Saturday, May 31, 2008

Another CCTV Update

Here's a picture of the CCTV Tower today. I took the picture as my friend and I rode in a cab on the way to Panjiayuan, the antique flea market. So you can see a reflection in the picture.

They are putting the diamond-shaped glass panels around the building now, giving the architectural feat more definition.

While the building won't be completely finished in time for the Olympics, CCTV will broadcast out of it.

Because by hook or by crook, the Chinese will make it happen.

It's either sheer determination or national pride.

Take your pick.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Safe Sex Hotels

I have a friend who flies into Beijing regularly and I saw her this weekend.

And she wanted me to see the bathroom in her hotel room.

"Take a look!" she said.

There, on top of the toilet, next to the rolled up bathmat was a box of condoms.

On the side is a small drawing of a condom, in case people still didn't know what they were. And inside were five of them vacuum sealed.

"I was just here last weekend and they didn't put that there," she observed.

It's the latest municipal government effort to prevent sexually-transmitted diseases.

All guest houses, hotels and scenic resorts are required to put condoms in all their washrooms, nightclubs, and bath houses. Even construction sites are expected to have condom vending machines. This is supposed to be done before the end of 2008.

But really it's for August. The government thinks that with the upcoming Olympics, it's important for all visitors to practice safe sex.

While the hotels must stock the condoms, the city health bureau said it was up to the hotels to decide how much to charge for the prophylactics.

State media reported 18,543 new cases of HIV/AIDS in China in the first half of 2007, close to the total of 2006.

So here -- enjoy yourself -- have a condom... or five.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Blown Away

Today was very windy which was a nice change from the hot humid weather. But more wind meant more dust in your eyes, nose and mouth. And everyday I keep forgetting to pack my mask. Or is it me subconsciously not wanting to wear it?

After work today my colleagues and I played tennis at the university courts across the street from our office.

And the wind was so strong, blowing west to east, that sometimes it would affect the ball's direction.

We always rally using lots of balls. The wind would also blow our many balls at the loosely strung net, so we had to run and stop them all from invading the court next door. "They're ours, they're ours!" we'd shout to the students next to us who only played with three.

Plastic bags flying in the air landed on our net too or on other parts of the court. They're known as "white pollution" and in the next few days a new regulation will be put into place where no more ultra-thin plastic bags will be given out for free and fewer factories making them. It'll be interesting to see how people will react to having to pay extra for plastic.

Anyway -- on the way home in a taxi, I could feel my throat had a dusty feeling from two hours on the courts. And I don't think it was from not getting enough regular exercise.

Some people think it's extra dusty these days because of construction projects madly trying to finish their buildings or renovations in the next month or so before they have to stop to clear the air for August.

Or maybe it was extra dusty for us playing tennis because our court was right next to a sandpit for long jump....

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Rest Assured, Your Life is in Our Hands

Today the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee (BOCOG) held a news conference talking about the medical service preparations made ahead of the Games in August.

And they want to reassure everyone coming to Beijing they have everything all planned for, from epidemic outbreaks to bio-terrorism, and natural disasters (hopefully not).

Jin Dapeng, Party Secretary of the Beijing Municipal Health Bureau and head of the medical support group of BOCOG gave a laundry list of the number of ambulances, hospitals, amounts of Rh positive and negative blood, as well as vaccinations they have prepared.

A big concern is the possibility of infectious diseases. Jin kept repeating that China had learned its lesson from SARS in 2003, saying they will do their utmost to prevent an outbreak. That is why Beijing has asked for cooperation with its seven neighbouring provinces and municipalities including Tianjin, Shanxi, Hebei, Inner Mongolia, Jilin and Liaoning to be vigilant about any diseases.

A foreign reporter asked about the problem of mosquitoes, as those buggers in Asia have a bigger bite than the ones in the West, that could possibly cause severe allergic reactions, or the West Nile virus. And as some venues are near water, what are organizers doing to minimize the mosquito population?

One of Jin's colleagues Liu Zejun answered in general about "vector biologies" which include mosquitoes, rats and flies. He said the city was doing inspections to make sure concentrations of these pests in a 2km radius weren't higher than the national standard -- and aimed for them to be one point lower. He didn't elaborate on what that meant or on specific measures taken to eradicate these "vector biologies".

A journalist from The Guardian asked Jin to describe their worst case scenario and then explain how they would deal with the situation.

Not willing to be baited, Jin replied in a dramatic voice, "Prevention is the most important," he preached. "We have to resolve issues in advance to prevent them from happening. Now we have professionals dedicated to the Olympic Games. All medical staff are prepared for extreme situations. We have plans in place."

Another from Associated Press said these few days the air quality has been bad (it has been really dusty) and those with asthma have been told to stay indoors. He asked what kind of things the organizers had in place in terms of dealing with asthma cases.

Jin, with a bulldog kind of face, just said that air quality "is a daunting task for us", but promised the air would be better in August. And for those with asthma, there are medical services available for them, he said.

But perhaps the best evidence to prove the medical team was up to the task during the Games was when Chen Jing, another of Jin's colleagues, explained how Beijing helped with relief work after the Sichuan earthquake struck.

"At 2:38pm the earthquake hit. And at 5pm we received a notice," she recalled. "In two hours we got a staff of 53 to go to the quake-stricken area the following day."

She added there were eight groups of people, totalling 590 medical staff with various expertise who went, and they brought with them 70 ambulances and three support vehicles as well as medical supplies.

Jin then jumped on the bandwagon, adding he was one of the medical staff who went to treat the victims of the 1976 Tangshan earthquake that killed some 280,000. But he didn't say much more about his experiences.

In the end he reiterated Beijing is ready -- medically at least.

Let's hope so.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Bloomin' Ready

Last Thursday I had a ticket to go see violinist Pinchas Zukerman perform at the Forbidden City Concert Hall next to the imperial palace, and across from Tiananmen Square.

I had spoken to the Israeli-born musician before and he told me about his love of sushi. So naturally I was keen to watch him perform.

