Sunday, August 31, 2008

Luxurious Living

As a treat to myself, I decided to splash out on a five-star hotel... for one night.

And I picked The Regent near Wangfujing, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

There is a view on the 16th floor, and I was facing east towards the CCTV tower. I could also see Chaoyangmen to my left, and Wangfujing on my right.

The room is a good size, not too small, with a large bed, a chair, glass desk and flat-screen TV. My only gripe is the Internet access doesn't work for Macs, but I've also had this problem in other hotels.

Nevertheless, the bathroom is fantastic -- there's a sliding door so you can keep it open or closed, and comes with a bathtub and a shower with an over-sized shower head. In the shower, the water drains into a frame-like crevice and then into a drain discreetly covered by a tile.

I also wandered down to the fifth floor where the health club is. Fitness freaks would have a ball there.

In most hotels, the health club is one of the last things they consider. But here it was a top priority.

There were separate rooms for aerobics or yoga, as well as for treadmills, and another for weights.

But the highlight was definitely the indoor pool.

It's 32 metres long -- more than twice the length of the one I usually swim at. While the water didn't seem heated, I had to do several fast freestyle lengths to get warmed up. But after a while, being by myself in the pool, I quite enjoyed feeling like Michael Phelps going so fast.

I briefly wondered about gym membership here probably being an arm and a leg; but location-wise it didn't quite suit me. Too bad.

Had a wonderfully blissful sleep under the duvet and was sorry the experience had to end before 12 noon.

I'll just have to find another excuse to treat myself again... soon.

The Regent
99 Jinbao Street
Dongcheng District
8522 1888

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Round Two

After a heavy rain on Friday, and slight showers last night, today there is a gorgeous blue sky and white fluffy clouds. Who knew Beijing could be so beautiful on an August day?

The Paralympics is six days away and already in the last few days the banners around the city have changed from the Olympic to Paralympic ones.

While the logo of the five Olympic rings are still on the Olympic lanes, the signs pointing them have also changed to show the Paralympic logo.

Flowers along the roads and mini gardens on street corners and patches of areas have been spruced up with fresh plants looking cheerful as ever.

And the army of city volunteers began mobilizing again yesterday, hanging out at the subway platforms waiting for their latest instructions.

With the Olympics over, the Paralympics will probably be a walk in the park, being much smaller in scale.

However, as I took the bus today, I saw a stretch of sidewalk that was prettily decorated with a series of potted plants every few metres.

If the city is supposed to be more accessible, potted plants on a sidewalk isn't really wheelchair accessible, unless they don't expect anyone to go along that sidewalk.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Watching from Afar

Last summer the buzz in China, or at least in Beijing was that Hillary Rodham Clinton would be the Democratic presidential candidate and that she would be the first female president of the United States.

Many Chinese felt she had good political experience having been in the White House before with husband Bill, and that she was pro-China.

But many of us North Americans, at least us young'uns disagreed and explained that we thought Barack Obama was the one.

When he finally won the grueling race against Clinton, the Chinese were confronted with the reality the Democrats would be led by a half black man with not much political experience and his foreign policy unknown.

But this week they eagerly watched the Democratic National Convention. We turned on the television in our office to CNN and watched Michelle Obama's impassioned speech about her husband being the same man she met 19 years ago; Bill Clinton making the case for Obama; and Hillary Clinton persuading her followers to not split the party and join her in supporting Obama.

And this morning (Beijing time), we saw Obama, standing in front of a crowd of tens of thousands, enthusiastically accept the nomination to take on Republican John McCain in November.

His stirring speech appealed to the everyman -- the working class who are trying to make ends meet. He gave them a vision of the future, of better education for children, health care for all, and less dependence on oil.

The best slogan of all, was "Eight is enough". Wonder if that'll be a bumper sticker any moment now.

In the meantime, we have a small chalkboard near our main door where some people post messages or draw pictures to cheer colleagues up.

And it was great to see this message there.

Perhaps they were just as excited as we were, seeing someone who is an inspiration for change.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Shy Building

Tonight after dinner we wanted to take pictures of the new CCTV building.

So I told the taxi driver to take us to the "da kouchar" or "big pants" and he dropped us off across the street from the giant black building.

