Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Cat is Almost out of the Bag

Last night South Korean television leaked footage they got filming one of the dress rehearsals for the opening ceremonies on August 8.

It shows some fantastic scenes that you can see here, including a giant scroll unfolding, acrobats flying in the air, masses of martial arts practitioners and people under boxes that move up and down to great effect.

The best part so far seems to be giant images of whales that float around the rim of the National Stadium or Bird's Nest.

Apparently this crew just walked in without any security hassles and filmed not just on one occasion.

This has left Beijing officials red-faced despite trying to give the semblance of tight security, and everyone involved signing confidentiality agreements promising to keep the event secret.

The less than three-minute snippet is only a brief taste of the three-and-a-half hour extravaganza that will surely be nothing short of amazing.

As far as I know, leaking a part of the opening ceremonies is unprecedented -- and some heads are probably going to roll for this one.

Media 1, Chinese government 0.

But then the media was outraged to find out the International Olympic Committee did strike a deal with the Chinese government about blocking certain sites.

This goes contrary to what Wang Wei promised when he headed Beijing's bid for the Games. "We will give the media complete freedom to report when they come to China."

The hoopla happened after Amnesty International released a report about China's human rights abuses worsening as the Games approaches.

And reporters at the International Broadcast Center couldn't access it online.

Neither could they find out more information about Falun Gong. Those web pages went blank.

It turns out reporters can freely report on anything related to the Games. Someone forgot to put a caveat there.

Welcome to China.

Media 1, BOCOG 1.

Sounds like it's even.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Tightening up the Square

This afternoon I checked out Tiananmen Square and there are lots of changes happening with the Olympics just around the corner.

The place has been spruced up -- hardly looking like its usual self.

Chairman Mao's portrait is flanked by dancing fountains. All they're missing is the music to splash in an array of poses.

There's lots of security around, including this troop of young men in uniform marching along the sidewalk. They have been deployed all over the city, standing on practically every street corner, they along with elderly neighbourhood watch people, usually in pairs and wearing red arm bands.

But before getting to Tiananmen Square, I had to go through a security check in the underground passageway. That entailed putting my bag through an X-ray baggage machine. Interestingly they didn't ask me to drink my water or ask to look through my bag.

Tiananmen Square was full of people today, checking out the surreal floral arrangements in the theme of the Olympics. One side had "One World, One Dream" complete with a twiggy-looking National Stadium, or Bird's Nest along with pictographs of various sports running along a floral track.

There was also the giant Beijing Olympics logo standing on a podium of flowers arranged in a cloud-like pattern. That was protected by several guards worried someone might do something to it other than take pictures of it.

I found out later that these security checks are new as of today and could increase as the number of visitors to the square increases.

Gone were the vendors selling everything from flags to drinks and popsicles.

It's going to be a long, hot summer.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Home-cooked Uniforms

Late last week, the Chinese delegation for the Beijing Olympics unveiled their team uniforms the would wear for the opening ceremonies.

They feature alternating yellow and red jackets and shirts with white skirts or pants. The jackets sport the Chinese government crest.

The uniform's designer, Liu Ruiqi said: "When the Chinese delegation comes out, they will certainly catch the eyes of the audience."

But many Chinese netizens don't think highly of the outfits.

One typical comment is: "They remind me of the tomato scrambled egg dish."

This dish, called fan(1) qie(2) chao(3) dan(4) is a typical home-cooked one, simple to make and can be used as a sauce over noodles or rice.

In the above picture from Xinhua, the top names of the Chinese team, including Yao Ming stand together. Yao looks solemn, but Liu Xiang in the red jacket in the middle looks like he's trying not to laugh.

Maybe he got the tomato scrambled egg joke.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Sprouting Pizza Fans

Several people told me about The Tree restaurant in Sanlitun, but I didn't know where it was.

Someone tried to explain it to me how to get there online, which was not very successful.

And then most recently I was given directions to go behind the 3.3 Mall, a building filled with small boutique stalls selling trendy fashion. But even then I was lost until my friend came out of the restaurant to get me.

The Tree restaurant was behind the mall, but another block down.

Once you arrive, you quickly realize why this is a hidden gem.

There isn't any al fresco dining, but a covered area near the wood-burning oven where several cooks are busy at work kneading dough or putting pizzas in the oven. Then there are areas in the back near the bar, but don't have the airy feeling near the entrance.

And then there are the drinks. There is a huge selection not only in bottle form, but draft as well. The owner is Belgian so there are many Belgian beers too. My friend Marc was particularly pleased to find one of his favourite ciders available. I started off with a lemon squash drink and then a mug of draft Tsing Tao.

But the main event are the pizzas.

They are thin crusted pizzas and come in various combinations. The first time I came I tried the Puttanesca pizza - a variation of the pasta sauce that includes anchovies, tomato sauce, olives, cheese and capers.

Then when I brought Marc, we had the Parma ham pizza with olives which I preferred, but he liked the Pepperoni one better with its robust flavours. We also had a side of French Fries which came with ketchup and mayonnaise. How European.

Soon after we arrived, a flood of diners came in so we were lucky we got our table. And when we left there was a line of people eager for a bite, which just shows how popular this place is, mostly with the expat crowd.

So now there are two great pizzas choices in Beijing -- the thick crust at Kro's Nest, and the thin ones at The Tree. Take your pick.

The Tree
Bei Sanlitun Nan
Chaoyang District
(100m west of Sanlitun north bar street, behind Poachers Inn)
6415 1954

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Things are Happening

There are 12 more days to go until the Olympics.

Yesterday the Olympic Village officially opened, and foreign journalists are starting to arrive.

This past week Olympic volunteers dressed in their blue and white shirts are posted around the city, giving directions to people. Or they are talking to their friends on their cell phones.

I went to my hotel gym for a swim today and found I was subjected to a security check -- a woman with a metal detector quickly wanding me, but not checking my bag.

