Friday, October 31, 2008

Colour-Coordinated Dining

Tonight I tried out a newly-opened restaurant in the Sanlitun Village called Element Fresh.

It's contemporary Western food that's supposed to be healthy, and it is.

The menu features a series of salads, sandwiches and seafood, meat and pasta dishes with enticing pictures to boot.

And today being Halloween I thought I'd dine orange.

I tried the butternut squash with penne (58RMB), and it was a good portion cooked home-style, with soft chunks of butternut squash that would have been even better roasted. It came with a handful of hazelnuts, which I wasn't too crazy about. Pine nuts would have been an improvement, as the hazelnuts were too crunchy for this soft textured dish.

There are also a series of fresh juice combinations and smoothies, but I opted for the carrot/orange juice (26RMB) that hit the spot and my vitamin C quota for the day.

The ambience in the restaurant is on the dark side, but good for casual dining with friends. Other mains can run up to 148RMB.

The girl sitting at the next table ordered a salad and it was a giant plate piled high with green leaves. Maybe she's detoxing.

It's a pity there aren't any soups in this place, which would be a good starter. Also, while diners get bread plates, no bread is served as you wait for your dishes to arrive.

Nevertheless service is not bad and worth another visit.

Element Fresh
The Village at Sanlitun
833 No. 8 Building
19 South Sanlitun Street
Chaoyang District

6417 1318

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Street Snacking

The street vendors are back in force now, bringing with them the foods of the autumn season.

Some sell roasted yams, and others a green-brown fruit on a stick.

They're called jujubes, or Chinese dates. Over time they lose their green colour, then when dried, the flesh is softer and becomes hong zao, or red dates that are commonly used in Chinese cooking and soups.

Fresh jujubes are in season now. They're oval-shaped, and raw they taste like mini apples without much of a crunch and have pits in them.

They are quite enticing when several of them are lined on a stick and then coated in a hard sugar coating. Some are then decorated with sprinkled sesame seeds or peanuts.

I finally tried this Beijing snack the other week when my colleagues and I stepped out for lunch and saw a vendor selling these red-beaded sticks.

We got one with peanuts that was 1.50RMB and I took a bite. Since the jujubes aren't that sweet, the sugar coating makes for a nice combination.

Later did I find out that fresh jujubes have a high vitamin C content -- if you eat about eight of them, that's enough for one adult's recommended intake.

I'll remember that the next time I see a jujube vendor again...

Monday, October 27, 2008

It Ain't Over Yet

The melamine scare isn't over yet.

Eggs in Hong Kong from a Dalian producer were found on the weekend to contain melamine.

Health officials from the Special Administrative Region found some eggs had 4.7 parts per million (ppm) of melamine from the Dalian Hanwei Enterprise Group in Liaoning Province.

The legal limit in Hong Kong is 2.5 ppm.

Secretary for Food and Health York Chow says the deadly chemical may have come from the chicken feed.

"The initial opinion of experts is that there is a problem with the [chicken] feed," he said on Saturday.

Hong Kong is not only going to start testing all eggs from the mainland (which is a good majority of them), but meats as well.

It won't be surprising if the meat has melamine in it too... if chicken feed probably has it, why not animal feed?

Meanwhile Premier Wen Jiabao is trying to do his best to reassure not on his own people, but everyone around the world that Chinese products are safe.

"Through our actions and high-quality food products, we will win the trust of the Chinese people and the people in the rest of the world.

"After the [melamine] incident, we took prompt steps to work out regulations on product safety in the dairy industry."

With the latest news hitting the headlines, it looks like Wen has more work to do.

It's not just the dairy industry anymore, but everything we eat.

Is there not anything safe to eat in China anymore?

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Book Review: What Does China Think?

Mark Leonard is the Executive Director of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

He started becoming interested in China after noticing how the Middle Kingdom has begun influencing the world by helping developing countries like Africa with large sums of money, and how everything in China is on such a huge scale.

His book, What Does China Think? tries to wade past the headlines and give a broader analysis of what's going on.

In a number of visits to China, he talked to various academics about the state of the economy, if and how China will achieve some kind of democracy, the inside scoop on policy-making, and dragging state-run enterprises into a market system.

Some of these people he writes about are naysayers in academic and political circles, trying to make their voices heard or trying to discreetly influence policy. Some have paid for the price politically, others still forging ahead through guanxi channels.

While Leonard tries to create controversy in the section about democracy, it's kind of already given that China will create its own kind of democracy that is a different definition to what people in the West are familiar with.

And that's because of the system, the Communist Party rule will dictate what it believes will work, and at the same time, appease its people to a certain extent.

With regards to international politics, China is skillfully manoevering itself through political tactics and lots of money in swaying many developing countries as an alternative to the West.

And China's generous investments in infrastructure in areas where governments are corrupt are warmly welcomed, but do little to improve the lives of the people.

This puts agencies like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund at a loss of what to do, having insisted on putting conditions with aid, and even then, their sums are dwarfed by China's.

As a result, there is a geopolitical shift that has made China a main player on the world stage, and one that others cannot discount. Who else has managed to keep North Korea talking about nuclear issues?

However, China's interests in other countries like Myanmar, Sudan and Zimbabwe are shameful; their governments are aligned with China and will never change as long as it continues to fund them.

Leonard's book is mainly for readers who are just getting to know China now, not seasoned watchers who have already made these conclusions already.

Nonetheless, it's a good compilation of the various themes, concepts and ideas that will be continuing in China in the next several years.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Trying to Revamp the System

The National People's Congress (NPC) Standing Committee is looking at a draft bill on food safety these few days.

It was written in light of problems last year with pet food contaminated with melamine, but now with the recent milk food scandal, more observers are watching what lawmakers plan to do.

One body trying to influence the government is the United Nations which came out with a scathing report just before the NPC began its third review of the draft law.

It criticized China's archaic and disjointed food safety system for the dairy product scandal that has killed four babies and left over 54,000 sickened.

Also poor communication and uncoordinated enforcement by government agencies exacerbated the problem.

"An old-fashioned system contributed to this event," said Jorgen Schlundt, food-safety director at the World Health Organization, the UN's health agency.

"Culprits exploited weaknesses in the system to adulterate a food product to increase profits. ... A disjointed system with dispersed authority between different ministries and agencies resulted in poor communication and a prolonged outbreak with late response."

The report recommends China shift more of the responsibility on food producers, saying that milk producers should have known melamine was added to raw milk.

