way for him to go to the United States a few years later. He studied under Aldo Parisot who also taught Ralph Kirschbaum.

Since then Wang has played all over the world and so when he was playing in Beijing, I had to go check him out.

Tonight he performed at the Concert Hall in the National Grand Theater. It's a nice, relatively intimate space with good acoustics. However the seating leaves hardly any leg room and I'm only 5' 2".

Wang was decked out in a tuxedo complete with tails and promptly launched into a program that was reflective. First up was Franz Schubert's Sonata for cello and piano in A minor "Appeggione". This followed with Shostakovich's Sonata for cello and piano in D minor.

After a brief intermission he performed Franck's Sonata for cello and piano in A major, whose last movement was very memorable. This was my first cello concert and Wang made the instrument a soulful one, and very expressive.

He also played two encores, one of which was JS Bach's Ave Maria that was so delicate and serene except it was partially ruined by a woman taking cellophane off a CD she bought during intermission.

Wang is only in his late 30s and hopefully his repertoire will expand to showcase his fantastic skills as a cellist and artist.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Look Before You Cross

Chinese people love to reel of statistics off the top of their head. China's GDP, its population, and economic status in the world.

How about another one? China has the world's highest death toll from road accidents.

At the second China Traffic Safety Forum a few days ago, the country recorded 5.1 deaths for every 10,000 vehicles in 2007. The world average is two deaths for every 10,000 vehicles.

According to the Ministry of Public Security, China has topped the list since 1996. Road accidents claimed 81,649 deaths last year, down 7,806 from the year before.

With the ever increasing number of cars on the road it's not surprising there are so many accidents.

Another is the lack of regard people have for traffic rules, pedestrians, cyclists and motorists included. Pedestrians will try and cross a street when the light is already red, or cyclists don't look when they turn. Many motorists act like they own the road and are prone to steamrolling ahead regardless of what is in front of them.

As for Beijing, city planning is also to blame. The municipality is so spread out, it's more of a car city than a people-oriented one. It almost seems like pedestrians are an afterthought, hardly giving them safe areas to cross the street. Some stretches are so long before the next intersection that many people just try to jaywalk across at their own peril.

After almost a year of living here, I'm less frightened when crossing the street. But I do constantly look both ways even if it's a one-way street -- you never know if another car has decided to go against the traffic to make a bizarre manuovre. I always make sure I stare at the driver so he/she knows they have to stop. Or I make sure I run quickly enough to get out of the way.

One has to wonder, with so many deaths per year, do the Chinese really value human life? Losing one's life from a road accident seems so senseless. Everyone who uses the road -- from pedestrians to motorists must have more education about safety and courtesy. It is the only way to lower this frightening statistic.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Reporting with Chinese Characteristics

The Chinese state media are going into overdrive with their reporting on the Tibet situation.

Radio and television broadcasts, and newspapers are giving extensive coverage, focusing on the impact of the unrest on the Han Chinese.

"The riots in Lhasa last Friday are the most serious incident in the region for decades. Local residents are still reeling from the aftershock even as they try to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives," starts one story.

There are pictures and footage showing Tibetans attacking Han Chinese, or Tibetans damaging shops, but no images of Chinese soldiers shooting Tibetans "in self-defense".

Another lead says: "Violence has resulted in heavy toll in lives [sic] and property. Statistics indicate 13 civilians were burned or stabbed to death".

If there were only 13 people killed, how does that compare to over 150 lives lost during the recent snowstorms, partly caused by the government's own missteps?

Premier Wen Jiabao claims he has evidence proving the Dalai Lama is the mastermind behind the riots. But so far the Chinese government has not revealed what this evidence is, instead only constantly denouncing His Holiness as a "splittist".

What's more -- government officials and Chinese media are complaining foreign media reports are biased.

And because the majority of the Chinese population don't know the true history behind China's forceful claim over Tibet and don't realize how badly these nomads are treated by the government, there is hardly any sympathy for Tibetans.

They only think these people are ungrateful for what the Chinese government has done, helping them evolve from their nomadic lifestyle, giving them education and healthcare.

But as the unrest continues, it shows Tibetans are extremely frustrated, feeling like they are second-class citizens in their own homeland and are determined to show the Chinese government how angry they are.

However the chances of the government backing down and giving some concessions, or even speaking to the Dalai Lama are highly unlikely. With soldiers and police kicking out foreigners "for their own safety", one worries if a bloody crackdown may happen soon.

A Potty Problem

It's 140 days to the Beijing Olympics and organizers are now realizing that a majority of the 500,000 visitors who are coming will be shocked when they see squat toilets in the spanking new venues.

After some 30 test events at many of the Games venues, this was the biggest complaint.

"A lot of parties have raised the question of toilets... We have told the venues to improve on this," said Yao Hui, deputy head of venue management.

And now organizers are rushing to install more Western sit-down toilets in three of the key venues.

He said the proportion of squat toilets versus sit-down will vary depending on the venue. But Yao said most of the ones in the National Stadium, or Bird's Nest "should be" sit-down style.

"Most of the Chinese people are used to the squat toilet, but nowadays more and more people demand sit-down toilets," he continued.

"However, it will take some time for this transition."

How much time?

When the Olympics is China's big opportunity to impress the rest of the world with its gleaming skyscrapers, state-of-the-art mobile phones and shiny new cars, they forgot foreigners would also need to use the loo.