And around the city are posters telling Beijing residents how to converse with foreigners. They should not ask them their age, what their salary is, and definitely not about their political views or religious beliefs.

While some think it's silly, others say it's good education for those who hardly ever come in contact with laowai, or foreigners.

With the alternating license plate numbers in effect for a week now, taxis are either plentiful or scarce. They're usually no where to be found in the morning rush. And so because traffic is lighter, I've been taking the bus to the office -- well, a bus to the terminus and then taking the actual bus to work.

And it takes me about 30 minutes. The best part is that apart from Monday, I've saved 80RMB so far.

I'm going to keep taking the bus to work as much as possible until September 20. Yes -- it's my bit to have a "Green Olympics". But so far the sky still looks smoggy. Oh -- I mean 'overcast'.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Word of the Day: Kubile

When we want to say something's good, we usually say "hao" or "hen hao" (very good).

But if you want your remark to have some street cred, kubile is the right word.

Ku(4) bi(4) le literally means "deadly cool" or so cool.


Friday, July 25, 2008

Contemporary Fine Dining

Salt Restaurant opened late last year and I'd read good reviews about it.

But I didn't get to try the restaurant until tonight and it's definitely a place to either impress people or a reasonably-priced dining establishment for a moderate splash out on the wallet.

It's located behind the Holiday Inn Lido, diagonally across from the Rosedale Hotel.

And we were impressed to see practically all of Beijing's most beautiful people all converging at this restaurant; almost every table featured a very handsome man, or attractive woman. So this is where all the cool people eat.

The restaurant has a minimalist decor with a gray colour scheme. While that's fine, the interior still feels a bit cold and needs a few paintings on the wall, or at least something dramatic as a focal point.

But perhaps the restaurant wanted to put the focus on the open kitchen, where staff where uniforms topped with orange scarves on their heads.

The menu is decidedly Western and great for those craving good fine dining but at decent prices.

Diners can either choose from a two course meal for 168RMB ($24.63), or three for 188RMB ($27.57). We chose the latter. And we weren't disappointed.

I had the rare tuna salad, which featured thin slices of tuna crusted with black pepper, and accompanied by greens. My friend had the roasted leek foam, a thick soup that was creamy and delicious.

For mains the seabass was just a tad overcooked, but still very good, accompanied by roasted new potatoes, white and green asparagus and finely diced mango.

The sirloin steak almost melted in the mouth and was also great with the mashed potatoes and roasted tomatoes.

And finally for dessert, I had the dark chocolate cube with raspberry filling. Except it wasn't a cube, but really a cylinder of think chocolate with dark chocolate mousse inside, topped with a raspberry sauce.

My friend had the to-die-for molten chocolate cake, the dark chocolate oozing out of it.

We also had fantastic drinks -- Lemongrass Tom Collins, which is lemongrass-infused gin with lemon and lime. Very refreshing and you hardly notice the gin!

The dishes were all artfully presented and overall service was attentive and easy to flag down.

The dinner for two, along with a glass of white wine came to 517RMB ($75.81).

2/F, Trio Building
9 Jiangtai Xilu
6437 8457

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Creatures in the Night

My tennis group had to find another place to play after the university across the street from our office banned people not related to the university from using the sports facilities.

We ended up finding a court a short drive from our office near the Third Ring Road, in a residential area made up of rows of townhouses. I didn't know townhouses existed in Beijing, but both Chinese and foreigners live in the three-storey flats.

There's only one court, but it's nice and clean, but it's right next to giant transmission towers which is disconcerting. I don't think I'd like to live there even though the environment is green and quiet.

There's lots of trees and hedges lined around the court and as we started playing around dinner time, mosquitoes came to feast on us. Within half an hour I got several bites on my legs and had to keep moving to avoid more bites.

However after a short rest, I played on the other side of the court which had less mosquitoes as it was next to the parking lot and there was a slight breeze, which was a relief from the humid air.

For the record today was quite hazy. Although today is day 5 of the alternating license plates, there hasn't been a significant visible change in air quality yet.

As the sun started going down, I saw something flying frantically in the sky. It was a bat.

There are lots of bats in Beijing. You can see them at dusk near the Lama Temple, or Yonghegong.

For some reason the bat kept hovering near the tennis balls as they flew across the court. One of my colleagues joked the bat was asking to be whacked to death.

But luckily we didn't have an incident -- otherwise it would have been a bloody mess.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Freedom of Speech?

Beijing is doing everything it can to prevent protesters from coming in to disrupt the Games.

The first line of defense are Chinese embassies, doing their best to weed out possible trouble makers coming in on tourist visas.

The second ring of defense is the International Olympic Committee rule that people are not allowed to carry large banners, distribute leaflets or even wear clothing with large messages written on them.

But if you must protest, the Chinese government will let you -- as long as you apply for a permit in advance.

And if you do get approved, you can stage your protest -- and it must be peaceful -- in one of three designated parks in Beijing's Fengtai, Haidian and Chaoyang districts.

"We have dedicated places for demonstrations at several parks," Liu Shaowu, director of the security department at Beijing's Olympics organising committee, told a news conference.

"Chinese law protects the legal right of people to hold lawful demonstrations and marches."

When pressed for further details, Liu declined to say whether anyone had applied yet or whether there were certain causes or groups whose applications would be rejected, deferring such questions to the Beijing police and municipal government, who he said would handle applications.

A Reuters reporter faxed questions to the Beijing police, but there was no immediate comment.

It will be interesting if anyone or any group will be approved. It might be an opportunity for China to show it does have freedom of expression, or it's the Chinese version of a bureaucratic deterrent to avoid embarassing the government.

We'll just have to wait and see.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Come, Please Come...

With 17 days to go until the Olympics, hotel operators are finally cutting their prices in an attempt to lure visitors.