If the system was more organized, the problem would have been detected earlier, says UN food experts, and then the government would have been able to contain the situation.

However, the huge problem is that three-quarters of the 450,000 food producers in China have 10 or fewer employees.

How can these tiny companies ensure quality standards?

The government will have to look at somehow pushing these small groups to amalgamate into bigger operations.

In a way the new rural reforms will help bring about this, albeit slowly.

Another big problem is that several government bodies are somehow responsible for food safety. As a result, overlapping responsibilities leads to political conflicts that are not needed in times of life and death.

The government again needs to revamp its ministries so that one or two agencies are responsible and more onus put on them to make sure farms, factories and the like are inspected.

This also leads to the problem of not enough qualified inspectors who are paid well enough not to look the other way. If the new draft law does not establish a solid system of inspection, critics say this is not enough to tackle the heart of the problem.

"Though the latest draft has made some to-the-point changes, it's a pity that it fails to reform the supervision process," said Chen Junshi, a senior researcher with the National Institute for Nutrition and Food Safety. "If that mechanism is not changed, supervision won't be effective because coordination among government agencies will remain difficult."

It's a huge undertaking for China, but it must be done otherwise the public will not trust the government in making sure the food they eat is safe.

Friday, October 24, 2008

In the Blink of an Eye

Tonight a friend took me out to dinner at a Sichuan restaurant called Shuguoyanyi, on the second floor of a building in Dongzhimen.

It looks very fancy, with lots of drapery, individual booths and irridescent tablecloths.

The menu is extensive, featuring mostly spicy foods, with pictures showing lots of red chillis. But we had a few dishes that didn't make our throats burn, like black fungus salad, finely diced vegetable in a broth, a kind of Chinese steak, prawns cooked in rock salt, and fish balls with vegetables. For dessert we had rice dumplings with black sesame paste.

While the food was pretty good, we really came for the entertainment. It started at 7pm with a mature woman in a short dress and platform heels singing English and Chinese songs, and alternating with a trio of dancers in various costumes.

But the highlight was half an hour later with a face-changing performer or bian mian.

A man dressed in a Chinese opera costume with a thick layer of masks over his eyes strutted out to some music. He made a series of gestures and poses before turning his head away and then revealing a new mask.

But that wasn't all. He soon started changing the masks at a blink of an eye, each one different from the other.

Then he came down from the stage and asked audience members to shake his hand and then his mask would change again.

How did he do that?

He went back on stage with a few more mask changes, at one point revealing half his face, but then the next moment another mask covered it again.

In over five minutes it was all over, and he had changed less than 20 times.

My friend explained to me later that good face-changing performers change up to 40 times. This one, he said, is not bad, but not the best. He added that the artist probably made the rounds to several other restaurants to earn his keep.

And this is not an art form anyone can learn.

According to Wikipedia, Canto-pop star Andy Lau paid some 3 million yuan to learn it, but hasn't quite mastered it. My friend said only people in Sichuan learn this artform and it's only passed down to male heirs. But recently a handful of women are allowed to learn this form of entertainment that's part of Sichuan Opera.

The show reminds me of the 1996 movie King of Masks, where an elderly face-changing performer adopts a boy to pass down his art form, only to discover it's a girl. It's a wonderful story directed by Wu Tianming.

Apparently face-changing began in the Qing Dynasty during the Emperor Qianlong's reign (1736-1795).

It first involved adding different colours to the face with powder, others with paint on their hands.

By the 1920s, performers began using full masks made of oiled paper or dried pig bladder. Today they use silk.

I still can't figure out how he changed those masks.... even when his hands weren't near his face!

Just like magic.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Vindication at Last

Although he was passed over for the Nobel Peace Prize, activist Hu Jia was just awarded the Sakharov Prize, Europe's most prestigious human rights award today.

His name was chosen by the European Parliament, that saw him testify last year via a video link about China's human rights situation.

Weeks after that he was jailed and then sentenced for three-and-a-half years in prison for subversion based on his criticism of the Communist Party rule.

Hu's award comes just days before the European Union comes to Beijing this weekend for the Asia-Europe Summit, mostly to discuss the global financial crisis.

And this has no doubt riled up Chinese hosts, who may try to show their displeasure of Hu's recognition.

Song Zhe, Chinese ambassador to the EU wrote to the president of the European Parliament saying, "If the European Parliament should award this prize to Hu Jia, that would inevitably hurt the Chinese people once again and bring serious damage to China-EU relations."

And Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang had described him as a convicted criminal.

As Hu sits in jail, his wife Zeng Jinyan is under house arrest with their infant daughter, living under difficult conditions.

What has Hu done to cause such outrage from the government?

Early in his career he planted trees to stop desertification in Inner Mongolia; he has helped those suffering from HIV/AIDS in Henan province; and he has given voice to those who were lawfully wronged through the Internet.

And the Chinese government is afraid of one person?

He is trying to right wrongs in the society -- to make it righteous and harmonious.

What is wrong with that?

Autumn in Beijing

As a general rule, every time after it rains, the skies in Beijing clear up.

And now that it's fall, the temperatures seem to drop each time as well.

Last night after several weeks of smoggy, then grayish skies, it rained quite hard.

This morning I snapped this picture (unfiltered) showing clear blue skies.

Temperatures now are around 14-17 degrees Celsius, and lows of 2 and 3 degrees. It's the wind that makes it chillier.

Last year I remember still being able to wear my jean jacket until the end of October. Alas! Not so anymore.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Word of the Day: Shanzhai

Shanzhai is the word usually used to describe electronic products, like mobile phones or MP3 players to indicate that although these gadgets are very similar to things like Nokia or iPods, they aren't quite the real thing.

So China's RedBerry is a shanzhai of Research In Motion's BlackBerry, or crackberry as it's nicknamed.

But the word is now also used for television shows too.

The comedy series Ugly Wudi is adapted from the highly successful Ugly Betty in the United States.

China has so many of these kinds of shows that they're now called shanzhai dramas.

It's gotten so bad that there are now many editorials in Chinese newspapers complaining about the dearth of creativity in the country and is China only good for shanzhais?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Case Closed

Yesterday the Shanghai high people's court upheld the death sentence to a Beijing man who stormed into a Shanghai police station and stabbed six policemen to death on July 1.

According to Chinese state media, 28-year-old Yang Jia showed no emotion as the court rejected his appeal against the intermediate court's decision.

In the verdict, the court said he launched an attack on the Zhabei district police station in revenge for unanswered demands.

