Sunday, June 29, 2008

It's Official, Folks - the Tiger is Fake

Today the Shaanxi government came out eight months after the so-called "South China Tiger" photos were "taken" to say they were fabricated.

In October, a farmer named Zhou Zhenglong from Zhenping County in Shaanxi created the photographs and submitted them to the Provincial Forestry Department.

Because the South China Tiger is so rare and considered extinct, the government department was hoping a reward of 20,000 yuan ($2,915) would entice someone to find proof of the tigers' existence.

Which is what Zhou did, sort of.

When the news of the photographs surfaced, it was strange the provincial government immediately released the photos and held a press conference exalting the discovery.

But then Chinese people on the Internet examined the photos and one realized the tiger was the same as the one on his calendar.

Soon they concluded it was a manipulated photograph and demanded the farmer not be allowed to claim the financial prize.

The "paper tiger" scandal broke and in February red-faced government officials were forced to do further investigation into the photographs. They apologized but stop short of declaring the photos as fake.

But it is only now that the photos are officially fake and 13 officials were punished, including four who were sacked, while farmer Zhou was arrested for suspicion of fraud.

One of the officials who lost his job, Li Qian with the wildlife preservation station, didn't properly make a site verification of the photo before producing a verification report.

"It was a small area with few tall trees, which was not a suitable habitat for a real tiger," he said.

Police also located the trees beside the South China tiger in Zhou's picture and measured them at 0.8 of a centimeter in diameter. Calculations showed the pictured tiger would have been just 27 centimeters long and 35 centimeters wide.

While it's a sigh of relief that the case of the paper tiger is finally closed, it's quite silly some officials didn't do much critical thinking when 20,000 yuan and their own jobs were at stake.

But we all knew that already.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Chinese Walmart

Last week in Tianjin I checked out Walmart.

It's not my first choice for shopping as I find the ones in North America kind of claustrophobic with the low ceilings and swarms of people everywhere looking for the best deal in town.

And the one in Tianjin was no different.

It had two floors, one for home goods, the other a supermarket. Most people were anxious to go grocery shopping, and there were lots of cooked or prepared foods to buy which is very convenient.

What was interesting, though was that in the electronics section, where the TVs were, there were park benches for people to park themselves for a break before continuing their shopping excursion.

Electronics stores in North America should have seats for its customers too. Makes sense if you want to check out a product to watch it....

Friday, June 27, 2008

Sex and the City

The other day on the radio I heard an interview with Dominic Johnson-Hill, a British entrepreneur here who set up the Plastered T-shirts shop in Nanluoguxiang hutong.

He's lived in China for 16 years, most of them in Beijing. He has three daughters and they live near his shop in a courtyard home.

Fluent in Chinese, he says he loves Beijing because it's very masculine. He said it's got huge buildings and wide roads, and the people are very straight-forward, which is what he likes.

And hearing that for me was a eureka moment.

It's been difficult for me to understand this city, and describing it this way has made me realize what my relationship with Beijing is about.

It's a city that wants to give the impression of machismo, one of power and pride.

But it has a soft side too. Once you get into the warren of alleys or hutongs, you find the heart of the city, the people and the interesting buildings of a much smaller scale.

Dominic-Hill also describes Shanghai as feminine because of its intimacy. He also finds it difficult to decipher exactly what the Shanghainese are thinking.

I've never heard of cities given a sex before, but if you were asked to describe Beijing in one word, masculine is probably the one I would use too.

Now that I'm enlightened, I'll try to work on my relationship with the city, looking past the macho appearance and find its true face.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Hot Property

The Olympics haven't even started yet and people can already begin bidding for Games memorabilia.

Over 200 million things related to the upcoming sporting event will be put on the auction block. That includes everything from light bulbs to sporting equipment and even Yao Ming's extra long bed that he'll sleep in at the Olympic Village.

"We will highlight items (like Yao's bed) for bidders," said Xiong Yan, president of the China Beijing Equity Exchange yesterday. The Beijing Olympic Games organizer (BOCOG) has authorized the exchange to sell the items after the Olympics and Paralympics.

"Obviously, the bidding will be hot. People will be looking for memorabilia," Xiong said.

I've seen some of the furniture in the Olympic Village and they are really your standard dorm closets and bedside tables. However, I guess if Yao did sit on a particular chair that might be neat to have.

But how would you know it was his chair and not another basketball player's?

And how would these athletes feel about the BOCOG profiting from the online auction already happening?

Xiong is quick to say this is not the first time Games organizers are auctioning off memorabilia. But this will definitely the biggest sale in Games history under the hammer.

Olympics organizers are also even talking about auctioning off land where temporary venues are now.

While people can bid online now, the actual auction won't happen until after the Olympics and Paralympics are over.

What's interesting is that the BOCOG hasn't disclosed what the money from the sales will be used for.

While it's kind of crass to bid for a piece of Olympics memorabilia when the event hasn't even started yet, it's great to know the BOCOG has an entrepreneurial spirit that is following the mantra of striking the iron while it's hot.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Clean Smooth Ride

Beijing has a population of 15 million.

There are over 3 million private cars on the roads.

And now I find out there are only 66,000 taxis in the capital.

That explains why when it rains, cabs are as scarce as water in a desert.

I had thought there would be many more, but apparently not.

On the whole I haven't had many problems with taxi drivers. Most are polite, hardly say much, and get me to where I want to go.

In the past year I've learned to realize they are at the mercy of the traffic situation and so all I can do is sit back and enjoy the ride.

One time I took a cab and told the driver my office address. "I know," he said. "This is the third time I've taken you."


And then I got into another taxi during the evening rush hour. The driver wasn't too happy about having to fight the traffic and asked if I minded if he smoked. At first I made a face, as he's not supposed to light up if if the passenger doesn't let him.