However it wasn't lit up maybe because it wasn't completely finished. But you'd think with the Olympics and all, there would be some lights shining on it to draw attention to its crazy, fantastic, unique design.

But no, it preferred to stay hidden in the dark. We took some photos by the parking lot and thought we'd get better shots around the corner.

Almost half an hour walking later, we tried to get another angle, but our view of it was completely blocked by these annoying makeshift billboard-like walls that said "One World, One Dream" in various languages.

At the street corner all we could take were pictures of its top and even then it looked horrible with the hazy air and the colourful walls stopping us from admiring it.

We'll just have to wait until it's completed and the barricades come down. Such an interesting building and architectural critics raving about it and not being able to photograph it is a pity.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Tough Crowd

In the last few days I've talked to a few local friends and colleagues about the Olympics and in particular the opening ceremonies.

And many of them panned it.

"It was nothing special," a girlfriend remarked. "It didn't say much about China."

Others felt the images artistic director Zhang Yimou were cliche and old fashioned.

Granted the people I talked to are from the post 80s generation in their 20s so they can be hard to please.

However many of my media friends from overseas who came to cover the Olympics -- and they have seen many opening ceremonies in their time -- were totally amazed.

They were so impressed by the precision of the performers (PLA soldiers) and the massive scale of the production. They loved the giant globe with people walking upside down and especially thought having former gymnast Li Ning light the torch the way he did was amazing.

Again the finale was panned by my local friends.

"Of course they would pick someone like him to do that," my girlfriend continued. "We all knew that already."

From the small pool of people I talked to, it seems the opening ceremony was more for the outside world than for the Chinese. It was a carefully choreographed sequence of images to show the world what China is about and what it is capable of doing.

And the 25,000 foreign journalists who descended on Beijing to report on the Games thought the people were so friendly and at times overly helpful, that they thought the entire city was like that.


The media village and the areas they worked in, the International Broadcast Center and Main Press Center were really a sanitized view of Beijing and China. It was like living in the Disneyland version of a big Chinese city.

Little do they realize what some locals really think about the Olympics or what living in Beijing is about.

And because people were so busy covering the events, they had little time to escape to see what's really going on in the city -- from people cooped up in their homes watching the Olympics on TV because they couldn't be bothered to deal with the crowds, to the congested subway lines, and not even able to do recreational sports like tennis or swimming because of "security reasons".

The 2008 Olympics created an image of a "harmonious society" and many reporters who parachuted in for the event are leaving with a warm fuzzy feeling.

And that's exactly what the government intended.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Back to Normal... Almost

After breathing a collective sigh of relief with the end of the Olympics, Beijing and its people went back to business as usual. Well, almost.

Half the cars are still banned off the roads, but the restrictions were loosened in the fifth and sixth ring roads.

A friend noticed a Uighur selling trinkets on the street and some places roasting chuan, or meat kebabs on outdoor barbecues. For him it was a good sign things were slowly getting back to normality.

The Beijing 2008 and "One World, One Dream" signs are still up with the Paralympics coming in 10 days.

Most of the athletes and journalists have left, but a few are still hanging out in the city. They are clearly visible with yellow accreditation cards around their necks like dog tags.

These cards give them a free pass around Beijing's sights -- and one joked he would have seen more if he had time to go see famous landmarks instead of covering the Games.

But in the next week or so the capital will be hosting a new set of guests, ones that will require more assistance and really test Beijing's ability to host a large number of disabled people.

In the time I've been here, I've hardly seen anyone in a wheelchair or with physical disabilities here because they find the city inaccessible.

Hopefully the Paralympics will push greater awareness to this group of people who are eager to contribute to society -- if society would let them.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Party's Over

Seven years after Beijing was awarded the Games, the 29th Olympiad is over.

The Chinese capital and the country can breathe a sigh of relief after a job well done.

The closing ceremony was a mish-mash of tacky to cool, from people spinning plates and jumping rope on unicycles, to a giant tower with people hanging from it and robot men flying through the air.

At one point there were several Chinese women singing about the moon. They all had those high-pitched voices and unfortunately wore cliche cheungsams that were hardly original.