"Evidence shows that Yang Jia was of a sober mind during the whole process of the attack and is capable of taking criminal responsibility," presiding judge Xu Wei said.

Zhai Jian, Yang's lawyer tried to get a second forensic psychiatric assessment to prove the unemployed man was mentally insane at the time of the killings, but this was denied.

A well-known defense lawyer, Zhai reasoned that no one in his right mind would kill six human beings.

But the court refused this argument.

According to the story, Yang came to Shanghai on holiday in October 2007. On October 5, a policeman detained him for riding an unlicensed bicycle.

Yang told the court he was brought back to the police station, insulted during the intial questioning and beaten up.

"I had bruises on my arms and back," he said. But Yang denied the policemen had injured his genitals, as some rumors had alleged.

A 34-minute audio tape of the questioning was played for the court and no insults were heard. An audio expert claimed the tape had not been edited. There was no videotape of the interrogation.

After the incident, Yang was upset and wrote many letters of complaint to the station, demanding compensation. But nothing was resolved.

He even tried to sue the officers 10,000 RMB ($1,464) in compensation for psychological damage, but the claim was rejected by the local public security bureau.

Then on June 26, 2008, Yang returned to Shanghai and bought a facemask, gasoline, teargas, a knife and hammer.

Yang told the court he bought these items to make his way back into the station and admitted he was planning revenge.

On July 1, he stormed into the police station and videos show he set the station's gate on fire and stabbed four people on the first floor.

Yang said he was not regretful for the murders, although he could not remember most of what happened on July 1. "It all started from the unpleasant encounter at the station," he said.

He said those victims were not innocent, although they were not the officers he claimed insulted and beat him.

"But I did not conduct intentional homicide," he said.

During his first trial he had requested the policeman who initially interrogated him to testify, but this was denied by the court. No other police staff who handled Yang's case were brought in to testify either.

Now the ruling has been sent to the Supreme People's Court for ratification before his execution.

This story attracted a lot of attention in China. Some were horrified by the crime, others sympathetic to Yang in his fruitless attempt at some kind of justice.

Despite the verdict that was upheld twice, there are still many holes in this case. Why didn't the policeman who interrogated Yang testify? Why weren't more psychological tests conducted to ensure he was of sound mind when he commited the gruesome murders?

Nevertheless, Zhai, his lawyer, finds it strange that Yang is ready for his fate.

"He even told me he feels happier in jail and is not afraid of death," Zhai said.

It seems Yang's crime determined his fate even before the trials began. He seemed to know this and didn't want to say he was insane to get off the hook.

This case shows how authority has little sympathy for the underpriviledged, who realize that one wrong move can change their lives forever.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Killing the Monkey to Scare the Chickens

Over the weekend the vice mayor of Beijing, Liu Zhihua was sentenced to death, suspended for two years.

Basically if he is on good behaviour, his death sentence could be commuted to life in prison.

His crime?

For taking some 6.97 million yuan or about $1 million in bribes while he was vice mayor and director of the management committee of Zhongguancun Science Park from 1999 to 2006.

Liu, 59, was in charge of construction, real estate, sports and traffic projects which happened to coincide when Beijing was named the host city of the 2008 Olympics.

What is also interesting was that he had several mistresses, and one of them who was also charged, Wang Jianrui, helped him benefit from these deals. The verdict on her case has yet to be decided.

While Chinese state media want to announce that a top official was caught, it's also embarassing that it was related to the Olympics. That's why the court case was heard now and not earlier, even though he was expelled from the party in 2006.

Some newspapers have this news item buried a few pages in, or a short paragraph on the front page.

Nevertheless, what is also intriguing is Liu's past.

Forty years ago he started off as a coal mine worker just at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution.

When it ended about 10 years later, Liu enrolled in a Beijing college.

From there he climbed up the municipal ladder, as head of the Beijing labor bureau, Party Secretary of Xicheng District in Beijing, and secretary-general of the Beijing municipal government.

Starting with a physically laborious job and then moving up the ranks with the rich and powerful, Liu got caught with his hand at the till.

The central government is hoping this is a lesson to all those senior officials who dare to ingratiate themselves at the expense of the people.

But when salaries are relatively low, it can be too tempting to try to benefit from the system once in a while, and for some, it becomes a regular habit.

The entire power structure needs to be changed, but it's in the best interests of those in the system to keep it going.

In the meantime, with no checks and balances, and no free press, how can corruption ever be rooted out?

The Deep Chill

Today the National Bureau of Statistics had a press conference releasing its latest figures on the Chinese economy.

And they don't look so good.

Bureau spokesman Li Xiaochao said China's economy grew 9.9 percent year-on-year in the first three quarters, but in the third quarter, the gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate was just 9 percent, the lowest in five years.

Many economists had projected it would be between 9.1 to 9.5 percent.

It seems China is on the edge of an economic slowdown.

There are now reports coming out of the Pearl River Delta region that half the toy companies there are closing up shop, with the increase labour costs and fewer orders from Western countries like the United States, causing already paper-thin profit margins to disappear into thin air.

Meanwhile, thousands of migrant workers are jobless and not much work to be found.

Some have reported they will have go go back home; others out of pride say they still owe friends and family back home money and don't want to return penniless.

However, other factories are hiring which is good, but probably not taking everyone.

The government has also cut interest rates and scrapped taxes on interest accrued from deposits in a bid for its people to consume more.

But with most of the people still stuck in a saving mentality -- which is good in times like these -- it may be hard to get them to part with their hard-earned money.

After people were burned in the stock market, they may turn to property, but even that sector is practically in deep freeze, as many potential home buyers are waiting for prices to drop even further.

Perhaps the market will adjust itself and eventually when the price is right, the economy will move again.

But may this be a lesson to property developers and others looking to make a quick buck -- the Chinese aren't going to be fooled again and dirty tricks have wised-up these weary consumers. Give them the good deal they deserve.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Powering to the Finish

Last night I had trouble sleeping before the run this morning.

And Friday night because of all the stress I went through, and the temperatures fluctuating back and forth, I caught a cold that night and was fighting to keep it together for today.

I woke up just before dawn and got ready -- my running bib on my T-shirt, bottle of water, energy bar, lip balm, and kleenex, and took the subway to Qianmen, as runners were asked to enter at the southeast side of Tiananmen Square.

However, conveniently, the subway exit to enter that area was blocked and we had to go the long way -- a series of underground passes -- to finally get through, and only if you had a running bib.

