Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Are We Ready?

Today was another milestone in the road to the Olympics with the 100-day countdown.

All over the country there were events to mark the day, from the 1,000 people who ran a marathon that went past the National Stadium or Bird's Nest, cheered on by 10,000; in Qinhuangdao, teachers wrote poems including "Olympics, we're always prepared"; a gala was held in Shanghai; and in Qingdao, over 10,000 participated in a mini-relay.

And tonight there was a giant celebration in Tiananmen Square, that was broadcast on every giant outdoor screen in the city as well as inside every bus.

I only caught part of the show on the bus. A man and woman who I recognize from the one-year countdown sang "One World, One Dream" and Chinese favourite Jackie Chan sang "We Are Ready".

The hostesses, three in all, wore ballgowns, the men in dark suits. The lighting in the area was quite bad and so the pictures were dark. However, you could see the crowd waving or banging inflated sticks together.

The festivities cut to a studio where two women flanked a man in a set that included a background with the design from the Bird's Nest and in front the swirling "lucky cloud" design. And constantly flashing in the right bottom corner were the Chinese characters Wei Xiao Beijing or "Smile Beijing". Did people need to be reminded?

Then the program cut to a pre-recorded segment showing images of ethnic minorities who live in China dressed in their colourful costumes and singing or playing musical instruments. Why is it that these people are dragged out when China wants to show complete solidarity from everyone in the country? And in their ethnic costumes no less? It seemed like a deliberate move after the unrest in Tibet.

All the news here is about how the city is ready and everyone is wishing Beijing a successful Olympics. But is it really ready?

While practically all the venues are completed, there was the embarassing acknowledgment most of the loos were of the squat variety. Venue managers promised to make a few alterations in the plumbing department.

And Beijing Capital Airport's Terminal 3 is open, but already it's packed with people and crowd control is an issue, according to a flight attendant friend of mine.

The air quality at the moment is hardly reassuring; every morning I've been waking up to a white haze over the city that the wind isn't able to blow away.

Beijing is currently in a tussle with US and Australian Olympic teams over them wanting to bring their own food, but China wants to prove that it will provide quality food for the Games.

The dialogue with the Dalai Lama has yet to happen as far as we know, and for some reason, the Chinese state media are still vilifying him. A commentary on China Daily says "Dalai Lama Still Spewing Lies". It's hardly productive.

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who helped create the iconic Bird's Nest design, has poked jabs at the Chinese government for blinding people into buying into the Olympics and how he is surprised at how slowly the country is changing. Ouch.

So there's now technically 99 more days to go (Beijing time). With the clock ticking, people seem to be working faster to get things done.

As I was walking home, I saw an army of people working on a small patch of land at the corner of my block. It's been neglected as far as I know since I got here. But tonight all these people were madly planting trees, shrubs and small plants like marigolds and pansies -- in the dark.

Tomorrow there will be an instant garden.

And you thought Beijing wasn't ready.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Book Review: My Country and My People

Last summer, a local friend told me I should read a book called My Country and My People by Lin Yutang.

It was finished in 1935, after China became a republic and was about to fight Japan.

Lin was the son of a Presbyterian pastor in a family of six children. The younger Lin studied in Shanghai and Beijing, and then went on to get a partial scholarship to study at Harvard Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.

He married and then he and his wife went to France and then Germany where he got a PhD in Philology before returning to China in 1923.

His young family settled in Xiamen where he began writing articles and became known for his wicked humour and satire. When he poked fun at government officials, Lin once said, "Although you are an official, you still look like a man."

Lin's essays caught the attention of American Pearl S. Buck who wrote The Good Earth. She encouraged him to write about his own country.
My Country and My People is the first book by a Chinese written in English to explain to people outside of China what the country and its people are all about.

The chapters are divided into several sections, from Chinese people's character, to women, the social and political life of China, literature, Chinese calligraphy and lifestyle.

Although it's written in old English that could use some updating, his observations and ideas are still relevant today.

For example, when talking about the Chinese people's patience, he says: "The Chinese people have put up with more tyranny, anarchy and misrule than any Western people will ever put up with, and seem to have regarded them as part of laws of nature."

On the influence of Western literature:
Some fifty years ago the Chinese were impressed only by European gun-boats; some thirty years ago they were impressed by the Western political system; about twenty years ago they discovered that the West even had a very good literature, and even a better social consciousness and better social manners.
In the chapter The Art of Living he says:
Man is taught to admire beautiful things, not by books, but by social example, and by living in a society of good taste. The spirit of man in the industrial age is ugly anyway, and the spirit of their social tradition in a mad rush for things Western without the Western tradition, is uglier still to look at... All of the Chinese have gone in for the tennis lawn and geometric flower-beds
and trimmed hedges, and tailored trees trained to look a perfect circle or a perfect cone, and flowers planted to represent letters of the English alphabet. Shanghai is not China, but Shanghai is an ominous indication of what modern China may come to. It leaves a bad flavor in our mouths like those Chinese-made Western cream-cakes made with pigs' lard. And it jars on our senses like those Chinese brass bands playing "Onward, Christian Soldiers!" in a funeral march. Tradition and taste must take time to grow up.
It's so ironic that what he says in the 1930s still perfectly describes the mad rush of people striving for Western lifestyles today.

In one way it makes you wonder how far Chinese society has gone, and in another, if the Chinese Communists hadn't come to power, would Lin's observations seem passee today?

Lin was well-known in his time, and was apparently nominated several times for a Nobel prize in Literature. But his other claim to fame was his invention of the first Chinese typewriter, called the Mingkwai "clear and quick" Typewriter. He built a prototype but was unable to get it mass produced and practically went into debt.

However, he resumed his writing career outside of China in France, New York and Taiwan and in the end died in Hong Kong when he was 80-years-old.

One only wonders what Lin would write about if he saw China today.

Seeing Things

When a friend was visiting Beijing in July, she thought there was something wrong with her eyesight because to her, everything looked blurry.

I laughed and said no, it's the smog.

But tonight it happened to me and now I know what she was talking about.

These past two days the temperature has jumped to highs of 28 from 18. Yesterday wasn't as humid as today. So when I came out of the gym this evening after 8pm, everything outside seemed... blurry. It was as if my eyes weren't focussed properly and a bit hazy around the edges.

This picture sort of gives you an idea of how thick the fog/smog is.

I imagine a lot of other people think they're seeing things too.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Big Dreams

Millions of young Chinese aspire to study in the United States.

They all think it's the best place to go and learn whatever they need to know in order to achieve their career goals.

Some work very hard. They keep a full-time job but in the evenings and early mornings they're busy studying GMAT, TOEFL, GRE, practicing writing essays and their verbal skills as part of the application process.

I heard of one middle-aged man who studied very hard for a year and even practiced doing an interview with a native English speaker. He asked her for suggestions on good answers to give and memorized them. In the end he got a scholarship to an Ivy League school where he is now studying public policy administration.

Another young woman I know is determined to get her Masters in journalism at Columbia University. She just had her GRE written English exam today and will finish the rest of the exams in June. Every morning she has been waking up at 6am to memorize hundreds of words in the vocabulary section. She even has them downloaded on her mobile phone so she can study them on the bus.

But I also know a few dreamers too.

One young man with a few years of work experience under his belt asked me which was the top university in Canada. I asked him what he wanted to study, as different post-secondary institutions are better at some fields than others.

He only repeated his question, which made me realize he only wanted the name of the university on his resume than actually study what he was passionate about or help him improve his work performance.

Yesterday I met a fresh graduate who has a bachelor's in international business. She's very sweet, but a bit naive and ambitious.