China observed three days of national mourning for the earthquake victims from Monday to Wednesday so I thought the concert would go ahead the following day.

But I got a call Thursday morning from the ticket company telling me the concert was cancelled due to the earthquake. I got no further explanation except that I had to go all the way to the venue and not the ticket company's office, to get a refund. And I had to do this anytime between 9am and 5:30pm up until May 26. Which meant I could only do it on the weekend.

That meant schlepping from my place to the subway station, getting off at Tiananmen Square West station, and going through the Dr Sun Yat-sen Garden to the concert hall box office to get my 380RMB ($54.68) back.

And Saturday was really hot and humid. I forgot to bring my umbrella to create an instant shade so I was hot and sweaty by the time I made it to the box office.

The staff looked at my ticket, had to match it with the exact seat in a series of printouts before heading to the back room to get my money. Just as she disappeared, she jokingly called out to her colleagues, "See you later," which probably meant, "this is going to take a while".

And several minutes later, she finally returned with the exact amount.

But on the way back to the subway station I stopped to admire the straight-edged floral designs gardeners had made along the sidewalk. Neat, precise rows of colour from red to pink, purple, green and yellow were visually arresting.

The flowers are planted, or rather packed so closely together, one has to wonder if their roots have enough wiggle room down below.

Hope the flowers stay alive until August...

Monday, May 26, 2008

Bad Day on the Road

Bad things really do come in threes.

On Friday morning I came out of my apartment just before 8am to catch a taxi. But outside my complex there was already a big traffic jam. I wondered what that was all about.

I walked up half a block and tried to catch a cab, but they either already had a customer, or they refused to pick anyone up. I asked one what was going on, but I didn't understand what he was saying. Another one said the same thing.

So I walked further up hoping to catch another cab in another direction, but no such luck. I ended up walking so far that I could catch the 101 bus to work. Except that I just missed the bus.

Luckily the next one came not too long afterwards and I sent a text message my colleague at work saying I'd be late.

The traffic wasn't bad at all and I made it work just 15 minutes late. I wondered what all the fuss was about.

Then after work I headed down to Yonganli, where the Silk Market is, to have a quick meeting with someone and grab a bite to eat. I then took the subway back up to Dongzhimen to take the 614 bus home.

Again I just missed it.

But as it had to do a giant loop around the second ring road (basically a U-turn) and turn left, I thought I could catch the bus again at the next stop.

However, because of construction nearby, the bus stop was moved further away. Much further than I thought. And the bus zoomed past me again and I gave up trying to catch it.

So I thought I'd forget about getting cheap bus ride home and take a cab.

The driver started making some strange turns and then I asked him where he was going. Apparently he misheard me and so we had to do another giant loop back to where I started in the first place.

After we got back on track, he missed a turn and we were going west instead of east. I tried to tel him where to go, but he accused me of trying to get him into a car accident.

I was so annoyed with him that I demanded to be let out of the cab, paying him of course.

Then I got into another one who was surprised the previous driver took me in this direction, as he had to do a U-turn to get back to where we needed to go.

I finally made it home, and hoped I wouldn't encounter a commuting day like that again.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Fill 'er Up

On Friday a barrel of oil hit $135 on the world market, making most drivers around the world think twice about getting into their cars.

But here in China things are still running, thanks to the Chinese government's artificially low prices.

Yesterday I took a taxi to Dongzhimen subway station and on the way the cab driver said he was running low on gas and would it be OK if we stopped to fill up?

Sure why not. In over a year since I've been here I've never had to go to a gas station.

There are gas jockeys, young men who either fill up the tank or the amount you want in RMB.

The taxi driver asked for 200RMB ($28.81) for 37.45 litres. Can you believe it?

That same amount of gas would be over $50 in some places.

Beijing has no plans to raise gas prices anytime soon due to the upcoming Olympics, but at the same time it's made it hard for domestic oil companies to make much of a profit. They've had to cut production, which is dangerous especially in the winter when many people froze due to the snowstorms earlier this year.

How the government plans to eventually address this unbalanced cost will be interesting, as more and more people buy cars. How can they drive if they can't afford the gas?

The gap between the rich and the poor will be even greater.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

New Hidden Gem

My friend and I checked out a new place that recently opened behind Pacific Century Mall in Sanlitun.

Literally behind the mall is a stone wall and a sign that says "Nineteen Forty-nine". Then you enter through an art gallery with contemporary graphic prints, photographs and even sculptures of missiles pointing downwards but made with the Chinese character for "double happiness" used for weddings. How ironic.

And then the gallery opens into a courtyard area using old Chinese bricks on the pathway to several restaurants and bars. This area is developed by Elite Concepts, a restaurant company based in Hong Kong.

We checked out the Noodle Bar. There are two tables outside, but it was cooler sitting inside the Japanese-inspired, minimalist design. There are 12 seats around the bar which is actually an open kitchen were you can watch the noodle maker prepare your dish right in front of you.

He takes some dough, sprinkles water and oil on it, twists it a few times and then all of a sudden it becomes a bunch of strands. I still don't know how they do it. It's all magic.

The menu is reasonably priced and we tried the special set which is a giant bowl of noodles, thin or thick, with beef tendon, brisket and tripe, as well as a big piece of turnip in a beef-based broth.

The tendon was so good, practically melting in your mouth.

The set also comes with a small dish of sliced cucumbers with garlic, and thinly sliced spicy beef.

We also ordered a plate of kale with oyster sauce and a small beer to share.

The place only opened a month ago so not many people were eating here. In the end our bill came to 125RMB for two.

The courtyard is such a nice tranquil area, and several expats have already discovered the bar, Sugar Bar, and a Chinese restaurant called Duck de Chine that includes fire-roasted duck.

As we were leaving, some musicians were just arriving, and I'm sure their music, played in the courtyard creates a wonderful ambience in this hidden gem.

Noodle Bar
1949 - The Hidden City
Courtyard 4, Gongti Beilu
Chaoyang District
6501 1949

Friday, May 23, 2008

Packaged Cleanliness

Last night two of my colleagues and I grabbed some dinner after working late.