I got there with a few minutes to spare before the deadline to put your running bag on a bus that would transport our things to the 10K finish line.

It was a bit nippy, but there was going to be a blue sky with a bit of haze mixed in.

Then it was time for the bathroom and the line was horrendous, but finally getting into the portable potties was a stinking mess. I won't go there.

The marathon started at 8am, and not without some speeches by some municipal leaders. The revolutionary like songs began and then the rest of us, half marathon, 10K and mini marathon (4.2K) were off.

We started on Tiananmen Square and ran onto Chang'an Avenue, past Mao's portrait and went westward past the Xidan shopping area, then zig-zagged our way northwards.

Most people wore the requisite T-shirt, but some wore funny clown wigs or masks. One guy wore a stuffed turtle on his back and carried a stick with a giant bee on it. He was advertising for Swatch, one of the sponsors.

Many people passed me in the beginning and though it was daunting, I was determined to keep my pace.

At the 3K mark, some people already started walking, having sprinted so early in the run.

Soon afterwards the mini-marathon people were done at 4.2km, and our first water break was at the 5km mark. What was silly was that some people like me were given bottles of water, but many took one sip and threw the rest of the bottle away. I kept mine for the rest of the run.

Along the way there were bystanders either there by chance or were there to cheer people on. Little kids would shout "Jia You!" "Go! Go!" at the top of their lungs, at which their parents would tell them to tone it down or they'd lose their voice.

Soldiers stood on guard every few metres along with the odd policeman. It was good to see the periodic volunteer too, some cheering. Buses were stuck on the roads waiting for them to be reopened so staff had nothing to do but to watch us go by.

A small German contingent was by the side of the road, ringing bells.

Parts of the run were shady which was great, but for the most part it was sunny but hardly oppressive heat. Just a good day for a run.

Pretty soon we hit the next water station at 7.5km and the 8km. People would stop at each signage to take pictures.

And then before I realized it, I could see the finish line for the 10K run. Already?

I made a last sprint to the end (along with many other people) and my time was 1:09, completely blasting away my time last year.

And then it was time to collect my bag with my belongings in it. But where was the bus?

There were buses ahead of us, but they were for university students. I asked the police, but they had no clue. Where were the volunteers? No where to be found.

I finally asked a guy who told me it was actually at the finish line, but across the street. Who would have known?

Again no signage and no one to help me. I was so worried about my bag that I sprinted back to the finish and got my bag back in tact.

In the afternoon I had an accupressure massage from the blind massage place across the street from my apartment.

Tomorrow will be the test to see how well I really did. But for now, my training really paid off and it has encouraged me to keep running. Marathon? No way, but a better time, yes.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Running into Mayhem

Tomorrow is the 27th Beijing International Marathon and I've signed up for the 10K run.

I did it last year, and despite my frustrations in dealing with one of the organizers, Octagon, I had a good time at the run and decided to brave the logistical problems and do it again.

But this year the whole process has been wearing my patience thin. Thinner than paper.

The injustice of foreigners having to pay US$55 to run in anything other than the marathon still stands. But as I am also a Hong Kong resident, we get the benefit of registering for only 30RMB like local Chinese.

That's what I did, but had problems communicating with Octagon with regards to payment. I emailed my concerns on their website, but they claimed they never got those emails. How can you have a comment/query section on your site and yet not make sure it works?

After complaining in the phone I had to rush down to their office after work to pay the registration fee by cash, instead of through a bank transfer which would have been another fiasco in itself.

Then a few days ago for some reason my emergency contact and not I received an email telling me where to pick up my runner's kit.

He forwarded it to me, but it turned out I wasn't the only one and then two days later Octagon sent a mass email with everyone's addresses on it about the date and time to pick up runners' kits.

Today was the first of two days to go do that so I went after work last night.

It was utter chaos.

When I arrived at the Chiqikou subway stop, south of the city, I bumped into a European woman who had just picked up her kit.

"It's crazy up there," she said after telling me the directions. "I waited for two hours. Oh and they put up a notice on their website today saying if you registered after September 15, then you're not on the list."

Two hours? Not on the list?

And then when I went up the non-descript mall, up the stairs in darkness did I see the masses of people jostling for attention and pushing each other.

I expected it to be disorganized, but not as insane as this. But coupled with few lights and no air circulation, tempers easily flared. Foreigners were completely overwhelmed by the situation and were too scared to rock the boat.

I managed to get my way to the front and showed them my registration number. Apparently that was the wrong number. I had to go back out and look at lists of names taped on pillars to see what my NEW number was.

But I went through the lists and couldn't find my name in Chinese or English.

Meanwhile back in the crazy scene in the sports shop, a young Chinese girl started loudly complaining, threatening to contact Chinese media to tell them how disorganized this whole thing was.

Staff, who were probably contracted by Octagon to distribute these kits, tried to soothe her, but really, there was no sense of order or realization that their current system was not working.

After ranting loudly for several minutes she finally got her kit and then shut up.

She wasn't the only one.

Another older woman with a Coach bag complained too. Then her foreigner husband arrived and that's when a shouting match erupted.

She said she was here to pick up three kits and only got two. Why is that? He tried to say in Chinese too, that they had paid, so give them the other kit.

I don't know what the people were saying, but eventually a young woman in a black top and jeans helped them out, speaking broken English.

I decided to use the English card and get her to help me too.

I explained to her that I couldn't find my name on the lists. She looked frightened and stressed out, and said, "I will try my best. Do you trust me?"

After a long time she finally found my name on a list but then had trouble finding my running number.

By then it was past 8pm, the time when to pick up kits was over. But there were a few stragglers.

The staff, mostly older men complained about working non-stop since 7am and how this was worse than the Olympics. They said they had hardly had anything to eat or drink all day.

The young woman came back but still couldn't find my number.

I was beyond angry and frustrated, just tired. It was so stressful dealing with the situation that I stood there passively and just wanted to go home.

In the end she returned with another number for me, the runner's guidebook, T-shirt, certificate and bag.

"Thank you very, very much," I said in English.

I had no more energy to deal with the subway and took a cab home instead.

On its website, Octagon claims it manages 3,200 events. But I don't know how Octagon Beijing gets away with organizing this one that has turned out to be an incredible logistical nightmare.

We didn't sign up to be subjected to having to fight for what we registered for. We signed up to have fun.

And yesterday was far from fun.

Cracking Up

On Wednesday night after tennis, I could smell something burning in the air, but couldn't figure out where the source was.