Three-star hotels have dropped their prices from 700RMB ($104) to 400RMB, while four-star hotels are now 800RMB from 1,500RMB, according to

Originally greedy hotels were hoping to make a bundle during the Games, charging exhorbinant amounts, and stipulating guests must stay at least seven days.

But with the various events that happened this year, from the Tibet riots, to the torch relay, the Sichuan earthquake, and now the hurdles to jump in order to get visas, people from overseas are thinking twice about coming to China.

So maybe now the hospitality sector is going to look to its own domestic visitors to fill the hotel rooms.

That's if they can get through all the security checks to get into Beijing.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Canadian Richard Clayderman

This is Carlo Aspri.

He's a young Italian-Canadian pianist and composer who says he is completely self-taught.

And he has gone half way around the world from Montreal to Beijing to launch his musical career.


According to his PR flacks, his music is very similar to the likes of Kenny G, Richard Clayderman and Yanni... easy listening tunes that are apparently very popular in China.

So about four or five months ago, Apri made the move to Beijing and gave his debut concert to a select audience on Saturday at the Yamaha Music Performance Center, which is basically a showroom.

Dressed in a black shirt and pants, he performed some 16 pieces, that all sounded similar... a la Clayderman.

Each of the songs were dramatic, with lots of arpeggios and flourishes that evoked film scores.

His ode to China, "The Moon Represents My Heart" or Yueliang daibiao wode xin was beautifully arranged. In fact, if he really wants to capture the Chinese market, he should do more of his own interpretations of other well-known Chinese songs.

However, Aspri and his marketing machine are a bit new in conquering the Chinese music scene.

The big boss charged with launching Aspri's career in Asia didn't even know who superstar Lang Lang was when someone suggested he possibly do some collaboration with the world-class artist.

Aspri also needs to prove his connection with China beyond just saying so. And needs to learn to be more sophisticated in his media speak.

His image too seems a bit elementary. His CD cover features him in his tinted glasses, wearing a Chinese-like shirt and even a red string around his neck. He almost looks Eurasian, but he's not.

A picture of him at the piano would be best. He seems most comfortable tinkling the ivories... just like Richard.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Final Deadline

Today was the start of half of Beijing's 3.3 million cars off the roads.

They started with license plates ending in even numbers allowed on the streets.

My friend wondered if those ending in "0" qualified as an even number as he says zero is basically nothing.

Wonder what municipal officials have to say about that.

We also saw a few cars without license plates. Does this mean they can drive everyday?

There were police out in force making sure cars with odd numbers were not driving; if they were they were fined 100RMB.

The authorities were also checking to make sure no one was using the Olympic lanes without the proper identification. Those who disobeyed this temporary two-month measure would be fined 200RMB.

Car sales have been brisk recently, as some car owners can't stand the thought of taking public transit or even a taxi and bought a second car with a different number license plate. How pathetic is that?

Today was also the day all outdoor construction had to stop. Many workers were madly working into the night last night to finish as much as they could. So today half-finished buildings were abandoned, some covered in light tarps to prevent dust from spreading.

So while traffic is now a breeze, more buses on the roads, and two more subway lines open as of yesterday, the sky looked blue, but with a strong tinge of gray.

Hopefully this enforced measure will help clear the air more, but really, it should be in effect in the long-term.

Not Always by the Rules

Measures are taken all over Beijing to ensure security -- even in the swimming pool.

Yesterday late morning I went to my gym to beat the heat and do some laps in the pool.

It wasn't too crowded, but almost half the space length-wise was taken up by two boys playing with a ball. They passed it to each other and at times they wouldn't be able to catch it, disrupting other swimmers in the other half of the pool.

I decided to risk it and swim next to these two boys. I even purposely swam slowly in case they rushed into me trying to catch the ball. Scenarios of twisted arms and dislocated shoulders leapt into my mind, but at the same time I was determined to finish my workout.

And as expected, at one point the ball did hit me on the head -- thankfully lightly.

I stared at the two boys who said nothing -- and even the older sister watching poolside said nothing.

They kept playing for a long time until finally they left the pool and hung out in the jacuzzi -- still playing with the ball.

When I finished my swim I took my goggles off and on the back wall there were two new signs in white with red lettering in Chinese and English.

The first was no diving. The other said: "No playing water polo".

Meanwhile the gym staff did nothing. They periodically watched the boys playing, but didn't say to them, "Hey guys, did you see the sign? No playing water polo".

That was annoying.

What is the point of having rules if you don't enforce them?

However, everywhere else outside of the pool, the rules seem to be enforced to the extreme.

Back in the pool, the two boys were throwing the ball to each other on opposite ends of the pool width-wise, risking hitting the plants and pool furniture.

And no one seemed to notice.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Taking a Bite out of Beijing

The Apple Store has finally arrived in the Chinese capital.

It was unveiled this morning to what appears to be a large queue, as the people had to pass through a maze of ropes to get into the two-storey glass building.

We checked it out around dinnertime and the place was still busy with people eager to try out all kinds of Apple goods, from computers and laptops to iPods, and the iTouch. No iPhones were available.

The store is laid out to entice people to have a seat and try the gadgets, while "Apple specialists" wandered around to answer any questions customers had in either Chinese or English.

Outside on a giant screen was the colourful iPod ad played over and over again, and periodically with music. It definitely jazzes up the courtyard-like space which would be perfect for one giant outdoor dance party. But this being China, the chances of that happening are slim.

Nevertheless, the verdict of the Apple store is a big thumbs up from Apple fans. Prices, unfortunately are a bit higher, by about 10 percent, due to a luxury tax slapped on all imported goods.

The Apple Store is in "The Village" in Sanlitun, where other cool stores like Nike, Adidas, Uniqlo, Starbucks, and Cold Stone Creamery are open or will open soon.

The Village has definitely made Sanlitun more of a destination other than bars and restaurants, an also connects other areas together. It is now very close to The Hidden City 1949, as well as Worker's Stadium and Cotton Market or Yaxiu.