She works for a Chinese boss who used to study and work in the United States. And she is very admiring of him. Originally she had plans to study in Germany and join her sister who is in Munich. However, he has now influenced her to think she should study in the United States -- in a top Ivy League business school and get into the heady world of investment banking.

He even thought the English name she chose for herself was too old fashioned and gave her a new one instead.

While it sounds like he's trying to create an ingenue, her former flatmate says she's full of talk and no action. She says she wants to do many things but in the end hasn't actually done much to achieve what she says are her goals.

This girl peppered me with questions about whether it was better to live and work abroad than in China and I tried to explain that it's about where you want to be. I said if you study in the US, you may not like it. So why stay? The wheels sort of turned in her head, but not enough to turn a light bulb on.

It's too bad she doesn't have enough street smarts to realize her boss is putting ideas in her head. She may find out the hard way that either she's not academically strong enough to get in, or she may discover working for a big investment bank wasn't really her dream after all.

But for those who have a goal, their determination is incredible. They will do their utmost to reach it despite the financial burden. But there are only a few who are realistic and really understand what they are undertaking is not only a giant step up in their job prospects, but also a chance to see what the outside world is really like.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Beijing Skies

Today was definitely a blue sky day.

As I waited for friends outside Ditan Park, near the Lama Temple, I looked up and saw many kites flying in the sky.

Beijingers love flying kites and any chance of a good wind and clear skies they're out in the parks, letting their kites dance in the wind.

Most of them are adult men, probably bringing them to their childhoods, or giving them a sense of freedom from the chaotic world below.

Signs of Change

New signs are popping up everywhere in the city.

Some buses have bilingual signs, and even have recorded messages of the next stop in Chinese and English. When you get on the bus you should pay the fare right away, either by an electronic card with a monetary value stored on it, or by cash.

And on some buses, you have to swipe your card again before you leave. Most buses I took before only had the reminder in a green sign with yellow characters. But on the bus I took today, it had a new dark blue sticker above the doors that said swipe your card before you leave in Chinese and English.

In the subway train today I spotted this new sign.

It's to tell vendors not to set up shop in the passageways of subway station entrances. Some of them are Tibetans, selling jewelry or trinkets, others sell fake DVDs, flowers, snacks, or books.

While the illustration is cartoonish, the man in red plaid doesn't look as angry as he should. Or maybe he's just being polite.

As far as I can tell there are no fines imposed on these people, which is why these vendors keep coming back anyway.

What I can't figure out is the red cape in the top left corner. Any ideas?

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Sprucing Up the City

Everywhere construction projects are madly going on Beijing.

In the alley behind my office they ripped up a perfectly fine section of concrete slabs and replaced them just as quickly with a jigsaw design of bricks.

The building next to my office also had a renovation, its old school faded yellow exterior replaced with large shiny white tiles. The job was done so quickly that some of the tiles have already started yellowing.

And now the driveway is closed, the concrete dug up and just rubble. One wonders when that will be completed.

One of the temples we visited at Mentougo is also getting a facelift. As shown in the picture, workers were re-tiling the roof with traditional tiles.

While it's nice to see the city getting fixed up, the "manufactured antiques", from the Forbidden City to this local temple seem to lack some soul. Tourists to Beijing have remarked they don't find the Forbidden City interesting, as it doesn't look "old". However, to the Chinese, a new paint job is their idea of preserving the past.

Unfortunately there is a lack of expertise in preserving old buildings, as well as paintings and other ancient artifacts. Experts are elderly themselves and few young people are interested in heritage things. They're more keen on making money, buying a car and apartment than knowing how to keep a wooden building from rotting.

While the Chinese are proud of their culture, many young people don't understand their own government destroyed much of it, especially during the Cultural Revolution. And as the Chinese Communist Party harks back to the past to legitimize its authority, there's still a big hole in people's appreciation of their own history.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Setting an Example... Sort of

As I wrote earlier in Half-hearted Measures, the Beijing municipality has fallen short of its goal of trying to get people to stub out smoking in time for the Olympics.

Originally the government wanted to ban smoking in all public places, including restaurants and bars, but it backed off from instituting a smoke-free environment in these premises and instead only in indoor areas of government offices, hospitals, hotels, schools, sports facilities and transport stations.

Restaurant and bar owners complained they would lose lots of business if their patrons weren't allowed to light up. However, one dining establishment called Salt -- a western restaurant I have yet to check out -- is smoke free and the staff report business is better than ever.

Yesterday a health official announced the Beijing government is recruiting another 40,000 inspectors to make its force an even numbered 100,000. Their job is to patrol those places described in the smoking ban areas and persuade people not to light up.

Yes, you read right -- persuade -- by example.

"The idea is that the inspectors should provide a good example by not smoking in their own venues," said Sun Xiali, an official with the Patriotic Health Campaign Committee, which will oversee the enforcement of the ban.

These inspectors do not have the authority to issue fines to smokers either.

How is that going to persuade people not the light up?

Beijing is just skirting around the issue of banning smoking in public places. When the city was awarded the Games seven years ago, it has all this time to gradually bring a smoking ban into place and yet the city left this to the last minute to enforce.

This also shows how pervasive smoking is in the country and they blame it on being so ingrained in Chinese society that it's hard for them to go cold turkey.

But smoking didn't become a habit of the masses until everyone saw Chairman Mao light up.

While the government thinks it's moving in the right direction, its pathetic measures to ban smoking are hardly clearing the air.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Letting Off steam

On the whole I like the Chinese. Most are warm, friendly, hospitable, hardworking, determined, and happy.

But what I cannot stand is incompetence.

And there are several in the office that fit that description.

When I arrived last year, human resources personnel at work told me I would have to pay for my Internet connection (ADSL) upfront -- a cool 1,200RMB (US$171.77) for one year.

Fine. I did that and despite a few hiccups along the way, it's been a godsend having Internet access at home to keep in touch with family and friends, as well as keep up to date on what's happening outside China.

And last Sunday I got an automated telephone message saying my ADSL subscription had run out and needed to get it renewed. At least I'm quite sure that's what it said, as it had been a year already.

So the next day I handed the HR person the said amount and asked him to renew my subscription.

He said, well the person dealing with that isn't here but in the United States.

Uh, hello? I need this done. Today.

Do you still have an Internet connection? he asks.


Then you're fine.

What? I got a phone message saying I need to renew it.


That afternoon he gives me two pieces of paper that are supposedly the receipts, but instead of it saying 1,200RMB, it has two figures on it -- 269.50RMB and 930.50 RMB. I ask him what that's for, but he doesn't really give me a straight answer.

I think the matter is over. Not.

He comes over to me this afternoon and explains that the 269.50RMB was used to pay for my phone bill this month.

Excuse me? I gave you 1,200RMB to renew my Internet connection, not pay my phone bill!

But you were going to pay it anyway, right? So the 930.50RMB is the credit left over... so can you give me another 1,200RMB to pay for your ADSL?

Right at this moment I can feel the blood in my body going into the fight-or-flight response, and I am absolutely livid.

Why did you do that? I ask. At this point I know everyone in the office within earshot is listening.

He says he doesn't know.

You don't know why you did that? I ask you to pay for my ADSL, not my phone bill! Get me that 930.50RMB back!

There is no apology, and instead he says well, the company just processed it this way.

In the end he admits that he will get the 930.50RMB back for me -- but that I still owed him, the company, 269.50RMB to make up the balance for the Internet connection.

And he has the gall to ask me when I'm going to give him that money!

I don't know where the company finds incompetent people like him.

Of the 1.3 billion people in this country, you'd think the company would be able to hire people who are a bit smarter.