We went to a barbecue place that serves mostly skewers of meat, vegetables, and fish. There are also bowls of noodles, rice, and salads.

The place has almost been open for almost a year, but the place settings were different.

Instead of disposable wooden chopsticks, we were each given a self-contained set of a plate, glass, bowl, spoon and teacup. Reusable chopsticks were passed out.

One of my colleagues said she was annoyed about the sanitary packaging.

"We have to pay extra for this, even though a restaurant should be giving us clean plates and glasses anyway," she explained.

Although it's a few yuan, it is the principle.

Restaurateurs probably think if you can afford to dine at their eatery, a few yuan for clean plates and bowls is nothing.

I have to agree with her though. And the plastic packaging is just adding more garbage to the environment. Will the government consider a ban on plastic packaging for clean dishes?

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Bitter Sweet Endorsement

Seventeen-year-old Xue Xiao was rescued after 80 hours trapped underneath the rubble.

The event was covered live on television.

His first words to rescuers?

"Give me a Coke."

Rescuers assured them they would get him the drink.

"Make it a cold one," he added.

What a perfect endorsement for Coca-Cola!

Other Chinese on the Internet agree with me -- that Coke should reward him for saying that.

But the sad thing is, although he is still alive, his right hand and leg had to be amputated.

I still think Coke should at least give him a lifetime supply.

He deserves it after all he's been through.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Heroic Folklore

In the past week, newspapers are flooded with hero stories helping find survivors in the earthquake, or those who died helping others.

There was a teacher in a county who guided his students out of the classroom to safety and then risked his life to get more out. Debris fell on him and he died on the way to hospital. What is also tragic is that he was supposed to start his honeymoon that day.

A colonel and his team managed to pull out 7,000 people from the rubble, only to find out later he could not save his 29 relatives who died in the quake. What did he do? Try to save more people than grieve. He felt it was more important to save another life so that one less family would suffer.

An airborne corps commander who led his 21-member team into a remote area found stranded villagers and led them to safety, even if it meant carrying them on his back. They encountered landslides and thought that might be the end of them. Some of the team wrote their last thoughts on pieces of paper for others to keep just in case, and he did too. But he ripped it up, determined to come out alive. And they all did.

Another teacher who, together with his colleagues, led over 100 of their primary school students with barely enough food and water on a long mountainous trek to the nearest town that took over 24 hours. The teachers kept promising the kids would get candy and ice cream to keep the students going, but few complained. Despite dehydration and tired legs, they all made it to the shock of rescuers.

What is most impressive is that many of these people sacrificed so much for the good of many. They went beyond filial duties to help others.

These people are true leaders. And hopefully we can all learn from their heroic efforts. In times of crisis, leadership talents shine through. We all depend on these beacons of light to guide us to safety.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Annus Horribilis

At lunch today one of my colleagues remarked this year was unfolding into a bad one.

The winter storms, Lhasa riots, a crash involving two trains and now the earthquake.

We quietly concurred.

It's the second day of national mourning and it's pretty depressing since the government has mandated no kind of entertainment be allowed. That means no TV commercials, no music, nothing other than earthquake news, all the time.

Broadcasters are finding it difficult to fill the airtime.

China Radio International's English station has had to replay interviews and shows over and over again. And some of the repeat segments include denouncing Tibetans.

China Central Television shows hosts in dark suits and show non-stop coverage of past rescues, as now it's about recovering bodies than finding people alive. There were also repeats of yesterday when people across the country stood in silence for three minutes.

There was a shot at Zhongnanhai, the government compound, where senior government leaders wore dark suits with white paper flowers pinned on their lapels and bowing at an angle.

The footage has gotten so repetitive that people don't bother watching much anymore. On the bus ride home, hardly anyone was looking at the TV screens since they'd seen those pictures already -- all day yesterday.

One more day, and then hopefully we can move on and be a bit more optimistic about the rest of the year. After all, we're hosting the biggest international event in China's modern history in 79 days...

Monday, May 19, 2008

Mourning the Dead

Today China officially began three days of mourning.

At sunrise, some 2,000 people descended on Tiananmen Square to watch the flag-raising ceremony. It is a pilgrimage many Chinese do when they come to Beijing. But today was different.

In an unprecedented move, the flag was flown at half-mast to recognize China's earthquake victims. In this country, this kind of flag etiquette is reserved only for state leaders and fallen heroes.

And then at 2:38pm, the exact time one week ago when the quake struck, sirens began wailing in the streets, and people honked their car horns. At the office we all got up and stood for three minutes of silence.

On the television I could see thousands of people at Tiananmen Square, looking towards the flag.

And when the three minutes was over, some people started to shout, "Zhongguo jia you! Sichuan jia you!" (Go China go! Go Sichuan go!" The spontaneous outburst was amazing -- everyone in the crowd started to join in, raising their fists in a united demonstration of China's determination to soldier on.

So I thought perhaps that energy would sustain in the evening for the flag lowering ceremony.

After work I rushed over to the square before 7:26pm, sundown. Hundreds of people were already there, young and old. Many took pictures of themselves with the flag in the backdrop, some waving small Chinese flags.

There were lots of police and security in the area. Not having gone to one of the typical flag lowering ceremonies before I wasn't sure if this was unusual.

One young man hoped to profit from today's event by renting his plastic stools for people to stand on and watch the proceedings for 20 RMB. There were a few takers.

At the appointed time, the flag was raised to the top and then slowly lowered, taken down, and then the guards marched away with it, all in silence.

There was no anthem, no spontaneous outburst. We all made our way back to the subway subdued and reflective.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Evaluating leadership

Tonight I met up for dinner with some coworkers and some who recently left the company.

And of course one of the topics was about the Sichuan earthquake.

They were all disheartened by the situation.

But what was also interesting was these 20-somethings' evaluation of how China's leaders have responded to the natural disaster.