And for someone coming to China for the first time, encountering a hole in the floor can be a shocking experience.

The other big surprise is that toilet paper isn't thrown down the toilet, but thrown in the wastebasket (if you're doing a number one). The plumbing can't handle that much waste in its system.

So if you are coming to Beijing for the Olympics, you've been forewarned.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Dusted Up

Over two weeks ago Beijing had its first dust storm of the year and I seem to have been on another planet on March 1, not realizing we just started the gritty season.

Around this time sand from the Gobi desert blows across northern China and spreads to neighbouring Russia and South Korea.

When the sand storms are bad, it's a sign that China is losing its battle against desertification. While the country has intensified its tree planting, draining lakes and rivers as well as polluting them doesn't help the situation.

Before the dust storms came, I'd been warned by colleagues not to be surprised to see people walking backwards on the streets. "They're trying to avoid getting sand in their eyes so they walk like that," they said.

I wondered what I should do to combat the dust, if I should wear some kind of thin veil, or a mask. But another coworker dismissed my concerns. "I don't use any of those things. You'll be fine." But she did say there were days when she had to clean her desk every hour as there was a layer of fine dust accumulating constantly.

Earlier this week the sky was an ominous grayish yellow and looked hazy. It turned out Monday was the most severe sand storm to date, but by the afternoon it had dissipated.

Tonight a few colleagues and I played almost two hours of tennis at the university across the street from our office. When I hit the ball, I could see a puff of dust coming from the racquet thanks to the bright lights shining down on our court. My mother suggested I wear a mask when I play tennis, but it's hard to breathe just walking down the street with it on.

Part of my problem is feeling self-conscious about wearing it, but I'll just have to keep reminding myself that it's for my health and not a fashion statement.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Lighting the Passions

Today the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee (BOCOG) held its press conference today to talk about the upcoming torch relay which begins in Olympia, Greece on March 24.

And as the torch is planned to go through all of China's 31 provinces, autonomous regions and cities including Tibet, a large foreign media contingent attended the briefing.

Executive vice president of BOCOG Jiang Xiaoyu gave a rundown of the "Journey of Harmony", continually stressing how it conveys the message of peace and harmony to the world.

But foreign journalists weren't interested in the torch going by the British Museum in London, the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, Moscow. Neither were they keen to know more about the youngest torchbearer (14) or the oldest (94).

One asked given the situation in Tibet, would the route to Mount Everest continue as planned? Would special security be in place for the torchbearers?

Jiang said the situation in Lhasa is now "relatively calm" and the local government will do its utmost to make sure the operation of the torch relay will go as planned.

What about the possibility of people overseas protesting the torch relay in the cities where the Olympic flame will pass through?

The BOCOG official had no definite answer except to say "those who oppose the Games are doing it against the spirit of the Olympic charter, the Olympic spirit and the Journey of Passion.... these people are doomed to failure."

Another asked if there would be stepped up security for the torchbearers especially in Tibet, Gansu, Sichuan and Xinjiang Autonomous Region, as there have been reports of unrest in those areas. The reporter pointed out if those areas were unsafe for foreign reporters, how could those places be safe for torchbearers and the journalists covering the relay?

Again Jiang sought to soothe concerns saying everything was under control and going as planned without elaborating on any security details.

However, he eventually conceded there are contingency plans in place for events like weather changes, and that may include changing the route or canceling the relay in certain cities.

This will be the longest-ever Olympic torch relay, covering 130 days and over five continents. Within China the torch will criss-cross the country and even go up to Mount Everest in May. BOCOG struck a deal with the International Olympic Committee, where for the first time, there will be two flames, one at the Everest base camp while the other goes across China. Once the weather conditions are good, the torch will make the ascent up the world's highest peak, while the other will be suspended until the torch reaches the summit.

Almost a year ago a brouhaha erupted over Taiwan's position within the torch relay route, making it look like it was a part of China. Taiwan refused to cooperate despite China insisting the route was set. In the end Taiwan wasn't included, though some Taiwanese will participate as torchbearers.

The Chinese are aiming for the biggest, longest, highest torch relay ever. It's a lofty goal, but one wonders if they really do realize the security risks that could possibly occur -- from angry protestors to possible suicide bombers.

Saying things are going as planned somehow seems not as reassuring as it's meant to be.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

In My Neighbourhood

On the weekend I walked down a boulevard near my place. It's not a busy street and along one side is a mini park that sprung up a few months after I arrived. The other side is some kind of flight academy, a two-star hotel, apartments and restaurants.

And in the last few months workers were busy constructing a building near the entrance of the boulevard. Thinking it was public land, I assumed it would be a small community centre, or even washroom facilities.

But I was completely wrong. Erected is the "08 Rinse Meat Workshop" on one side and on the other is the "Hong Kong Hot Pot". I expect the meat for the hot pot will be fresh off the chopping block.

What's strange is that there's no other buildings next to it and the land is not deep enough to develop further as there's a small stream that smells putrid, especially in the summer.

Do city officials know about this "meat workshop"?

Then further down the quiet street in front of a restaurant was a fleet of cars decked out for a wedding.

The Mercedes pictured above has a nice flower arrangement on the hood, but then it's gaudily taped down with Scotch tape. Hope that doesn't ruin the paint job.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Putting Up a Facade

This is a picture of a furniture store in the midst of getting itself ready for the onslaught of visitors in August.