But then again they aren't paid much -- around 3,000RMB (US$429.33) a month.

And as my dad says, you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Last Chance for Olympic Glory

Hear ye, hear ye! Check out what the ticket looks like for the Beijing Olympics!

The ticket samples were proudly released today and feature the design of the National Stadium, or Bird's Nest, and the "lucky cloud" designs. Apparently they started thinking of the ticket design back in 2006. The one shown above is for the Opening Ceremonies.

According to the official website:

With continued innovation, tickets have become information-richer and more distinguishable for Olympic fans. In order to come up with the final product, every aspect of ticket design and composition, including paper and ink, underwent serious scrutiny by creative experts. The result: an efficient ticket design full of unique Olympic flavor.

And Chinese residents will have one last chance to get a coveted Olympic ticket or two starting on May 5.

Today the Beijing Olympic organizers held a press conference to explain how the third round of tickets would be sold before August.

Instead of the previous two lottery systems, the remaining 1.38 million tickets will be sold in a first-come-first-served basis, with each person eligible to buy three tickets for each event, and only for two events. They can do this online or in person at certain Bank of China outlets.

Those lucky enough to get tickets online must pay for them within a period of time, otherwise they will be released and up for grabs again.

Organizers claim there is not enough time to do a lottery system. They also say they have revamped the ticketing system so it won't crash from millions of people trying to buy tickets online, which is what happened late last year... within the first hour.

However, one wonders if they really do have the matter in hand and realize people are going to stop everything -- work and class -- to get tickets.

If the Chinese government is determined to finish the torch relay, 1.3 billion people will do whatever it takes to get the last Olympics tickets.

May 5 is going to be a crazy day. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Chinese Earth Day

Today is Earth Day, and yet there were no celebrations or campaigns to get the Chinese more environmentally aware.

Maybe it's because the Chinese government is so focussed on the Olympic Torch Relay and the mess surrounding it.

Anyway -- this is my picture of Chinese Earth Day. As I waited for the bus tonight, I saw two people purposely drop garbage by this tree trunk. They not only litter, but also spit at the trees. Why do people do this?

The government has pushed reforestation projects, proud to add that in the past 27 years, 51.54 billion trees were planted by ordinary Chinese.

So why do many people think it's OK to drop garbage around a tree, when it's providing some oxygen in this polluted city?

And speaking of the torch relay, Wired's blog notes the exercise of trotting the Olympic flame around the world will have emitted about 11 million pounds of carbon emissions into the atmosphere through a series of complex calculations.

Slate then puts this all into perspective. According to the United Nations, the average American has an annual carbon footprint of between 42,000 and 44,000 pounds of CO2 emissions. So that means the entire 2008 torch relay is equal to the emissions output of 153 Americans a year.

And the Beijing Olympic organizers promised this year's Games would be the "green" Olympics.

Creating Little Emperors

Last weekend when we were feted by district officials, we got a close look at how those "little emperors", or only children become the big terrors that they are.

After a giant banquet dinner, we were asked if we'd like to partake in some entertainment -- karaoke? Oh..... hmmmmm. How about billiards? Table tennis? Oh OK.

We were shown to a recreation room next to a lounge where the KTV was happening. Thankfully the singing didn't penetrate the wall between the two rooms.

One colleague showed me how to play table shuffleboard, sliding the weights or shuckles down the wooden surface covered in tiny silicon beads.

Then after I got the hang of sliding the shuckles so they wouldn't veer off to the sides, I started playing a game with another friend.

But just as our game started getting interesting, a young boy about 4 or 5-years-old invaded the rec room and grabbed one of the shuckles.

We reacted, but his proud mother, who was close behind, was so pleased her son wanted to play shuffleboard than realize they had interrupted our game. She encouraged him to hijack the table and we had no choice but to abandon the shuffleboard.

So we sat down and watched him as he tried to climb onto the shuffleboard table -- with the help of his mother -- and he even walked on the surface.

He came back down, but wanted to climb back up again. And once more, his mother helped him up. I came over and said it was dangerous. So the mum told him to come down, but he had a fit and he didn't come down from the table right away.

That wasn't all. He then grabbed the table tennis ball that another two colleagues used to play a serious game. Again his mother was pleased he wanted to take up this sport and the two people had to quit their game early.

He tried to commandeer the pool table by grabbing one of the billiard balls, but the players shouted at him not to touch and for once he was really shocked he wasn't allowed to do something.

The problem is not the child, but the parent(s) condoning their kid's actions. Not once did the mother explain to her son that they should wait until people were finished playing before they could use the shuffleboard or play table tennis. Instead she delighted in her son grabbing things we were using.

And this is not the only situation I've come across. So imagine a whole generation of children like the one I've just described and how they will turn out 15, 20 years from now.


Sunday, April 20, 2008

Sinicized Tibetan Cuisine

Tonight my colleague took me to bar street (Xing Ba Lu), near ladies' market (Nuren Jie). It's a maze of alleys leading to many restaurants and bars that never ends.

And we checked out a place called Tibetan Restaurant and Bar.

It's in the midst of renovations, but the owner says if everything goes well they'll be back in business tomorrow night. That seemed amazing since the furniture was in disarray and patches of wall yet to be painted, wiring everywhere and many decorations yet to be hung.

Dong Qian is the owner and she's opened two Tibetan restaurants in four months, sinking 8 million RMB (US$1.14 million) into them.

She admits the menu isn't authentic Tibetan cuisine, serving dishes like tofu and mushroom soup, wood ear mushrooms with chilli peppers, stir-fried Chinese cabbage with dried chillis, and eel cooked Japanese style. The only quasi Tibetan dish was yak meat, thinly sliced but slightly tough, in a sweet and sour sauce with red peppers.

On the whole, Dong says Tibetans eat simple meals, mostly yak and lamb, roasted or air dried, and washed down with yak butter tea.

Her fascination with Tibet began in university in the 1990s when she studied her masters in chemistry in New York and Los Angeles. The interest was more in the decorative designs than the religion or the people.

Afterward studying and working there for eight years she came back and met some Tibetan friends and a living Buddha. That's when she first got the idea of opening up a restaurant.

Her parents, both linked to the military, were shocked that their daughter wasn't going to apply her masters degree and become a restaurateur. She didn't elaborate much further, only to say they are pleased to see she's doing relatively well.

Dong claims she got the money together for the restaurant from working in trading in the US and here. When we met her, she wore a solitaire diamond ring and a necklace with a pave of diamonds.

In the hopes of making Tibetan culture more accepted in Beijing, Dong has kept prices relatively low so that more people will come to the restaurant. Considering she hasn't advertised much and has only opened for a few months, she's pleased with the results so far.

Last year Dong finally made her first trip to Lhasa and was in awe of the religious atmosphere that enveloped the environment and the people. She found herself spending lots of money there, giving it to Tibetans who were not well off. But they in turn took her donations and gave the money to the temples.

What struck her the most was seeing people, mostly women, walking around with prayer wheels.

In the restaurant she has also hired Tibetans from Yunnan, Gansu, Sichuan, and Qinghai provinces to sing and dance. They performed a few numbers for us in colourful costumes and boots that looked like cowboy boots with an Asian flourish. One even wrote a song about the Olympics sung in Tibetan.

Dong said the young staff in their early 20s didn't have strong opinions about the Tibet uprising in mid-March as they felt they were treated well by the Han Chinese in Beijing.

But one couldn't help wondering if these young people are just towing the line to avoid rocking the boat further, or if they have become so removed from their own roots that it's not even an issue for them.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Enchanting Evening

An expat friend called me and in an excited voice told me about a Chinese music concert she went to and asked if I'd like to go with her this weekend. Her enthusiasm sounded like it was something I should check out and it was a gem.