Everyone praised "Grandpa" Wen Jiabao for immediately going to the quake-stricken zone and sympathizing with the victims. They thought he was definitely a people person who really cares for the country's citizens. In the first few days he had been working around the clock and trying to mobilize as many resources as possible.

On the other hand, they felt President Hu Jintao was not very earnest in his concern for the survivors. They felt the coverage of his inspection tours were staged and his words sounded hollow.

"That's the Chinese way," sighed one. "He doesn't know how to show empathy."

But they felt former President Jiang Zemin was worse, doing silly antics for attention.

We then talked about the development of the country, and they felt China is developing so quickly and this is the right direction.

But I pointed out that most of the country is left behind and the most crucial thing for these underdeveloped areas is education. I said the country can only move forward when the gap between the rich and poor, the urban and countryside areas is smaller. And the best way to do that is through education.

That means the government needs to pay teachers in these areas better. I've read stories of heroic teachers who only make a few hundred RMB a month, and sometimes they aren't even paid on time.

I said if the central government made this a priority, they would make sure these teachers were paid well and on time. That way the students can be ensured of a good education.

But my friends said while that's the way it should be, it was impossible because China is so bureaucratic that money for education goes through so many levels before it actually ends up in the teachers' hands. It would be a complete restructuring of the government system which would take a long time to reform. And education may not be a priority for many of these areas that would prefer to concentrate on economic development.

This is short-sighted thinking. Only through education can an area develop itself economically and socially.

That is how Hu can make his "harmonious society" a reality.

If the schools that were flattened by the earthquake were found to be shoddily constructed, nicknamed "tofu buildings", then hopefully the central and regional governments will pay more attention to the countryside and of course the crucial need to invest more in education.

That is one of the good things that may come out of this natural disaster. Children are the future of this country -- any country. And education is the crucial tool they need in order to help China continue to grow and hopefully in the future become an influential power that is not only economically strong, but also has good leadership skills on the world stage.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Delish Dessert

After a very successful shopping trip at the Silk Market, my friend and I went to Ding Tai Fung for dinner tonight.

We had xiaolong bao (steamed pork dumplings), dan dan mian (spicy noodles with peanut sauce), seaweed and sprouts, and marinated dried tofu.

But the best was the dessert. We had diced mango in shaved ice, mixed with almond milk.

Ooohhh so good.

Beijing Rose Garden

These are pictures from the roses in full bloom at my apartment complex. They line around the fence and it's wonderful to see them opening up. Spring has definitely arrived.

You can see roses all over the city -- but you can't stop and smell them. That's because the city has planted many rose bushes along the ring roads which are basically freeways.

So while they definitely beautify the city, it's a pity not to be able to stop and smell the roses. They definitely have a better aroma than the polluted air.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Quake Fatigue

It's Day 5 of the earthquake and now I and many of my colleagues are suffering from quake fatigue.

One is tired from crying last night after hearing the number of dead may jump to 50,000. Officially now it's 22,069.

Others are exhausted from being glued to the TV and wanting to know the latest developments.

President Hu Jintao finally decided to show his face and tag-team Premier Wen Jiabao in encouraging rescuers, soldiers and medical staff to continue their tireless work.

But now the bodies are starting to pile up and they are trying to bury them or cremate them as soon as possible.

What's interesting is that Chinese state media doesn't want to report this situation, while for foreign media, this is a major issue. They report bodies everywhere, and not enough body bags, while Chinese reporters are still focusing on rescue efforts, as if they're in denial.

Up until now coverage has been pretty much transparent. But if the government thinks it can keep the nation's hopes up for more survivors, they will be in for great disappointment.

For my coworkers in their 20s, this is their 9/11. They have never seen such horrific things happen to their fellow countrymen or to their homeland.

But less five months earlier we had another natural disaster -- the winter storms that paralyzed most parts of China in late January.

Despite some people who died from the cold, the majority didn't have the same compassion they're showing now. At that time everyone was thinking of going home for Spring Festival, not worrying about the tens of thousands of mostly migrant workers stuck at train stations who were desperate to get back to loved ones they hadn't seen in one or many years.

People seem to have forgotten this group that have literally built the country's cities with their hands, preferring to ignore them or deride them for their country bumpkin appearance and attitudes.

Nevertheless, the Chinese are firmly united in this latest cause. But if the government doesn't act quickly to give people what they need, from medical care, housing, food and counseling, China's leaders will have another crisis on its hands and not everyone will be on the government's side.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Lost Generation

The death toll from Monday's earthquake has exceeded 20,000 as of this afternoon. Some 19,500 are from Sichuan Province alone.

More than 72 hours have passed since the quake hit, making it harder to hold out hope for the more than 25,000 still missing.

Chinese state media continues to broadcast images of courageous soldiers and rescuers going through the rubble, and pictures of aid put together for survivors.

But there are not many stories about the dead.

Today I read a heart-breaking story in the New York Times about the hundreds children who died in the quake. They were all in school when the earthquake hit, the buildings collapsing on their small bodies.

It is not only devastating for parents to lose a child, but also your only child when the government forbids you to have more than one.

One distraught couple told the reporter they married late and had their daughter late. The chances of them being able to conceive again are very slim.

With so many of these children's lives snuffed out, practically one generation in some towns is gone.

According to the article, parents haven't been able to properly grieve for their child -- they are cremated in batches as quickly as possible to avoid the stench of death.

Parents have requested caretakers to arrange it so that their child and his or her best friends can go to Heaven together.

I don't know if the government will provide for psychological counseling after such a traumatic experience.

It's not even sure how the government will make sure survivors have proper housing and the things they need to even try to begin to rebuild their lives again.

But loved ones can't be replaced. Especially children, who for many, were their parents' sole treasure and hope.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Perception and Reality

It is now two days after the earthquake struck and the numbers of dead are almost reaching 15,000.

Soldiers have now arrived at Wenchuan, the epicenter of the quake and finding the situation there is worse than expected.

In other disaster-hit areas, there have been pictures of children pulled out alive, or seen trapped in the rubble being fed through a tube or hooked up to an intravenous drip.