I pass by it everyday on my way to work and it's a strange long building covered with a blue curved roof. It looks like it should be a warehouse, but in fact sells furniture retail.

And then a few weeks ago some workers started putting up this European arched facade in front of the building to cover up its ugliness. The arches are prefabricated so it's pretty easy for them to put them together.

And I thought they would leave them in the dark grey colour, but that wasn't the case. Now they are painting them a cream colour that is hardly stylish.

This quick-fix solution is happening everywhere in the city. To hide dilapilated hutongs, the city has resorted to building giant walls so that foreigners won't be able to see them from the street.

It looks like Beijing is desperate to show the world how progressive it is. But foreigners do find old things charming, even if they are run-down.

Some visitors have remarked to me they are disappointed after visiting the Forbidden City because the buildings have new paint jobs and don't look old.

And when people descend on the capital five months from now, they do want to see the amazing new architectural feats like the National Grand Theatre, the National Stadium that looks like a bird's nest and the funky National Aquatic Centre that's a cube filled with bubbles. Oh yes and the Rem Koolhaas CCTV building that has two angles joined together.

But they also want to see the remaining hutongs and the old city walls to give them a taste of old Beijing. They will fall in love with the siheyuan or courtyard houses, and will love watching the people doing all kinds of activities in parks.

After all, that's what Beijing really is about. And there's no hiding that.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Creative Writing

For the past few days, Tibetans have vented their anger on the Chinese occupying their land.

They are doing this now to mark the 50th anniversary of Chinese occupation of Tibet.

I'm having trouble accessing foreign news reports, even those copied into emails to me as the browser goes blank and I have to wait a few minutes to be able to reload it again.

Today at the gym I watched a report on the BBC that went black after 15 seconds, probably blocking the violent scenes they captured on camera. Some of the images show people throwing rocks at buildings, pushing a man off his motorcycle and hitting the bike, police and soldiers behind shields marching forward.

Meanwhile the Chinese government insists everything is under control and blaming the Dalai Lama as the "mastermind".

Besides issuing reports that contrast with foreign media ones of violence and deaths, the Xinhua News Agency also published a commentary yesterday that deserves recognition for its creative prose:

The Nobel laurel was tainted, and the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal proved nothing but a fig leaf of the Dalai Lama when on Friday rioters, backed by the self-proclaimed peace preacher, turned the tranquil holy city of Lhasa into a land of terror.

And the intention harbored behind the monk's claim of seeking "real or greater autonomy" of Tibet also proved hypocritical when hundreds of his followers yelled independence, attacked police, smashed windows, robbed shops, and set cars and a mosque ablaze.

Yet, this impudent politician did not show any sign of shame when he disassociated himself from the conspiracy as an innocent monk, leaving his followers standing as cat's paws by persuading them, in a canting manner, "not to resort to violence" reportedly in a statement after the serene abode of the gods was disturbed.

At least 10 people were confirmed dead in the rioting, while the number of injured and other losses kept rising.

When a woman who dared not to step out of her office near a looted and burnt supermarket told me through mobile phone short messages that Lhasa was cloaked in an atmosphere of horror, I believed the hand behind the cat's paws was a master terror maker.

But the monk in a crimson cassock has many tools for disguise to survive the international criticism against violence and terror: his preaching of peace, tolerance and benevolence to the Nobel honor and U.S. medal which added to his undeserved aura.

Now the blaze and blood in Lhasa has unclad the nature of the Dalai Lama, and it's time for the international community to recheck their stance toward the group under the camouflage of non-violence, if they do not want to be willingly misled.

The Dalai Lama and his clique have never for a day refrained from violence and terror. His childhood teacher, an Austrian, was a Nazi, and it's no secret that for quite a long time after he fled to India, he kept a force, armed by his western patron, for separatist activities. The peace advocator had also shown no interest in the global campaigns against U.S. wars on Afghanistan and Iraq.

The international community, however, seems to have neglected, or, be unwilling, to face the facts. Continuous tolerance to violence undoubtedly means appeasement to terror, while offering platforms for the rhetoric lama to sell his deceitful philosophy will only encourage him to drift further away from the negotiation framework on the Tibet issue that the Chinese government has repeatedly promised to keep open.

There are always countries, organizations and individuals who would like to act as moral defenders when anything they don't like to see happens. Now it's time again for them to stand out, but on whom their whip falls is a test to justice.

As for the Dalai Lama, I never disbelieve the ability and power of the so-called "His Holiness" in praying for peace, but the violent scene in Lhasa has given me the very reason to doubt the always-smiling monk's sincerity.

It's written by a Wang Jiaquan, but it's most probably a nom de plume for someone who was given the freedom to sink their teeth into His Holiness and literally rip him to shreds.

What is also sad is that the Chinese themselves completely believe in what their government says.

They have been told it was the Chinese who helped Tibetans improve their way of life, building the economy and now with the Qinghai-Tibet railway, tourism and immigration can ramp up at an even higher pace.

The average person, particularly young people, don't understand that in the process of economic development, Tibetan culture is quickly disappearing. They think prosperity is much more important than culture, especially when it's not Chinese.

So it is a shock for some who leave China to study or emigrate and find out the real truth of their country. Others still in denial, resolutely believe China is right regardless of the consequences.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

A Day at the Park

After a lunch that included a big dessert (an ice shaved mountain drizzled with condensed milk topped with big black tapioca pearls and beans), my friend took me to a park just south of the Forbidden City to walk the calories off.