And what about the Canto and Mando pop stars all uncoordinated as well in their outfits? Didn't they get a memo about the dress code? Oh well.

Most of the foreigners felt the highlight was watching Jimmy Page of Led Zepplin working the guitar and footballer David Beckham popping out of the red double decker bus as part of the handover to London for 2012.

And classical fans got to see tenor Placido Domingo with a big paunch.

It looked like the athletes had fun. Many mingled amongst themselves and the favourite was Yao Ming who everyone wanted to take a picture with. He really is a giant.

Sprinter Usain Bolt was supposed to be the Jamaican flagbearer but was switched at the last minute to Maurice Smith, a decathlon athlete who finished fifth and this is his last Games.

Speaking of Bolt, my friend Marc saw him at the Silk Market yesterday. He managed to wriggle his way through the crowd who were all excited to see the gold medallist. He told him not to buy anything for more than 200RMB. Wonder if he took his advice?

After the show, trying to get across white barricades was frustrating. For some reason security wouldn't open them up causing a flood of people trying to trickle through specific areas that were opened up.

Everyone was complaining about the barricades as we were all hot and tired from the festivities.

They were also busy taking their last photos on the Olympic Green on the last day of the Games. They were trying to capture the moment, the highs of China's success of putting on the Olympics, and they were a part of it.

One Chinese guy wandered through the crowd with a white T-shirt and got whoever he encountered to sign it. Wonder what he'll do with it afterwards.

And now the party's over.

One of the main reasons why I came to Beijing was to witness this momentous event. And after all the anticipation and anxiety, from the pollution, the Tibet riots, the torch relay and the Sichuan earthquake, China has pulled through.

Yes, the Games cost the country alot. Was it money well spent?

We'll have to see.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Not a Good Sign

During the Olympics, there are people who come to the Games and like to swap pins. Kind of like an international exchange.

And at one street corner near the Media Press Center or MPC at Beichen Xilu and Datun Lu there are people sitting on the ground showing off their vast collections from previous Olympics and from various countries.

The athletes participating in the Games go one step up and like to trade pieces of their uniform with other countries.

Canada used to have very cool outfits, designed by casual wear maker Roots.

The Canadian company (with American founders) also designed uniforms for other countries too.

But for this Games and for 2010, the contract was handed to Hudson's Bay Company or HBC.

And when the uniforms were revealed, practically everyone at home panned them.

The designs were busy and the colour scheme of red, white and gold just didn't gel together.

It's not just the designer's fault, but also the Canadian Olympic Committee and other government sport bodies who approved it.

However, what has been a hit are the red shirts that say "Jianada" or "Canada" on the back in Chinese characters.

Nevertheless, a friend tells me that the team uniforms have been deemed so ugly that the Canadian athletes can't even trade them with other countries.

Their clothes have no market value.

That's a bad sign.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Marathon is Almost Over

Just a few more days left and China's biggest party welcoming the world will be over.

And after that I'll be trying to recover.

Watching the Games has left me sleep-deprived, watching events late and early morning. Some of the competitions have been so dramatic that you can't help but keep watching.

Then there's the walking.

The Olympic Green is so large that it takes you a while to get around. It doesn't look far, but once you start walking, like Beijing, you wonder when you'll ever get there.

However, it's been good on the waistline.

The food in general on the Green and at the various venues I've been to to watch the events have been horrific. Sausage on a stick and sweet popcorn aren't quite enough to fill my stomach.

And there's only so many Snickers bars you can eat... with Coke.

Dining options are slim and with venues like the softball and baseball fields running out of bottles of cold water before the games start is shocking.

It's hot, there's lots of people. We need to cool down with water! You'd think after several days of competition they'd realize that and remedy the situation.

Oh well. As I said, only a few more days left and the 7-year anticipation of the Games coming to Beijing will be over.

Overall the Olympics has been run well, on time and relatively efficient.

Just give us more water so we don't pass out in the sun.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

A Story with Legs

Last night was the men's 110m hurdles final, where thousands of people paid big bucks to watch the highly anticipated showdown between Liu Xiang and Dayron Robles of Cuba.

After Liu's shock exit from the National Stadium before competing in his heat, many Chinese immediately lost interest the event, some didn't care about the Olympics anymore.