The mountainous terrain has made it very difficult for rescue workers to get to the affected places, losing precious time to save who they can.

My colleagues are very anxious about the earthquake. These 20-somethings are witnessing the first major natural disaster of their lives.

One told me she has been up watching the news constantly for the latest updates on the death toll.

What has also made her upset is the Beijing Olympic Organizing committee's decision to continue the torch relay.

"All we care about are the people affected by the earthquake," she said. "They [BOCOG] should cancel the relay for the next few days because we [the people, the government] should be concentrating on the victims."

Other people had voiced similar opinions on the Internet, which influenced BOCOG's decision to tone down the relay ceremonies, include one minute of silence to remember the earthquake victims and collect donations.

Some think it's important to continue the torch relay to show that the Chinese spirit is still strong and hopefully inspire people to keep holding on, while others think it's in bad taste to celebrate something when people are dying.

Meanwhile Premier Wen Jiabao's every move and every word is covered in Chinese media. It can be quite tough to show a public face almost 24 hours a day. Strangely, President Hu Jintao has been completely out of sight.

In the past two days, Wen repeated his message that the government is doing all it can, and the government feels the victims' pain. He said even if there is a sliver of hope, we will put in 100 percent effort into helping people survive.

However, his efforts in trying to console children hasn't been his forte. Today some children who lost their parents met Wen in a conference room. They sat in chairs that were too big for them, some looking dazed. There's a shot of the Premier holding the arm of a girl who was sobbing non-stop. He keeps telling her the government will look after her and that things will get better.

But she keeps wiping her tear-streaked face with the back of her hand, moaning and not saying anything. What she really needed most was a hug than words.

It looks like relief efforts will continue for days and maybe even weeks.

But at least the Chinese are trying to save their own, unlike the Junta in Mynamar, who have totally dropped the ball and leaving their people to die.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Holding Onto Hope

The images of the disaster-struck areas in Sichuan Province after the earthquake are being broadcast on Chinese state media.

They are of roads broken up into big chunks, and piles of rubble where buildings used to stand. Rescue workers and soldiers are removing the debris, piece by piece with their bare hands, worried about disturbing the wreckage and cause further damage or injuries to those trapped below.

They have managed to pull out a few people alive, but many sustaining serious injuries.

There are sad stories coming out, especially at a school that collapsed in Dujiangyan, just south of the epicentre of the quake in Wenchuan.

Parents are waiting desperately for any signs of life from their children trapped below. But many bodies were recovered, and the grieving parents placed candles at the makeshift morgue in the school playground, wailing and regretting they sent their children to school.

There are scenes of makeshift hospitals literally on the road covered with tarps, people lying in stretchers with intravenous drips attached to them.

Premier Wen Jiabao is visiting the quake-hit areas, trying to comfort people. He was unable to stop a young girl from wailing in her mother's arms. All he could do was say that help was on the way.

While the mobilization of rescuers, medical staff and supplies has been swift, it's been difficult for them to get to the affected areas due to landslides covering roads.

And it's those pictures that have moved Chinese in the rest of the country to do their bit to help out.

There are pictures of people lining up to put money into donation boxes or giving blood.

This is a new shift of patriotism that only recently was a defense mechanism against the world.

Now they are banding together to help their own.

Perhaps now President Hu Jintao's "harmonious society" will finally be realized.

Monday, May 12, 2008


This afternoon around 2:28pm I was sitting at my computer and feeling kind of dizzy. It was a strange feeling, kind of woozy, like I'd had a stiff drink and the affects were hitting my system big time.

But after a while, the dizziness went away and I thought nothing of it.

And then a colleague came over and told me there was an earthquake!

The epicentre is in Wenchuan County, in Sichuan Province. It's where the Woolong Nature Reserve is, that does research and breeding of pandas! Hope those cuddly creatures are OK.

The 7.8-magnitude quake could be felt as far away as Vietnam, Pakistan and Thailand.

Over 100 are confirmed dead, but Chinese state media are saying the death toll could reach as high as 5,000.

Premier Wen Jiabao flew on a chartered plane to the disaster area. Rescue and medical workers are on their way as well.

Meanwhile state media doesn't have much coverage on the quake. CCTV 1 is dedicated to broadcasting about the quake, but it's three people in a studio, two hosts and an expert holding up paper maps of the area.

Other local channels have news stories of the quake, but not many eye witness accounts.

The rest are broadcasting programming as scheduled.

On the Internet people are venting their frustrations, saying Premier Wen isn't showing his genuine concern for the people, reading out a scripted statement on the plane. They are also complaining that state media aren't broadcasting from Chengdu or from the epicentre itself, giving little information.

And some are speculating the natural disaster is signaling the changing of the mandate of heaven. We'll have to see.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

TIC Moment

A friend asked me to meet her for lunch today and I took the bus to the restaurant. The last time I took the same bus there, I thought I got off a stop early and had to walk 10 minutes to get to the restaurant.

So this time I thought I would get off at the next stop.


The bus ended up passing the restaurant, going around the corner, turning left and then some. The stop before seemed like a hop, skip and a jump to the restaurant, compared to where I was now.

This is what I can't understand about Beijing bus stops. They are so far apart from each other and sometimes the stops are in the middle of no where. You would think they would create a bus stop in high traffic areas, particularly this one where there are a number of restaurants, apartment buildings and a grocery store.

But I guess it doesn't work that way and the transportation department arbitrarily decides where stops go without much rhyme or reason.

To get back, I had to cross the street and either grab a cab, or another bus going back to where I was.

And luck would have it, I took the same number bus going back the same way. And again it passed the restaurant and then some.

I had to walk back again, the 10-minute walk I thought was too far and ended up being more than 15 minutes late.

Don't get me wrong -- I enjoy taking the bus, especially when it's not rush hour. But it's when bus stops are placed in the most inconvenient places is when I fume in frustration about the city. Yes, I know -- TIC -- This Is China.