It was a nice warm day and luckily the park wasn't too crowded. It's called Jingshan Park and used to be a garden for the emperor. There's a big hill in the middle and according to my guidebook, it was created from the dirt leftover from digging the moat around the palace. On top of it is a small Buddhist temple that has a fantastic view overlooking Beijing.

The climb up isn't too arduous, with a pavilion in the east and another in the west along the way giving visitors an opportunity catch their breath.

The top was swarming with visitors taking pictures of the yellow-tiled roofs in the palace and beyond them red flags flying on the State buildings on Chang'an Avenue. The National Grand Theater, or The Egg, is also visible, a giant dome that looks incongruous with the boxy buildings to its left.

In the south there are views of Beihai and a bit further south west is Houhai.

Beside the views, there were many opportunities to do some people watching at the park. An elderly couple were dressed in imperial clothing like an emperor and empress for a portrait; a casual trombone and saxophone group played some tunes to curious onlookers; and a singing teacher armed with his accordion accompanied a group of female singers.

The park also has a peony garden which already has buds sprouting out. I'll have to come back in about a month and hopefully see these gorgeous flowers in bloom.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Book Review: Wolf Totem

It's exactly four years after Wolf Totem was published in Chinese.

It immediately created a literary sensation not only for its unusual story, but also its daring statements criticizing the Chinese government in its treatment of the environment and minorities.

Jiang Rong is the pen name for Lu Jiamin, who wrote this semi-autobiographical story about a student named Chen Zhen who spends many years on the Mongolian grasslands during the Cultural Revolution.

He is fascinated by the wolves and unlike the other Chinese students living there, he takes a keen interest and is taught everything about them by an elder Mongolian called Bilgee.

Chen and the reader learn the important role that wolves play in the grasslands: as natural predators, they keep the population of mice, rabbits and gazelles down so that the herders have enough grass for their sheep and horses. However, there are certain periods in the year when wolves can't find food and will resort to killing the herders' sheep and horses. And when the Mongols feel threatened, they too have to protect themselves by killing wolves.

But there is also the spiritual aspect of wolves that Bilgee talks about. There is a higher spirit called Tengger that also regulates the ecosystem below. And the Mongols worship the wolf totem. It's not a fixed or physical monument, but a spiritual one about freedom -- no one can tame a wolf.

At times the scenes describing the grasslands are idyllic and almost like utopia. At others, there is sheer violence, blood and guts. But this was the life of the land there.

Translator Howard Goldblatt has done a fantastic job making this novel a thrilling read, that I can only imagine the Chinese version is even better.

The story also has a strong environmental message that not only relates to China but to the world; which is why I hope that now the book is available to a wider audience, it will inspire more people to push their governments to be more accountable and make corporations more responsible as we only have one place to live on and it's already slowly choking to death.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Chinese authors' best reader

Howard Goldblatt is considered the foremost expert in contemporary Chinese literature.

The professor at Notre Dame has translated Chinese novels, poems and short stories for over 25 years and one of his latest is Jiang Rong's Wolf Totem which was officially launched today in English.

However, when he was young, Goldblatt didn't know what to do with his life. He had a great time in college, but after he graduated he realized he had no skills, no knowledge.

So he signed up for the navy and was posted to Taiwan.

He admits he had fun there are a young naval officer. He didn't learn any Chinese at that time. But he had a second posting there and that's when he decided to learn the language and realized he was pretty good at it and left the navy to study Chinese in Taiwan.

He returned to the States and again didn't know what to do. Someone suggested graduate school so he applied to 25 schools and only one accepted him.

He also discovered he loved reading novels and so he wanted to find a way to combine the two. That's when he started translating and has passionately continued working on it ever since.

Goldblatt says it's a solitary job, surrounded by the text and resources, which are usually more texts. But it's his love of the language that thrills him about the job. He loves complicated characters and Chinese calligraphy and picked up speaking it quite easily.

For him, his biggest responsibility is to the reader, then the text and author. And because Chinese and English are so disparate, he grapples with the language and the best way to phrase it into English all the time. That's what makes translation an ever evolving process. He consults the authors constantly, asking questions or what exactly they meant in a certain passage and that helps him write it better in English.

While Goldblatt is very humble, constantly fretting over the quality of his translations, he does confidently say that he is their best reader. A translator reads every single word. And if something is not logically correct or grammatically incorrect he will see it.

I've only read the English version of Wolf Totem and the writing was so good, that I can only imagine the original Chinese version is even better.

So hats off to Goldblatt for another wonderful translation that will hopefully entice even more English readers to contemporary Chinese literature and more.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Spinning Full Throttle

Yesterday world-record marathoner Haile Gebrselassie announced he would not compete in the Beijing Olympics because of his concerns about air pollution.

"The pollution in China is a threat to my health and it would be difficult for me to run 42 kilometres in my current condition," the 34-year-old Ethiopian who many enthusiasts call the best distance runner of all time, told Reuters.

For the Beijing Olympic organizers it's yet another blow a month after director Steven Spielberg declined to participate in the opening and closing ceremonies as an international artistic advisor.

So the Chinese hit back hard today, with many media reports about how the government is doing a lot and spending so much money to ensure clean air for the Games.

Today the foreign ministry held a press conference on the sidelines of the National People's Congress.

Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi put up a brave face when an American reporter stood up and pointed out an athlete (not mentioning Gebrselassie's name) was not going to attend the Olympics because of the air pollution... so what response did the Chinese have?

"I believe the air quality will only become better and better in Beijing," he began as he addressed the giant hall packed with foreign and domestic media.

"Most athletes who are coming to Beijing are satisfied and have confidence in the air quality, environment and sports facilities in Beijing," Yang told the press conference. "They have full confidence in these conditions."

Then he added this kicker:

"One thing you can't argue about is that many athletes have broken world records in China, notably in Beijing," said Yang.

"So I think that if the world's athletes can't break world records in other places, they should come to Beijing, perhaps they will have a better chance here."

Which world records is he referring to, and when were they broken?

Many teams who can afford it, will stay in Japan, Singapore and Korea before heading to Beijing in August. And even then athletes have been advised to spend as little time in the Chinese capital as possible to decrease the chances of the air affecting their performance.

So while athletes and coaches have raved about the venues during the test events, no one has praised China about how great the air is.

And if the Chinese government has really spent so much money on improving air quality and has decided to take half the cars off the road so people can only drive on alternate days -- then why not have action speak louder than words and start the exercise now. Only when people see a visible difference will they actually believe it.

If the Chinese are under the impression air quality will change magically overnight, they are in for a surprise.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

All Together Now

The National People's Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) are both meeting in Beijing last week and this week.

Over 2,000 people descend to the capital which explains the clogged roads these past few days.

The NPC is China's top legislative body that passes laws, while the CPPCC is made of delegates from across the country proposing bills or suggestions to the NPC to consider.

For the first time, the NPC has included three migrant workers to represent 13 percent of the population. It must be an exciting task for these two women and man to tell top officials face-to-face what migrant workers need most (housing, healthcare, education for their children).

CPPCC delegates are supposed to represent every sector of society, from minorities (which explains the traditional dress), professionals, tycoons (Stanley Ho), celebrities (director Zhang Yimou, actress Gong Li), athletes, artists, and even deaf people.

Many put forward all kinds of suggestions for the government to consider, from recycling textbooks for primary school children, to changing the national holiday schedule, protecting the environment, more access for handicapped people, and fighting corruption.

It's pretty amazing over 2,000 people gather and for 12 days straight hash out solid proposals to the NPC.

These two meetings called "liang hui" should happen more often. While it is a huge logistical undertaking for all these people to come to Beijing, it would really make average people more politically active. Once they see the government really is serving the people, they will begin to demand more accountability which can only be a good thing.

Meanwhile, can something be done about jazzing up the old men in boring dark suits with the ubiquitous red tie? While the minorities are expected to dress all out in elaborate headdresses and colourful fabrics, can't the officials be a bit more daring and try pinstripes or a snazzy tie?

Someone call up Stacey London and Clinton Kelly from What Not to Wear.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Caution, Lust

Actress Tang Wei, one of the stars of the Ang Lee movie, "Lust, Caution", gained notoriety for her sex scenes with co-star Tony Leung.

But now she has become infamous after China's State Administration of Radio and Television (SARFT) issued a memo to all television and print media not to broadcast or publish a commercial starring Tang.

She had a 6 million yuan (US$843,000) deal to promote skin care brand Pond's, but the government-issued memo didn't explain why Tang's ads had to be pulled.

In a March 7 statement titled "Reassertion of Censorship Guidelines," SARFT said it had informed all major film and broadcast bodies and governing entities it was renewing prohibitions on "lewd and pornographic content" and content that "show promiscuous acts, rape, prostitution, sexual intercourse, sexual perversity, masturbation and male/female sex organs and other private parts."

However the notice, which was published on SARFT's website, did not specifically mention the 28-year-old Tang or the movie.

Chinese awards shows have been notified not to use her as a presenter and Hong Kong's Oriental Daily reported online forums about the film and Tang were deleted.

However, Tang is slated to be a presenter at the Asian Film Awards on March 17 in Hong Kong, so it will be interesting to see if she does show up.

While there were explicit scenes in the movie in an art house style, the government has to loosen up and understand Tang was playing a role -- she doesn't go around seducing spies in real life.

And why is her Pond's commercial banned? Is she doing something with the cream other than putting it on her face?

It's hard to say if this has ruined Tang's career. While it may prevent her from doing some movies on the mainland for a few years, she has already gained kudos outside of China.

It may not hurt for her to change tack and head for Hollywood.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Bad Timing

Yesterday International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge said China is making progress on clearing up its air quality ahead of the Olympics in August.

During the opening ceremony of the 4th World Conference on Women and Sports in Jordan, Rogge said China has taken some measures, including switching from coal to gas energy, closing 10 percent of its gas stations, and planting millions of trees to improve its air quality.

Chinese officials have confirmed half of the over 3 million vehicles will be taken off the roads, by alternating license plates ending in even and odd numbers, but still haven't decided when this exercise will begin.

It's interesting Rogge said this during the weekend, when the sky these two days has been so hazy, the sun had trouble burning through the smog to show itself. This picture was taken from my apartment, around 6pm Sunday.

Perhaps he should have saved his comments for when there was a "blue sky" day.

Washing Memories Away

In 2001 my parents, aunt and I took a cruise along the Yangtze River. The Three Gorges Dam was an awesome sight -- a jaw-dropping experience seeing how huge it was and it wasn't completed yet.