In Xidan there's a place called Sunway Bookstore (in Chinese it's San Wei Shu Ju) which is housed in an old Chinese building, standing proudly despite being overshadowed by giant bank buildings.

The ground floor, actually a half basement, is a bookstore featuring specialized Chinese books, mostly history and literature. There's also a small area for people to have a sip of Chinese tea and around the circumference of the room is a gallery. Currently photographs of rural implements are being shown.

Upstairs is like walking into an attic which is done up into a scholarly studio, complete with framed calligraphy, fresh flowers, empty bird cages hanging around the room and Chinese antique desks and chairs.

Tickets are 100RMB each and it includes free tea and a small plate of nibbles of dried sugared fruit and cookies. Sometimes there are book talks in Chinese, but on Saturday evenings Chinese musicians present a concert.

This week it was a trio of men, one playing several different bamboo flutes, one playing the pipa, or Chinese guitar, and the other playing the sheng, or mouth organ.

For an hour and a half they played together, solos and duets, each piece short, but mesmerizing in terms of skill and sound. They gave introductions to their music, but it didn't matter if you didn't understand what they said. The music spoke of gentle poetic scenes, others fast, energetic events.

The man who played the sheng also brought out what looked like a bulbous vase with holes at the rounded bottom, but was actually an instrument he blew into. It created a beautiful haunting sound.

He even brought some fresh leaves and performed a piece by blowing onto the back of the small leaf as he was accompanied by the pipa player.


The setting and music almost felt like we were going back in time, as some pieces dated back to the Han, Tang and Ming dynasties.

It was a taste of what life was like for scholars and aristocrats from long ago, surrounded by books and listening to musicians skilled at their craft.

Sunway Bookstore
No. 20 Fuxingmennei Street
Xicheng District
6601 3204
Every Saturday at 8:30pm

Friday, April 18, 2008

Where's the Polisher Part 4

While visiting the Tianzhe Temple in Mentougo, we came across this sign.

Is it too late to tell them to change it for the Olympics?

One of Those Days

I took the taxi to work this morning as always. And to get onto the fourth ring road, we usually go on an overpass that merges into the mass of cars heading west.

And as the taxi was on the overpass, we saw a car up ahead that had stopped, sort of in the middle of the road. I was glad the taxi driver saw it and slowed down right away.

Was it an accident? Did the car break down?

It was a man, in a suit, standing next to the car, taking a piss.

He left a giant wet puddle in front of him.

Relieved, he just walked back to his car to carry on with his commute.

I don't understand why people do this. Don't they know it's dangerous to just stop along a roadway and of all things, go to the bathroom? Why didn't he go at home before he got into his car? Or couldn't he wait until he got into the office?

Sometimes, when you think you've seen it all, something crazy pops up again and reminds you, TIC -- This Is China.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Look Familiar?

When I was on my weekend trip I flipped through the TV and on state broadcaster CCTV 2, there was a game show on that looked eerily familiar.

It was the Chinese version of The Price is Right, but definitely no Bob Barker. I have to admit I haven't seen Drew Carey hosting the show so I can't make a comparison there.

The Chinese host didn't have the charisma of Barker nor the looks. He wore a strange green suit with a patch of gold brocade on his left shoulder and the headphone mic wired on his head.

Meanwhile the rest of the show layout was basically the same as the American one. Guests were picked out of the audience (not wearing crazy clothing) and they ran down to the front where they had to guess the price of household objects.

Once someone was close to the actual retail price, they got to come up and play a game. The one I saw had to guess the price of a cabinet set by picking out billiard balls with numbers on them. If he took out a white ball, it was a "bomb", and if he took it out three times he'd lose.

In the end he did win and moved to the finals.

The three winners, interestingly all men, got to spin the wheel, again looking very similar to the American one but not as glitzy. Even the kitsch floral design was almost the same.

And not to be outdone, this Chinese game show had lovely ladies in shiny pink dresses caressing the fridges, washing machines and other fine home furnishings.

It was fascinating to watch and I wonder if the Chinese really understand the concept of game shows, or are they too worried about not winning and losing face?

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Deepening Divide

My office is dead quiet. It's not just people beavering away in front of the computer, but also because they are communicating with Instant Messenger.

And not only do they post pictures, but also add a tagline next to their names. In the last few days, thanks to the perceived bias of Western media reports on Tibet, some have messages like "Disgusting Associated Press Get Out of China!" and "All you wanna do is to split China and curb its rising as a world power!"

Today they were united as ever. A majority of them put the heart symbol and "China" next to their names, in an effort to show their red patriotism.

It was their response to the stories in Chinese state media complaining about CNN's Jack Cafferty's remarks about Chinese-made goods as "junk". During the show, The Situation Room he said, "The Chinese are basically the same bunch of goons and thugs they have been in the past 50 years".

Yesterday the Foreign Ministry in Beijing demanded an apology from the American broadcaster, saying China was shocked by the commentator's gruff words. "We solemnly demand that CNN and Cafferty retract his vicious remarks and apologize to the whole Chinese people."

The Foreign Ministry got its wish.

"CNN would like to clarify that it was not Mr. Cafferty's, nor CNN's, intent to cause offense to the Chinese people, and [CNN] would apologize to anyone who has interpreted the comments in this way.

"CNN is a network that reports the news in an objective and balanced fashion. However, as part of our coverage we also employ commentators who provide robust opinions that generate debate.

"On this occasion Jack was offering his strongly held opinion of the Chinese government, not the Chinese people --- a point he subsequently clarified on The Situation Room on April 14.

"It should be noted that over many years, Jack Cafferty has expressed critical comments on many governments, including the U.S. government and its leaders."

But the Foreign Ministry is also calling on France to reflect on why Chinese people are thinking about boycotting Carrefour. Petitioners claim LVMH Group, which is a major shareholder of the French retailing giant, has donated funds to the Dalai Lama.

It's interesting they aren't calling for a boycott of the brands LVMH Group owns, like Louis Vuitton, Donna Karan, Moet & Chandon, Sephora, Givenchy, Fendi, Celine and Tag Heuer.

Apparently senior government officials are patting themselves on the back for their successful domestic PR campaign in creating a rising tide of nationalism.

But little do they realize this rift is creating tensions around the world that will be difficult to ease anytime soon.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Aging Gracefully

One of the highlights of the weekend trip was our first stop after our giant lunch, to the Tianzhe Temple.

Our guide claimed the Buddhist temple was over 1,700 years old, older than Beijing, which is about 900 years old.

However, the grounds looked like it had gone through a few renovations over the centuries and the odd new paint job here and there.

We were given small guidebooks which were sadly in Chinese, but basically talked about the history of the place and the various buildings on the property.

It's a huge temple and took us almost two hours to go through. There are many giant trees, huge cypresses and gorgeous magnolias, both of which are about 700 or 800 years old.

Many emperors visited the temple and it was their little retreat. They played a drinking game using an interesting maze that if you look at it from one side appears to be a tiger, and directly opposite it looks like a dragon. You have to use a bit of imagination to see the two creatures.

There were also various rooms housing a number of Buddha statues, his disciples, and guards.

We were even shown the kitchen where the monks boiled a giant vat of rice porridge for their main meal of the day and for the destitute villagers. Nothing is left except for a giant hole where the vat would have been. The guide claims it was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.

Incense was burned everywhere, people not even bothering to take the sticks out the package and instead burning them in a clump. I thought this was a bit strange, as I was taught to separate them and put them in groups of three.