But seeing as he was dying for a smoke I finally relented and he was a bit happier being able to chill out a bit as we inched our way along.

I'm mentioning my taxi stories because the Beijing Municipal Transport Law Enforcement General Team is cracking down on the city's cabs to make sure they're clean and not ripping off customers in the run-up to the Games.

More than inspectors are carrying out surprise checks and some will be stationed at particular intersections, mostly tourist-oriented areas.

Which explains why taxis are hard to find at the Beijing Railway Station. Apparently inspectors are scrutinizing many of the cabs, wearing white gloves to check the cleanliness inside.

While the exercise is meant to get the drivers ready to give a spic and span image of the city, on the whole almost all the cabs I've been in are pretty clean and decent.

There's no need really to fine them for small infractions because on the whole they're pretty good.

Perhaps people are already tired of everything being related to the Olympics and hope the event will be over soon. Then life can go back to normal.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Rediscovering Beijing

Eric Abrahamsen is the main researcher and writer of Beijing By Foot.

It's a box with a set of 50 cards, each with a map of a different neighbourhood and interesting and fascinating facts and stories about the places.

He's lived here for six years, and his day job is a translator from Chinese to English. But he also likes to walk. A lot.

Which is why the publishers asked him to help them with this guide which sparked his interest in learning more about the city he lives in.

The guide is coming out next week, but he gave me a sneak preview by showing me an interesting place in Hou Hai, or the back lakes.

Near the Goulou or Drum and Bell Tower is a Yuan Dynasty bridge, which is still mostly in tact, save for a few brand new marble parts. It looks a bit strange, but how do you keep a still functioning bridge look decent?

The Wanning Bridge is part of a canal that was built during the time of Kublai Khan, ferrying goods like silk and tea all the way from Hangzhou to Beijing. The canal used to go all the way to the Summer Palace.

And as the water was flowing upwards to the capital , a sophisticated lock system was also created which was very new at that time.

The canal was developed by Guo Shoujing, a brilliant mathematician, astronomer and hydro-engineer.

He even calculated the calender very similar to what we have today -- and was only 26 seconds off. He also developed a number of instruments used for astronomy.

It's amazing that all this was developed over 700 years ago.

And you can find out even more amazing facts and stories from Beijing By Foot.

Abrahamsen tells me the guide has North American distribution and hopefully European distribution soon.

I commented that Beijing is so unwieldy that it doesn't seem like a pedestrian-friendly city.

He agreed, but said that after you accept and get over the fact that bus and subway stops are not necessarily in the most convenient places and are willing to walk alot on dusty roads and get sweaty, then once you get into neighbourhoods, you are going to discover some really neat stuff.

After spending over four months walking, writing, and reading did Abrahamsen renew his interest in the city and now he can't help but continue rediscovering the place he calls home for now.

It's kind of inspired me to check out the city again with this new perspective.

Monday, June 23, 2008

A Ho-Hum Day in Tianjin

Yesterday my friend and I spent the day in Tianjin, an hour and 10 minute train ride southeast of Beijing.

The train was on time, comfortable and clean, but getting to the Beijing train station was quite the ordeal.

I was expecting to get there by subway but the train passed the station to go to the next one, Chongwenmen. I had to get there by bus which dropped us off almost a block away.

By the time I got to the train station I was sweating like a pig. Oh did I mention it was 34 degrees and probably over 80 percent humidity?

While the train ride to Tianjin was great, we arrived in a smoggy haze in Tianjin. And I'm afraid to report the air quality was worse than Beijing. The air had a strong metallic and gas smell.

And most of the passengers were battling for taxis, while security guards barked instructions on where we should stand for the next available taxi. Welcome to Tianjin, folks.

Then I get into the taxi and it's a female driver with a baseball bat tucked next to her seat, and a metal cage separating us. Looks like it's dangerous in Tianjin too.

I told her where I wanted to go, but she wasn't sure and had to consult her friends via a two-way radio.

I finally made it to the destination, the Tianjin Foreign Studies University where my friend was taking the TOEFL exam.

The grounds of this small campus are very nice. The old colonial architecture is still there, as in the late 1800s, after the second Opium War, parts of the port city were opened up to foreign concessions. Countries like Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Japan and Italy settled here.

And the neighbourhood where this university is located is also called Diwu Da dao, or "the five main streets", where you can see very good examples of European brick architecture.

What's also interesting about Tianjin is that all the streets are named after other places and cities in China. There's Dali Road, Zhejiang Street, Tibet Road, Chongqing Road.

My friend wanted to find a museum that used to be the former residence of an early 20th century Chinese artist. But every taxi driver we encountered had no idea where the place was. And when we asked for suggestions on where to go in Tianjin, our driver didn't have many good suggestions. It was as if they had no civic pride in their city, or anxious to show it off to visitors.

Hungry, we instead headed to the Cultural Street which, we were told, was near Food Street.

However, Cultural Street was more like tourist alley, with every conceivable tacky Chinese souvenir for sale, from fans, to silk pyjamas, Chinese paintings and even feather dusters. And when we tried to find Food Street, we walked and walked finding nothing. We ended up in a mall and ate fast food noodles instead.

After renewing our strength, we came upon another female driver who tried to find that museum again, but no luck. She then suggested we go to the Zhou Enlai Museum, as the revered late premier studied for many years in Tianjin and met his wife there too.

But alas, we arrived five minutes after closing time, at 4:05pm. After taking pictures of the entrance, I suggested we pass by the Tianjin Olympic Center Stadium, where some of the football preliminary matches will be held during the Summer Games.

