Sunday, November 30, 2008

Capturing Manufactured Landscapes

Edward Burtynsky is a well-known Canadian photographer who was featured in the documentary, Manufactured Landscapes.

In it he talks about how he doesn't want to praise or condemn industrialization, globalization or consumerism, but instead to bring it to our attention and show us how big an effect it has on our world.

This is his artist statement:
Nature transformed through industry is a predominant theme in my work. I set course to intersect with a contemporary view of the great ages of man; from stone, to minerals, oil, transportation, silicon, and so on. To make these ideas visible I search for subjects that are rich in detail ad scale yet open in their meaning. Recycling yards, mine tailings, quarries and refineries are all places that are outside our normal experience, yet we partake of their output on a daily basis.

These images are meant as metaphors to the dilemma of our modern existence; they search for a dialogue between attraction and repulsion, seduction and fear. We are drawn by desire - a chance at good living, yet we are consciously or unconsciously aware that the world is suffering for our success. Our dependence on nature to provide the materials for our consumption and our concern for the health of our planet sets us into an uneasy contradiction. For me, these images function as reflecting pools of our times.
And he felt the biggest impact it has made has been in China.

From 2002 to 2005 he made several trips to China, photographing factories, shipyards, cities, recycling yards and the Three Gorges Dam.

The results of his photographs have been presented around the world and are now currently on show at the Paris-Beijing Photo Gallery in the 798 Art District.

Each of the photographs are huge, providing not only a picture of scale, but also little details that make up the sum of the image.

There's one of a shipyard in Zhejiang province, where a worker stands at the bottom of a bow of a ship, several times taller than him. That shipyard is only a medium-sized one and it goes through tens of thousands of tons of steel per year making over a hundred cargo ships.

Another is at a chicken processing plant in Jilin province. Burtynsky gives an overview shot of the place, and all the workers are hunched over the processing line cutting up chicken parts, dressed in pink uniforms and blue aprons. It's interesting to note that while they wear caps over their heads, many don't wear gloves handling the raw meat.

He also documents not only the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, but also the destruction, with pictures of people hauling away millions of bricks where houses once stood. And maybe by now that same area is already flooded under water. By next year when the dam is completed, some 13 cities will be under water.

And then there is a photograph with a colourful array of colours in a wavy pattern. But when you look up close, it's millions of fragments of plastic toys, dismembered and sorted in terms of colour. They are all used toys, dumped, discarded, forgotten.

While recycling is something citizens in the west are urged do to protect the environment, in China it's an industry with economic benefits. However, there are environmental and health issues around the breaking down of such materials, like polluted rivers and people exposed to dangerous chemicals, affecting their health.

Burtynsky's photographs look elegant at first, with beautiful lines or present a seemingly calm image. But when you look closer and realize the thousands of people in the factory line, or the little bits of plastic in giant piles, it clearly becomes disturbing and frightening

We need his images to shock more of us into realizing and understanding what we are doing to our planet so that we won't take Mother Nature for granted anymore.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Fighting for Equality

The Shanghai cop killer Yang Jia was executed on Wednesday by lethal injection.

While he admitted his actions of killing six police officers in a Shanghai police station were premeditated, he felt revenge was his only way of getting back at the police for treating him badly.

And many citizens agreed with him and have praised him as a hero.

During his trial they tried to get into his courtroom or stood outside with T-shirts with his image on it or calling him a hero.

To them, Yang was brave enough to stand up to what they feel are the police's unethical or irresponsible behaviour.

However, his parents are distraught at how Yang was treated in the legal system.

His lawyers tried to plead Yang was mentally unstable and unfit for trial. But he was already convicted as a cold-blooded murderer even before the trial began, mostly through state media.

His father Yang Fusheng is devastated by his son's execution.

“I’ve tried my best to help my son, save his life, but failed, what can I say?” he said by phone to the New York Times. “It was a bitterly sad experience for these four months, the hardest and darkest time in our life. I’ll remember firmly and deeply in my heart every minute of suffering, every attempt and every appeal that I tried; I promise I will never forget it. And now I lost my son. I’ve realized how powerless common people are.”

A day after Yang was arrested by police for the killings, his mother Wang Jingmei was put in a mental hospital in Beijing and for a while her family didn't know where she was, as they were not told of her whereabouts.

She was only allowed to visit him this past Monday.

But his father only saw Yang last on October 16 and not allowed to see him before he was executed.

“I still don’t know where he was executed, how they executed him, if he died calmly or painfully, what he wanted to say to me and to his mother,” Yang Fusheng said. “It’s inhuman that the government deprived my right to see my own son; it taught me bitterly, that the scale of justice and law is always leaning toward to the one who has the power, toward so mighty a government.”

While he will continue wondering what his son's final thoughts were, Yang Fusheng probably now understands the powerlessness his son felt and why his son went on a rampage at the Shanghai police station.

Yang represents only one case in thousands who feel unjust treatment in the hands of the police and the system.

While the government is slowly reforming its legal system, China still has a long way to go before its people will feel justice has served them.

Creating a Racket

Earlier this week rock band Guns N' Roses finally came out with its first album in 17 years.

And front man Axel Rose wanted to shake things up by naming it "Chinese Democracy".

Here are the lyrics to the song, Chinese Democracy:

It don't really matter
You'll find out for yourself
No it don't really matter
You're gonna leave these things to
Somebody else

If they missionaries
Real time visionaries
Sitting in a Chinese stew
To view my dis-infatu-ation
I know that I'm a classic case
Watch my disenchanted face
Blame it on the Falun Gong*
They've seen the end and you can't hold on now

Cause it would take a lot more hate than you
To stop the fascination
Even with an iron fist
Our baby got to rule the nation
But all I got is precious time

It don't really matter
You're gonna find out for yourself
No it don't really matter
So you can hear now from
Somebody else

Cause it would take a lot more time than you
I've got more masturbation
Even with your iron fist
Our baby got to rule the nation but all I got is
Precious time
Our baby got to rule the nation but all I got is
Precious time

It don't really matter
Gonna keep it to myself
No it don't really matter
So you can hear it now from
Somebody else

You think you got it all locked up inside
And if you beat them all up they'll die
Then you'll walk them home for the cells
Then now you'll dig for your road back to hell
And with your * makes you stop
As if your eyes were their eyes you can tell
In your lack of time

Do these lyrics inspire democracy? Seem more like angst than inciting political change.