And as our mini cruise ship went along the river, we could see markings on the river banks indicating how high the water would rise in several years. Many famous spots and towns we saw would be, and are now underwater.

The government has decided the fates and lives of people, towns, economies and communities without much regard of what will happen to them or the environmental impact it will have. It's all for the belief that taming the river will once and for all end all natural disasters and generate badly-needed electricity.

However, there are already serious environmental problems with the Three Gorges Dam and senior government officials are quietly admitting maybe it wasn't such a good idea after all. There are tremendous amounts of silt that have accumulated making it difficult for ships to pass through and river beds are crumbling. On top of that the dam hasn't generated as much electricity as expected.

For artist Yang Yi, his hometown, overlooking a tributary river to the Yangtze, will be flooded next year.

In "Uprooted", Yang has created a series of photographs creating dream-like scenes of what his hometown could look like in 2009. Many of the pictures are of people standing among rubble, wearing a scuba diving mask and blowing bubbles.

Some are roadside barbers giving a haircut; people playing mahjong, kids standing in an abandoned building; a man holding a birdcage.

Yang doesn't want the memory of his hometown to disappear, thus creating these photographs with digital enhancements to create a watery effect.

It can be looked at as a sarcastic opinion piece, or a sad premonition of what will happen.

Either way it's a strong statement that goes beyond most of the contemporary Chinese art that focuses on the frivolity of capitalism in a communist country.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Cheap Eats

This afternoon my friend who recently moved back to Beijing took me to see her new place -- in a hutong near Nanluoguxiang, near Hou Hai.

She had looked at many apartments but soon fell in love with the idea of living in a hutong and eventually found one.

It's located off the street crossing two courtyards and then up to the third floor which she shares with another unit.

Inside it seems cramped with two rooms, as well as a kitchen and bathroom. She recently scrubbed the bathroom clean and now her next project is tackling the kitchen which is a bit of a mess.

But that's not all. There's also a balcony area perfect for a small barbecue or setting up a hammock and lazily watching the day go by.

And then she led me up a ladder that led to a giant attic complete with a giant bed and closets. I asked her how all this furniture got up there considering the space where the ladder is just big enough for a person to get up.

She explained the roof wasn't completed and they put the furniture in there first before enclosing it. The wall is part concrete, part aluminum siding, and the roof is aluminum siding. It'll be interesting to find out how noisy it will be when it rains.

But the view from this room is great, overlooking the traditional Chinese roof houses.

We then went for dinner at the Luogu Drum & Gong Fusion Restaurant on Nanluoguxiang street.

My friend says this place is busy at all times of the day and it's not too hard to see why. We arrived after 6pm and already the cosy restaurant was full and we were directed to go upstairs on the roof. We sat near a gas lamp heater which kept us relatively warm.

We ordered morning glory with vermicelli which was a cold dish and slightly tart from the vinegar sauce. The Kung Pao chicken was also delicious, the cubes of chicken very tender and flavoured with dried chillis, small black Sichuan peppercorns, leeks and roasted peanuts.

The pork dumplings dipped in a garlic and dark vinegar hit the spot and at 8RMB a bowl, they were a really good deal. Finally for dessert, we tackled pieces of banana covered in caramelized sugar. The sweet and hard coating was thin and crunchy, the banana warm and soft.

By the time we finished eating dinner, the rooftop was full of customers. Including two beers and a soft drink, our bill came to 80 RMB (US$11.25).

This place will be the perfect spot come summer.

Luogu Drum & Gong Fusion Restaurant
104 Nanluoguxiang
Dongcheng District
8402 4729

Friday, March 7, 2008

Gridlock Theory

Now that Spring Festival has come and gone, students back at school and people back to work, rush hour is worse than ever.

Commuting to work has become a trying journey. When my taxi hits the fourth ring road, cars inch along the freeway.

Only a few weeks ago I could get to work in 20 minutes easily, but now I'm lucky if I get to work on time in a good half hour.

What happened?

Part of it is the ever increasing number of cars on the road -- apparently 1,000 cars each day, and over 3 million in total.

The other is a theory I'm beginning to believe more and more.

A woman from Hong Kong who studies Chinese medicine here says the traffic jams are caused by people's lack of respect for the rules of the road.

When the light turns red, cars are still crossing the intersection while those in the other direction are starting to enter the intersection.

In many intersections there aren't any left turn signals and so when the light turns green, those trying to turn go on the offensive and try to turn before those cars approaching have a chance to cross the intersection.

Or in many cases, the car turning left blocks the innermost lane, blocking traffic. Some cars in the innermost lane even try to go around the turning car which is an accident waiting to happen.

Also complicating matters are people hailing cabs wherever they are, even if it's at a bus stop, holding up traffic, or people riding bikes dragging flat bed trailers behind them, preventing buses from loading and unloading passengers a bit faster.

So if everyone obeyed the traffic rules better, says this woman, then people would be able to get from point A to point B faster.

Now the roads are barely able to carry all the traffic, and the Beijing government can't build more streets fast enough. So something's gotta give. The government hopes that by constructing more subway lines people will take more public transit. But the subway lines don't service all areas of the city and will still have to take buses.

But those who have cars will never go back to taking buses. Their experiences with "the loser cruiser" are ones crammed full of people, at times smelly and bus assistants shouting at people to pay the fare.

It's too bad Beijing is so spread out. Logistically it's difficult to get around and it usually takes longer than you think to get somewhere.