Or if incense wasn't your thing, you could buy gaudy candles shaped like lotus flowers in a bright pink and burn those.

For people looking for a bit of luck, for a small fee they could write their names on a strip of red ribbon and tie it to a tree or on the fence, which was covered in ribbons.

There was also a persimmon tree and a cypress growing together and it looked like they were hugging each other. We were told to rub each trunk for bai(3) shi(4) ru(2) yi(4), or for our wishes to come true for 100 years.

The best part of the temple was the beautiful scenery and the magnolia trees in full bloom. The air was so fresh, the sky deep blue, it was pretty neat to think this area was part of Beijing.

Also Distorting the Facts

On Sunday morning waking up from a somewhat restless night on a hard bed in the hostel we were staying at, I turned on the TV to see what was on.

State media broadcaster CCTV 9, the English channel was showing its current affairs program called Dialogue, featuring host Yang Rui. It's usually a dry program featuring one Chinese and one non-Chinese guest.

But today was a bit different, interspersed with "historical footage".

The topic was "Western interests in Tibet" and the guest was a guy they claimed was a former editor of the Japan Times. His name was Yoichi Shimatsu and had a perfect American accent, no trace of Japanese at all. I just Googled his name and he is currently a media studies lecturer at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

And this "guest" claims to have done lots of research on Tibet and the Dalai Lama. But throughout the entire show he claimed the DL had a "secret army" and that Heinrich Harrier, the Nazi who was his tutor in his early years, was the one who inspired the DL on separating from China.

The alleged facts were so outrageous I wanted to scream at the TV, but at the same time couldn't stop watching because I wanted to see what else was coming out of this supposed learned guest's mouth.

He also claimed the Nazis believed the Tibetans were part of the Aryan race, but they inter-married Mongoloids so their skin became dark.

I swear I'm not making this up.

And the other day I read a columnist from the China Daily who claimed the Dalai clique "was an extremely cruel regime that would gouge the eyes of slaves or skin them to make human-skin handicrafts".

So let me get this straight again -- who is distorting the facts here?

Monday, April 14, 2008

Rustic Tourism

This past weekend my other foreign colleagues and I spent the weekend being entertained by officials from Mentougo district, in northwestern Beijing.

It didn't take long for me to realize we were the guests of these officials than our company shelling out for our "spring outing".

Our bus drove for an hour until we reached a landmark, a roundabout, where we waited for a fleet of two cars to meet us. To guide us to the restaurant in time for an early lunch, they flashed their hazard lights as if a VIP delegation were arriving.

Our entourage suddenly expanded to include several more people and at the restaurant dishes constantly streamed onto our three tables. What's pictured above is what was left over.

After we were completely stuffed, we boarded the bus again and were taken to two temples. Tour guides recited hundreds of pieces of trivial information, including the age of almost every cypress, magnolia and pine tree (between 700 and 800 years-old).

While the scenic view was amazing, peaceful, fresh air and colourful, there wasn't much explanation about Buddhism or the significance of the temples other than which emperors visited them.

Then we were taken to our hotel, which was more like a hostel. The beds were hard, there was no shower stall, but a shower right in the bathroom, and hot water only from 8pm to midnight, and then from 7am to 8am.

Dinner again was a giant feast, which included yet even more people we had never met before who broke out bottles of maotai, a gasoline-smelling clear liquor. Luckily we didn't sit with the officials, so our minders were subjected to drinking several rounds of the strong stuff. One woman soon went beet red and had to drink a glass of yogurt to settle her stomach.

The next morning after an endless array of breakfast dishes including fried eggs, soybean drink, doughnut sticks, bread, and fried rice, we boarded the bus again to two villages. The first one looked like it was literally in ruins. The guide proudly pointed here and there, noting which houses were those of people who passed the civil service examinations hundreds of years ago. But we couldn't go into those houses because they were locked.

We were told there were some 300 people living in the village, but we didn't see anyone around. Many of the gates to houses were locked, or run down. Someone asked and our guide explained everyone was in the fields. However, after we left that village, we couldn't see anyone working in the fields. The only people we saw were members of a family that were all retired and they didn't say anything about having to till the land. They seemed to live in spartan conditions, complete with a portrait of Mao in the living room.

We were treated to a farmer's lunch in a covered open space. While it was the perfect day for such a meal, the dishes were a bit dodgy, not all of them coming out of the kitchen piping hot, while the plastic bowls and cups were not exactly clean.

The second village, Cuandixia had more signs of life, but that's because it was crawling with tourists from Beijing than actual residents. We were showed an "inn", but it was really formerly a rich family's house. We were told these "inns" were rented out, but the one we saw was completely empty, the paper on the window shutters covered in holes. This village was used as the backdrop for the movie Blood Brothers, starring Andy Lau, Takeshi Kaneshiro and Jet Li.

At the entrance of both of these villages were quite new modern washroom facilities for visitors rather than residents. The second one even had new signs guiding visitors. And after our trip, we were handed several heavy coffee table books, including one whose title was, "A Photo Album: Ancient Mountain Villages in Westwrn (sic) Beijing".

And for an even more memorable souvenir, the district officials from the publicity department gave us boxes of chicken eggs, as this area is apparently well known for its eggs. Each box was relatively well packed. Mine survived and were really fresh, as they still had dirt and even dried blood on them.

While these places were scenic, one has to wonder if tourism is the right way to stimulate the economy there. All the young people have left these villages to pursue a modern life in the cities, leaving behind the old to spend the rest of their days there.

Their homes have become a novelty for urban tourists to see what life is like in the country.

And with officials spending so much money on books, DVDs and entertaining "delegations", one has to wonder if the money could be better used in looking after its remaining residents than trying to create a flashy impression of rustic life.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

One Year On

It's a year since I landed at Beijing Capital International Airport and wondering if I was prepared to tackle living in this city.

I haven't regretted the move and it's been an experience to say the least.

My biggest concern was language as I was rusty around the edges and it really was a problem at the beginning. Taxi drivers didn't understand what I was saying, and I had no sense of geography so I couldn't even direct them to my apartment. But with an air of confidence, an authoritative tone has helped along with recognizing landmarks.

Small errands were huge obstacles that took a 180-degree turn in mindset to accept. The concept of having to buy electricity and gas before using them was bizarre to me, as well as adding money to my cellphone instead of paying monthly bills.

At first it was a frustrating and stressful chore, but now I have figured out how to pay for things at a machine at the bank and know where to buy phone cards to input money into my cellphone.

And in the last few months I've shed my dependence on the taxi and try to take buses or subways as much as possible. Having a public transit card makes it not only easy but also cheap to get around even if it's just one bus stop away. It's a great way to get to know the city and get a big picture of where everything is. At times things seem so close, and others, very far away.

In some respects what I've noted above are monumentous achievements for an expat in Beijing. While I'm getting more used to the city, many things still bother me.

I still can't understand why people have to spit wherever they happen to be. The other day I noticed someone had spit on the floor of the elevator of my building. Why do people do this? Also seeing people mindlessly littering riles me up as well. Isn't Beijing supposed to be a "green" city and isn't the municipal government trying to get people to keep the city clean?

While I love Peking Duck and have found an excellent restaurant (Da Dong Roast Restaurant), I'm not crazy about the way food is cooked in Beijing. Dishes are covered in oil, very salty and at times very spicy. When you tell wait staff to tell the cooks to use less oil, the plate still has a generous film of oil on it.

Smoking everywhere is something that's hard to avoid. The Chinese government has a very big hand in the tobacco industry and isn't urging its people to quit even though medical costs are higher than keeping people healthy. I wonder if showing people blackened lungs are enough to freak people into cold turkey. But somehow I think they'd just shrug their shoulders and continue puffing away.