Nevertheless, the Chinese government has already panned the album.

At a press conference Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Qin Gang was asked: "An American rock band releases a new album called 'Chinese Democracy', what is the Chinese government response to such event?"

He replied: "According to my understanding, many people do not like such music, because they are too noisy. I believe you should be a mature adult, aren't you?"

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Hi-tech Milk

Everyday on the bus I see several ads from Mengniu, one of China's biggest milk producers and also one of the companies found to have high concentrations of melamine in its milk products.

So these days Mengniu is waging an aggressive campaign to woo back consumers to not only drink milk again, but also to buy its brand.

The commercial starts with cows standing or sitting in an idyllic grassland and then moves to cows eating freshly cut blades of grass in troughs. I never knew cows would sit so still, not even twitching an ear.

Shots then cut to a sleek, modern-looking factory, with people in lab coats looking at test tubes and factory workers watching hundreds of packages of milk going through the production line.

Then there are pictures of foreigners working in the place, also wearing lab coats, proving that yes, having foreigners in your factory does add more credibility to your product.

And finally there are scenes showing the media going through the production centre, clearly illustrating that if the media has inspected the place, surely its milk is safe.

Despite the effort in trying to show Mengniu using the latest technology to produce its milk, that wasn't the cause of the melamine contamination.

Instead it was the milk collection centres, the middlemen who collected milk from farmers who added the chemical.

But also the milk producers themselves were also found at fault for putting melamine in there too. This was apparently a common practice for years.

So what's the point of having such an impressive-looking factory if you can't effectively test the raw milk for melamine, or prove that you don't put harmful additives in the milk?

It's going to take a lot more than flashy ads to persuade people to drink milk again.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Cracking Down... Sort of

The central government may be doling out cash to prevent China from falling into the doldrums, but it also has to make sure every yuan is properly used.

A few weeks ago the Beijing Municipal People's Procuratorate Office announced there were some 16,000 to 18,000 party officials who have fled the country since the 1990s, and taking with them some 800 billion RMB ($117 billion).

The money was misappropriated from projects like land development, tax revenue, loans from financial institutions, funds allocated for government expenditures and national economic programs.

And in the past 30 years, the Beijing Municipal People's Procuratorate has prosecuted over 16,000 cases of corruption and bribery.

Sounds like there's something chronically wrong with the system, don't you think?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

30 Years Later

Last night I turned the radio on to hear a pleasant-sounding male voice, a middle-aged Chinese man telling the story of when former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping decided on Gai Kaifang or "reforms" and "openness" 30 years ago.

The host went on to energetically describe "Xiaoping's" visit to the southern city of Shenzhen in 1992 when he made his famous trip there and the evidence of his success in building China into what it is today.

While this is the 30th anniversary of reform and opening up, there isn't much to celebrate these days.

Many factories in southern China are closing, hundreds of thousands of factory workers laid off, stocks on a downward spiral and property prices plunging.

China had been enjoying double-digit growth for the past five years and now the government will be lucky if the country manages to pull of 8 percent GDP growth, but some economists outside of China are adjusting their figures to even 5 or 6 percent.

The heavy dependence on exports is a huge problem, but one the government thought would make China resilient if another Asian financial crisis happened.

But today we're seeing an even greater situation, one that requires global effort to control in some way.

While China says it will stimulate its economy with a 4 trillion RMB ($856 billion) package, it's mostly for infrastructure projects, many of which were already underway. So far there isn't much new in there.

The government asked cities and provinces to put in proposals of how to spend the money, and the Chinese capital even had the gall to put forward projects worth some 1 trillion yuan when some $40 billion was already spent on preparing for the Olympics that ended only a few months ago.

What the central government should really do is spend on health care, education, pensions and social housing. Only when people feel social systems are sound and working for their benefit will they feel confident enough to loosen their purse strings a bit.

The Chinese have always been extremely good savers. But that was mostly out of necessity because there aren't much in the way of pensions, socialized health care and education. When people visit the hospital or doctor, they have to pay up front. In cash. And then there's the alleged corruption that happens in hospitals...

During this economic downturn, the government should take this opportunity to look at all its state-owned enterprises, its management of agricultural and industrial sectors and start trimming the fat. This was already started in the Jiang Zemin era, but it really needs to happen even more now.

Businesses should be looked at and inefficiencies taking out, processes streamlined to be more efficient and less people doing more work (as most places are currently too bloated with too many employees and not enough to do).

But this isn't going to happen.

Instead the government will do all it can to keep as many people employed as possible, even if it means propping up inefficient companies clumsily lumbering along. Beijing is too scared to see more people out of work; President Hu Jintao has called for "moderate prosperity" so he has to deliver it... somehow.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Interesting Find

This past weekend I took a colleague to Panjiayuan, the antique flea market.

He wanted to get some souvenirs for friends back home. As temperatures are dropping, vendors in this outdoor market try to keep warm by entertaining almost every offer, including outrageous ones.

We came across an antique-looking Chinese brush that was more decorative than practical, with the carving of a dragon wrapped around the body.

How much?

The older woman with a weathered face said 350RMB ($51.27).

We threw out an offer of 50RMB ($7.34) and she was annoyed and asked us to raise the price again, but we wouldn't budge.

She repeated her request, but when we raised our offer by 20RMB to 70RMB, she felt we weren't bargaining in good spirit, so we walked away to look at other vendors' things.

We could hear her voice beckoning us again and she tapped me on the shoulder.

She asked us to name a price again, but I repeated the last offer. She chastised us and went back to her seat.

Soon afterwards we heard her come again.... and then finally the last time she found us again to say she agreed.

We went back to her spot and then she threw us another offer -- two brushes for 150RMB ($22).

It was a done deal.

We later came across this giant wooden statue who looked to me like a Chinese Moses.