No wonder taxi drivers are doing so well here. If public transit was planned a bit better, I'm sure cabbies would have to find other ways to supplement their incomes.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Lost in Love

Tonight I went to a friend's birthday party he held in his apartment. He's Korean-Canadian, but has adapted so well here, speaking pretty good Chinese in less than a year, learning from his colleagues and private lessons.

He invited several of his coworkers to come to his house party, along with his Chinese and Japanese teachers and other friends, all 20-somethings to have a buffet of fried chicken, kim chi, noodles, pizza, pop and beer.

Most of the colleagues kept to themselves, joking with each other, the girls constantly posing for the camera.

But one of them, about their age seemed more mature and wore a nice black dress with a ring on her manicured finger. She told me she was married, but despite saying it was love at first sight for her and her husband, she wished she didn't get married so early.

"Our parents put so much pressure on us to get married," she says now in hindsight. "I wish I had more time to go travel and do things on my own before getting married. But now there are so many things to think about."

I sympathized, saying that now they had to think of the two of them.

She corrected me. "No, now we have to think about two families," she explained. "When we make decisions we have to think about everyone. And things are changing all the time that we haven't had to time to plan our lives. It's so difficult."

The one-child policy on the one hand has created little emperors and empresses, but at the same time resulted in them shouldering more responsibilities and expectations one child can't handle on his or her own.

She then went on to say that many of her friends got married too, but after one, two, or six months, they divorced.

"It's not that they can't live together," she said. "They think once they get married, life will get easier, but it's not. And they can't deal with it."

Unfortunately her cell phone rang and she took the call. Afterwards we didn't continue the conversation anymore.

But what she told me was what I had read in the paper and confirmed first hand.

It's too bad these young people, who should have bright futures ahead of them, are burdened with expectations of getting married, buying a home, having a child -- all before they're 30.

No wonder many choose to suspend themselves with their sometimes childish behaviour, or perhaps are too naive to realize the fate that awaits them.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Young At Heart

Yesterday after work my colleagues and I headed to the university across the street to hit some balls.

The tennis courts are right next to the race track, which students use to train, walk off their dinner, or burn off stress. Some even walk backwards as they believe that helps stimulate your creativity. I have yet to try that.

And as we were warming up I saw an elderly man quasi jogging, but really shuffling along the race track. He wore a blue short sleeved shirt that was unbuttoned, showing the white singlet he was wearing underneath, a pair of baggy shorts hiked up around his tummy, and runners. He later stripped down to the singlet and hung his shirt on a soccer goal post.

Students whizzed past him along the 250m track, but he just kept going like a turtle, slow and steady.

I thought it was so cute seeing a senior doing his bit to stay active. This was a perfect example of what the Olympic spirit is all about -- keeping our bodies healthy and striving to reach goals.

So I got onto the track, whipped past him too and then waited for him with my camera. He knew I took pictures of him and then asked me where I was from.

We quickly struck a conversation and he had to "jog" to keep up with my slow walking pace. He was thrilled to meet a foreigner.

Mr Xie Wenjie didn't reveal his age, but said he was from Jiangsu Province and had lived in Beijing for a long time. He still wasn't married yet, but was continuing his search for a lady friend. He had even studied a doctorate in Business Administration and spoke a few words in good English.

He said he came to the track practically everyday, but I'd never seen him before. I walked a lap with him, but had to practically extricate myself from him, as he wanted to keep talking, but I had to get back to the tennis court.

And he probably kept going for almost an hour before I saw the blue shirt missing from the goal post, when the sun had already set.

The Beijing Olympic organizers should use Mr Xie as their poster boy for the Olympic spirit. He ain't going faster, higher, or stronger. But he keeps plugging along, with a smile.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Politically Correct Ascent

Well what do you know. Just after I posted my last blog entry, the late night news had a report saying the 36-member team was going to climb up Mount Qomolangma (Mt Everest) early this morning (1am) to mark exactly three months to the day the Olympics will start.

Why didn't I think of that?

And this afternoon, my colleague told me late last night she had trouble sleeping because her mom had the TV on really loud with the broadcast of the ascent on CCTV. Except her mom fell asleep on the couch.

In the office we turned on the TV and saw the last few moments, when a member pulled out a lighting stick, put it in a hole of the special lantern carrying the Olympic flame and lit it. He then lit the torch and they did a mini relay up to the summit.

And who was the last torch bearer? A Tibetan woman. How much more politically correct can you get than that?

What was even more impressive was the camera crew broadcasting from over 8,800 meters high. It looked really windy and cold up there.

While some shouted "Welcome Beijing Games", one climber can be heard breathing heavily and gasping, "I need oxygen".

They took lots of pictures with their mini Olympic and Chinese flags and breathed a huge sigh of relief. Mission accomplished.

The base camp coordinator was on TV, so overcome by emotion that he couldn't speak. Maybe he was thinking now I can really get a good night's sleep. My colleagues were beaming, so proud and thrilled to see this event realized.

But there are those who are angry, feeling the Chinese are using this stunt to show its superiority, that yes -- Tibet is a part of China.

And there are others who think, why are we wasting so much money on this? Can't we be spending it on more useful things like helping the poor?

Now the torch will go down and wait to be reunited with the other flame currently in Guangdong. The next real test is in early June, when the torch goes to Yunnan Province, where many Tibetans live.

The poor flame has 92 more days go to. Hope it's got enough passion in there to keep burning through the controversy.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Waiting with Baited Breath

The Olympic torch is now in Guangdong Province and as far as we know, things are going swimmingly.

There aren't those noisy demonstrators, shouting "free Tibet", or waving Tibetan flags. Or anyone even remotely interested in trying to extinguish the "sacred" flame.

Instead things are unfolding exactly what the Chinese government had hoped for -- people cheering along the way, waving Chinese national flags and shouting "Zhongguo Jia You!" "Go China Go!"

In the meantime we're all waiting with baited breath to see when the other Olympic torch will actually make its ascent up Mount Qomolangma, or Mount Everest to the rest of the world.

China got special permission from the International Olympic Committee to have "two" flames. The one closer to sea level will stop moving once the ascent begins. A specially designed torch was created for this event and tests done to make sure the flame doesn't die out in thin oxygen levels.