The city is a sprawling metropolis, parts of it very slick, modern-looking and hip, others extremely run down, poor and dirty. Beijing is so spread out, logistically it takes longer to get from A to B than you think. Traffic jams during rush hour are chronic and full of cars with one person in them.

That said, there are certain charms of the city that you'd never find anywhere else. Beijingers, men and women, are very chatty and on the whole hospitable. Once I had a frustrating time trying to put money onto my electricity card at the bank, when an older couple gave me directions to another one.

The city is full of history, from the emperors who lived at the Forbidden City, to Tiananmen Square, the residences of Madame Song Qingling, Chinese opera star Mei Lanfang, and writer Lu Xun, and the Lama Temple.

When I manage to take public transport from A to B without any hassles or manage to locate a restaurant on my own, it's a great sense of achievement. Or even just being able to understand someone's directions, especially on the phone is also quite amazing.

There are some culinary gems here, many located in traditional courtyard houses offering unique Chinese dishes in a relaxed and even quiet setting. The price of eating out too is so inexpensive you can eat like royalty on a budget.

People who come to China are armed with expertise, excitement and energy, ready to make their contribution to the developing country. But in the end it's China that changes us. It's such an overwhelming place, so many people, so many things going on, that we're all swept up into the system as it were.

Chinese people's mind set is so ingrained in doing things the way they have always done them, so change is a huge mind shift for them. It can only be done incrementally, through diplomatic prodding than dragging, kicking and screaming. Where I'm working I had hoped to create lots of changes, but most people weren't interested and in the end I've only managed to help a handful of colleagues improve.

One rewarding thing is having gained the trust of some of my coworkers and having them come to me for help or advice on their young careers. One has even confided in me about her fears and boyfriend problems.

At the same time I've had to learn to be very tactful in conversations, picking the right time and place to discuss certain things and being extremely patient. I'm still working on the patience part. Sometimes the Chinese are very short sighted, other times look at the big picture -- not just taking into account their own lifespan, but those of their future progeny and generations.

I'm so glad to be here to witness all of this and see changes in myself at the same time. It certainly hasn't been easy, but it's made my life experience all the more interesting for it.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Word of the Day: BMW

The other day my friend told me what mainland Chinese call those cars made by Bavarian Motor Works or BMW -- Bie(2) Mo(1) Wo(3).

In English it means "Don't touch me!"

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Taste of Hong Kong

For those hankering for egg tarts, ying yang, a drink mix of tea and coffee, or French toast with peanut butter, can get a bite of Hong Kong at Gold Lake Cafe at the China World Trade Center in Guomao.

The large dining area features booths around the room, and then an open kitchen at the back displaying the usual barbecue duck and roasted chicken hanging by the glass window.

Some of the diners spoke Cantonese and many caught up with Hong Kong news by reading one of several copies of Oriental daily offered by the restaurant.

I ordered an iced tea and the glass had lots of ice, some five or six slices of lemon and refreshing tea. My friend had her favourite ying yang.

We also had wonton noodles which were perfect with a dash of vinegar, curry chicken with rice, and a plate of kale with oyster sauce.

It was almost like being in the SAR, except serving staff spoke Putonghua.

And as the cafe is open 24 hours a day, it's good to know this eatery is available whenever I have a hankering for Hong Kong food.

GL Cafe Restaurant
Shop L 132, Guomao Commerce City
6505 6868

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

A Traditional Upbringing

Today we went to check out a Confucius school in the northwestern outskirts of the city.

The highways didn't correspond with the map and we had to make a few detours to get back on track. Finally we found the area called Bai Jia Tuan, a rustic neighbourhood which surprisingly is filled with upscale-looking Western-style houses.

This particular school called the China Confucius Academy is set up by a Mr Feng Zhe, who is in his late 40s.

It's actually located in two of these Western-style homes separated by a short walk along a dirt road.

In it, children from as young as three to as old as 14 attend school here, learning what scholars would have done centuries ago.

The youngest ones read the Analects of Confucius aloud, their finger pointing at each character so that after a while they will memorize it and at the same time learn the characters written in complicated rather than simplified style.

Those a few years older are in another room, literally chanting from the same textbook. In six months they will have recited it 1,000 times. Feng explained by the time they reach 700 times or so, the students should really understand the meaning behind the sayings, not just memorize them.

The other rooms in the home are dorms, where the kids sleep in bunk beds that are wooden planks covered with very thin futon mattresses.

In the home down the road, older students are practicing calligraphy. Their teacher wanders around, correcting them individually, telling them to sit straight, relax their shoulders or explain why one character is written better than another.

Feng says the reason he chose such an out-of-way location for his school is because it's quiet, the air is fresh and it's near the mountains where they hike every weekend. He also says the students are fed vegetarian meals because he believes the meat here has too many hormones, which Feng says will speed up their puberty, something he says is not natural. However, when they go home, they can eat whatever they want.

There's no televisions or computers in this school -- they are only allowed to watch what is pre-approved by the school.

On the whole the students seem to enjoy this place, saying they get to do different activities like wushu and calligraphy unlike normal schools in the city.

And Feng believes this trend towards Confucianism is growing in society. Twenty to 30 years ago the there was a desperate desire to have a Western education. But now, after that mad rush, people begin to feel they have lost touch with their heritage, their identity. Confucianism or studying the classics has helped them to reunite with their core being.

Feng wants to help kids have a traditional educational background that is well-rounded like the scholars in history instead of studying specific subjects. Not only does it help them become studious, but it also helps them understand the hierarchy of society, such as respecting their parents and elders.

However, it didn't seem the school was offering all classes mandated by the Ministry of Education, even though the kids were learning Shakespeare in their English classes.

Nevertheless it was an interesting approach parents seem willing to invest in. Tuition, including room and board is 30,000RMB a year (US$4,284) and is not considered too expensive. Feng adds those parents who cannot afford it can send their kids to his school for much less.

Confucius schools have been around for about a decade in China and it'll be interesting to see how these kids turn out a decade later.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Journey of Harmony Falling Apart

The Olympic torch relay isn't going as planned and Beijing Olympic organizing officials are wondering why people aren't welcoming the sacred flame with open arms.

When the torch was handed over to a Chinese official in Athens, protestors tried to mar the historic event. And ever since then the torch has had a hard time staying lit.

One friend who saw the TV coverage of the Paris leg in a hotel room here said he saw the flame extinguished five times.

When you have to extinguish the flame more than once in a torch relay that's meant to create excitement rather than anger, then something's not quite right.

International Olympic Committee officials are mulling over cutting short the relay and even cancelling it for London's 2012 Games.

But Beijing Olympic officials are adamant the torch relay will continue.

"No force can stop the torch relay of the Olympic Games," said BOCOG spokesman Sun Weide. "We are confident the torch relay of the Beijing Olympic Games will succeed."

And BOCOG is doing all it can to ensure the torch's safety.

A phalanx of security men in blue and white tracksuits surround the torch runner and like football players, try to block anyone who tries to get close to the flame. One torch runner from London complained these security guards were rude to her, barking orders at her to stop or go, or lift the torch higher.

How is that in the spirit of the Games?

Meanwhile the Chinese government is still continuing its attack on the Dalai Lama, calling him more names and claiming it has evidence His Holiness started the March 14 riots, but producing nothing.

Public opinion outside China about the Chinese handling of the Tibet issue will not change. Beijing should really have extended an invitation to the Dalai Lama for talks before the torch relay, even before the 49th anniversary of China's takeover of Tibet. That would have cooled tempers and possibly signaled the Chinese government's concerted effort in creating a harmonious society.