And it interestingly looks very similar to the National Performing Arts Center, or the Egg in Beijing. Paramilitary troops were practicing their drills in front of the stadium, complete with a German Shepherd panting in the heat.

During our ride, we asked the taxi driver why many of her cohorts were women, as three out of the four drivers we had were female.

She explained that most of them like herself in their late 40s and early 50s were laid-off factory workers. She used to work in a clothing factory, until several years ago. She said after she was a private driver for a company and now drives a cab for a living.

In the end she dropped us off at You Peng Hai Xian, a local seafood restaurant.

As soon as you walk in, you have to choose what seafood you want from the various tanks and tell them how you want it cooked. There were clams and scallops, conchs, various fish, and crabs, as well as meats, vegetables and desserts to chose from.

Then we went upstairs to wait for our dinner.

We had stir-fried clams with chillis that was just a tad undercooked, but the clam meat was juicy and fresh. We also ordered a small crab, boiled with a sauce of vinegar and ginger to dip in. The crab was presented whole on a bed of lettuce.

We wondered how to eat it until we pulled the legs off and then removed the shell and attacked it. Again the crab meat was sweet and fresh.

With a plate of vegetables and bottle of beer, it was delicious. If we hadn't eaten lunch so late we probably would have eaten more seafood, because the bill only came to 127RMB ($18.47).

Fully sated, we headed back to the train station.

My friend talked about going back to Tianjin just for seafood. Sounds like a good idea to me.

That was practically the only good thing about the city.

What a pity.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Finally Set for the Games

There's 48 more days to the Olympics and now I'm finally set to watch them.

Over a week ago people were allowed to pick up second- and third-round tickets. For some reason they were no big deal, and they were just printed off like any other important concert event, but complete with a bar code.

I had to show my passport which they photocopied, to make sure I was the person who had bought the tickets.

In the process I had to write a generic statement on a piece of paper stating that I had received the tickets. I don't understand why they didn't already have this statement printed out in Chinese and English for people to sign.

And then late last week I got a phone call telling me I had a week to pick up my first-round tickets I had requested in late December.

So I thought since the process was so straight-forward I assumed I'd get them very quickly.

Instead late this morning I encountered a lineup at the Bank of China branch near my place.

Finally when it was my turn, the woman at the window took my letter and passport, checked them on the computer, wrote down some code number and then picked up a red envelope.

She told me to open it up and make sure they were my tickets. The only way I could tell they were my tickets was the date and event. How was I supposed to know where I was sitting? And it didn't have my name on them.

These tickets were totally different from the third-round tickets I got earlier. These track and field events ones were of stiffer card and had embossed pictographs of the different events, as well as a hologram on the right bottom corner.

Again I had to sign a statement that I'd received the tickets (this time no need to write it out) and then finally I was on my way.

Were the tickets different because of printing costs? Or first-round tickets are more coveted?

I'm not sure, but what I do know is that I'm ready to see world-class athletes compete in Beijing.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Net Savvy Prez

Yesterday much fuss was made over President Hu Jintao's participation in an online chat with ordinary citizens.

He was at the offices of the People's Daily celebrating its 60th anniversary when he sat in front of a computer and saw messages and questions posted to him.

The 66-year-old didn't actually type responses, but spoke into a microphone connected to the computer.

"Boss Hu," asked one "netizen", "do you use the Internet often?"

He paused before answering, "Although I am very busy I do not have the time to use the Internet everyday. I try to spare some time to do it. I want to say that this forum of is one of the websites I visit often."

Not everyone had questions. Some just exclaimed, "It is a good day today!" or "Brother Hu, you are great!"

Some complained, "Old Hu, lots of government money has been wasted by officials on feasts. Why don't you stop it?"; "Why haven't our salaries increased while the prices of everything is skyrocketing?"; "The stock market and housing market are collapsing. It is hard to find a job..."

One even asked what Hu thought of Taiwan's democratization.

But the forum host chose a question about what the Chinese president liked to read on the net.

"When I use the Internet, I like reading domestic and international news stories," he replied. "Secondly, I also want to know from the Internet what people care about and what their views are. Thirdly, I hope to know what kinds of ideas and suggestions Internet users have on the work of the Party and the Government."

He added, "We care alot about Internet users' ideas and advice. We put the interest of our citizens first and rule the country for their interest. So we have to listen to the people's opinions when we do our work or make decisions. The Internet is an important channel for us to understand and collect public opinion."

Then Hu had to leave, due to a hectic schedule.

"Because of time limits, I cannot talk more to you today. But I will read and study carefully the messages you have sent to me. Also I want to take this opportunity to wish you all good health, successful jobs and happy families. Thanks!"

Thursday, June 19, 2008

50 More Days to Go

Today marks 50 more days before the start of the Olympics.

Everyone was talking about it.

On radio shows in English and Chinese, radio hosts kept mentioning it and wondering aloud on the airwaves if the city was ready for the Games.

Olympic signs are being put up around the streets with arrows pointing to where venues are, and buses are becoming more bilingual with dark blue stickers with white letters indicating where passengers get on and off and how much the bus fare is. Some even post the bus route which is handy for someone like me.

It looks like it's all coming together.

However, Beijing Olympic organizers announced there were still one million Games tickets still not sold, mostly for the football or soccer tournaments in the other host cities, Tianjin, Shanghai, Qinhuangdao and Shenyang.

And I thought the whole country was mad for the Olympics?

Perhaps they're all in Beijing.

In fact many people I know didn't even bother trying their luck in the online ticket lottery which I find bizarre. Perhaps they didn't want to set themselves up for disappointment, but why not at least try, which is what I did.

And in the end I got tickets to three events.

A handbook of English translations of Chinese dishes has been published, featuring things like Moo Shu Pork, sauteed pork with egg and black fungus wrapped in thin pancakes; and Kung Pao Chicken instead of "Government-abused Chicken".