He looked so happy with his rounded cheeks and smile, looking as if ready to embrace us from our worries.

With the economic crisis unfolding around the world, we're all going to need a cheery guy like him to keep us on the even keel in these turbulent times.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Sentimental Distraction

These days the TV screens in the subway trains and buses are all showing re-runs of the Olympics.

They broadcast highlights of the opening ceremonies, play Olympic songs like "You and Me", highlights of some sporting events, and slogans like, "One World, One Dream".

Despite China's recently announcement of a 4 trillion RMB ($586 billion) stimulus package, the country's leaders are worried about the reverberating effects of the global financial crisis.

Factories are shutting down, workers are being laid off, protests and strikes sprouting around the country, and meanwhile in Beijing, shops, restaurants and bars aren't as busy as they used to be.

So perhaps the government is hoping happy memories of the Olympics will distract people from grumbling about the economy....

The Lost Generation

Last night my friend and I went for dinner at a Taiwanese restaurant called Bellagio. It's not an over-the-top place like its Las Vegas namesake, but sleek and modern with good food and desserts.

The one we went to was the one along Gongti Xi Lu, on the west side of Worker's Stadium, where several nightclubs are.

And so it's not surprising a number of the patrons at this eatery are young clubbers having dinner before dancing all night long.

Many were in their 20s, the women dressed in clingy outfits, heels, leather jackets and heavy makeup, the men showing off their muscles in T-shirts or wearing hoodies and sneakers.

Almost all of them were smoking up a storm. I couldn't help but cough from the concentration of cigarette smoke around us.

They would smoke before the meal, during and after. It was an opportunity for them to look cool. Also I hadn't seen so many female smokers in one place either.

I remarked that there would be a high chance many would contract cancer by the time they hit 40.

My friend said, "Do you feel like they're the 'lost' generation?"

I agreed.

These young people seemed completely unaware of the economic situation outside of their bubble. They only appeared to be focused on having a good time partying, wearing nice clothes and using the latest cellphones, while smoking to look cool.

Watching these poseurs before they hit the clubs reminded me of a recent Newsweek article tracing the life of Tang Yongming who killed an American at Beijing's Drum and Bell Tower just hours after the start of the 2008 Summer Olympics.

The 47-year-old stabbed to death Todd Bachman, who was the father-in-law of the US Men's volleyball coach, while his wife Barbara survived, despite life-threatening injuries. Their tour guide was injured in the assault as well.

The story attempts to explain why Tang commited these heinous acts and then jumped to his death from the famous landmark.

Originally from a village outside of Hangzhou, Tang started off as a worker in a machine-gauge factory, met his wife in the same place and they had a son.

Like most parents who are only allowed to have one child, they indulged his son perhaps a bit too much, who ended up not finishing school.

And then due to economic reforms, Tang's factory closed, and he and his wife lost their jobs. After many bitter arguments, they divorced; he focused all his efforts on his son instead, by selling his apartment for about $28,000 and helping his son keep up a good lifestyle, despite doing odd jobs. That money was quickly spent.

Tang lost his appetite for work and turned to gambling as his money started wittling away. He then thought he could start again as a migrant worker in Sichuan -- but he got there just before the May 12 earthquake.

He returned home, packed up his things and told his son that if he could find a job he'd let him know, otherwise, he said, "don't bother looking for me". He then boarded a train for Beijing.

The sad thing is, when the police told Tang's son that his father was responsible for the death of the American and had committed suicide, the son was completely expressionless.

The harsh reality of life began to set in and his main source of money was gone.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Fragile Superpower

Dr Susan Shirk's long relationship with China began back in 1971.

She jokingly explains she was on the second plane to the Communist country after the ping pong team.

And some 20 years later became deputy assistant secretary-general during the Clinton administration.

Her experiences and insight led her to write China: Fragile Superpower and she recently gave a talk about it at The Bookworm.

And in it, her main premise is that Chinese leaders are insecure; they focus more on domestic policy. When she told people in China the title of her book, they were surprised by the word "superpower", thinking their country has yet to become a superpower.

They were also intrigued by the word "fragile", as they would hardly call China a country that would easily fall apart.

In any case, Shirk recounted the US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999. The United States had got the wrong information and completely destroyed the building, killing three Chinese journalists and injuring some 20 others.

She had just left the State department to go home when she got the call and had to turn back to go back to the office.

The US had to apologize right away, she said. But President Jiang Zemin wouldn't accept President Bill Clinton's call; Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was refused at the Chinese embassy in Washington; a US envoy was stopped at the airport from going to China.

Shirk explains the historical context at the time:

Three weeks prior to the bombing, 10,000 Falun Gong practitioners surrounded Chinese political leaders at Zhongnanhai without any prior notice which scared them; and a few weeks later would be the 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square incident.

Chinese people's emotions would be running high.

So the government bussed students to US embassies all over the country, where they threw Molotov cocktails, rocks and sticks in order to make sure people's anger and frustration would be directed away from the central government.

She also goes back further in history analyzing what happened in 1989.

Shirk considers it a "close call" for the Chinese leadership because at the time there were protests in over 130 cities and a split in the leadership. The Berlin wall had just fallen and Communist governments falling in other countries.

The Chinese government has learned three lessons from 1989.

The first is that the leaders today don't have the same charisma as Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. She even described them as "mediocre" and "colourless".

Since reform and opening up started 30 years ago, the government is having a harder time of keeping track of the population. Some 200 million are constantly on the move.

Also, people have much more information about the outside world than before, with some 250 million and counting who use the Internet regularly, especially university students.

There is also the increasing gap between the rich and the poor. And for China, the gap is considered to be politically loaded, as many think those who got rich achieved their wealth through corrupt means.

The Gini Coefficient is a mathematically way to calculate the income gap, and the closer to zero the better. For example the United States is at 0.1. But China is between 0.46-0.49.

So for the government to show that it cares about the poor, Premier Wen Jiabao is frequently photographed in the countryside, sympathizing and sometimes even crying with them. Shirk likes to call this "compassionate Communism".

But despite the efforts the government has made to reach out to the poor, there are still protests.