But instead they continue to call the Dalai Lama "a wolf in monk's clothing", blaming the riots on the Dalai Lama clique and splittists. The situation is so polarized now that the government has painted itself into a corner. Now any reconciliation gesture would be seen as a PR stunt rather than a genuine one.

So the protests will continue wherever the torch goes and will continue for the next 121 days.

The news coverage here tried to avoid mentioning any disruption by protestors, but now domestic media outlets can't avoid it, otherwise the column inches get shorter and the pictures fewer. If it's such a fantastic event, why isn't more written about it, or why aren't there more photos of the triumphant event?

The government is spinning the story, blaming the protests on Tibetan splittists. But this only stokes the anger at home, creating an even greater distrust of foreign media and foreigners.

Instead of creating harmony, the Olympic torch has become a traveling symbol of China that gives people the perfect opportunity to express their anger at what they believe is a repressive authoritarian state.

So much for not politicizing the Games. But for the Chinese, the show will go on, one way or another.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Doing a Good Deed

Yesterday I went to the Expat Show which was held this past weekend at the China World Trade Center in Guomao.

It's basically an exhibition to give companies with goods and services geared to expatriates to present them under one roof.

And as a relative newbie, it was good to see what's around.

Many were for expats with huge packages, wondering what to do with their money, as there were financial planners and companies advertising real estate investments in Beijing and in Samui, Thailand.

Others were international schools in the city or overseas universities pushing their affiliated MBA programs here.

One company was selling expensive air filters we should all have, while there were at least three selling organic milk and yogurt. All the dairy farms are located just outside of Beijing, but just how 'organic' is the milk since the environment is pretty much polluted, water, land and air-wise. However, the milk samples I tasted were not bad.

There were also networking groups and non-profit associations like the Magic Hospital, which aims to cheer up kids in hospitals through clowns and art classes, or an orphanage that takes in abandoned kids with medical conditions.

And not to be outdone, several hospitals mostly for expats or rich Chinese set up booths. And one of them, United Family Hospital, in conjunction with other local health organizations, set up a blood drive in the exhibition hall.

I thought twice about it and then thought, why not?

However, the process is slightly different from North America.

I was asked to fill out a form answering a myriad of questions from if I was pregnant, to having diabetes, recently had surgery or have a number of diseases ending in -itis. While I was putting an "x" next to "No" for each question, nurses and other staff hovered around looking at my form, which really should be confidential. I had a choice of donating 200ml or 400ml and chose the latter.

After that I was sent to a doctor who checked my blood pressure. Back home I donated blood over a year ago and was told my blood pressure was low and just barely made the requirement. But here, I was pronounced just fine.

Then I moved to the next person who changed her gloves and then pricked my finger and squirted blood into a tiny plastic tube. She then put drops of my blood onto a piece of paper that she mixed with different chemicals and then wrote down my blood type.

A short wait afterwards, I was sent to a small area curtained off and sat in a kind of lawn chair. A nurse -- who didn't change her gloves -- wrapped a rubber tubing around my arm to find my vein and then jabbed a thick needle in me that was attached to a small plastic pouch sitting on a machine that rocked it back and forth.

At first she gave me a stress ball to squeeze, but after a while it got tiring and I just made a fist on my own. The young security guard next to me was done in no time, and the nurse kept reassuring me that I was doing fine. Meanwhile another person carefully labeled the pouch and packed it away.

Towards the end I was getting lightheaded and tired. Finally it was done and she put a band-aid on me and I sat around for over 10 minutes. Other people gave me grape juice, though I wish we were given chocolate instead. I was also handed a small booklet with my details and how much blood I gave.

It was a pretty smart idea to have the blood drive at this event, as most expats are willing to give blood and know the procedure. Apparently our blood will be stocked for between now and the Beijing Olympics which is neat.

I'm glad I did it and I just read the United Family Hospital's brochure, which says its blood bank meets American Blood Bank accreditation standards.

As a reward, I was given a red carnation, a bottle of water and a choice between a small travel bag or an umbrella.

Seems like they can't thank volunteers enough for doing a good deed.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Signs of Spring

Spring has definitely arrived in Beijing.

Chinese New Year, which is more commonly known as Spring Festival in China, is a misnomer because most of us are still freezing despite the promise of spring around the corner.

However, these last few days it's been noticeably warmer and even humid. Today was apparently 21 degrees Celsius and we had a short spell of rain showers too.

Cherry and plum blossoms are exploding with colour on tree branches, which are definitely brightening up this dust-covered city.

Here are some taken by the 798 district and behind my apartment building yesterday.

Last night my friend and I walked under several large trees covered in very pale pink plum blossoms. They practically glowed in the dark like snow.

Word of the Day: Da Ku Char

Here's a picture taken today documenting the status on the construction of the CCTV building.

Now reports say it won't be completely finished by the time the Olympics rolls around, but part of it will be functioning to broadcast the Games.

And although Office for Metropolitan Architecture headed by uber-cool designer Rem Koolhaas describes the CCTV tower as a loop that is three-dimensional, locals have coined a nickname for the building: da(4) ku(4)char(3), meaning big pants or trousers.

But I just looked it up in my handly Oxford Concise English-Chinese/Chinese-English dictionary and it also means underpants.

So now Beijing has the Bird's Nest, the Water Cube and Big Pants. How sexy.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Hip Bite to Eat

Yesterday I checked out a new shopping mall in Xidan called Joy City Mall. It's a funny looking building that juts in and out like relief and also had a weird shape.

And inside, mall rats are lurking about, checking out the recently opened Uniqlo, a Japanese version of Gap selling good basics, and Muji, a minimalist Japanese lifestyle store.

Zara, G2000, Sephora and Japanese sneaker brand Onitsuka Tiger have set up shop too.

Uniqlo was extremely stuffy with the combination of the hot lights and mad shoppers, I wanted to get out of there as soon as possible.

The best place to scape is Wagas on the third floor.

It's a great cafe to unwind and get some good food to recharge your legs for more shopping.

I'd been there a few weeks earlier and sampled the tuna salad. It's a giant serving of romaine lettuce, grape tomatoes, hard-boiled egg, and large chunks of tuna that was really delicious.

This time I tried the spaghetti with roasted pumpkin, creamy tomato sauce, basil and toasted pine nuts that was topped with a creamy dollop of feta.

It also came with a small bowl of salad that had a basil vinaigrette and two thin bagette slices.

While the spaghetti was overcooked, the rest of the dish was fantastic, and the salad was a perfect complement to the meal. I also had iced tea, real ice tea with liquid sugar.

Service staff aren't the most attentive and I had to go to the counter to get someone to take my order. However, the staff are courteous and bilingual.

For 56RMB (US$7.98), it was a bit on the expensive side. But for a quiet atmosphere, and trendy decor, it was well worth it.

In the afternoons they are trying to promote a piece of cake and coffee for 28RMB -- another good way to break up the shopping day.

Apparently Wagas will also be opening up branches in Qianmen and Sanlitun, an area that's a magnet for foreigners.

I'll definitely be one of them.

3/F, Joy City Mall
131 Xidan Bei Dajie
Xicheng District
5971 6200

Friday, April 4, 2008

Remembering the Dead

Today is Qingming Festival, or Tomb-Sweeping Day.

It's usually held around this time of year, where people take time to visit their relatives' graves and remember their family roots.

Qingming literally means "clear brightness", harking the beginning of spring.

And today is the first time Qingming is made into a public holiday. China changed its public holiday calendar, adding the Dragon Boat Festival and Mid-Autumn Festival as days off, while shortening the week-long May Day holiday to three days.