Anti-terrorism drills have been conducted simulating chemical explosions and more sniffer dogs brought into the capital to thwart any suspicious activity.

The new smoking regulations has made dining a lot more palatable, while the plastic bag ban is still taking root, but at least the use of the bags has significantly decreased.

Now if only there was something they could do about the air.

Today was so humid, the air was thick and overcast.

After work some of my colleagues and I played tennis and we were already sweating after a few minutes of hitting balls. The sweat kept pouring down my face and with hardly a breeze around, I could only cool down by drinking some cold water.

It was supposed to rain today but so far nothing happened.

What Beijing really needs, as one of my coworkers says, is a really good rain to wash the city clean. That would make everything all shiny and clean for the Games.

Wonder if the government can make that happen...

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Chinese Jane Eyre

This is writer Zhang Lijia.

She recently wrote a memoir called "Socialism is Great!" after the title of the revolutionary song she had to sing every July 1 when she worked in a missiles factory.

Today she is gregarious, speaks with an English accent and full of interesting comments about her life.

She was 16-years old in 1980, just a few years after the end of the Cultural Revolution and just when Deng Xiaoping began China's reform and opening up. Unemployment was still high at that time and there was a special provision that parents could hand down their jobs to their children.

Her mother thought she was doing Zhang a favour by giving her her tool box and telling her she would be testing gauges in this Nanjing factory.

Zhang gave a bit of insight into factory life, how women were not allowed to wear makeup, curl their hair or wear ostentatious clothes. Nothing was private, not even your sex life. Women regularly had to line up and show that they were having periods before they were given sanitary pads.

She was annoyed her mother pulled her out of school, when she had always dreamed of being a journalist and a writer. At the time she didn't know there was a difference between the two, but thought through education she could write whatever she wanted.

As a result, Zhang was bored at the factory doing repetitive work. But she decided to learn English to be a translator and began studying whatever textbooks she could get her hands on and listen to English language programs on the radio.

Then she began reading English books. And one of the first ones she read was Jane Eyre.

She immediately bonded with the character, and felt she could not be in this factory forever and needed to change her life.

This was quite revolutionary for Zhang, because as a child she was always obedient, listening to her parents and her teachers.

But little by little she changed.

She started to wear short skirts, outrageous glasses, and singing English songs -- like the Carpenters. She also started having relationships with men in the factory...

Through getting access to periodicals for cadres on foreign media and listening to the BBC, she soon realized the propaganda she was fed what was reported in the outside world was different and was determined to get out.

I haven't read the book so I don't know exactly how she got to England, but she met an Englishman in Beijing and for a time lived there as well as Uzbekistan.

For her the 1980s was a time of great change. It was the start of China's opening up, an amazing time for artists and writers who were repressed for so long and created amazing pieces of art and literature.

She and her friends had discussions about the future of China, about political reform, and should the country be democratic. She even organized workers in the democratic movement to support the students in 1989.

Compared with today, she says there are more personal freedoms, but perhaps people are now all focussed on money than the country.

While she hopes her book will be translated into Chinese, she says it will never be published here. She hopes it will be picked up in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

She says her parents wonder why she is a writer when her English is so good she could get a good job with a multinational company. "Other people whose English isn't as good as yours make more money," they complain.

But Zhang is following her childhood dream and she's determined nothing will stop her from expressing what she wants to say.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Chinese Parenting 101

When many young couples here have kids, they leave the babies with their grandparents and go off to work.

It's only in the evenings and weekends do these parents spend time with their children, but their definition of quality time is different than most western families.

It's almost like the child is a toy or a pet that they quasi look after, but don't actively parent their son or daughter. It's their parents that have to do that. And as they are doting on their only grandchild, it's not surprising many of them spoil these little emperors and empresses.

And it's not just spoiling with material things, but carrying them when they are definitely old enough to walk on their own, carrying their school bags for them, and feeding them sweets.

At the same time the parents don't do much to engage with their own kids.

I've seen many parents take their kids to the indoor swimming pool where I go for a workout.

Granted these parents are of a certain economic status, several of the moms and dads just sit there or lie on the lawn chair by the pool and nap, read a book, or watch their kids who are playing in the pool. But while the kids are OK with playing on their own, you can tell they would rather play with their parents, badgering them or wanting to communicate with them.

How is this quality time spent with the kids?

In an article I read recently, a Chinese-American named Lisa Chiang helped set up Kidtown in Shanghai. It's an indoor playground for kids with lots of toys, books, a ball room and cars to ride in.

She said, "Chinese parents see play as a waste of time."

Her business partner Emy Machida added, "We want them to understand kids can learn the most from play. It's a very new concept in Asia."

Sounds like it.

Why do these people have kids if they are going to practically ignore them, or not even show an interest in engaging with them?

If you don't build a strong relationship with them when they're young, these kids will have even less to talk about with their parents when they get older.

And how is that a harmonious society?

Monday, June 16, 2008

The English Lesson

I take taxis almost everyday.

And for over a year I have only come across two taxi drivers who can speak some decent words of English. It is a misnomer that all taxi drivers in Beijing can speak English.

I met the second English-speaking driver today.

He was very polite in Chinese as well and after a while he began saying many of the phrases he knew: "Thank you," "your welcome", "traffic jam", and "traffic is terrible".

He said he'd been learning English for three years, going to a school for taxi drivers where they can learn at their own pace with 45-minute lessons.

While I don't think you can learn much in 45 minutes, his pronunciation was quite good and I told him that.

He said his teacher was Canadian and was getting married soon. He was invited to their wedding celebration that will be held here. "Wedding" he said.