Then when I was on the bus home, I could hear some loud cracking noises.

Was it someone setting off firecrackers?

When we got closer to a underpass, the noise got louder and louder. Perhaps there were some young people setting them off for fun.

But as we passed by, I saw some older men, five or six of them, practicing cracking whips that were long and thick.

One man with a pot belly kept snapping the long black coil back and forth with a flourish

I'd never seen them before and never knew people even did that in Beijing... let alone anywhere.

Were they getting ready for a circus act? Or aspiring to be the next Chinese Indiana Jones?

Probably one of those things you'll only see once in Beijing.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Ticking Time Bomb

Guangdong has reported that in the first nine months of this year, one million babies have been born in the southern Chinese province.

And by December it is expecting 1.2 million bundles of joy in total.

The population there is the country's largest at 100 million.

According to Zhang Feng, director of the Guangdong population and family planning committee, these babies are creating major challenges for authorities.

He says the baby boom started in 2005 and will last 10 years. This year had a particularly high number of births due to the large migrant population, and because 2008 was the Olympic year, many wanted to mark the event with a kid.

Also, since 2002, only children who get married to each other can have two children. Fines rather than detainments have been enforced as punishment for those who aren't supposed to have more than one child, making it easier for those with money to defy the family planning policy.

Nevertheless, what is shocking is that Zhang reports a higher incidence of congenital mental disorders in this years' babies.

Of the infants born this year in Guangdong, 6 to 7 percent of them have some kind of mental handicap compared to the national average of 4 to 6 percent. In the United States, it's 2.5 to 3 perent of the population.

He has no explanation for the why Guangdong has such high numbers, but it's possible with the toxic environment many live and work in this province which has so many factories, that could have led to these kinds of births.

So not only will these mentally-challenged children be a burden to the health care system, but also the ratio of men to women.

In Guangdong, the ratio is now 1.15 boys for every girl, which is an improvement from 1.3 boys for every girl in 2000.

By 2020 there will be 4.6 million men who will have to live bachelor lives, and that's not a good sign for harmony in society.

The government is already aware of this problem nationwide, but it seems to have its head stuck in the sand when it says it'll battle the issue by properly enforcing family planning policies.

What about dealing with the current issue at hand, not just preventing future ones?

And hiring young men to stand guard at every other government institution and state-run company isn't going to keep them occupied or happy for long.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Hitting a Difference

My tennis group is now able to play on the university grounds again across from our office on Wednesdays.

I wasn't given an explanation why, but perhaps the university decided to change the rules again and allow those not affiliated with the post-secondary institution to use its sports facilities.

And to mark the occasion, last night I picked up new tennis balls in the department store across the street from where I live.

Up until now we'd been using non-descript Chinese balls that were pretty flat, some were downright dead. But, in true Chinese mainland fashion, my tennis buddies kept hitting them. I asked them about getting new balls and they even told me the company would reiumburse them for up to 200RMB worth of balls.

Since the company was paying, why not get some new balls then?

The sports section of the department store had cans of balls from Dunlop, Wilson (US Open), and Slazenger. They also had domestically-made tennis balls, which were obviously cheaper at 30RMB, but I decided to go for the second most expensive ones, the Dunlops at 48RMB. In the end I got a total of 12 balls.

Today I told my tennis buddies about the new balls and they were all excited.

One saw the price on the can and loudly complained they were so expensive.

I assured him he would play better.

But all of us were so taken aback by the hard bounce of the new balls, that we had trouble hitting them!

We had all been used to hitting those old ones around that these new ones made people like me look like quasi beginners, swinging our racquets and missing the ball, or constantly hitting it out.

Nevertheless, the verdict was the new balls were great and an incentive for them to possibly improve their strokes.

But the sad thing is, the brand new bright yellow balls have already turned a dark yellow after our 90-minute session, thanks to the dirty court.

You can't win them all.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Cool Neighbourhood

My landlord proudly told me that over five years ago when he bought the apartment I'm living in now, in Wangjing, there was nothing there except the apartment complex.

And up until recently, getting groceries or any last minute shopping was a logistical nightmare. I either had to shop wherever I happened to be, or take the bus several blocks down to Wangjing Mall. I know it sounds trivial, but it was a hassle.

But not anymore.

Earlier this month, the New World Department Store opened its doors across the street from me. I'd been watching them build it, and then they had to stop construction during the Olympics and Paralympics but then they madly got it open in time for the National Day holiday.

The other day I checked out the supermarket in the basement and was thrilled to see it had a pretty decent selection and was cheaper than the one I usually go to. There's even a good variety of imported foods, from muesli to Korean crackers, Japanese cookies and energy bars.

Then tonight after work I checked out the rest of the department store.

The areas are really sectioned off for different vendors who have their own set of staff and as soon as you approach their section, they immediately welcome you to take a look. It's kind of sad at the moment because there are more staff than customers, but that will change soon.

Name brands range from the international (Nike, Hush Puppies) to national (Li Ning, Vero Moda) and again a decent selection.

One floor had women's wear, including short fur coats that were over 4,000RMB.

On the fifth floor there's the bargain section and already down jackets for the upcoming chilly winter are for sale. The styles aren't that great, but the prices at around 300RMB are almost as good as the deals in Wangfujing.

But that's not all.

There's an entertainment section where kids can play video games or run around a playroom, and even a blind massage place. It's great knowing it's there and not too far to go for a quick rub.

The rest of the shopping complex isn't completed yet -- with places like Pizza Hut, Cold Stone Creamery and Starbucks yet to come in.

When that's all done, my neighbourhood will definitely be the it place in Wangjing.

And it's all there, just a hop, skip and a jump. As long as you can cross the crazy traffic first.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Trying to Clear the Air 2.0

Since September 21, when half the cars were taken off the roads for the Olympics and Paralympics ended, the smog of course returned.

But starting today Beijing re-introduced new car restrictions in a bid to appease both private car owners and those wanting to see blue skies again.

During the Olympics and Paralympics air quality in Beijing was the best it had seen in 10 years, and residents, mostly those who don't own four wheels, hoped the ban would continue. But it's not a permanent solution, as car owners would probably go out and buy another car.

However, with this new six-month trial period, it's hoped car owners won't be too burdened, as in theory they will only have to abandon using their cars once a week. But the system is quite complicated to remember, as today, cars with license plate numbers ending in a 1 or a 6 could not drive today. Tomorrow it's 2 and 7.