Nevertheless, there was still a huge turnout to watch Robles easily win the race.

Somewhere out there, Liu was probably watching.

But he had the comfort of knowing Robles didn't beat his Olympic record time of 12.91 seconds.

Meanwhile, yesterday at the Nike store in Wangfujing, staff handed out posters showing a close-up of Liu's face airbrushed with these words:

Love competition.
Love risking your pride.
Love winning it back.
Love giving it everything you’ve got.
Love the glory. Love the pain.
Love sport even when it breaks your heart.

It's interesting how right after Liu pulled out Nike came out with this ad and poster...

Meanwhile, people are still speculating about the real reason of why he pulled out.

Some think because of his injuries he knew he didn't have a chance and this was a way for him to save face.

Others think it was initiated by sponsors or the pressure from the government was too great for him to handle.

And thanks to the Chinese language with words sounding the same but having different meanings, there's some virtual mocking in online forums and blogs.

Liu's given name is Xiang, the character for "flying". But there's also another character Xiang, which means "surrender" even though the pronunciation is the same. So there are lots of "Surrender Liu" topics flying around...

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Lightning Bolt Strikes Twice

Last night was amazing watching Jamaican Usain Bolt power through to another world record at 19:30 in the men's 200m.

Michael Johnson had set the record at 19.32 in Atlanta.

Bolt crushed the competition even with a headwind and now is with the likes of Carl Lewis in winning two golds in sprints.

His win casts a shadow over the other showdown that should have taken place, the semi final heats between Liu Xiang and Dayron Robles of Cuba.

The Chinese are still sympathizing with him and Nike already came out with ads supporting him. Was it planned ahead of time?

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Usain's Record Strike

Tonight I had the chance to watch the fastest man in the world.

Through the first round of Olympics tickets available to residents in China in December, I managed to clinch tickets for Athletics, that included the men's 100m final.

And my brother and I were able to witness it together.

Just before the race, the crowd got all excited, standing up and waving flags, shouting and clapping.

Then the competitors came out at the blocks and the energy level in the National Stadium, or Bird's Nest was electrifying.

The announcer called out for quiet and we just about complied, waiting anxiously.

As soon as the gun went off Jamaican Usain Bolt went out like a flash.

Unfortunately because we were sitting off from the finish line, we couldn't tell at first who won because it seemed like they all finished together.

But when we saw the instant replay, with Bolt way out in front and his record time of 9.69 seconds -- we were watching history in the making.

Everyone was thrilled at this amazing performance by all the athletes, and especially Bolt, who made it look almost effortless.

How did he do it? And towards the end he looked around and smiled, knowing he already won.

Could he have gone even faster?


And to watch that live in the Bird's Nest in Beijing at the 2008 Olympics is a moment (lasting 9.69 seconds long) I will never forget.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Golden Girl makes a Point

My friend Marc is really keen to watch fencing, and was finally able to score Olympic tickets. He had practiced the sport for a year and explains it’s all about speed, agility and balance.

He says it gets really sweaty under the clothing, the mask and chest protector, which makes it a good workout.

The other morning I went to the Fencing Hall at the Olympic Green to check out a bit of en garde action. Just my luck, I managed to watch Jujie Luan of Edmonton in her second round match against Hungary’s Aida Mohamed.

Luan is 50 and she gave China’s its first gold medal in fencing at the 1984 Olympics. She also competed at the 1988 Games in Seoul. The following year she immigrated to Edmonton with her family after she fell in love with the city when she competed in the 1983 Summer Universaide.

While raising her three children she switched to coaching and helped the Edmonton Fencing Club expand from 40 members in 1989 to more than 400 today.

When Beijing won the right to host the Games in 2001, Luan got suited up again, determined to fight for Canada in her homeland. At the age of 42, she represented Canada and competed in the individual foil in four world cup events in order to qualify for the 2008 Games.

The road to the Games wasn’t easy. Luan admitted last year that training for the Olympics was a lot harder than it used to be.

“Age is a big problem,” she said. “Almost nobody tries to qualify for Olympic sports at this age, especially women, and not after having three babies. Before I could run five miles no problem, now I’m lucky if I can run even half as far. Before I could do 200 lunges and the next day I was fine. Now my muscles are sore and it hurts and I have to take another day [to recover].”