The second point Shirk makes is that the central leadership does everything it can to prevent public splits in the top ranks. That is what happened in 1989, showing cracks that gave people motivation to protest against the government.

She argues ambitious leaders will always try to compete with others to get ahead and this is normal. But how do you keep that quiet? With the age of the Internet, it will be harder and harder to keep this under wraps and she believes this will no longer be sustainable.

Finally, Shirk says, it's important for the Chinese government to keep the military loyal. Again, she says that if the military did not follow the 1989 directives of crushing the students, the China we see today would not exist.

And because the military did follow orders, the government spends a lot of time and money cultivating relationships with the military as seen in increased spending in this area.

Another threatening issue is the rise of Chinese nationalism.

The central government has seen how the Qing Dynasty and the New Republic fell to nationalism. It is one of the few unifying things that could topple them, which is why they bend over backwards to prevent it from happening to them.

She finds the increased reporting of protests interesting and says it's partly because of competition with the Internet that domestic state media can't compete. Shirk also thinks the reporting of these protests are a way to check on local governments who are not spending on allocated budgets on health and education.

But Shirk says this is a dangerous ploy by the central government because in a way it is condoning these protests as a check and balance of local governments and could backfire.

Shirk hints the end of the book has advice for future US policy makers as well as for Chinese leaders. Her insight and analysis mainly point to moderation and context, remembering that the Chinese government will try to preserve itself, practically at all costs.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Emergency English

It's quite impressive to see that the staff who work at the Silk Market are multilingual.

Many try to lure customers with "You want bags?", "Lookie here, I give you good price", or "How about silk? You want silk?"

Some can say a smattering of words in French, Russian and Spanish.

And foreigners are big targets. The Silk Market salespeople, mostly women, try to entice foreign men to buy purses for their wives. OK if they're not married, then their girlfriends.

With foreign women, it's, "You want Koo-chi? L-V?"

The English is not bad, but apparently staff who work at another market called Lady Street or Nu Ren Jie are told they must spruce up their English skills in the next three months by passing an exam or they may lose their job.

It's the latest directive by Beijing authorities to get salespeople to speak better English because with the faltering economy, they need the foreigners to spend more money here, not that they have much left anymore with stocks going down the drain.

Nevertheless, sales staff at Nu Ren Jie have been given pamphlets with 18 common English phrases written in Chinese characters to sound like the expressions.

So something like "Welcome" may sound like "Wai Er Keng Mu".


It's "emergency English" to teach mostly uneducated staff to learn a few words to communicate with foreigners in order to boost sales.

But some salespeople have found the strange words even frighten potential customers away because their "emergency English" sounds so weird.

Some law types protest the fact that market administrators have no right to terminate contracts with vendors because of their language proficiency.

Language instructors also think forcing people to learn English is not the way either.

While it is better to have more sales staff speak English, if someone wants to buy something, both sides will find a way to communicate.

It's called a calculator and pointing.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Trying to Keep it Together

The Chinese government has a gargantuan task on its hands.

It has to keep the economy going at the minimum 7.5 percent to 9 percent GDP growth in order to keep most people employed.

But with exports grinding to a trickle, thousands of factories in southern China are closing, leaving hundreds of thousands of migrant workers out of work when they should be working overtime to fill Christmas orders.

Local governments in Guangdong have had to pay the wages of laid-off factory workers whose foreign bosses fled without notice.

Learning from that lesson, provincial authorities in Shangdong and Hubei say that companies there that want to lay off 40 or more workers must ask for approval from the local human resources and social security authorities.

Basically that means no.

Some companies have resorted to either letting their workers go two months early for their Spring Festival holiday, or have cut their salaries -- some reported by as much as 75 percent. How can these factory workers be in a mood to celebrate or splurge for the holidays if they have no money?

Meanwhile, cab drivers in Chongqing, Sanya and a county in Gansu have had violent protests over what they claim are high taxi license fees, high fuel costs and too many illegal taxis taking away their business.

For the first time in a long time, the protests in Chongqing were actually called strikes in the Chinese media, and Communist Party boss Bo Xilai had to personally step in to negotiate with the drivers.

Each municipality or region only allow a certain number of taxis and these licenses are given to the taxi companies. Drivers must get the licenses from these companies and in return must pay what they consider to be high monthly fees for the priviledge.

As a result, some cabbies turn to driving illegal taxis which is more lucrative, but can also land heavy fines if caught. However, it seems many would rather take the chance than play it safe.

Nevertheless, during the Chongqing strike, some taxi drivers attacked those cabs that crossed picket lines, even breaking windows and roughing up some people.

And now with the collapsed tunnel subway construction site in Hangzhou, migrant workers are thinking twice about putting their lives at risk doing dangerous work.

It was shocking to read in the media they make 40RMB a day ($5.85) working on this particular project, and 35RMB to build apartments. Aren't migrant workers worth more than that?

With so far eight confirmed dead and it is assumed the chances of finding the other 13 missing alive are slim, many workers on the subway project are thinking twice about continuing the work that they now consider dangerous.

Some say they just want to get their money and go home. They are too spooked -- and rightly so -- to sacrifice their lives for a subway system they will probably never afford to use.

While the central government recently announced a 4 trillion yuan ($856 billion) stimulus package of mostly infrastructure projects, that only ensures more work for male migrant workers, whereas most of the laid-off workers in factories are women.

On top of that, students graduating from universities and colleges this year are worried they won't be able to get a job at all, as companies are having fewer recruitment drives and even studying at a prestigious university won't guarantee a good job, as salaries have dropped.

The government is anxious to keep the economy going in order to maintain a "harmonious society", but it seems to be falling apart faster than expected. China's reliance on exports was the definitely the wrong move, having a reverberating effect on everything from tourism to retail to taxis.

I'm seeing fewer people going to previously packed restaurants, taxis quite easy to flag down and quiet hotels.

It will take a miracle for the Chinese economy to survive. In the meantime, there is just going to be more and more unrest and the government is not going to be able to placate everyone that easily anymore.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Sad End

The number of deaths from a collapse of a subway construction site in Hangzhou is now eight. Thirteen are still missing and 24 are injured.