Nevertheless, this should help take 800,000 cars off the roads on weekdays (weekends are exempt) and prevent congestion, and in turn bring back blue skies.

This morning I took the bus to work and apart from an accident in an intersection -- a car crashing into a bus -- the ride was relatively smooth.

After work I took the taxi to race to the gym for a workout and I was there in about 15 minutes.

The air looks smoggy... despite clear light blue skies up above. Or is it fog?

Time will tell.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Jazzing Up Beijing

Tonight jazz artist Diana Krall celebrated Canadian Thanksgiving with her first concert in Beijing.

The seats weren't completely full at the Beijing Exhibition Center Theater in Xizhimen, but there were about 2,000 fans, mostly foreigners.

A 15-minute walk from the subway station, the venue has Soviet-style architecture, with lots of columns, austere hallways, but actually decent acoustics.

We were all subjected to security checks which were minimal, and I was tempted to buy a bag of microwave popcorn that turned out to have artificial sweetner in it.

The show started about 15 minutes late, with people still filing in. Krall and three other musicians, a bassist, guitarist and drummer came on stage.

She wore a sparkly short-sleeve gold jacket, a black top underneath and jeans as she sat at the piano and periodically flicked her long blond mane back.

For an hour and a half she entertained us with a number of songs, including Let's Fall in Love, Devil May Care, You've Got Me Under your Skin, The Way You Look Tonight, and Miss Wonderful.

Some songs had solo interpretations by each of the musicians, others almost sung straight through. In between she talked to the audience with a wry sense of humour.

Just as she started playing a few chords of a song, someone's mobile phone rang and she stopped and said, "Hello? She's busy now..."

Krall also said Beijing was an amazing city and how she only had two days to explore it. She then explained as they were driving in her car, a man with a cigarette approached them and tried to sell her tickets... to her show.

She said she had to bargain hard...

Later in the show Krall got sentimental. She explained how today is Canadian Thanksgiving and that her husband Elvis Costello is "super dad", looking after their twin sons, Dexter and Frank, and that Elvis was cooking dinner today.

Half way through the show, she started coughing and had a coughing fit. But she drank some water and battled on, singing wonderfully.

After the show ended, they left the stage and got a loud round of applause that got them back on stage for one encore before she said, "We love you Beijing!"

Beijing was the last stop on her Asian tour through Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong and Shanghai.

Hopefully she'll be back again with her sultry voice and fantastic jazz performance.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Not on the Agenda

This afternoon the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Martti Ahtisaari, the former President of Finland.

He has been instrumental in a number of international conflicts, particularly bringing independence to Nambia, resolving the conflict on Kosovo, and working out a situation in Indonesia's Aceh Province.

Apparently the 71-year-old Ahtisaari has been nominated many times, but this year was finally honoured for his work.

However, many activists were hoping China's Hu Jia would get the top prize.

Many had speculated the Nobel committee would make a daring statement by recognizing a human rights activist who originally started working with people with AIDS, and then branched out into land rights and other abuses of the law.

He worked mainly by Internet, making contact with people online, either giving them advice on how to take action, or giving presentations to organizations outside of China to give them a picture of what's going on.

Currently he is in jail, and his wife and baby daughter are basically under house arrest.

No one is allowed to visit her and even she cannot leave the house, depending on family members to give her daily necessities.

If Hu had won the coveted Peace Prize, China would have lost major face.

Instead China can breathe a sigh of relief... for another year.

Black Friday

This morning I came into the office and watched the Asian markets fall... further... and further.

Every few minutes the numbers would change for the worse, from Japan, to Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea.

They were all getting a battering and trading was hardly halfway through the day.

All over the world investors are scared, and even multiple governments putting in monetary infusions aren't able to stem the fear.

Around this time last year the Hang Seng Index was over 30,000 points. Today it closed at 14,796.87.

In the evening Beijing time, the European markets opened sharply lower too, not a good start for what will now be called Black Friday.

While we're all waiting to see if the United States slides into a recession, hopefully China won't be too hard hit.

However, as it holds trillions of dollars worth of Treasury Bills, now is probably not the time for China to try to cash them in.

It'll have to wait a long time for the US to get back on its financial feet and be able to pay it back, if ever.

China meanwhile is trying to stimulate domestic consumption, cutting interest rates and even scrapping the income tax accrued on interest on savings.

But with most of the Chinese population making low salaries, it is highly unlikely they'll be able to keep the economy afloat by making 3,000RMB ($437.40) a month.

The country will have to depend on the ultra rich, the nouveaux riche with their brand name wardrobes and loud, demanding attitudes to keep spending, no matter how outrageously they flaunt their wealth.

And the rest of us will just have to grin and bear it, for the sake of the economy.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Acceptable Levels...?

Yesterday five Chinese government agencies, including the Ministry of Health set standards for the amount of melamine in food products in an attempt to allay fears following the contaminated milk powder scandal.

In accordance with the World Health Organization and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, China will only allow 1mg of melamine per kg in infant formula and up to 2.5mg per kg in other dairy products.

This standard was set so that inspectors will be able to quickly identify dairy products which have been deliberately tampered with to manipulate protein levels.

For example, a batch of Sanlu milk powder had as much as 2,563mg per kg. Yikes.

Government officials are trying to reassure the public that it is almost impossible to have zero melamine in dairy products, saying that it's possible some may be leaked from packaging or from the production process.

And while the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine has tried to assure the public that recently tested dairy products show no sign of melamine, people still aren't rushing out to drink cow water.

Meanwhile, the Foreign Affairs Office is trying to blame the hysteria over Chinese milk products on countries that have banned, and is calling for "unbiased, scientific and fair treatment".

Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said while China "understands" countries concerns for restricting the imports of Chinese dairy products, Chinese food safety watchdogs have "strengthened" supervision of exported dairy products.

He even had the gall to say: "As a matter of fact, China promptly reported the information to relevant countries as well as international organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) when Sanlu milk powder products were found contaminated."

How he can even say the word "promptly" as it doesn't explain the deaths of at least four babies and some 54,000 babies ill from drinking melamine-contaminated milk for months.

Countries outside of China have every right to ban Chinese dairy products for the safety of their own people.

And imposing new standards on dairy products doesn't necessarily mean the quality is going to get better.

Until countries see the Chinese government completely examine the country's dairy industry, take it apart and create an entirely new system with checks and balances in every step of production, they will not budge.

Things obviously have not changed since last year when pets were dying after eating melamine in pet food.