As part of his listening comprehension, he said they listened to recordings from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

He smiled and added, "It's important to learn another language, especially for us taxi drivers."

I agreed and added even more so for the Olympics.

While he concurred, he believes there won't be that many foreigners coming, even though Olympics officials predict 500,000 overseas visitors will take in the Games.

"For many of them China is too far away," he said.

He may be right on not many foreigners coming, but it' might not be because of distance.

The Chinese government hasn't admitted this, but people's experience of trying to get tourist visas is getting complicated.

Citing security reasons, the government is creating more hurdles for people to jump over. They have to show proof of return airfare, a certificate from the hotel they will be staying at, or if they will be staying at a Beijing residence, to have a copy of the person's residence permit papers and registration at the local police station.

But maybe that was too complicated for the taxi driver to say to me in English.

At the end of my ride, he asked me how to tell people in his cab to take all their belongings with them when they get out of the car.

"Please take all your things," I said, thinking belongings would be to hard to remember.

"Please take all your things," he repeated. "Bye bye."

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Prolonging the Saga, Edited

It's been over a month since the May 12 earthquake in Sichuan.

Everyday there is still lots of coverage on it in domestic media. The focus now is on reconstruction and how many billions of yuan have been donated from people in China and around the world.

There are ads and posters talking about the earthquake disaster, and how we must all do our part.

In the first few days after the quake, I donated some money to The Bookworm, a local English bookstore that has a branch in Chengdu. They took the cash and donated tents and clothes to the quake-hit areas.

A friend told me her step-son, about seven-years-old, was going to donate 100RMB at his school collection. But he soon found out that everyone else was giving 1,000RMB, and he had no choice but to do the same. He was learning that charity can really hit your pocketbook, when it is about giving what you can instead of keeping up with the Joneses.

Basketball star Yao Ming was at first criticized on online forums for only donating 2 million yuan, so he recently set up the Giving Back Fund to raise money to rebuild schools. It has donated $2 million.

Why are people like Yao condemned for their donations and why is it so important to publicize how much they give?

Charity is charity; we give what we can afford to give. Why do we need to justify the amount? It's the thought that counts.

Besides, the Chinese government's foreign exchange or forex reserves are almost $2 trillion. Couldn't the government even just use a fraction of that amount to help rebuild the quake-hit areas and help people move on with their lives?

Not only do houses need to be built, but jobs found and those who lost limbs through amputation will need rehabilitation to learn how to adjust to their new situation.

Instead the government has ordered many departments to cut their operational budgets by five percent.

Reconstruction in the area will take years. Cutting budgets by such a small percentage isn't going to be enough.

But the most pressing thing for many families in this tragedy is to find out what happened to their children who died in the collapsed schools.

There are no figures on the number of children who died -- only the number of schools -- over 185. If attendance records were made accessible, then it would be easy to find out the exact number.

In the last few weeks parents have not been allowed to publicly mourn, submit a lawsuit or protest for an independent investigation to find out if the schools really were shoddily built as they claim. If they were, then the parents can sue someone. But if nothing is found out, these mothers and fathers will not be able to come to terms with their children's deaths.

Many of them are blaming themselves for insisting their son or daughter to go to school. Of course they would -- education is the key to making a better life for the next generation. But how were they to know the school would collapse? This guilt will never go away if the issue isn't resolved.

Domestic media have been told by the Propaganda Department not to cover this issue and instead to focus on reconstruction efforts. So it is up to the foreign media to get to the bottom of this matter.

And hopefully this time the Chinese people will be grateful that it is the foreign media who will help them uncover the truth they so desperately need to know.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Blooming Time

The grounds around the National Stadium and National Aquatic Center are still dirt and bare.

But later this month a giant operation will begin to beautify the area with flowers and shrubs.

One of the groups hired to supply some of the plants is the Horticulture Research Institute in Beijing.

Outside and in covered areas, tens of thousands of plants are standing in small pots waiting to be transported and bloom in time for August.

There are marigolds, pansies, daisies, and geraniums, trying to look their best outside the Olympic venues.

Since August is not usually the time flowers are in bloom, they've done five years of research to make sure they do. This involves giving them some chemical fertilizer they promise is no different from the ones backyard gardeners use. Many of the plants are also imported from overseas, including the United States and Germany.

They are supplying tens of thousands of these plants and at between 1.50RMB to about 15RMB, this institute will be raking in the money for this international event.

The flowers as supposed to bloom for one month.

There's been lots of local media interest over the flowers, so we'll have to see how they turn out in the end.

Fashion Faux Pas

Yesterday I walked out of my apartment building and saw this woman in front of me.

Was this for real?

A summer outfit of a yellow and white striped shirt, white short skirt, yellow shoes... and black knee-high stockings?

In this case, you have to either wear nude stockings or go bare. She looks like a woman trying to recapture her youth but also look mature at the same time.

Please make up your mind.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Cheap Labour

Today I had lunch with a colleague who told me she recently moved.

She didn't have much furniture to move, but mostly clothes and her things. They all fit into about 10 big boxes and some big plastic bags.

She called a moving company to help her transport her stuff to her new place.

And she was amazed to see the two men lift several boxes at once. She thought they wouldn't be able to carry so many at one time, but they did -- and bring them down the stairs from the fourth floor, as her apartment building has no elevator.

They were so proficient at their job that the move into the van only took about 10 minutes.

Then they transported the boxes to her new place, which has an elevator.

All that labour was for only 240RMB ($34.70). She felt so sorry for them that she gave them 300RMB.

And I thought labour was so cheap that the municipal government could afford to put traffic patrolmen in many parts of the city.

But instead Beijing relies on mannequins too.

Check out the above picture and there's a statue of a man dressed in blue uniform and an orange reflective vest near the construction site at the third ring road.