Making the neighbourhood more cohesive can only bring more people to the area, either discovering new places, or encouraging regulars to linger longer.

Looks like this area is becoming my new hangout...

Friday, July 18, 2008

The "It" Crowd

Yesterday the launch of the art exhibition attracted a whole spectrum of people to check it out.

Some were artistes, or wannabes who wanted to associate themselves with the artsy crowd. Others were art students or fans of artists.

But there was also a curious bunch of people who wanted to get in on the action, like this woman in the foreground and her two friends.

She stood out in particular, with her short, short psychedelic dress and heels, but also what appeared to be a wig on her head and her face painted with green eye shadow and baby doll lips.

While her friends talked about the artwork, she stood there impassively with not much reaction on her face.

It was hard to tell whether she was absorbing their discussion or wanting to get attention in her own, artistic way.

Space Exploration

The owners of UCCA or Ullens Center for Contemporary Art are keen to nurture artists. According to one of the curators, Kate Fowle, Guy and Myriam Ullens believe if they buy an artist's work, it enables them to create more work.

And now the couple is focusing more on using the giant space they have, a former factory, and inviting artists to create site-specific works.

For their latest exhibition, "Our Future: The Guy and Myriam Ullens Foundation Collection", one of the site commissions is by Yin Xiuzhen.

In a relatively low-ceilinged room, there is a giant pink-peach-flesh-coloured kind of bubble in the middle. It's called "Introspective Cavity".

It's made shirts that have been sewn together to create this tent-like structure. And through the sleeves, you can look inside.

Viewers are invited to enter the space, provided they take off their shoes or wear foot covers. They go in through a metal hole and find themselves walking on a soft bouncy surface and feel like their in a kind of womb.

When I took a look inside, the recording of water sounds wasn't turned on yet. But Fowle explains it's supposed to give visitors a feeling of calm, a place of refuge and relaxation.

The bubble is kind of interrupted by one of the columns in the room, but it's tastefully covered in mirrors.

Yin is a woman in her mid-40s and she explains the use of clothes is to represent a kind of community, a universality. Her other works usually feature used clothing, but as she only had one month to complete this work, she got help from many people to round up the shirts as quickly as possible.

She has also done suitcases that are opened up and feature sculptures in them, as well as clothes stitched together.

In the lobby of the UCCA, there is a giant tire, and instead of black rubber, it's black shirts sewn together into a tire shape.

Another interesting artist is Qiu Zhijie.

In his late 30s, Qiu is best known for photographs of his bare torso and the Chinese character bu, or no written in red not only on his face and body, but also on the white wall behind him.

His strong interest in Chinese calligraphy also has had him do some performance art in which he copies Tang Dynasty poems over and over again on the same sheet of paper until it's completely covered in black ink.

At the UCCA exhibition, he will be leading a class called "Empty your mind".

There is a believe that only when you empty your mind can you learn more. And so he will lead exercises in writing backwards, in both English and Chinese. And participants can write words or characters on a board which will then be carved out and then prints will be made of them. After a series of four weeks of classes, the prints will be compiled into a book.

What Yin and Qiu are doing is not uniquely Chinese per se -- they are exploring humanity and challenging the way we think about us and the world.

Their works are refreshing and universal.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Future of Art

Guy and Myriam Ullens are considered the first buyers of Chinese contemporary art.

In the early 80s the Belgian couple began buying pieces when there wasn't even an art market in China.

They were first intrigued by the work when they were in Hong Kong, but quickly realized they had to go to Beijing to meet the artists and see what was there.

And since then they have amassed a collection of over 1,500 pieces, ranging from oil paintings and photographs, to video and installations.

Last year they bought a giant space in the 798 Art District and turned it into the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA).

And today they unveiled their latest exhibition, Our Future: The Guy & Myriam Ullens Foundation Collection.

The show is a combination of old and new acquisitions, as well as site-specific commissions.

And the end result is an interesting mix.

The main exhibition space is very large, with high ceilings. And art work is literally placed everywhere you look without much rhyme or reason.

One of the curators explained the gallery was like a home, and they didn't want to program what people should see or should group together. It was up to the viewers themselves to engage with the works and find their own relationships between the art as well as with themselves.

They have collected everything from Fang Lijun to Ai Weiwei and Qiu Zhijie.

Guy admitted only up until recently were they just buying works without the help of a curator. But it seems like the couple not only has good taste and dares to take chances, but also encourages young artists.

He says the next step now is to nurture the next generation of artists, joking the discussions usually revolve around wine and food.

Ullens himself is a very personable, humble and very dynamic.

They even sponsored an artist to do performance art -- emerge from a silver gray spaceship -- hanging from hooks with his hands laced with strings that were attached to live turtles on the floor.

He just hung there, covered in blue spray paint, and didn't move much.

Don't know if that's supposed to be the future of art, but it's definitely out of the ordinary.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Rain Factor

There are 23 more days to the Olympics and now Chinese meteorologists are saying there is a slightly less chance of rain come August 8, at 41 percent.

The possibility of precipitation for the entire Beijing is 47-50 percent on that day, when the much-anticipated opening ceremonies will be held at the National Stadium, or Bird's Nest.

This conclusion was made after studying weather data from 1975 to 2007, according to the China Meteorological Administration (CMA).

All is not rosy either.

"Thunderstorms, heavy rain, high temperatures, muggy skies and even hailstorms could be a problem, said Chen Zhenlin, deputy director of CMA's forecasting service and disaster mitigation department.

He is also the director of the Olympic Weather Service Center.

Sounds like Chen has alot of pressure to not only produce accurate weather forecasts, but also make sure it doesn't rain for the big day.

But hailstorms?

The CMA spokesman Yu Xinwen explains global warming has led to extreme weather conditions, and it's been particularly bad for China this year. There were snowstorms in late January and early February, heavy rains and floods in southern China last month and now Beijing experiencing its wettest summer in 15 years.