It was her determination and passion for the sport that pushed her forward. And this morning she had a strong performance against 19-year-old Ines Boubakri of Tunisia, 13-9. It was definitely experience that helped Luan win her first bout in the Games. She shouted almost every time she won a point, savouring each moment against someone 31 years her junior.

A few hours later Luan was back on again, this time against Hungary’s Aide Mohamed. This time she was perhaps tired or frustrated. At times she shook her head or raised her hands wondering why she let her opponent win the point. Her coach tried to advise her and keep her focused.

The crowd rallied behind her, shouting her name, and clapping for her whenever she won a point. But it wasn’t enough and she lost 15-7.

Just before 2000, Luan was named one of China’s top 50 athletes of the previous 50 years. So it’s not surprising that as she walked off, people clapped for her, thrilled to see one of their sports idols make a courageous comeback.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Truth Comes Out

Journalists are chipping away at what was at first hailed as a spectacular opening ceremonies for the Beijing Olympics and finding things weren't quite as they seemed.

First the opening sequence of the overhead shot of the firework "footprints" from the south of the city passing landmarks like the Temple of Heaven, Tiananmen Square and then to the National Stadium, or Bird's Nest were actually animated when shown on television.

I could tell already when I saw that on TV. Apparently real fireworks did go off in parts of the city, but that would have been impossible to show live overhead. Makes sense to me they were computer-generated fireworks. So why the outcry?

Then there is the shocking discovery that the cute little girl in the red dress lip-synched the song because the real girl who sang it was apparently not good looking enough.

True, nine-year-old Lin Miaoke was an absolute doll who wooed audiences with her big bright eyes and smile as she "sang" "Ode to the Motherland" (with the lyrics slightly changed).

The real voice was Yang Peiyi, 10, but some government officials didn't think she was cute enough in presenting a new image of China.

While Yang claims she's fine with the switcheroo, Chinese people on online forums weren't.

“Please save the last bit of trueness in our children,” wrote one person using the online name Weirderhua. “They think Yang Peiyi’s smile is not cute enough? What we need is truth, not some fake loveliness! I hope the kids will not be hurt. This is not their fault.”

Another person added: “Children are innocent. Don’t contaminate their minds!”

It'll be interesting to see 10 years from now what these two girls, who are also friends, think of the whole fiasco.

China keeps wanting to present a "true" image of itself to the world so that people will have a better understanding of it.

This event has really underscored the lengths at which China will take to make sure it's the "right" image.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Calling for a Green Olympics

One of the sponsor pavilions, Samsung had a showcase of its latest array of gadgets, especially computers, phones and PDAs.

But if you do plan to ditch your current phone for a new Samsung, you can recycle your phone on the spot.

The pavilion has a chute where you can dump your phone for recycling.

Great idea, but who would especially bring their old phone to the Olympics?

Sunday, August 10, 2008

A Green Outlook

The main Olympic sponsors get to have their own pavilion to promote their products and services.

And one of the curious ones is green, and covered in grass. Real grass.

The company? CNPC.

Who? China National Petroleum Corporation.

Inside the presentation isn't very slick, but tries very hard to show how the state-owned company has a number of oil fields around China and has projects in various parts of the world including Africa, central Asia, the Middle East and Europe.

There was a touch-screen computer that invited me to learn more about CNPC in any country I chose.

So I pressed Sudan.

This country was the reason director Steven Spielberg pulled out of the opening ceremonies, thanks to Mia Farrow's protests.

A cheery Chinese male voice explained the Sudan has abundant resources and animals, illustrated with touristy landscapes.

It then went onto say CNPC has set up "several hospitals", 25 schools and 63 wells for drinking water for 200,000 people.

Then to make sure you're paying attention it gave a pop quiz.

I got the answer right (since I was taking notes).

The male voice said, "You're right!"

And that was the end.

Don't I get a prize?

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Let the Games Begin

This morning there is finally some rain which will cool things off.

Yesterday was very humid, which made it very difficult for the riders in the men's cycling road race.