It's already at base camp, and the 36-member team announced, that includes 24 Tibetans, 10 Han Chinese, and one each from the Tu and Tujia ethnic minorities.

Today they even announced the proposed route up Mt. Qomolangma, by going up the northern slope which, out of the 20 possible routes, is one of the safest. Base Camp is at 5,2oo meters high, and the distance to the 6,500-meter-high Advanced Base Camp is 28km. From there, the summit is another 20km.

Apparently right now, this is the only ascent made on the entire mountain -- all other recreational climbers are shut out from climbing the world's highest peak. The government didn't want anything to distract this most ambitious event.

While all the preparations have been made, the weather hasn't been cooperating so far. There was heavy snowfall a few days ago and now the team is waiting for the right conditions.

Beijing Olympics organizers have said the ascent will be made sometime in May. But what if the weather doesn't cooperate at all? Then what?

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Shaking Hands No More

Over a year ago I met two young guys, Ben from Australia and Jeremy from the United States. The two of them told my friend and I they wanted to start a band and we encouraged them, saying we'd be their groupies and go to their gigs.

A few months later they did get their act together and formed Shake Hands with Danger. They started off playing at D-22, a small bar in Wudaoku, the university district once every few weeks.

Pretty soon even a nightly radio music show started mentioning their gigs.

I finally saw them play live a few months ago and they were fantastic. Rock 'n' roll, hard beat, guitar solos, poetic lyrics and Ben's powerful vocal chords made SHWD a fun act to watch and listen to. My favourite song of theirs is "Love of War" which they perform to end each set.

They had a pretty good expat following, with one guy from the Australian consulate who practically films all their shows on his camcorder. These are pictures I took of them at a great venue called Yugong Yishan a few weeks ago.

And despite their plans of performing around Asia, SHWD has come to an abrupt end. Jeremy has found another job in Hong Kong and Ben will be leaving Beijing with his keyboardist girlfriend. Drummer Toby will stay here looking for other bands to play with.

Last night was their last show. Unfortunately I missed it as I had an early shift at work.

I wish them all the best of luck and hopefully SHWD will regroup again, or refashion themselves with a new sound.

We'll miss them rocking Beijing.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Ticketing Ordeal

With 95 more days to go till the Olympics, today was the last and only day people on the Chinese mainland could get Games tickets.

Officials said there were thousands of tickets left for 244 events. And each person was limited to a maximum of three tickets per event, and if they paid for those first, then they were entitled to an additional three more for another event.

Beijing Olympic organizers even made an ambitious promise -- that the ticketing system wouldn't crash, unlike late last year.

If there was a way to bet on the system crashing, I would have put down some money.

And what do you know -- just before 9am when the online ticket sales was supposed to start, the computers in our office started crashing.

I managed to get back online around 11am and tried to go through events I was interested in, in order of enthusiasm: swimming, diving, tennis, cycling track, fencing... weightlifting... handball... archery... but those tickets were gone.

I had to get more creative and decided on softball. Yes! Tickets! I quickly put in my order and then tried to pay for them online.

And waited.
And waited.
And waited....

And then about 15 minutes later the page went blank "this page not found".

I tried again, this time for baseball. Yes again! I put in my order again and clicked "pay online".

And waited.
And waited.
And waited.

And another 15 minutes later the page went blank again.

It was then that I thought the ticketing system crashed.

However, I kept trying and it wasn't until partway through lunchtime when my order was processed.

The page said I only had 2 minutes to input my credit card number and other details and
then -- presto! I had tickets virtually in my possession.

As I could try to get tickets for another event, I put in another order for softball again and in a relatively short time got them too.

The organizers boasted tickets sold quickly in the first half hour, but some of the public complained they had trouble buying tickets online, describing a similar experience to me.

Did they give up that easily?

Or was it luck on my side? Or I picked obscure sports Chinese people aren't interested in?

In any case, I may have some new best friends come August...

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Breaking News -- Someome Else to Blame

China has a new public enemy now and it's not CNN's Jack Cafferty.

This afternoon China Daily issued a scathing opinion piece on Reporters Sans Frontieres, or Reporters Without Borders.

It starts off by saying three people from this group interrupted the lighting ceremony of the Olympic torch in Olympia, Greece. This fact is true, as reported by many foreign media, as a man unfurled a flag with five handcuffs linked together to parody the Olympic rings.

The disruption they caused was non-violent and that was the only incident involving RSF in the torch relay.

But the piece continues, saying since then RSF has been involved in disrupting the torch's global tour, citing incidents in Paris and Nagano.

The commentary then questions the role of RSF -- is it really an advocate for journalists and the free press? It then blames the Paris-based group for organizing "hostile movements against the Beijing Olympics" as evidenced by what they did during the global torch relay.

It even claims that a French newspaper found that RSF banded together with right-wing US political groups to try to pressure US, German and Swiss companies to stop Beijing from getting the rights to the Games in 2001.

But isn't that decision made by the International Olympic Committee and not by corporations?

However, the spin doesn't end there.

It blames RSF for joining forces with Tibetan separatists to "shamefully politicize the Olympics and go against the wishes of the Chinese people".
There's no doubt RSF was sponsored by stubborn anti-Chinese agencies to defame China and the Beijing Olympics. One thing for sure is that RSF will not last long once the truth comes out in the wash and it loses its dirty funds.
So does this mean the Dalai Lama is off the hook now?

Channeling Patriotism Elsewhere

Today is May 4, the 89th anniversary of the 1919 May 4 Movement.

During World War I, China entered the war helping the allies on condition all German-controlled areas in China be returned back to Chinese rule. But afterwards at the Treaty of Versailles, this request was ignored and Shandong was handed to Japan.

The Chinese had also asked to end extraterritorial rights to the British, Germans, French and Americans, and cancel the "21 demands" from the Japanese.

China's weakness at the political table stirred up young people in campuses across Beijing. They were angry not only at their own government for not getting their demands met, but also at the foreign powers for ignoring China.