The accident happened on Saturday afternoon when the section of road above the subway construction site caved in and it is believed 50 people in total were underground.

What made it worse is that the construction site is near a lake, and water seeped into the crater where the victims are.

It is considered the worst subway construction accident in the country.

Senior government officials have ordered rescuers to do all they can to save those still underground, but rescue crews explained steel girders and columns had to be removed first before they could dig underground, delaying the chances of finding more people alive after the 72-hour critical period.

Chinese media says investigations are underway to find out the cause of the accident, but in the meantime other subway projects in Hangzhou were suspended to make sure they were safe.

They also say that many of the workers were actually farmers from Anhui Province, who had received little training in construction.

While China is madly digging underground as a solution to public transit, it's not a simple task. Feasibility studies should be done, especially risk assessments.

It will be revealed sooner or later whether these were done properly and punishments will be meted out.

In the meantime, for migrant workers to lose their lives on the job while trying to better their families' income is a sad statement about cheap labour in China. It also shows the country's blind ambition to build without safety in mind.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Deflecting Attention

Last week on a recent visit to China Central Television or CCTV, a Chinese official told the Chinese media to shift their focus of just stories on China to increased international news coverage.

Li Changchun is a member of the Standing Committee member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and considered the propaganda chief of the CPC.

He added the media should make more effort in producing more timely, original and popular stories to ensure coverage was widely received around the world.

These kinds of comments sound rather cryptic; considering Chinese state media is tightly controlled, how can domestic news outlets do anything original? And more international news is a possible hint that there is enough bad press about China so please focus on other countries instead.

Other interpretations are welcome as comments to this posting...

Recipe for Burnout

Last week a colleague told me about a talk she attended that was given by a guy who works at one of China's most successful Internet portals,

It was founded in 1999 and its parent company Sina Corporation is listed on the Nasdaq.

As it collates news, does not provide any original stories, instead posting the latest articles or pictures.

According to this staffer, their work on the Internet site is literally non-stop. They have to update the front page with fresh stories -- every three minutes.

That means staring constantly at the computer screen to pick up anything new. Anything.

Office rules are also that bathroom breaks can't be longer than five minutes. If a staffer is not at his or her desk to answer your phone, he or she will be fined a certain amount of yuan. So they have to make sure they carry their cellphone with them while they do their business.

This guy explained when he and his wife recently had a baby, he couldn't have the phone ringer on too loudly to wake the child. So to make sure he was available for every possible phone call, he slept with an earphone on to hear the phone ring.

He added that previously they looked at applicants who had good English skills and had journalism experience; but now they prefer candidates who seem to have a clean bill of health.

While has about 94.8 million users worldwide with the third highest traffic in China, it is by all means a successful site.

But it sounds like people working there could burn out quickly working in a factory that is constantly churning out the latest news.

If all employees do there is copy and past news onto the site, it seems like sheer boredom with unnecessary stress thrown in for good measure.

Hardly the adrenalin-filled newsrooms that Western media are familiar with.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Wanting to Believe

Last weekend I visited the Lama Temple or Yonghegong. With fall in full swing, the leaves on the trees already turned yellow creating a colourful sight, not unlike the ones you see in North America.

This temple is very busy with not only tourists checking out one of the few sanctioned Tibetan temples, but also with locals who seem to visit on a regular basis.

They come armed with packages of joss sticks or incense, burning all of them at once and sticking them in the burner, or literally throwing them into the fire.

Others perhaps wanting to make a more divine offering, place unused joss sticks inside the temples. One wonders if the monks make a tidy business collecting these unused incense sticks and repackage them to sell, or sell them to the vendors just outside the temple to re-sell again.

Some people look like they are ferverently praying, others seem to go through the motions of holding the joss sticks and bowing three times without much thought.

Do they really know what they are believing in? Do they really know what Buddhism, or Tibetan Buddhism is?

Since the government outlaws Tibetans from governing their own land and has cracked down on separatists, there really isn't much objective knowledge about Tibetan Buddhism in China.

In the temple itself there isn't much explanation about the various halls or the statues, the rituals or objects. Either the government doesn't know, or it doesn't want people to know.

Which makes visiting the place a frustrating one, because you are just as mystified by it when you enter as when you leave.

Or maybe that's the whole point?

Friday, November 14, 2008

Quaint Concert

Last night I went to a concert performed by The Orchestra of the 18th Century at the National Center for the Performing Arts, better known as the Egg.

The Orchestra is made up of a group of musicians who specialize in 18th and early 19th century music.

Many play with period instruments or contemporary copies so that they can perform pieces as closely as they can to recreate the same sounds and styles of the late baroque era. Two musicians had brass instruments that looked like the precursor to the trumpet or trombone without the piston valves, and there were french horns with beautiful designs on the inside of the flared bell.

And they tried to re-enact the salon-style concert in the quasi intimate setting of the concert hall in the grand and gigantic egg that has seats with almost no leg room.

Several announcements were made in Chinese telling people to turn off cellphones, not to use cameras or talk during the concert. And overall the audience wasn't too bad compared to previous concerts I've attended. A few people tried to take pictures from their cellphones, but staff quickly spotted them and shot red laser beams at them which was a good preventative measure.

However, the security checks ahead of time were excessive, with patrons not even being allowed to bring in drinks and cameras had to be checked-in.

In the end though, it was a pleasant concert that started off with Mozart's Symphony No. 29 in A major, K201. The conductor was also the lead violinist, who conducted with his bow whenever he had the chance.

Then keyboardist Kristian Bezuidenhout came out and sat at the clavichord which was in the middle of the stage surrounded by the musicians. He's a portly man, but with dainty fingers.

The next piece, Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20 in d minor, KV466 was a delight and I could imagine Wolfgang himself sitting at the keyboard and playing this piece. As soon as the musicians began to play, Bezuidenhout immediately submersed himself, swaying or getting emotional about the music which at times looked comical, but he didn't seem to care.

Nevertheless, his technical skills were fantastic with just the right touch. I quickly realized the clavichord wasn't as loud as a piano which probably dawned on others so they all had to keep quiet.