There was talk of the Chinese boasting how they could manipulate the weather. The plan was to "seed clouds" by sending rockets and planes into the sky and spread silver iodine and dry ice high into the atmosphere to target cumulonimbus clouds, thus inducing rain before the clouds headed towards Olympic venues.

But now Yu admits this technology can only prevent light rainfall. It doesn't work when there's thick, wide-spread, massive clouds.

So much for seven years' of preparation.

In a way it's good to know man cannot rule Mother Nature.

But let's hope for good weather anyway.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

On Patrol

I've just come back home from an interesting evening out.

After work I went to my gym for a swim, which is in a hotel.

And at the lobby was a man guarding a newly installed metal detector for people to walk through, and an X-ray baggage machine with two computer monitors.

I was just at the hotel the other day so this is very new. There are rumours that people who are not guests at hotels will not be allowed in. It sounds extreme, but anything is possible in China. Does this mean I won't be able to go to the gym?

After my swim I took a cab to meet up with some friends at Sanlitun, the bar district. When the cab reached a red light, some police officers with white gloves armed with a hand-held device approached private cars. The drivers rolled down their windows and the police politely saluted them and asked them to breathe into the device, lips not even touching it.

While it's great to check on drunk drivers, it was only 8:30 in the evening. I joked to the taxi driver that only now are people going to bars to drink. They should be checking at round 10:30, 11pm. He laughed.

I got to the place, The Tree Restaurant, which is known for its thin-crust pizzas. As were eating and chatting, a troupe of police officers, again with white gloves strolled into the restaurant. Staff didn't say anything as the officers wandered around the establishment and the started asking random people -- foreigners -- to show their passports.

It seemed like only one police officer could speak good English, as the others remained silent and wandered or watched him conduct the checks. I couldn't hear what the officer was asking, but perhaps to get the expats to write down their names and then he called a number to check on their status.

He was perhaps checking their visas to make sure they hadn't expired.

After the English-speaking officer checked three people, the group left.

No one was hauled away, but the exercise was enough to instill some fear in people.

Welcome to Beijing... until the Olympics are over, life will be like this.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Next Olympic City

Vancouver, in British Columbia, Canada will be hosting the 2010 Winter Games.

And it has already started the promotional wheels moving... in Beijing.

At the Beijing Urban Planning Exhibition Center, east of the Qianmen subway station, is a giant pavilion promoting Vancouver and its province, British Columbia.

Unfortunately you have to pay 30RMB for the privilege, and be submitted to a security check, but it's interesting.

You can't miss this series of giant wood arches and then a massive hunk of BC jade weighing 5,000kg. Apparently BC has more jade than China, but is of a lesser quality. It can be cut into thin tiles that I've been told look cool when backlit.

The exhibit is divided into the five natural elements - earth, wood, water, fire and metal. And each shows how they are related to BC.

For example in wood, they display different samples of wood found in the province, including the stump of a giant red cedar that was blown down in the windstorm of 2006 in Vancouver's Stanley Park.

BC also has a wealth of minerals including copper and zinc, and one of the biggest mining companies in Canada and the world is Teck Cominco.

As Vancouver is right by the water, there is also a strong fishing industry as well as recreational, fresh seafood and water sports. There is a port in northern BC called Prince Rupert that was built thanks to help from Cosco, a Chinese shipping company that helped push the project forward. Now shipping times from North America to Asia have been cut significantly.

And for fire, my guide enthusiastic guide Bryan said it was metaphorical meaning of the people, and the multiculturalism that Canada and especially Vancouver has. One-third of the population is Chinese which not many are aware of.

The end of the display is a bit awkward, with the Hudson's Bay Company, a Canadian department store, selling Canadian as well as Olympic souvenirs. Bryan admitted he was supposed to steer visitors to the gift shop, but didn't feel comfortable doing it.

There was also a cool interactive machine where you could use your hand to guide a virtual plane around BC, and on the wall a cartoon mural of the Olympic mascots, Quatchi and Miga, as well as Paralymic mascot, Sumi.

Upstairs, protected by security, is a big space that can accommodate up to 300 people and can be divided up into smaller spaces for presentations, cocktails, dinners and lectures. The aim is to bring Canadian and Chinese businesses together under the Asia-Pacific Gateway initiative from the Canadian government.

It's a good introduction to Vancouver and British Columbia, but very business oriented. At the Torino Games in 2006, the Canadians constructed the Canada Lodge, where people could play street hockey out front, which got a lot of attention.

But perhaps this being Beijing, where everything right now is about security, playing a favourite Canadian past time like ball hockey is the last thing security officials want to wonder is a threat or not.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Last Minute Touch-ups

Yesterday as I was on my way to dinner north of Dongzhimen, I saw a bunch of men on an expansive patch of dirt ground. They had towels around their necks and shovels in hand, digging up big rocks and putting them in a pile near them. They had obviously been toiling all day in the hot sun and heat.

I wondered what would be the end result of their labour. But my query was answered today.

As my bus drove by the same area, the same men were out there laying out rolls of grass, creating an instant green carpet on what was previously nothing but dirt.

It was amazing how quickly they worked.

But then again in China, anything is possible.

I've heard some of the grass comes from Inner Mongolia. They just cut up patches of grass, roll them out and send them down to Beijing, leaving behind bare patches of brown, which may cause erosion, in small quantities.

The Chinese are going to great lengths to create a "Green Olympics".

On the other hand though, near the newly transplanted grassy area, diggers were knocking down dilapilated buildings.

They had already neatly sorted out materials like metal frames that could be used again from the brick.

Probably in the next few days scavengers will descend on the area, taking whatever materials they can use, from bricks to glass.

Wasn't the government going to stop construction and the destruction of buildings to help clear the air?