On May 4, 1919, some 3,000 students demonstrated at Peking University shouting nationalist slogans. The next day all Beijing students refused to go to class, and this strike spread to Shanghai.

Finally the government fired the Chinese diplomats involved and Chinese representatives refused to sign the Treaty of Versailles. However, Shandong was still under Japanese occupation.

Nevertheless, this showed how students could create nationalism among the people and inspire pride in their country.

And many young people today were hoping to do the same thing by boycotting Carrefour because of its alleged link to the Dalai Lama.

However, on the eve of the May 4 Movement and the 110th anniversary of Peking University, President Hu Jintao urged students to turn their patriotic passion into concrete actions of studying hard and contributing to the upcoming Olympics.

"College life is the golden time in a person's life. You should make the most of the time to study hard, think hard and practice hard," he said. "You should also actively engage in social activities so as to not only learn the knowledge but also improve your ability to serve the country."

So Hu's delicate hint was to tell young people not to protest and boycott anymore -- channel your energies into more productive things.

He's right of course. With less than 100 days to the Olympics, China should be working on welcoming foreigners rather than creating more distrust.

And what better way for Hu to get the message across than on such a symbolic day at the place where it all started?

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Real or Manufactured?

These last few days it's been really humid -- 28 degrees and not much relief in the evenings.

However the weather changed completely today.

This morning it looked overcast as usual, but by 9:30am the sky was ominously dark as you can see in the first photo. It looked like it was 7pm.

And then it came -- bolts of lightning followed by the crack of thunder, and then the rain. It poured so hard you could hardly see anything clearly outside.

My lunch date with a girlfriend was cancelled and the thought of wading through muddy water to the gym was hardly inspiring.

Amazingly things cleared up in the late afternoon and the middle picture (from a very dirty window) was taken at around 4:30pm.

I ducked out for groceries and breathed in the fresh air. Beijing is best right after a big hard rain. Everything -- the sky, buildings, trees, cars, roads and flowers have all had a good rinse and look bright a new again.

And to compensate us for the inconvenience caused, we were rewarded with a beautiful sunset around 7:30pm.

Some conspiracy theorists like to say some of our rain showers are "manufactured" -- these special rockets shot into the air dispersing microscopic seeds to encourage the clouds to gather and rain.

They claim a "clean rain" is manufactured, whereas a dirty one -- where roads are clogged, streets muddy, then it's a real rain.

I don't know what to make of today's rain except that it was a long time coming. If it was indeed manipulated, hope those guys at the meteorological station have perfected their art in time for the Beijing Olympics...

Friday, May 2, 2008

Keep Your Lover Close, Your Government Closer

I went to visit a German friend I met a few months ago to see her four-and-a-half month old baby and her Chinese husband.

The little boy is absolutely adorable, big round chubby face, tufts of light brown hair and dark-bluish eyes. He's a really good baby and entertains himself by cooing and playing with mobiles above him.

My friend showed me her baby's birth certificate in a green plastic booklet and then a red booklet, both about the same size as a passport.

Her husband said he only got the red booklet just over a month ago and showed me the company chops he had to get from his office to prove that he had one child. With this passbook, his son will be entitled to have hukou, or permanent residency in Beijing. Having a hukou will allow him to get into schools easier, get work, and entitle him to housing subsidies when he wants to buy an apartment.

His father is a Beijinger, so naturally his child has hukou. But if and when they have a second child, that one will not be allowed to have hukou, as far as the parents know.

It's a bit of a gray area at the moment when it comes to intermarriages. There aren't that many mixed kids in the country yet, but eventually the government will have to decide if a mixed-race child born in China should get the same rights and privileges as an ethnic Chinese baby.

What was also interesting was that my friend should have had this red booklet before she gave birth to her baby. But because she is a foreigner, she was considered a different case and let off the hook.

But if she had been a Chinese mother-to-be, a hospital may have accepted, her, but paperwork would have been more difficult to process. Her husband pointed out the booklet kept records of where you worked, your health check-ups -- and even recorded the number of times contraception failed to work.

In the 1970s, couples couldn't get married without the permission of their work teams, or even get pregnant without the communist party's blessing. If not, you could freely get condoms from the leader of the work unit -- if you dared.

And while China has become developed and sophisticated especially in its major cities, it still follows such archaic rules where the government even takes note of your sex life -- in a little red book.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

May Day No Fun

Today is the start of a three-day holiday in China to celebrate the May Day Labour Day called Wu Yi, or May 1. It used to be seven days long, and last year I went to Hong Kong for a break. But this year the Chinese government has cut the holiday shorter, making many people disappointed they won't be able to have more time to relax.

And to make things worse, Midi, a top music festival in Beijing featuring many famous overseas and underground bands was canceled almost two weeks ago. It's usually held during the May Day holiday week and in the last few years it was gathering momentum in terms of popularity and getting coverage from international music media.

The municipal government gave the reason there wasn't enough security personnel on hand. But some think because of the heated demonstrations over Tibet and the torch relay, the government is worried about large groups of people gathering.

In the last few days I've seen more young men in uniform standing around on street corners. They're basically teenagers who don't have much to do and don't look strong enough to control a crowd. Nevertheless, their presence is supposed to deter any thoughts of stirring up trouble.

On top of that, Carrefour had to cancel its planned holiday sale at its outlets due to fears of more protests in front of its stores. Chinese state media reported today people stood in front of the French retail outlets in major Chinese cities and demonstrated against its supposed link to the Dalai Lama. There have been reports of Chinese customers berated for walking into the store, and an American guy was harassed as the crowd may have thought he was French.

However on a positive note, the smoking "ban" starts today in Beijing in most public places. We'll have to see how effectively it's enforced. Every time I go to the canteen, there's a "No Smoking" sign hung in the dining area and there's one man who insists on bringing his fag with him. I wonder if someone will tell him to butt out.

May Day's not giving much for people to celebrate... except that today is the two-year countdown to the Shanghai 2010 Expo.

Enough with the countdowns!!!