However, I still like taking the bus -- as long as it's not rush hour and I'm not in a hurry. You can't beat getting a ride for 0.4 RMB (US 0.06).

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Flaming Proud

Beijing hasn't counted down to 150 days to the Games yet and another must-have souvenir has hit the market.

Now consumers can catch the Olympic spirit with their very own miniature replica of the torch.

It's 29cm in height to represent the 29th Olympiad and it's made from the same steel used to construct the National Stadium, or Bird's Nest.

The torch also features a scroll shape and the "lucky cloud" design around it.

Only 200,000 of these flaming hot babies will be available for 2,900 RMB (US$410).

And if you have to have the almost real thing, 72cm long scale models of the torch as also for sale.

The Chinese pride themselves on these replica torches being the first 3D models of the torch ever authorized by the International Olympic Committee.

What's next? Selling the left over asphalt to build the roads to the Games?

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Beijing's It Place

Today the Organizing Committee for the Beijing Olympics (BOCOG) took the media to see the Olympic Village north west of the city.

The compound is just north west of the National Stadium, or Bird's Nest and it's a series of 42 buildings that will house 16,000 athletes, coaches and officials during the Games.

However, before the field trip, an unprecedented number of journalists crammed into the media centre in Chaoyangmen to hear BOCOG official Yu Debing vaguely describe the Olympic Village, including extraneous figures that don't add up to an exciting story.

Liu Rong, of Guo'ao Investment Company that built the village, followed by giving a power point presentation. It was supposed to give supplementary information explaining why these buildings were green, using solar heat technology to generate electricity, recycling wastewater for watering plants, and double-glazed glass windows.

Someone needs to give her a lesson on power point. The first one would be to put less words on each slide because the people at the back can't read them all. The second lesson would be to make all the slides bilingual, not all English on one slide, and then all Chinese on another.

After the one-hour presentation the media were only allowed to ask three questions. The first one was from a foreign reporter asking about security -- what measures are being taken and can athletes freely move from one apartment building to another?

Yu said anyone entering the Olympic Village would be checked for security and after that they can go anywhere they want in the compound.

The next question from Reuters was how much the Olympic Village cost and with celebrity athletes coming to the Olympics, would they be treated differently.

Yu immediately replied all athletes would be treated equally. As for the second question, Liu said not all the costs had been calculated so they didn't know the total cost of building the Olympic Village.

Uh huh.

The last query was from a Chinese reporter, so thrilled to have an opportunity to ask a question. He said during the Atlanta Games a Chinese and American athlete struck a friendship and so what was BOCOG doing to foster a friendly atmosphere in terms of entertainment in the village?

Yu was more than thrilled to answer this relatively easy question. He said an Internet cafe would be set up in the village, as well as sports activities, games and entertainment.

Again not very specific.

Finally the media boarded buses and 45 minutes later arrived at the compound. They were shuffled into the showroom, which was actually created for prospective buyers. There were two impressive-looking models of the area and luxurious couches complete with coffee tables and candies for buyers to lounge around and ponder their potential big purchase. But when reporters had questions, the staff didn't have the answers which annoyed many media outlets.

So reporters had to swarm around Yu who had to answer all the questions, including how many units are in the village (9,933) and how many buildings there are (42). He got exasperated when reporters kept asking for these numbers over and over again.

Two units (again for prospective buyers) were opened for media scrutiny.

Overall the units are quite luxurious-looking and with some nice furniture, these apartments can be very cool places to live in.

However, it's surprising to see in the bathroom there is no shower stall and so despite having a shower curtain, the bathroom floor will be wet, and slippery.

Some of the bathrooms were quite large, while others were also equipped with handle bars for the disabled.

Right now the place looks more like a dorm, with institutional-looking closets and bedside tables. Some of the beds even had added on mattresses of about a foot for extra tall athletes. However the mattresses didn't feel very comfortable.

Each unit had a small two-foot wide balcony so the hibachi better be small for mini barbecues.

Because the units were relatively small and a large number of reporters wanting to check out the place, a man kept shouting for people to leave if they finished seeing the units. Not quite hospitable.

After the Olympics and Paralymics, the units will be sold on the market. When asked the price of the apartments, the staff claimed they didn't know. But as the first and only housing complex in Beijing that offers potable water, the Olympic Village will definitely be hot property.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Star Player gets Boney Treatment

Los Angeles Galaxy star player David Beckham arrived in Shanghai Sunday to play against a Shanghai-Hong Kong team tomorrow.

Becks has sustained a number of injuries so the media asked many questions about his fitness level. He answered concerns about his being ready to play for England again.

"All I can do now is to get my fitness and play as many games as possible. We will just have to wait and see," Beckham said.

Galaxy head coach Rudd Gullit said the famous English footballer is fit and could play up to 90 minutes.

However, before Becks hits the field at Shanghai's Outdoor Stadium, it needs some serious attention.

"The pitch is in bad shape and dangerous, there were stones and bones, shells, everything was on the pitch. It is pretty difficult to play on it, so I hope they can clean it," Gullit said.

Bones? Shells?

Did someone bring some sand and have a barbecue on the pitch recently?

How embarrassing for the Chinese hosts to hear the field was hardly ready for playing, when they probably thought it was fine.

Heads are going to roll for this one...

Monday, March 3, 2008

Standing Guard

Walking along Chang'an Avenue, the road that divides the Forbidden City with Tiananmen Square, I tried out my new camera.