After several rounds of clapping, there was an intermission, but signage isn't very good and we literally went in circles trying to find the washroom. And soon afterwards the 15-minute break was over and not a drop of drink to be had, again because it was inconveniently far away.

Alas, the last piece was Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major. I wasn't too familiar with this music, but seemed like it was one of the composer's earlier works.

All in all a pleasant musical experience. It's a pity China has spent so much money building an impressive-looking building, only to make the seats for the audiences so uncomfortable. And in the end, isn't this place for the people?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Citizens of the World

Many Chinese "netizens", or Internet users, were livid when they heard actress Gong Li got her Singaporean citizenship over the weekend.

She married Singaporean tobacco tycoon Ooi Hoe Soeng in 1996 and has spent more time abroad, mostly in Hollywood.

But Chinese netizens branded the 43-year-old star of "Red Sorghum", "Raise the Red Lantern" and "Memoirs of a Geisha" as a traitor. China doesn't allow its residents to have dual citizenship, which meant Li had to give up her Chinese passport.

“All traitors will be nailed to history’s mast of shame," said one. "We should resolutely reject any further contact with such people.”

Another fumed: “Traitors like this don’t even love their own country. These people were only fake countrymen of ours. Let them slink off to other countries and die!”

However, there were a few who defended her, saying: “Why doesn’t anyone ask why people want to emigrate? We see one Chinese person after another taking U.S. citizenship. Why don’t we see Americans taking Chinese citizenship?”

Another argued that if given a chance, many others would do the same. “My compatriots, as you blab here, can you really say you love your country? Ask yourself are you not moths as well?”

The fervent reaction from people shows defensive nationalism still runs deep and they'd rather easily attack others than quietly accept that if people have the opportunity, they may want to change their citizenship for ease of travel or other reasons.

Who cares what passport she carries? I'm sure Li will always consider herself Chinese and be proud to be Chinese.

Many other Chinese stars have different passports too. Action star Jet Li is an American, as is director Chen Kaige. Actress Zhang Ziyi has Hong Kong citizenship, but if she marries an American -- as the rumours go -- she might become American too.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

A food safety official in Guangzhou has proposed a novel idea of how to deal with milk contaminated with melamine.

Wang Fang, director of the Guangzhou food safety office says the tainted milk could be used to make bricks and cement.

He told an English-language newspaper that when the milk is burnt in a kiln, the residue could be used to make the building materials.

One wonders how he came up with that innovative solution, other than that it was cheaper to dispose of the milk in this way (700RMB per ton, $102.50) compared to hazardous waste (1,800RMB per ton).

And media reports so far say Guangzhou has 51 tons of tainted milk, but Wang believes there's probably much more than that.

Wang gets points for creativity, but does health-wise he know that the residue from melamine is OK as a material to make cement and bricks? Or is he looking for another way to line his pockets?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Who Says it's Safe?

The other day I bought a dozen eggs at the neighbourhood grocery store and was surprised to find it had a sticker on the right hand side.

The eggs are from Beijing producer De Qing Yuan so it's not one of the Dalian companies whose eggs were found to have melamine in them a few weeks ago.

Anyway, the sticker on the top right with a red border in black characters says "No Melamine".

Who knows who put that sticker there, the producer or food inspectors or even the grocery store.

Regardless it's a sign that egg sales aren't back to normal levels, and someone out there has resorted to putting these stickers on the egg cartons to try to reassure customers.

But like I said, since we don't know who put those stickers on, makes them even more suspicious, or at least makes you wonder who did it.

While I've abstained from domestic milk, yogurt and ice cream, I haven't stopped eating eggs...

Monday, November 10, 2008

Reaching for the Stars

Apparently China had many top astronomers back in the day. One calculated the solar calendar, another figured out there were 365 days in a year and the world's earliest records of solar eclipses.

The Ancient Observatory is the place that commemorates all these people, albeit in a kind of shabbily kept area, in southwest Jianguomen.

Admission is 10RMB which is cheap, and if you're into the history of astronomy you'd be quite impressed by China's accomplishments thousands of years ago.

Up at the top of the building are a series of large bronze astronomical instruments that were built by the Jesuits in the 17th and 18th centuries. Unfortunately the labels don't quite explain what they all do and how they were used.

Then down below there are several busts of astronomers who contributed to China's achievements. How did they know how they looked like back in the day?

In one of the buildings, they emphasize how during the Opium War, French and British forces stole these giant bronze instruments and put them in palaces and gardens. Apparently most of them have been returned.

There's also a small garden which still has roses blooming in November.

Too bad the place couldn't be fixed up a bit more with lively presentations and perhaps even interactive stuff.

Now with the success of the Shenzhou VII mission in late September and plans to build a space station, China should now more than ever remember its past astronomers who made such amazing measurements and calculations before calculators and computers.

That's amazing.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Shopping for a Facade

Over a year ago, residents and businesses in the Qianmen area, just south of Tiananmen Square, were evicted from their homes and shops to make way for a new development for the Olympics.

The project? To recreate old Qianmen from centuries ago, complete with street cars like before.

It took over a year to complete and was supposed to be ready by the May Day holiday, but that didn't happen -- it wasn't even ready for the Olympics either.

Apparently only select foreign visitors could go visit the long pedestrian-friendly area.

One of my friends said the first Apple store in Asia not including Japan would be here, along with brand name stores like Gucci and Prada would be there, standing next to such Chinese "time-honoured" brands as roast duck restaurant Quanjude.

But that didn't happen.

Yesterday afternoon I finally made my first visit to the area and while it was a nice-looking street with old stores recreated with Chinese facades, the vast majority of the store fronts were empty.

And the street cars developers had promised would work and passengers could try the "ding ding" for a small fee sat immobile.

Also, what's with the lamps that look like covered bird cages? As the late afternoon quickly turned to dusk, the street lamps weren't even lit either.

Only about three restaurants were open, including one that had a line-up in front of the door.

It was really disappointing to see after all the effort, time, money and then hype, there really wasn't much to see at Qianmen after all.

Why couldn't the government just have let the people and businesses stay where they were? Or was this some officials' brilliant plan to revive the area and instead create a white elephant?