I watched the animation on TV of the route the cyclists had to go through and just watching the line snake along the route that seemed to never end made me tired.

It went through the city and then up into the mountains at the Great Wall and partially back. Imagine all that climbing up the hill. And that combined with the humidity would have been punishing.

But Samuel Sanchez of Spain clinched gold at 6:23:49. Italian Davide Rebellin came second, and Swiss Fabian Cancellara won bronze.

In Tianjin, the women's football preliminaries were underway and China and Canada came to a 1-1 draw. There were 60,000 in the Tianjin Olympic Center Stadium shouting "Zhongguo jia you" trying to encourage the "steel roses" to keep going, but it wasn't enough to win the game.

Eight years ago China began Project 119, the number of medals it wanted to win to topple the United States. The target has since increased to 122.

The pressure on Chinese athletes to exceed expectations is so great, especially on home turf that for many of them it will be more mind over matter.

What if hurdler Liu Xiang loses to Dayron Robles?

How will the country react?

Already there is talk of softening the blow, that it's about participating in the sport than winning medals.

But already it's been drummed into people's heads that only gold, silver and bronze are the most important things and not the celebration of sport and personal achievement.

Few Chinese realize or understand the sacrifices these athletes go through on a daily basis.

If China doesn't make its goal, many are going to question the financial cost of the Games and the justification of all the sacrifices people have had to make for the sake of the Olympics.

The soul searching begins.

Friday, August 8, 2008

One Hell of a Show

Artistic director Zhang Yimou has made China proud.

His effort in orchestrating the Beijing opening ceremonies left veteran Olympics journalists gobsmacked with his vision of how China would be presented to the world.

He looked back to culture -- calligraphy, painting, Chinese instruments, and tai chi, and using a giant scroll as his canvas to illustrate the country's strengths and talents.

The military precision of the performers was amazing. Apparently most of them come from the artistic troupes of the People's Liberation Army. In a way it's not surprising since they are used to discipline and can be counted on to do a good job.

And they help further Zhang's love of wide-angle shots with hundreds of people doing the exact same thing. The drummers in the beginning were fantastic as well as the people wearing white and LED lights that changed colours constantly.

However, pianist Lang Lang has really put on the weight. You can see it on his cheeks. He must be eating well these days. It was strange having the young girl sitting next to him looking totally star-struck and giddy.

The only non-Chinese performer was Sarah Brightman who had extra long hair extensions and wore a sparkly white dress. It was kind of disappointing to see composer Liu Huan accompanying her wearing just a casual black shirt. Could he not have dressed up for the occasion?

The holograms of the whales probably made those inside the stadium feel like they were underwater too, with a tip to Beijing being a "Green Olympics".

And periodically fireworks would go off on the roof of the Bird's Nest and in the area.

The parade of the athletes took a long time, with over 200 countries participating. But the French were definitely the best dressed along with the Italians, then the Americans with their sharp and cool suits.

It was thankful International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge and Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee President Liu Qi kept their speeches short and then President Hu Jintao had the honour of declaring the Games open.

The grand finale of former Olympic champion Li Ning suspended on cables and "running" around near the top of the stadium as a scroll rolled out.

And the fireworks at the end were amazing. They were all over the place and they fired non-stop lighting up the (hazy) sky. They just kept going on and on, like non-stop thunder.

But after the show was over, everyone just packed up and went home. There wasn't much traffic on the streets and had a kind of eerie feeling to it.

Guess that's partying, Chinese-style.

Let the Party Begin

There is exactly one more hour to go until the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

I have been waiting for this moment ever since China was awarded the Games in 2001 -- July 13, 2001 to be exact.

And in the past almost year and a half I have lived here, the Olympics has really defined the city. It has drastically improved the transportation system, cleaned up the city (whichever way you want to look at it) and encouraged millions of people to learn another language.

In some ways the government has responded to criticisms with its typical knee-jerk reaction, and in others have been surprisingly lenient, like the reporting on the Sichuan earthquake (that later returned to the usual self-censoring philosophy).

Many Beijingers are tired of the Games already and it's just barely begun. They are tired of the endless security checks and the billions of yuan spent on an event that doesn't have much of a direct impact on them.