Perhaps the buildings in this neighbourhood were too much of an eyesore for government officials who probably demanded the area cleaned up pronto.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Word of the Day: Lala Dui

At this year's Games, China will see groups of young women in tight clothing dancing a set routine.

There are over 600 volunteers who will become lala dui, or cheerleaders, whose job it will be to rev up the crowds at the various Olympics venues.

They are in training right now -- with dance moves taught by none other than the cheerleaders from the National Football League's New England Patriots.

"I must work hard so that I can show the world the spirit of China's youth, the happiness that sports brings," explained one cheerleader.

However it might be weird having them shaking their booties at say fencing, archery or weightlifting events. Can you imagine that?

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Where's the Polisher... on the Bus?

The interiors of buses in Beijing are all getting these new dark blue and white signs which are great because they are in Chinese and English.

Previously I had to figure out what was going on by trying to decipher the Chinese characters or watch other passengers and follow them.

For the most part these signs are correct -- except for this one.

It shows four icons, one for an elderly person, one of a parent and child, one of a disabled person, and one with a pregnant woman.

Below it says: "Please Take the Initiative for Bringing Invalidity Pregnant Parks [sic]".

You can guess what it's supposed to say: "Please take the initiative and give up your seat for the elderly, children, invalids and pregnant women".

"Giving up seat day" usually happens on the 22nd of each month, but now with 29 days to go, the municipal government is hoping people will be giving up their seats everyday.

Is it too late to change the sign?

For the Record

Following my previous posting about air quality, this is the picture taken from my apartment window at 7:27am this morning.

But the weather report said it would be clear and 32 degrees.

While the temperature is probably correct, "clear" is a relative term. The whole day it kind of cleared up, but looked overcast.

Perhaps the China Meteorological Administration's definition of "clear" means it won't rain.

Was there a press release about this that I didn't hear about?

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Who's Fooling Who

Friends and family always ask me about the air in Beijing.

And now with 30 days to go... is it really clearing up in time for August 8?

Granted these last two weeks it's been overcast and rainy which does clean the air a bit, it hasn't been enough to show a blue sky.

When Beijing bid for the 2008 Olympics, it promised its air would meet World Health Organization (WHO) standards.

So the BBC recently put the Chinese capital's air to the test by using a hand-held detector to test for airborne particles known as PM10.

These particles are caused by traffic, construction work and factory emissions.

And the city's air quality failed to meet WHO standards on PM10 six days out of seven.

On one of the days, Beijing's air quality was SEVEN times over the WHO air quality guideline.

Beijing Olympic organizers still insist there's still time to clear the air.

Last year I'd read factories and construction would stop in the spring, but even today workers are still madly finishing up buildings.

Apparently July 20 is the magic day when half the city's over 3 million cars will be taken off the roads in a temporary measure where cars with license plates ending in even and odd numbers alternate.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) was in Beijing this week for last minute briefings on the Games preparations and one of the concerns raised was air quality.

Local officials cited the temporary car policy as well as shutting down factories in north China as the plan for improving the air.

Earlier this year IOC President Jacques Rogge hinted Beijing may have to postpone the marathon and other endurance events if air quality doesn't meet certain standards.

This was quickly rebuffed by Beijing Olympic officials who said the events would be run on a tight schedule and there would be no room for changes.

It will be interesting to see come August what IOC officials think of the air quality then.

Beijing's last minute efforts to clear the air are too little too late; it may be able to control its people, but it has no jurisdiction over Mother Nature.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

T-minus 31 days to go

It's July 8, folks -- one more month until the Olympics!

And how are we feeling?? Nervous and excited, and wondering... where did the time go?

I remember when I first arrived last April and there were several hundred -- some 500 days until the Games.

And now we're down to 31.

To mark one of the last milestones before the Games, the Central Bank has issued commemorative 10 yuan bank notes. They're in cyan with the graphic of the National Stadium or Bird's Nest and on the other side is the famous Greek statue of a discus thrower, Discobolus, and images of people doing sports.

However, there are only going to be 6 million of these notes in circulation.

Which means there's going to be lots of hording.

So if you do happen to get your hands on one of these notes, keep it!

It's a brilliant way to prevent the economy from moving as this 60 million RMB will be kept in people's pockets... probably never exchanging hands... ever.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Disparate Views

Talks between the Chinese government and representatives of the Dalai Lama didn't get very far as expected, just over 30 days before the Olympics.

The Chinese government even refused to give a joint statement with the Dalai Lama's side.

According to an Associated Press report, an envoy for the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama says the latest round of talks with China have been "one of the most difficult sessions" held so far. But Lodi Gyari says he will return for more discussions in a few months.

Gyari says he told his "Chinese counterparts very candidly that if there is not seriousness on their part it is almost pointless for (them) to waste each other's time" with more talks.

On the other hand, the Chinese side told Gyari and Kelsang Gyaltsen the Dalai Lama should openly and explicitly promise and prove it in his actions not to support activities to disturb the upcoming Beijing Olympic Games, not to support plots to fan violent criminal activities, not to support and concretely curb the violent terrorist activities of the "Tibetan Youth Congress" and not to support any argument and activity to seek "Tibet independence" and split the region from the country.

"If the Dalai Lama fails to meet such simple and rational requirements, it will be impossible to have necessary atmosphere and condition for next round of contact," said Du Qinglin, head of the United Front Work Department of the Communist Party of China.

The Dalai Lama has already sent a several-page letter to the Chinese government, expressing his support for the Olympic Games and would not do anything to sabotage it.

He cannot completely control his supporters, but only try to tell them not to take a violent path. That is all he can do.

"The door for dialogue is always open and contacts will make positive moves as long as the Dalai Lama suits his actions with his words and truly practices the four 'not-to-supports'," Du said.

While the next round of talks aren't scheduled until before the end of the year, things may not progress much further when the Chinese side makes conditions for talks.

Perhaps the Chinese have a different version of bargaining in good faith.