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Two-Tiered System

Today is Journalists' Day in China.

And the media here makes a point of publicising the fact which is quite ironic.

What are they really recognising? That they don't give domestic reporters the freedom to ask questions and make the government more accountable?

A few weeks ago the Chinese government made a big deal about extending its easing of restrictions for foreign media.

Just before 11pm on a Friday, the Foreign Ministry invited foreign journalists to a press conference. As hardly anything barring natural disasters like earthquakes is breaking news, this sounded important.

So the foreign media rushed down to the ministry's briefing hall and 15 minutes before midnight, spokesman Liu Jianchao announced that the easing of restrictions for foreign media in China would be extended beyond the deadline that would have ended at 12 midnight.

"This is not only a big step forward for China in opening up to the outside world," Liu said, waving a printout of the regulations. "It's also a big step for further facilitating reporting by foreign journalists."

While these regulations theoretically allow foreign reporters to go almost wherever they want (barring places like Tibet and military installations), they still get hassles from small towns or less populated areas where officials aren't apparently keeping up with the latest updates from the central government.

And while some journalists tell me that this regulation has made life much easier in general, they still get the occasional roughing up or tailing from police.

The Foreign Correspondents' Club of China recorded more than 180 cases of interference, including detaining journalists and physical assaults.

And these are only the foreign journalists -- these regulations don't apply to domestic reporters at all.

Article 35 of China's constitution guarantees press freedom and yet its own reporters are detained or imprisoned for their work.

In a recent ranking of press freedom, Reporters Without Borders ranked China 167th, behind Iran.

So why celebrate Journalists' Day when they're not even allowed to do their jobs properly?

Friday, November 7, 2008

Bonding with 007

007 fans in China are bragging about seeing the latest Bond movie, Quantum of Solace before those in the United States.

It was released two days ago on November 5 and a friend of mine even went to the midnight showing, securing some of the last few seats in the theatre.

And yes, as a Daniel Craig fan he loved every minute of the 106-minute flick which made it through the Chinese censors without any cuts.

Whoo hoo.

Why was it released earlier in China? Probably a preemptive move to prevent fake DVD copies of it from going around if the film was released later.

Most people think, why pay 50 to 60RMB for a ticket, when they can get a copy for 10RMB?

We'll have to see if that works or not.

But Bond is definitely hot property.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Caught in the Middle

Dongguan, a city near Shenzhen in the Pearl River Delta is witnessing a lot of factory closings lately.

It's been called the world's factory floor, with over 30 percent of the world's toys made there.

But many companies there with mostly Hong Kong and Taiwanese owners are closing up shop without giving much advance warning.

It started with Smart Union, a toy company that closed suddenly on October 15, leaving thousands of workers without pay. And now the Dongguan Weixu Shoe Company has also mysteriously closed its doors.

The owners say it's because of falling orders because of the global financial crisis, but some workers who have been at these factories for years, think they're using it as an excuse to bail out and take their profits with them.

Many of the factories in the southern Chinese city are foreign owned and most just rent the premises and warehouse space. Few actually sink in much investment to build their own factories, which probably explains the poor working conditions the workers must put up with.

And up until recently, things were good, with cash rolling in from orders from the United States and Europe.

But with the new labour law that came into effect in January that incurred more costs on factory owners, as well as the rising costs of oil and other raw materials, profits started getting squeezed. And now with the global financial meltdown starting to happen, many find it doesn't make any business sense to keep going.

Or there have been some who have taken all the profits and poured them into poor investments, as we've seen stocks here plummet this year, or used the money for their own devices rather than reinvesting back into the company.

So instead of doing the proper thing of paying off workers' salaries and giving notice, these owners have literally fled, some without a trace, and leaving employees and the Dongguan government holding the bag.

Many laid-off workers hang out at the abandoned factories, hoping someone will show up to pay them, or find work elsewhere.

But these restless people that are up in the tens of thousands are making the Dongguan government nervous, as these migrant workers could cause social unrest that could lead to chaos.

So the municipal government has had to take the responsibility of looking after these migrant workers, by using public coffers to pay these laid-off workers the salaries owed to them.

And while some workers are pleased they are getting money from somewhere, others are concerned about the future; that even if they do find another job there, the salary may be lower or that they could be laid off again.

It sounds like the good times have come to an end. China is trying to stimulate domestic demand, but really, most middle class people who were ambitious, put a lot of money in stocks and don't have the extra money to spend.

The government is also trying to push companies to establish their own brands, but there isn't much innovation in the market that's coming out of China, except for OK copies of things.

It'll be interesting to see how the country gets out of this quagmire, that's only beginning.

Economists are still trying to paint an optimistic picture, that China's GDP will still go strong at 9.4 percent, which is the first time in over a decade that it's dipped below double digits.

But when over 60 percent of your economy is based on exports, it really doesn't look too good for the country.

People are going to be choosier with their money which could eventually lead to better services and products -- but not without lots of layoffs and cost cutting ahead.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Change Starts Now

We here in Beijing woke up anxious this morning to see what kind of government the United States will have starting in January 2009.

And towards lunchtime it was clear Barack Obama would become the 44th President of America.

I bumped into an American colleague who gently punched my shoulder and happily said, "America is great again!"

That sentiment was echoed by friends and family in the US as well.

Change is here.

"It's been a long time coming, but tonight... change has come to America," the president-elect told the giant crowd in Chicago.

"If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer," he said.

He has captured the imagination of immigrants who now see you can come from nowhere and become a somebody.

And he has realized the dreams of minorities who now have proof that it doesn't matter what the colour of your skin is, you too can be the President of the United States.

His campaign was able to transcend the race issue. Through his consistent message of change, and trying to show people he came from an ordinary working family, Obama was able to speed past fellow rival Hillary Clinton and then John McCain.

But now the real work begins.

Everyone, including people in China, have pinned their hopes on Obama to solve many problems, from the war in Iraq to the global financial crisis.

However, he has already warned people in his speech that it won't be that easy.

"Even as we celebrate tonight, we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime - two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century.

"The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. But America - I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there."

Hopefully his words will translate to some kind of action.