With the global financial crisis looming, China cannot afford to make these disasterous mistakes domestically or internationally.

It's time China started thinking more long-term if it wants to build and be proud of its "home-grown" brands.

Otherwise everyone's trust in Chinese-made products will continue to be a joke.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Al Fresco Dining in HK

A waterfront view in Hong Kong is not easy to come by, and the above pictures show what it's like when you dine outside at Isola, an Italian restaurant at IFC in Central.

Inside is a stylish interior, mostly white, with sleek lines, floor-to-ceiling glass and lots of beautiful people. La dolce vita.

But the best part is on a beautiful sunny day, you can sit outside along the extensive terrace and soak in the rays and the zillion-Hong Kong dollar view.

It's not only a power lunch place, with suits grabbing a bite to eat, but also a favourite of tai tais, like the Italian ones sitting next to us with deep tans and gold jewelery.

For starters there's an antipasti buffet, with a variety of dishes to choose from. There's dishes like mixed greens, squid salad, poached salmon, selection of cold cuts and finely cut proscuitto that was delicious.

If you're not too careful, the antipasti could be a meal in itself and then you'd be in trouble trying to finish the rest of your meal.

Then I had freshly made taglioni with seafood in a tomato sauce. The portion of perfectly cooked pasta was just right and the sauce included diced scallops, fish and prawns.

Iced tea was presented in a tall glass with slices of lemons around the inside perimeter of the glass, while dessert was also a buffet that included carrot cake -- who knew Italians made carrot cake -- as well as chocolate cake and a bowl of mixed fruit that was popular with the ladies.

The set lunch is HK$245 per person and with a gorgeous view of Victoria Harbour looking onto Wan Chai on Hong Kong Island, Kowloon and the New Territories on a blue sky day, it was worth every dollar.

Levels 3 & 4
IFC Mall
2383 8765

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Exchanging Notes

Almost everyone I talked to in Hong Kong asked me how the Beijing Olympics went.

They asked me which events I watched and what it was like in the Olympic Green.

However they were really surprised when I told them there wasn't much of a lively atmosphere where venues like the National Stadium, or Bird's Nest was.

Instead, it was quite sterile, despite having a well-organized and well-executed Games.

On the other hand, some of my friends told me there was a party atmosphere in Hong Kong, even though most people had no clue about the equestrian events held in Sha Tin.

Nevertheless, they were most impressed by the opening ceremonies. The choreography of all those performers working together in perfect time was amazing to them.

And it made these Hong Kongers proud to be Chinese.

That was the effect the Chinese government wanted to create, and definitely succeeded.

But with the ongoing milk scandal, people's opinions of China are wavering again.

It seems 11 years on after the handover of Hong Kong to China, Hong Kongers are still trying to figure out their identity, which is understandable.

While they are proud of Chinese culture and history, they are horrified by the scale and magnitude of challenges its motherland is facing, that in turn affect them.

Everyday there is a new report about the milk crisis, from another product found to have melamine in it and how products that should have been taken off the shelves were found a few days later for sale in supermarkets in China.

And this is only one of many issues that include pollution, work safety, freedom of the press and corruption to name a few.

Hong Kong people are not prepared to embrace China completely, which means Beijing has got a lot of work ahead to prove itself before winning more hearts than just a political takeover.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Turning Off the Tap

In the last few years Macau has emerged as the Las Vegas of the East.

Last year hotels like The Venetian opened, along with Wynn and many others from the United States.

Even Canadian company Cirque du Soleil has set up shop in the Venetian with its show, Zaia.

Since the number of hotels and casinos has significantly increased in the former Portuguese colony, its profit takings from gambling has been higher than all of Las Vegas combined.

And that may be one of the reasons why the Chinese government has come up with its latest measures to restrict the number of visits mainlanders can make to the former sleepy town an hour's fast ferry ride from Hong Kong.

For the first time in nearly three years, Macau's monthly revenue fell to 6.9 billion patacas ($86 million), down 3.4 percent from a year ago, and 28 percent from the previous month, according to Portuguese news agency Lusa.

Casino revenue makes up 60 percent of Macau's gross domestic product in the first half of this year, and the secretary for the economy and finance Francis Tam Pak-yuen estimates a 36 percent decline in gaming revenue from September to December, compared to the same period last year.

Recently, the central government has been trying to reduce the ease and frequency mainland passport holders, including non-permanent Hong Kong residents, can travel to Macau.

Starting on June 1, it was reduced to once a month from once a fortnight, and then a month later it was once every two months. Starting on September 1, mainlanders traveling or working in Hong Kong have to apply for a separate permit to visit Macau, when previously they could visit on their Hong Kong permit.

And now from this month, Guangdong residents can only visit Macau once every three months.

This effect will reverberate through Macau like a deep freeze. Even before the post-handover casino boom, the city depended on the gambling industry to keep the economy alive. This latest measure will definitely halt or significantly slow down Macau's economy, something it doesn't need right now.

It feels like an ominous sign someone up there is displeased with how mainlanders are only too eager to gamble, as these punters don't seem to mind they are losing so much...

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Pinching Yourself

You know you're not on the Chinese mainland but in Hong Kong when:

- You can get from A to B in 20 minutes instead of an hour;

- Having three appointments in one evening is doable;

- The MTR trains come every two minutes and not at least five like in Beijing;

- Everyone from taxi drivers to store staff and fellow commuters are polite to you;

- The police doing roadside checks ask you to put on your seatbelt;

- There's no spitting in the streets -- not even the sound of horking is heard;

- Several pairs of chopsicks are on the lazy Susan for people to use so they don't infect the food with their own chopsticks;

- You ask for less oil in dishes and there really is less oil in them;

- Where food street stalls are, there's hardly any garbage on the ground, not even those wooden skewers;

- You can call the telephone directory assistance for a number wherever you are, whenever you want;

- You can speak Chinglish and everyone understands what you're saying;

- People don't jump the queue, but patiently wait in line;

- Hong Kongers take you to cleaner bathrooms than the ones you thought were already clean;

- Public washrooms are always stocked with toilet paper and soap;

- There are no squat toilets.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Financial Jitters

All my friends and relatives are talking about the $700 billion bailout package by the US government and wondering which banks will go under next.

Hong Kong being a financial powerhouse is starting to see the effects of high-powered bankers losing their jobs.

Many bars, restaurants and luxury brand shops are quieter, with fewer people dining out or shopping than before.