He's been standing there for quite a while, making sure cars slow down.

Perhaps no one wanted to work in that particular intersection, or the hours were bad?

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Going Paperless (Finally)

Yesterday Beijing Subway ended using paper tickets and started issuing magnetic striped ones just like in Hong Kong, Singapore and Tokyo.

Beijing has been using paper tickets since it opened in 1971, but now it's gone electronic.

Commuters can either buy single-journey tickets at ticket vending machines at each station or use their Yikatong prepaid cards, where you can load up as much money as you want. The Yikatong cards can be used on the bus, subway and even some grocery stores to buy things.

As yesterday was the first day, many staff were on hand to make sure people swiped their cards at the individual entrance and exit machines, or knew where to slip the individual tickets in the slots.

Exiting was a bit of a hassle, as most passengers were used to just walking out of the station as before they didn't need to swipe or feed their ticket into the machine to get out.

There are complaints that some people can still sneak out as the exits are not turnstiles, but the ones that open and shut after a certain period of time.

Nevertheless it's a step up, as now the subway system will be able to monitor traffic flow and quickly adjust the train schedules accordingly.

Well, that's what they say they'll do. We'll have to see if service improves.

Next month, three more lines will open -- Line 10, the Olympic Line and Airport Line. Everyday I can see them testing the Airport train that goes by my place.

I'm just glad the subway, with its improvements in signage, renovations of subway exits and now this electronic system will move more people to public transit.

Now if only they can install more escalators and during rush hour make escalators and people movers more accessible instead of closing them off, making it it more frustrating to transfer from one line to another.

Also -- why not make it easier for people to buy and add money to their Yikatong cards? No stations sell these cards and only a few help you add money into them.

Hopefully that will be the next step in making the commute as convenient as possible.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Little India in Beijing

As we walked down Nanluoguxiang hutong, my friend and I saw a small Indian restaurant, Mirch Masala. I'd heard it was not bad and as my friend likes eating Indian cuisine we thought we'd give it a shot.

The interior is exotic, with wooden couch-like chairs softened up with cushions, and wooden tables, music prominently filling the atmosphere and sharply dressed wait staff at the ready.

The menu looked pretty extensive, but for some reason the number of the dishes was completely out of order on the pages, making it a bit difficult to suggest dishes to your dining companion. However, it was good that the descriptions hinted how spicy hot they were.

First came a small appetizer of deep-fried chips, more like sticks, in a green slightly spicy sauce. Refreshing and whetted the appetite.

Then the rest of our order came -- chicken curry, with huge chunks of meat that should have been diced up a bit more, cooked in a coconut-based sauce. We also had a delicious eggplant dish, braised with cumin and coriander. And then the naan which was a bit on the oily side. We ordered the one with nuts and raisins, but the filling seemed to congregate at the edges rather than throughout the bread.

For drinks I had a lime soda, my friend hot cardamon tea, which was really heavy on the sugar. Apparently it was pre-made this way so she had no choice but to add hot water to it.

Nevertheless, we enjoyed the meal overall and the bill came to 102 RMB ($14.73).

Mirch Masala Indian Cuisine
60-2 Nanluoguxiang
Dongcheng District
6406 4347

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Dragon Boat Festival

Today is Dragon Boat Festival, or Duanwu Jie.

In places like Hong Kong there are dragon boat races and I thought Beijing wouldn't have any since it's landlocked. But apparently people paddled boats in the capital's Longtanhu Park.

I took some friends from out of town to eat Peking Duck of course, and the restaurant gave us small servings of zongzi, or rice dumplings with red bean. It was served cold with a bit of sugar.

The story of the Dragon Boat Festival goes back to the Warring States period (475-221 BC) when the patriotic poet Qu Yuan tried to give sagely advice to the emperor and was ignored. And because his suggestions were not taken, the kingdom was later conquered and in despair he jumped into the Miluo River in central Hunan.

When the villagers heard the news about Qu, they raced in their dragon boats to try to save him. And in order to prevent the fish from eating his body, the villagers threw rice dumplings into the water.

This year for the first time, the festival in China is a three-day holiday.

And interestingly today is exactly two months until the Olympics.

However, there isn't as much frenzied excitement about the Games compared to before May 12 when the Sichuan earthquake struck.

A colleague I talked to says this watershed moment has changed his friends' lives. They have begun re-evaluating their lives, thinking more about helping others, paying more attention to the environment and reconsidering what they want to do for their careers.

He didn't mean to be disrespectful to the dead, but that the earthquake was a wake-up call for all Chinese to realize life is so fragile and we must do everything we can to live life to the fullest.

They are quickly coming around to what us in the West are so hung up about -- the meaning of life.

And hopefully they will be more keen about pursuing the truth and facing up to reality. While Qu Yuan may have been a coward for committing suicide, he tried to give advice to his emperor to save the kingdom. Sometimes the truth hurts, but we all learn so much more from it for the future.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Passing Through the Neighbourhood

I took a friend from out of town to Nanluoguxiang Hutong, an alley filled with bars, cafes and boutiques near Hou Hai.

It has a neighbourhood feel, mixing old and new, east and west.

The municipal government has invested in preserving (ie fixing up) the area, while allowing entrepreneurs to develop businesses there.

Along the way we saw men playing Chinese chess with several onlookers checking out the game's progress, and we had to constantly watch out for cars passing through the narrow street as well as bicycles.

There was also a small shop selling playful "toys" that made me wonder who would buy sex-themed things when sex education and awareness is on the low end of the scale. One would have to have guts just to buy something there.

Then some quasi-revolutionary posters caught our eye. They were actually advertising a small hotel called Creative Culture Hotel. Women dou shi hutongren, "We are all Hutongren", as in we are all people who live in these alleys and small houses unique to Beijing.