But they need to realize the Olympics will always have a lasting legacy on the city. From now on everything will be related to 2008. The Beijing Games is a huge milestone that will be the new benchmark for the city and the country.

Yes, in a way China has arrived. But it also has a long way to go too. I'm not saying it needs to follow Western nations on the path to development. China definitely needs to find its own way.

But it needs to stop its insecurity and stand proud regardless of what others say.

Its battling with itself, not the world in trying to define what China is today.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Protests have already Begun

Today the torch was carried by basketball star Yao Ming into Tiananmen Square in a lavish ceremony. Apparently tomorrow it goes to the Temple of Heaven and the Great Wall before it enters the National Stadium, or Bird's Nest on Friday.

And while the "sacred flame" made its way through the capital, two Britons made their own statement on a street lamp.

As members of the Students for a Free Tibet, they didn't go through proper channels and apply to be able to protest, or even go to one of the three designated parks for demonstrations.

Instead, they climbed up one close to the Olympic Green and unfurled a homemade banner that read, "One World, One Dream, Free Tibet" and "Tibet will be free".

One of them, 24-year-old Iain Thom, even did a mobile phone interview with the BBC while he was still on the street lamp. He also unfurled the Tibet flag temporarily.

He said: "I'm here today because I've been a long-term Tibet activist and I feel like now is a really critical time for Tibet.

"The Beijing Games have been used by the Chinese government as a propaganda tool to whitewash their human rights record in Tibet."

Meanwhile down below police looked up and were probably horrified by the daring act and perhaps wondered how these two laowai even got up there unnoticed.

Heads are going to roll for that.

In the end four people were arrested, including Thom. Two will be put on a plane tonight, and the other two tomorrow morning.

Another quiet protest was also made about Beijing's air quality when four US track cyclists stepped off their plane at the airport wearing black masks.

Cyclist Mike Friedman said: “Why we wore the masks is simple: pollution. When you train your whole life for something, dot all your i’s and cross all your t’s, why wouldn’t you be better safe than sorry?

“They have pollution in Los Angeles, and if the Olympics were in Los Angeles, we would probably wear these masks, too.”

The Games haven't started yet and already the criticism has begun -- as expected.

Hope the Chinese are ready to spin, spin spin.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Capital Lockdown

Yesterday security was tense around the Olympic Green with the last dress rehearsal for the opening ceremonies on Friday.

Roads around that area were staffed with more security. It's so tight that traffic hardly moves.

Last night after work some friends and I tried to make our way southwards to Houhai for dinner.

But our taxis were inching down the road, having to pass numerous roadblocks police set up. I couldn't understand since we were trying to flee the area than approach it.

Many VIPs were expected to attend this dress rehearsal and hence the tight security. But imagine what it will be like on Friday?

My smart taxi driver took an opportunity to do a U-turn and go down a side street and we made substantial progress.

On one of those relatively empty streets, there was a long line of black Audis with police lights on them.

"This is too much," he said.

Traffic was fine until we were approaching Houhai which was again jammed. But then Houhai is always busy.

Even as we were at the entrance, there were more police cars there too.

On many street corners there are retired men and women in some kind of Olympic T-shirt, with red armbands. They're the friendly neighbourhood watch committee who sit out all day to see if there is any suspicious activity. It's eerily like the Cultural Revolution when people reported on their friends and neighbours if they weren't "red" enough.

Even in the shopping mall near where I live, at the food court, every stall has one staff member with the red armband that says something about security, as if they are the point person.

Do we really need to make sure the mall's food court will not be the site of a terrorist plotting?

But then again, you never know.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Picture of the Day

If you look at the side of the Fencing Venue from this angle, it looks like the slogan says, "One Word, One Dream".

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Sunday Grub

My friend got all excited when he heard about a place that served Eggs Benedict.

He found out how to get there (From Jianguomen Station, take the north-east exit, go down a block, turn left, then right, then down the street) and then took me for brunch.

American Steak & Eggs is apparently an institution amongst American expats here and you can quickly see why. It's the Beijing version of an American diner.

Most of the waitresses are older, some even with the big coiffed hair, very nice and good English. The younger ones seem a bit too timid to use their language and service skills.