And the results turned out well with this shot of the ferocious lion guarding Mao's portrait in the background sans flash.

Many others were out as well, taking their pictures with the Great Helmsman for their ultimate Beijing souvenir.

Setting the Record Straight.... Sort of

When my only-child colleagues say they're going to visit their brother or they saw their sister last weekend, they really mean their cousin.

Most of the post-80s generation have no siblings so they adopt their cousins as their surrogate brother or sister.

And a few days ago it looked like the Chinese government was seriously considering scrapping the one-child policy -- albeit gradually.

Zhao Baige, vice minister of the National Population and Family Planning Commission revealed last week the method of population control was causing serious economic and demographic problems.

"This has become a big issue among decision makers," she said during a regular press conference in Beijing. "We want to have this change incrementally. I cannot answer at what time and how."

The policy was implemented in 1979 as a means to control the exploding population. Since then there have been amendments to the rules, such as those in the countryside are allowed to have two children if the first is a girl, and all couples can try again if the first-born is mentally or physically disabled.

Fines are imposed on those who flout the rules, and recently the government vowed to crack down on those, particularly wealthy families who have more than one child.

It has also led to thousands of women getting forced abortions or even sterilizations. The situation has also led to a disproportionately large number of young males compared to other countries.

Some experts are concerned about the impending growing elderly population which will become a huge financial and physical burden for the little emperors and empresses when they grow into young adults.

However, in a complete about face, the government yesterday denied it was considering scrapping the controversial policy.

The headline in the Beijing News was "News of abandoning one-child policy is inconsistent with the facts".

"This report is incorrect, its content is not verified," the newspaper cited the National Population and Family Planning Commission's publicity and education department.

"China will continue to pursue even better its population and family planning policy."

One wonders what happened with the message management -- if Zhao was not properly informed on what she could and couldn't reveal, or she inadvertently leaked something that wasn't confirmed.

Either way, it looks like the Chinese flubbed up on handling this issue and time will tell if Zhao still has her job or not.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Grand Entrance

The big event this weekend was the opening of Terminal 3 at Beijing Capital International Airport.

Musicians played and the first passengers to arrive received bouquets of flowers.

Described by the media as gargantuan, the airport is the largest ever indoor structure built. It's 2km in length, and the space equivalent to 230 Wembley Stadiums. So make sure you allow extra time to get to your gate.

Many describe it as a dragon taking flight, but I fail to see the mythical beast in the design. It looks more like a giant stingray. However it is very imperial looking, with its gold roof and red columns.

Some critics liken the experience of entering such an overwhelmingly huge space to the dynastic times when neighbouring countries presented tributes to the Chinese emperor. It's no doubt the statement China wants to make is that the country is big and strong.

It also probably wants to emphasize the fact that it can accomplish almost anything -- the entire project was completed from drawing board to the last lightbulb screwed into place -- in four years.

In addition, 10,000 people were moved out of the area to make way for T3 and 50,000 workers toiling around the clock to build the terminal.

Airport officials expect some 64 million passengers this year, compared to 50 million last year. That's because this airport will be servicing all the athletes, officials and visitors for the Olympics, and many more curious to see what China is all about.

So far five airlines, including some international ones started using T3 on Friday and others will join in during phase two at the end of this month.

The airport has become an immense source of pride for the Chinese, and while it's expected for people to be pleased to have a new functional building to use, the patriotism shoots way off the pride meter.

"We have won honour for the country, added colour to the Olympics and made a good name for Chinese civil aviation," said Dong Zhiyi, deputy general manager of the Capital Airport Holding Co.

However, the Chinese wanted to take all the praise for itself and didn't invite architect Lord Norman Foster and his design team, and the British engineers who made it all possible in the first place.

It's a big oversight the Chinese can't avoid -- while they have the manpower, they don't yet have the innovation to really call it their own.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Please Don't Spit

Last night as I was riding the subway back home from a piano concert, a guy spit on the floor of the train. Not once. Three times.

He was decent looking, in his 20s, and left three wet gobs of saliva next to him.

Another time my friend and I saw a man spit in the subway and then used the sole of his shoe to spread the spit around on the floor.

The government is desperately trying to tell people not to spit ahead of the Olympics.

In an article from the Xinhua News Agency, the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Health is trying to create "No Spitting Day", following "Queuing Day" every 11th of the month and "Seat Offering Day" on the 22nd of every month.

However, not everyone is gungho about the idea.

Some people weighing in on Internet forums said they'd rather spit than swallow, or that it was "needless and unfeasible".

One of the capital's health officials, Liu Ying explained the reason was more for courtesy than health:

"We are calling for stopping the rampant spitting on the pavement, not urging everyone not to spit at all," she explained. "You can wrap your spit with a napkin and throw it into a trash bin," she added.

But people here hardly ever carry around tissues, and asking them to carry it around would be a financial burden for some, or just a drag for others.

The way to stop spitting, especially among young people is to shame them in a solid campaign.

I can see the ad now: Two women catch sight of this gorgeous man walking towards them. He sees them too and gives them a knowing look. As he approaches them, he horks a big one on the ground. The two women cringe and whine, "So not sexy!" and run away to the man's disappointment. The tagline: Spitting -- so not sexy.

As most of the men are the spitting offenders and many are trying to court women, men need to know spitting just ain't sexy. Women want class, not crass.