Dog Days of Summer

Today the temperature hit 32 degrees Celsius but it must have been hotter than that because of the humidity.

Just walking down the street you broke into a sweat. Or is it me walking too fast?

People here remark that I walk so fast. What for? I'm just used to my Hong Kong days where you were always in a rush to get somewhere. Or am I more purpose-driven in my stride than others?

Tonight I took the above picture in the subway on Line 1 to Jianguomen Station.

And with the heat, women are losing their inhibitions in their summer wardrobe. For the male species, it's the best time of the year to see as much exposed skin as possible -- for free.

Many young women wear mini skirts, short shorts and tank tops. Or they wear practically see-through tops that leave little for the imagination.

But I also took the photo because this was the first subway train I've seen that offers padding for commuters to park their bums.

The guy in jeans is leaning back in comfort which is a bit odd and in terms of traffic flow as his stance can impede people from getting in and out of carriages easily if someone is sticking their feet out on an angle.

Or is it me with my Hong Kong efficiency thinking?

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Russian Fare in Beijing

I've been in Beijing for over a year but haven't tried the food of China's biggest neighbour, Russia until last night.

A friend's roommate who is Russian recommended a place called White Nights near the Russian embassy so we had to check it out.

It's about a block away from Dongzhimen, going west one block then north. The stroll there is pleasant, with trees lining the boulevards.

Outside the restaurant is a raised patio area where some diners chose to eat outside.

But we were seated inside, where there are tables in the main dining area, a small room off to the side and then in the basement.

We were seated in the small room, which had a Russian couple smoking up a storm who were later joined by their teenaged children.

The menu has the requisite Russian dishes, but also some Chinese ones. In a vote of confidence in the restaurant, the Russian table next to us ordered almost all Chinese food.

But we opted to stay true to the culinary offerings and I tried borscht soup (hot) and roasted beef. My friend had salmon cooked in a cream sauce and potato pancakes.

My soup came and it was good with a small dollop of cream. But then an interesting dish arrived at our table. It turned out to be diced eggplant braised with peppers. We weren't quite sure what it was and started eating it and it was delicious.

The table next to us complained to the staff that that was their dish. A waiter was about to come and take it away from us, but a waitress behind him, dressed in a baby blue European serving dress complete with white apron, admonished him, saying we already started eating it so he couldn't take it away.

In the end a waiter came by to tell us the dish would be added onto our bill and eventually the Russian family got their eggplant.

My friend reported the salmon in an alfredo sauce was great, while my roasted beef consisted of two layers of round chunks of meat and chopped raw garlic in the middle, and topped with a creamy sauce that was oven baked that I scraped away. Each of our dishes had a small cucumber salad and some mashed potatoes with a generous mixture of butter.

The potato pancakes were a bit dull, but my friend says the were cooked well as they can easily be burnt, and these weren't.

In the end the bill came to 105RMB with a glass of plum juice.

I heard the baked fish is very good at this place and will have to try it next time. It's a pity the service is a bit scatter-brained.

White Nights
No. A13 Beizhong Street
Dongzhimennei Avenue

Saturday, July 5, 2008

A Suite Way to Fly

At the Oriental Mall at Wangfujing, there was an elaborate display by Singapore Airlines.

The A380 will be making its first flight to Beijing on August 8, the day the Summer Games begin.

And for a sneak preview, the airline presented samples of what the interior of the plane will feel like.

Economy seats are a bit roomier because arm rests aren't as wide, giving passengers a bit more seat room. The mini TV screens are larger for better viewing.

In business class, passengers can recline in an automated chair, and they're much wider and have large TV screens that tilt. There are also buttons for "Do not disturb" and even vanity mirrors on the side.

First class has seats that become like lounge chairs so people can completely rest their feet, almost horizontally. It's like a mini cocoon.

But only on Singapore Airlines so far, there's one step above first -- it's Suite Class.

And these are actually individual mini rooms where passengers have a leather seat that can be converted into a sleeper and you can lie flat, with special lighting, a TV screen, and even shades to keep prying eyes out of your private cabin.

There are 12 of these "suites" on the A380 and a flight attendant at the presentation told us they are on the whole mostly full. She added the flights from Singapore to London are all full.

And the cost? Return from Beijing to Singapore it's 32,000RMB ($4,666). That's a 6-hour flight.

And if these suites are mostly full, that shows you there's a market for something beyond first class.

What will they think of next.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Zheng's Wimbledon Run Over

Zheng Jie's fantastic run at Wimbledon is over.

The 24-year-old tried her hardest, but could not beat Serena Williams.

At least Zheng put up a fight, losing 6-2, 7-6.

Not everyone watched the match live as it was on around midnight and ended around 2am this morning.

When the Chinese woke up this morning to hear the news, they weren't very happy and just went about their day.

But Zheng has really made a name for herself not only in China, but around the world too.

She has helped raise the profile of tennis in the country which may mean seeing more people hitting balls on the courts in China.

And she will be the one to watch come August.

Just her determination and ability to take things in stride are qualities that make her an ideal idol for young people to emulate.

And donating a good portion of her winnings to quake relief in her home province of Sichuan makes her an even greater athlete.

She deserves as much praise as the likes of Yao Ming and Liu Xiang.

She's one class act.

Flushing with Pride

Beijing is hoping that its millions of visitors, including an estimated half a million foreigners will have a wonderful experience using the over 5,300 public toilets in the city and Olympic venues.

All the public facilities will have free toilet paper and liquid soap -- a new development that will be available during the Olympics and Paralymics.

There's even 8,000 workers trained to keep the toilets clean.

"Public toilets reflect the living and hygiene standards of a society", said Guo Weidong, a Beijing municipal administration commission spokesman.

And for those not able or willing to squat over a hole, there are some Western-style toilets too.

"Beijing is working hard to make every public toilet a pleasant experience for the millions who visit the city for the Games," said Yu Debin, deputy director of the Beijing tourism bureau.