It looks quite funny with pictures of foreigners striking revolutionary poses with fists in the air and flanked by many flags of different countries.

Every time I come to this area, shops are changed, new ones opening or others closed. But it's definitely caught many people's attention, both local and foreign.

Maybe we are hutongren after all.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Grandpa Wen on Facebook

Premier Wen Jiabao went back to the quake-hit area to oversee the situation with the Tangjiashan quake lake in Beichuan County in Sichuan.

The quake lake was formed after a landslide blocked a river from the May 12 earthquake.

And any time now this lake will overflow is banks and hopefully the water will flow into a man-made channel that police and soldiers dug nonstop a few days ago.

This is Wen's third trip to the area and he has garnered much support for his immediate response as well as concern for the victims, trying to console crying children and encouraging the people.

He has become so popular that someone put him on Facebook, the popular networking site.

I just checked and as of 9:15pm Beijing time, he has 46,937 supporters, making him the sixth most popular politician on FB.

He's far behind Democratic nominee Barack Obama (890,910), but he's way ahead of President George W Bush and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

One would hope so.

On one of his previous trips to Sichuan, Premier Wen wrote on a blackboard, "Distresses may resurrect a nation" at Beichuan Middle School. Now the school is preserving the blackboard as a lesson to all for eternity.

President Hu Jintao has been trying to hang on to Wen's coattails to catch the popularity wave so to speak.

On June 1, Hu also wrote 16 Chinese characters on the blackboard: "One in trouble, all to help; Rely on ourselves and work hard."

Although Hu also has a Facebook page someone put up, he only has 266 supporters. There's also a page of Supporters of President Hu Jintao, but they only have 658 fans.

It's probably a good thing for Hu that he didn't have to run in a popularity contest...

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Just Another Day

Today is the 19th anniversary of that fateful day in Tiananmen Square.

And yet everyone went about their business, going to class, going to offices, buying and selling goods.

It's a striking contrast to May 19 when the country stopped and everyone paid their respects to the victims of the Sichuan earthquake a week earlier.

Part of it is the government not recognizing what happened in 1989. And as a result its young people are completely unaware of the truth of what occurred in the days leading up to June 4 and the events that night.

Meanwhile those born after the 1980s, who were merely young children 19 years ago are now changing their outlook on life after witnessing what happened to the quake victims on television. They have been accused as being materialistic and self-centered.

But now there are news stories of young people renouncing retail therapy and donating money to charity instead. On the other hand, those who had saved every kuai are spending more freely because who knows when your number is up so you might as well enjoy life. And others have literally gone to the quake-hit regions to offer whatever assistance they can and are practically shell-shocked by what they see.

While this is admirable, and one wonders how long this altruistic behaviour and philosophy will last, this generation needs to know what happened 19 years ago. It is as big a milestone as this year marking the 30th anniversary of China's opening up to the world.

Not letting them know is like a blank spot in their childhood; life somehow went on but in the background something did happen.

And perhaps during the Olympics, foreign media will bring this up as a milestone to illustrate how far China has progressed.

While it has definitely developed economically, how can the country move forward when so many people don't know or cannot recognize a dark day in 1989?

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Keyboard Master

I just came back from the second concert the Philadelphia Orchestra gave with pianist Lang Lang at the Poly Theater and it was fantastic.

Both music director Christoph Eschenbach and Lang Lang have the magic touch when it comes to creating the exact sound they want and doing it with purpose, meaning and artistry.

I arrived at the venue early and even wandered around the lobby area. It's a strange mix of boutiques selling everything from jewelry to CDs, a bar and even a restaurant are on the first and second floors. I find it strange since this place is used very often for all kinds of performing arts shows. The boutiques selling quasi Italian clothing hardly get any customers.

We weren't allowed into the auditorium until 7:15pm and even then a few people filed in late.

Staff were pretty strict about people having to put their cameras and other big bags into the coat check area. All water bottles were also confiscated at the entrance.

That probably explains why there weren't many camera flashes in the audience this time and on the whole most people were well behaved.

Or was it because a foreign orchestra was performing and the Chinese wanted to show they are just as cultured as everyone else?

The concert began with Eschenbach conducting the overture to Beethoven's Egmont, Op. 84, a lively short piece to whet the appetite. He didn't need sheet music, nor a railing to prevent him from falling off the podium. He was very much in control of the orchestra and himself.

What was interesting was the orchestra layout was a bit different than usual, having the bass sitting on the left side next to the violins, the trumpets, trombones and tuba in the back right. The cellos were more centre left.

I also recognized a few musicians, silver haired, who were the original players who came in September 1973. It was neat to have them play with the orchestra and it must have a lot of meaning for them to come again, to a city and its people who have changed so much since then.

Soon after the piece was over, the grand piano was wheeled out and the star of the show came on stage wearing an all black suit complete with shiny black pants and shoes.

He performed Grieg's Piano Concerto No. 4 in A minor. As soon as the orchestra began to play, Lang Lang was immediately immersed in the music. If he wasn't playing, he would move his left hand to the music as if conducting, his feet tapping the floor.

And when he did play, he displayed such range of emotions, from power and speed, to gentle caresses that just barely made a sound. For him, every note counted and he made sure he played each key with meaning.

He's such a consummate performer, probably because of that and he knows its not just about his fingers, but his body too. He's kind of the opposite of a ballet dancer -- every body part down to the fingers has to be doing something. And for him, his fingers are playing the keys, but his body moves with music too. It takes a certain amount of maturity to completely lose oneself in the music without worrying what the audience thinks.

After coming out on stage three times to an appreciative crowd who kept on clapping, Lang Lang finally sat at the piano, but not before saying a few words, that he hoped we enjoyed tonight's concert.