For lunch they serve hamburgers, desserts include apple pie, and apparently bottomless cups of coffee. The servers even tuck the bill under your place mat and give you your change at your table.

The menu had all kinds of breakfast dishes, like steak and eggs, biscuits and gravy, corned beef hash, omelets and pancakes.

But we went straight for the Eggs Benny with fries at 45RMB (US$6.58) and a small cranberry juice at 18RMB ($2.63).

As we waited we could see some Americans on their own with laptops, or families coming for a bite to eat. Not many locals go to this place.

Our dishes arrived, with the English muffins and eggs smothered in hollandaise sauce. The fries were actually deep-fried potato slices which were even better than fries.

I haven't had Eggs Benny in a while so it was quite the treat, though like I said, a bit too heavy on the sauce.

Nevertheless, it was a great place to have a casual Sunday breakfast before heading another block east to the Silk Market. Another reason to go get some American grub.

American Steak & Eggs
Xiushui Nanjie
6592 8088

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Catching Pre-Show Glitter

Tonight there was another dress rehearsal for the opening ceremonies at the National Stadium or Bird's Nest.

People gathered as close as they could to the steel structure, which glows red at night, while the National Aquatic Center or Water Cube displayed a continuous colourful array of blues, mauves and pinks.

Another prominent structure nearby, though no where large in size, is the Ling Long Pavilion, where a few lucky broadcasters have their TV studios there. And at night these diamond-shaped pods are also lit up in crazy brite-light colours.

And right at 8pm, several fireworks went off, but it was a while again before more were released into the dark sky which was clear.

There was the constant presence of two helicopters that seemed to sweep the aerospace before giving the all-clear to set off more fireworks.

When I thought it was all over, I tried to find a taxi which was quite difficult, with hardly any available in sight, or already taken. Meanwhile tons of people were sitting on roadside curbs or standing around waiting for more fireworks action.

After I finally got into a taxi, it took us forever to go several blocks to the Fourth Ring Road. There were tons of buses and cars sandwiched in between. We inched along for ages. I wondered if this is already what it's like with half the cars off the roads, what is it going to be like when the Olympics are on less than a week from now?

As soon as we made it onto the Fourth Ring Road the road was practically clear. It was such a contrast to the giant jam we were in earlier.

The traffic approaching the Bird's Nest is really bad and it's only going to get worse. I wonder if transport officials realize this or is it going to take more complaints from foreign journalists to address the issue?

Nevertheless, the short bursts of fireworks I saw were fantastic and can only imagine how it'll look like on the day we've all been waiting for, for the past seven years...

Friday, August 1, 2008

Beijing Style Guide

With just a week to go until the Olympics, Beijing has come up with a handbook advising its residents on how to dress.

The etiquette guide, issued from the Office of Capital Spiritual Civilization Construction Commission includes how to shake hands and even how to stand.

These booklets have been distributed to 4 million households -- but that probably doesn't even cover the entire Beijing population.

Suggestions include not wearing white socks with black shoes, not wearing pajamas in public, or rolling up shirts to expose tummies.

And for women they should wear skirts at a certain length and not wear outrageous colours. It even suggested that if a woman's legs were on the large side, they should wear darker stockings.

Wonder how many people will be taking this last-minute fashionista advice?

Taxis: Scarce Commodity

In the last few days I've asked taxi drivers if the alternating cars on the roads has led to more business.

One told me it has at certain times of the day, like the morning rush, but then business drops in the evening.

I don't know if it's deliberate or not, but I've seen cabbies parking their cars along some streets and not interested in picking up any business. Or perhaps it's their break and they're taking a snooze.

It just makes taxis more scarce in the summer when it's just too hot to bear standing in a bus for more than 30 minutes that doesn't have air conditioning.

When I ask the drivers what they think about the Olympics, they basically say the same thing.

"It's good for Beijing because it's improved the city, putting in more roads, subways, more trees and plants," said one. "But the Games aren't really for us."

Another added, "A lot of money has been spent on the Olympics. It's not for us. If nothing happens, then it will be money well spent. But if something does happen, then it will all have gone to waste."

I've heard similar comments from other residents wishing for the hoopla to end soon.