The toilet drive began in 2005 after a 1994 survey showed 60 percent of foreigners were afraid to enter public toilets in the city.

My policy is to use hotel restrooms. But of course I'll go to the nearest loo if I'm really desperate. And I've had to use some really nasty ones, like the one in a truck stop when I went to Hebei Province for a weekend in the grasslands.

Basically they were open stalls that were open pits that were never cleaned and there was no water to flush either.

I'm sure you catch my drift.

It's so interesting to see how Beijing is obsessed about presenting a clean image of the city with its public toilets.

Now if only its people would follow through and more of them wash their hands after each use...

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Smooth on the Road, but not Underground

This past week traffic has been really smooth. I easily find a taxi and get to work in about 15 minutes, 20 minutes tops.

While there are still lots of cars on the road, they are all moving too, hardly impeding our progress. Granted rush hour home is still bad, but not horrific, but going to work is practically a breeze.

Why is that?

It might be because there are some 300,000 government vehicles in Beijing and some 70 percent of them were taken off the roads to help clear the air 36 days from now. On July 20 the city will implement the temporary policy of alternating cars on the roads, which will make my commute even faster until September.

What happened to the officials who had their private cars -- some chauffeured -- and weren't allowed to drive them? Did they become like ordinary folk and take public transit? Or did they discover the beauty of carpooling? What happened to their drivers? Do they get an extra long holiday?

Meanwhile, on her way to work, a young colleague of mine fainted on the subway today. She was on the old train which only had fans blowing dead air than air conditioning.

She said it was so hot and stuffy and with lots of people, it was unbearable.

It took her two hours to recover from her ordeal and she looked pale and tired when she finally made it to the office.

While the government has purposely made public transit very inexpensive, it has to be able to deliver a good service to move people along. With the Olympics fast approaching, it won't be good public relations for visitors to find subways stuffy and packed.

During the evening rush, some escalators and people movers aren't turned on and are blocked off, making it near impossible to hurry down the corridor to transfer to another line with hundreds of other people going the same direction.

That's what the new electronic ticketing system is for, to track passengers' movements so that they can increase the frequency of trains when necessary.

Or has the subway company not realized there are a lot of extra people taking the subway these days, with many more to come in less than three weeks?

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Changing the Rules

French President Nicolas Sarkozy still hasn't decided if he'll attend the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics.

He says his decision hangs on whether the Chinese government and representatives of the Dalai Lama make some progress in talks this week in an undisclosed location in Beijing.

"I think it is progressing well," he said. "If there was continued progress and if the Dalai Lama and the Chinese president acknowledged the progress, then the obstacle to my participation would be lifted."

He said he will make his decision next week.

Sarkozy, who will receive Chinese President Hu Jintao in August, also hinted he may meet the Dalai Lama as well.

This latest comment from the French President was frowned upon in China.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said yesterday Tibet should not be linked with the Games.

"We oppose meetings between state leaders and the Dalai Lama; we oppose attaching Tibet-related issues to the Beijing Olympics; and we oppose politicizing the Beijing Olympics," Liu said.

Tibet is China's internal affair, as is any contact between the central government and the private representatives of the Dalai Lama, he said.

Despite China saying it opposes to politicizing the Games, the host country also got a rap on the knuckles by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Over a week ago when the torch relay was in Tibet, the Communist Party boss there, Zhang Qingli made a speech saying:

"The sky above Tibet will never change. The red five-star flag will always fly above this land.

"We can definitely smash the separatist plot of the Dalai Lama clique completely."

In its letter, the IOC said it "regrets that political statements were made during the closing ceremony of the Torch Relay in Tibet".

"We have written to [the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games] to remind them of the need to separate sport and politics and to ask for their support in making sure that such situations do not arise again."

Despite the warning, China still denies that it is politicizing the Games.

Spokesman Liu insisted Zhang was trying to foster a "stable and harmonious environment for the Olympics".

"China's solid position is against the politicizing of the Olympics," Liu said.

Either the Chinese are playing hardball, or they believe they are playing politics with rules that don't apply to them.

China watchers aren't expecting any dramatic progress just before the Games just 37 days away. At this point we can only hope for more "productive" talks scheduled in the future.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Smashing Talent

(photo: Xinhua)

Do you know who Zheng Jie is?

She's the one to watch at Wimbledon this year.

Last Friday she toppled World No. 1 seed Ana Ivanovic 6-1, 6-4, and yesterday beat No. 15 seed Agnes Szavay 6-3, 6-4 to reach the quarterfinals. She is the second Chinese to reach the final eight, after Li Na did it two years ago.

The 24-year-old Zheng is stunned by her win because she missed most of last year due to an ankle injury.

"I'm so happy because last year I injured my ankle and missed Wimbledon," she explains. "I've been back for just half a year and I can play like this. I'm very surprised," she said.

"It's great because before I didn't think I could win in two sets, maybe three close sets.

"I felt it would be a tough match because she has the big serve and big forehand. But on the court I just try keep going.

"I just try to tell myself she's the better player, so I need 100 percent for every point."

Zheng was ranked 133rd in the world and before Wimbledon and was playing as a wild card. She certainly took her chances and has probably leapfrogged a few top players with the hard-earned win.

What's interesting about her tennis experience is that she never played on a grass court when she was a child.

"In China there are no grass courts, but every time I play the grass court I feel it is a perfect one for me. I hope I can go far and win more matches here," she said.

Zheng credits her husband who is also her coach for helping her train mentally and physically.

While people in China are hoping for a medal in tennis at the Olympics, the singles and doubles player still thinks about her home province of Sichuan and has donated her French Open winnings to the quake relief efforts.

Regardless of her chances at Wimbledon, she's taking it all in stride. And all of us here are cheering for her. It sounds like she's relishing her moment on the grass. And that's what tennis is all about.