He sat down and played a piano piece by Rossini, a kind of lullaby. And when he reached the last note, he kept his finger on the key even after the sound had evaporated from the air and then he finally put his hands on his lap.

After a 15-minute intermission, the orchestra was back to perform Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 in b minor Op. 74.

The third movement was so lively and ended with lots of drums, cymbals and a gong, that the audience thought it was over -- but Eschenbach still had his baton in the air. Even the American group behind me were embarrassed about clapping.

When the piece was over, we clapped and clapped, until finally he gave us an encore too, a short slow piece to help us drift back home and have pleasant memories of the concert. At times I was thinking, when do you ever get to see the Philadelphia Orchestra performing in Beijing! And with Lang Lang no less!

Only in China.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Italian Cuisine with Chinese Characteristics

On Friday my friend and I went to 1/5 Taverna, one of the restaurants in a courtyard area called 1949. It's behind Pacific Century Mall in Sanlitun.

We had tried out the Noodle Bar and decided to give the mediterranean-style restaurant a shot.

I hadn't made a reservation and when I arrived, the manager said he only had tables in the smoking section available. I found this strange since I was the first customer and they hadn't even started lighting the candles on the tables yet.

Nevertheless, I was seated on a comfy leather booth with a giant wooden table. The interior is like a cozy but spacious winter cabin with lots of wood, high ceiling and skylights.

There's an open kitchen and a quasi bar area -- tall tables with bar chairs around them.

We asked the same manager for recommendations, but he didn't seem to have much to rave about since he wasn't too familiar with Western food and didn't quite like the taste. He even admitted the pizzas weren't good yet and to stay clear of them until they got better. My friend appreciated his honesty, while I felt he almost had nothing to suggest on the menu.

We ordered shrimp with garlic which was delicious, crunchy and fresh, but presented in a pool of oil. The sausages cooked with onion and white wine were good too. The calamari was a disappointment -- the batter overpowered the squid and was too deep-fried.

The mixed garden salad was refreshing, but it was drenched in vinaigrette. Someone needs to tell them to go easy on the dressing.

Finally we ordered garlic and tomato capellini. When it came my friend immediately remarked the pasta looked like egg noodles. And they tasted like Chinese egg noodles too. The pasta was hardly al dente and didn't taste like pasta at all.

The manager told us the "pasta" was made in-house, but using Chinese flour, not semolina flour used to make pasta. So while the effort was there, it didn't taste quite right.

A delightful touch was the sangria. We couldn't finish a pitcher so we ordered two glasses. They came in wine glasses, with finely chopped apples so that they didn't smash into our face as we were drinking.

We saw other tables ordering olive foccacia, a big squarish piece of bread that looked delicious. Again the manager suggested next time we could order that for a more "economically-minded" meal.

In the end the meal for two came to 349RMB ($50.33).

We'll probably come again later... when the pizzas have improved.

1/5 Taverna
1949 (Behind Pacific Century Place)
6501 1949

Word of the Day: Hao Shuang

There's a few ways to say something is "cool" in Chinese.

One is: Hao (3) bang (4) which is very Beijing.

Another is: Hao (3) shuang (3), or tai (4) shuang (3) le.

I just learned the word a few days ago and am now hearing many young people say it on the street...

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Two Countries, One Concert

Thirty-five years ago the Philadelphia Orchestra made an historic trip to China. It was the first group of American musicians to perform in 1973. This was also during the Cultural Revolution.

They performed at the Cultural Palace of Nationalities, with The Yellow River Concerto and Beethoven's Symphony No 6 ("Pastoral") on the program.

Neil Courtney played bass and remembers how this was such a significant event.

"We got to mix and meet with the people," he recalls. It was great to absorb the street life. Everyone wore the same blue or gray clothes, but the children wore very colourful clothes."

Courtney says it was thrilling "to recreate music for a new audience". He jokes he was altruistic back then, thinking music could play a role in creating a friendship between the two countries. But now, 35 years later, and a little less altruistic, he says music is still part of the process.

And tomorrow there will be a concert to "recreate" the event with the aforementioned pieces, featuring pianist Lang Lang and of course the Philadelphia Orchestra led by Maestro Christoph Eschenbach.

Among those in the audience will be former US Secretary of State General Alexander Haig, Anna Chennault (Cheng Xiangmei), as well as Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and Chinese Culture Minister Cai Wu.

What's also interesting about this concert is the relationship between Eschenbach and Lang Lang.

It was Eschenbach who "discovered" the young pianist, who was invited to play for him for 20 minutes. It actually lasted two hours.

"He was impressive from the first minute," recalled Eschenbach. "I was drawn totally into his world of music making. He was already very mature."

Meanwhile Lang Lang only had praise for the maestro.

"I am very emotional right now because Christoph is the most special person in my life. He is the one who discovered me. He is my mentor in my life."

Lang Lang was dressed with artistic flair, a scarf tied around his shirt. He made his sponsors happy by conspicuously displaying an expensive watch (Rolex) and Montblanc pen in his breast pocket.

When he spoke, he gave a passionate speech, but most of the time looked a bit bored, or immature, even tracing his hand on a piece of paper in front of him.

But all eyes -- all cameras -- were on him constantly through the one-hour press conference. One wonders how he deals with all this attention and constantly being called a "superstar".

Nevertheless, he claims this concert means a lot to him as well, saying Philadelphia is where he lives and studied music.

While tomorrow's concert is for special guests, I'll be able to see him and the orchestra perform on Tuesday.

In light of the earthquake in Sichuan, the orchestra has chosen to waive its broadcasting fees and instead has collected donations from the players and corporate sponsors. So far they have raised over US$3 million.