One of my friends doesn't think the shaky economic situation in the United States will impact Hong Kong too much, while others worry big banks here like HSBC aren't revealing what's really going on with their investments.

Tonight two of them told me about the panic they saw when they passed by the Bank of East Asia here. About a week ago there were rumours the bank was bankrupt and tens and thousands of people lined up at Hong Kong branches to get their money.

One saw a massive line along Caine Road in Mid-Levels, people with fear on their faces, while the bank stayed open as long as it could to service customers. Many of them complained bank staff didn't move fast enough, but it's not everyday tens of thousands of people want to withdraw all their money from their accounts.

There was a large sign on the bank branch's window saying the rumours were not true, even stating how much the bank had in assets, but that didn't calm anyone's worries.

Another told me how people lined up late into the night just to get a queuing number for the next day. Many withdrew millions of Hong Kong dollars from their accounts, which meant they dragged suitcases around with them to carry all that cash.

We agreed it was absurd, but also said if we had accounts with that bank, we'd do the same thing too.

The possible recession in the US and the instability of the banks have also made people here think twice about changing jobs -- and their bosses know it.

Which means employees are at their mercy to hold onto their jobs as they weather this upcoming financial storm.

Sounds like we're all going to have to hunker down and hope we don't get overworked and underpaid in the process too.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Modern Japanese

It's hard to take the Japanese dining experience to a new level.

The decor is already minimalist and modern, the food uses fresh ingredients that are served in beautiful presentations.

What more can you do?

Roka at Pacific Place takes it a step further with pretty good success.

Already at the entrance diners have a warm feel to the place with lots of wood in the decor and literally smoke coming from the open kitchen.

And apparently Roka cames from two words, Ro which means hearth, or gathering place, and Ka means burning fire, or an energetic place.

My friend and I didn't make reservations, but after a short wait we were seated by the bar watching the action in the kitchen.

Staff closest to us were either carefully slicing up slabs of salmon, or carefully tending to seafood and meats grilling on the robata grill, while a black guy, the executive chef barked out orders the cooks enthusiastically responded to.

To start I had a shochu cocktail. Shochu is an ancient Japanese spirit distilled from several raw materials, like barley, buckwheat, sugar or sweet potato.

And my cocktail was infused with honeycomb which was delicious. It was presented in a small glass, with a giant cylindrical piece of ice in it and the golden liquid.

The strong spirit was sweetened by the honey, which helped it go down nicely.

We then sampled a few dishes like a roll with tuna, prawns, and lettuce that was really refreshing, along with terriyaki chicken skewers and honey-roasted chicken wings.

There was also a salad of leaves in a light peanut dressing and tiny cubes of pickled carrot around the dish.

The food was great, but the only complaint was the club music pulsating quite strongly in the background. If the volume was down a touch, it would make it feel more like a hip restaurant than a dance destination serving cool food.

Nevertheless, service was hospitable and enjoyable.

Around HK$475 for two including three drinks. Kanpai!

Pacific Place
Level LG1, Shop 002
88 Queensway
Hong Kong

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Mainlanders in Hong Kong

With mainland Chinese people celebrating the week-long National Day holiday, many who can afford it have flocked to Hong Kong to shop.

They come armed with wads of cash and plastic and make a bee-line for all the brand-name stores around the city.

There they clean up places like Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Salvatore Ferragamo and cosmetic counters as well, anxious to buy the real products in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

They definitely keep shop assistants busy, not only getting them tongue-tied speaking Mandarin, but also horrified at their demanding behaviour.

I was browsing the Gucci store when an obviously wealthy mainland Chinese woman was on the phone to her friend back home and loudly asking her, "So which bag did you want to buy? Tell me because I'm in the store now!"

Shop assistants stood around waiting for her next command.

And today in the Sogo department store in Causeway Bay, mainland tourists were fighting over sweaters and again two rich women harangued a staff member, accusing her of not giving them a good deal, when in department stores, the prices are set.

Meanwhile other staff observing this incident whispered among themselves that they were glad they didn't have to deal with these customers.

For Hong Kong, these Golden Weeks have become a double-edged sword -- on the one hand these mainlanders inject a lot of cash into the city, almost forcing staff to fall over themselves serving them.

But on the other hand, this almost kow-towing to these customers almost gives them the license to act as obnoxiously as possible, perpetuating their demanding behaviour.

However, as economies around the world are beginning to slow down, Hong Kong can't complain too much about its VIP customers who are only too eager to drop cash on a whim.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Capital Transformation

Yesterday I flew to Hong Kong for the Golden Week holiday celebrating China's National Day on October 1.

And my commute to Beijing Capital Airport was the quickest I've ever experienced.

There's an Airport Bus station near my place and for 16RMB it's a smooth and very quick ride. We left the terminus at 4:45pm and after a few stops picking up a few more passengers we arrived at Terminal 3 at 5:20pm.

It was my first experience entering the airport from the departures level since I first saw it completed over a year ago.

What a transformation.

Overall signage is pretty good, but could be in bigger lettering or more convenient to find instead of having to hunt for it.

It can be a bit of a trek for people to find the right check-in counter and the one for Dragon Air was down at the far right end.

Check in was quite slow, with none of the computers working for self-check in. Kind of defeats the purpose of having an e-ticket.

There are tons of shops before entering the secured area -- even a fancy clothing boutique. Who is going to buy an oil painting or a fancy sweater before going on their flight?

Then I had to take a transit shuttle to take us to the other end of Terminal 3 and it's quite far away, but relatively efficient.

Here the numbering for the gates was strange. There was E22 and then E26 together. It didn't make any sense at all. It's enough to give harried passengers a shock if they can't find their gate where they logically think it should be.

Unfortunately the duty-free shops here are abysmal.

The Olympic souvenir shop looked like it was running out of stock and didn't have anything interesting to sell except for T-shirts, caps and notebooks. There were hardly any mugs or bags.

The other duty-free shops sold kitsch Chinese-made goods like qipaos, silk scarves and pjamas or Chinese-made chocolate, which is probably not something they should be stocking now considering the melamine scare.

I remember an airport official promising the new terminal would have more selection of foreign magazines and books but that hasn't materialized. It was all in Chinese instead.

The saddest part of the terminal, so modern and cool in design and yet there's a bizarre fake Chinese garden with a tacky colourful pagoda complete with occasional mists coming out of the pond. The shrubbery is all fake making it all the more like a farce.

Why have a fake garden when everyone's already seen the real thing in Beijing?