Last night while walking to the bus stop I encountered a woman and her small child tending to fires they made on the sidewalk. There were actually three piles of ashes, burning "money" and other paper goods to their ancestors in the heavens. It is believed the living can pass on goods and messages to the deceased by burning them.

In Hong Kong, Qingming has always been a day off. In places like Kennedy Town on the west side of Hong Kong Island, shops sell stacks of heavenly money, as well as clothes, houses, mobile phones and even cars made of paper.

When I visited my grandparents' graves, we'd burn money as well as a set of clothes, incense, and present some chicken with Chinese wine, my grandfather's favourite tipple. Then my relatives and I would have lunch in a restaurant and they would reminisce about my grandparents and their childhoods.

However, on the Chinese mainland, this festival wasn't designated as a day off, and the elderly and academics felt this tradition will soon be lost of it wasn't made into a public holiday so that young people could participate.

But today as I went out on the streets, I didn't see many people carrying flowers or things they would need to visit their ancestors' tombs.

Instead I saw many young people eager to go shopping, wearing trendy clothes and sipping Starbucks iced coffees as they wandered the malls.

So much for remembering the dead.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

In a Jam

After work I played tennis for two hours with some of my colleagues.

And I managed to catch the bus home at 8:20pm. Since rush hour was over, I mentally calculated I should be home in 20 minutes, fix a quick dinner and have a shower.

But just as the bus was getting off the fourth ring road and onto Jing Shun Road, cars were already backed up on the overpass and we joined at the back.

I looked at my watch and it was 8:30. The snaking line of lights was only inching forward. If I wasn't two stops away I would have gotten off and walked like some other passengers; also I'd just played tennis for two hours and was already tired.

A few passengers called up their friends to say they were running late, or asked if they were stuck in the same predicament. Others like myself tried to sit there patiently and watch the TV screens in the bus to entertain us.

I thought perhaps there was an accident ahead causing the massive jam and wondered how bad it was.

Another 15 minutes later we were ahead, but not by much. Many other buses, some three or four were the same number routes all herded together like cows. Inside, buses were either half empty like ours, or packed to the gills.

We finally made it onto Jing Shun Road and buses jockeyed into position to let passengers off and on. But I never saw an accident -- it was just a massive traffic jam.

The bus didn't go its usual route and instead turned left an intersection earlier to avoid further delays.

And when I finally got off, it was 9:10pm.

Jing Shun Road is a major thoroughfare with three lanes of traffic. I've experienced exceptionally heavy jams like this three times. I don't understand how they happen and how they eventually resolve themselves.

As most of the vehicles were buses that were jammed together, one has to wonder how things are going to improve once the Olympics come in August. Since half the private cars will be taken off the roads, leaving more to take public transport or taxis, and a dedicated Olympic lane for athletes, VIPs and media, isn't it possible we'll still have jams like this come the Games?

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

When the Wind Blows

I'd been warned about the sand storms that blow through Beijing around this time of year.

And yesterday after work I had my first encounter.

The wind was kicking up gusts that blew the sandy dirt up into the sky and into our eyes. Most people including myself weren't prepared and I had to keep rubbing my eyes as I waited at the bus stop. The wind was relentless and luckily I had a scarf to use as a breathing filter until my bus arrived, literally sheltering us from the fine dust storm.

Even my colleagues complained about the commute home. The weather has been unpredictable as the day before that it was raining and cold.

And according to concert organizer Emma Entertainment in Beijing, Canadian chanteuse Celine Dion cancelled her April 13 concert here because of the impact the sandstorms would have on her voice.

Earlier there were unconfirmed reports she had a throat infection and upcoming concerts would be postponed.

But a spokesperson for Dion denied it was the sandstorms, and said it was because Emma Entertainment had sold over 10,000 tickets without permission.

It's unclear what the real reason is. For someone who is very careful about looking after her voice, it's strange that she would perform at Worker's Stadium, an open-air space. But then again over 10 years ago she did sing on the runway of Kai Tak airport in Hong Kong after operations moved to the then new airport on Lantau Island.

The alleged accusation of Emma Entertainment selling tickets without permission is bizarre too, but sometimes the government has second thoughts about having performers come and is using the organizer as a scapegoat.

But the singer is squeaky clean compared to Bjork, who has made life tougher for musical acts to follow her when she shouted "Tibet! Tibet!" at the end of her Shanghai concert.

Dion has cozied up to Beijing Olympic organizers by submitting an entry as a possible song for the opening ceremonies. She was going to debut the song in Beijing, but perhaps Games organizers wanted to keep that top secret too.

Nevertheless, she will still come to the capital on April 11 for Olympic promotional activities and media interviews.

We may never get to the bottom of this strange turn of events.

But back to the sandstorms.

Today state media says in a recent survey, two-thirds of Beijingers believe the city's air pollution has improved, up from 53 percent from 2006. What happened to numbers from 2007?
The notorious sand storms, which used to blanket Beijing during early spring season, have not come this year. On the contrary, sunny days and spring blossoms have cheered Beijing residents and visitors up.

This is Beijing's way of fighting back against claims the capital's air pollution is unfit for athletes.

But with no solid numbers of the total number of people surveyed, who they were, and where they lived, we'll just have to go by what they say, with a pinch of salt -- or a pinch of sand.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Half-hearted Measures

The Associated Press has a story called "Beijing tries to kick smoking habit before Olympics".

BEIJING: Cui Dalin, China's deputy sports minister, told legislators that the Beijing Olympics would inspire the Chinese to live healthier lives.

Then he stepped into a hallway where smoking was prohibited and lit a cigarette.

The incident illustrates the uphill battle China faces as it prepares to take what health advocates hope will be a big step against smoking in what is the world's biggest tobacco market. A ban on smoking in most Beijing public places is expected to take effect in May, in hopes of meeting China's pledge of a smoke-free Olympics.

It's a classic case of do-as-I-say, not do-as-I-do.

Smoking here is rampant. For mostly men, it's as vital as drinking water -- a constant companion that's closer than a wife or girlfriend. For someone who comes from North America and is used to no-smoking areas, coming to Beijing to brave the cigarette smoke almost everywhere I go is like putting your health under siege.

In offices, people don't go outside to smoke, but in the hallway or stairwells, making it difficult to escape the horrific smell and haze.

On the one hand it's great to hear the Chinese government intends to ban smoking in most public places -- restaurants, bars, Internet cafes, hotels, offices, holiday resorts and all indoor areas of medical facilities.

But on the other, it's the places that get fined up to 5,000 RMB (US$713), when it really should be the individual smokers who should be penalized.

Cui Xiaobo, a well known tobacco control expert who helped draft the new rule admits there are proposals to fine smokers up to 200 RMB, but nothing is set in stone yet. For the rich, that amount is peanuts, and for migrant workers who want a smoke, it's a hefty fine.

The rich don't think rules apply to them. And that's why this smoking ban is not going to work, unless it is constantly enforced.

However -- there is some hope.

A few weeks ago I went to Din Tai Fung, a Shanghainese restaurant in Shin Kong Place, an upscale mall with apparently the largest Gucci store in Asia. As I waited for my table in the lobby, a man lit up. And the hostess politely asked him to smoke away from the entrance, just off to the side towards the washrooms.

While she didn't make him stand several feet away or stub out completely, it was a refreshing start.

As I've said before, the only way to get people to completely stop smoking is to shame them. Trying to educate the Chinese about the effects smoking does to their health doesn't mean much to them, probably because it's not immediately visible. But making them lose face
-- now that would be revolutionary.