And his insistence that we get there together, has inspired us to say that yes, we can.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Driving Towards More Confusion

Traffic during the week is not bad these days, as some 800,000 cars are pulled off the roads at any given time between Monday to Friday.

I manage to get to work at a decent time taking the bus, and in about 15 minutes by taxi. Gone are the long lines of cars waiting to turn left from the fourth ring road onto Huixin Dong Jie.

So for people like me who take public transit, it's great.

But drivers find the whole exercise confusing.

Since October 11, there is a specific schedule of when cars can go on or off the roads depending on the last number of the license plate.

It goes like this:

On Mondays, it's 1 and 6
Tuesday it's 2 and 7
Wednesday it's 3 and 8
Thursday it's 4 and 9
Friday it's 5 and 0.

Everyone can drive on the weekends.

But apparently car owners are so confused by the rules that the Beijing Youth Daily runs a front-page notice to remind them.

So now the municipal government is now going to make things even more confusing starting from this Monday November 10. Apparently some cars that were previously banned on Mondays can now drive on this day, but not on Tuesdays. Cars banned on other days of the week are pushed back a day.


What was wrong with the system we have now? Or should we make things even more simple (and better) by having the odd and even number rule?

A friend who owns a car but doesn't use it frequently admitted to me that he liked the odd and even number rule during the Olympics. Since he lives in the sixth ring road, commutes to work by driving were so great for him in that two-month period.

But now the traffic flow doesn't make too much of a difference to him and he has to battle the crowds on the subway everyday. "One day isn't too big of a sacrifice, but it doesn't have much impact on me," he said.

The government better not make things even more confusing, as the news reports didn't further explain which cars could be exempted from these number rules and why.

In the meantime, since public transit is basically state-run, can't there be more buses on the roads so that they make commuting more convenient for people, and run at later times too? Ending a bus route at 10pm and subways just before 11pm just don't cut it.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Betting on Change

In the summer of 2007 just as the race for the US Democratic leadership was starting to heat up, many Chinese supported Hillary Clinton.

Why? "She could be the first woman in the White House," was what many replied.

Others explained they were familiar with her since her husband Bill had been president before.

But many foreigners, especially young American expats in Beijing were pushing for Barack Obama.

To them, he represented change.

They were tired of George W Bush's prolonged war in Iraq that seemed to make no progress, pushing the economy further into debt. To them, he did nothing to inspire young people to be proud of their country.

Obama's background of working in the rough neighbourhoods of Chicago and his philosophy of talking to people and listening to what they have to say has given people hope that perhaps now they will be heard.

For the Chinese, Clinton seemed like a sure thing, but they were wary of her attacks against China, especially when melamine was found in petfood, leading her to criticize Chinese food quality standards. Nevertheless, they still felt she had much more experience in politics than Obama.

But over a year later, and after Clinton finally exited stage right for Obama to fight Republican John McCain for the White House, the Chinese have jumped on the bandwagon.

They too are eagerly watching from the sidelines, curious to see if a black man can become the 44th President of the United States.

There was no question the Chinese are hoping for the Democrats to win -- China disliked Bush for the war in Iraq and now with the US economy tanking, it's dragging the most populous nation along with it with less demands for Chinese-made goods.

Also, a large number of Chinese people who are engaged in international affairs get their information from the Internet, and this segment of the population are young people. So it's no wonder they are keen for a 47-year-old like Obama to beat 72-year old McCain.

Perhaps this is a veiled wish the Chinese are hoping for the changing of the guard in their country too.

One can only hope.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Dangerous Profession

October was not a good month for teachers in China.

Three were killed by their own students.

On October 4, 16-year-old Li Ming of Suzhou No. 2 Middle School in Shanxi stabbed his teacher Hao Xudong, 23, to death with a knife.

Li's parents began divorce proceedings last month and according to news reports, he wrote in his diary: "Nobody cares about me. I hate society and teachers".

Tragedy struck again on October 21, when another 16-year-old, Ding Yutian, strangled his teacher Pan Weixian to death when she visited his home.

He had played hooky the day before and hung out at an Internet Cafe.

Ding was living with his grandparents as his parents also split up a few years ago.

Then on October 29, a final year student surnamed Fu used a kitchen knife to stab his professor Cheng Chunming at the University of Political Science and Law in Beijing's Changping District.

He attacked Cheng, 43, as class was about to start, in front of several students. Cheng died of excessive blood loss from knife wounds in the neck.

The Beijing News has now quoted police as saying Fu's motive for the attack was that Cheng was involved with Fu's girlfriend. Complicating matters is that Cheng left behind a wife who is five months' pregnant.

Regardless, in the above three cases, do people really think murder is the solution to their problems?

The Ministry of Education blames these incidents on the lack of moral education and psychological counselling.

Figures from the Ministry of Health say China has 340 million young people under the age of 17. And about 22 to 32 percent of them have personality problems.

That means there could be 75-108 million young people that are ticking time bombs with irrational behaviour.

What is really the problem are the parents.

A small percentage are from wealthy families who indulge their child to no end, and giving their son or daughter the impression that there are no limits on their behaviour.

Then there are those working families who basically raise latch-key kids, children who are left to their own devices for most of the time, and their mothers and fathers are either too tired to parent them or don't know how to teach them what is right or wrong.

Some of these working families don't even live with their children -- they leave their children behind with grandparents in villages or other towns, who are not really in a position or have the energy to parent the kids.

What it all boils down to is neglect.

A colleague who used to be a teacher was horrified to read about these attacks. She says if people don't have time to look after a child they shouldn't even have one.

She's right, but it's societal pressure and couples' parents who expect them to have their only grandchild.

It's a vicious cycle, but more must be done to teach parents that good parenting must start from the beginning, otherwise you could end up with a problem child... who thinks killing someone is the only way to get attention.

Uncoordinated Leisure

My friend and I had talked about going to Fragrant Hills, which is northwest of Beijing to see the leaves turn colour.

But we were put off by the massive hordes of people who descend on the mountainous area each weekend as well as the probably more than hour and a half bus ride over there.

So we decided to Chaoyang Park instead, considered Beijing's equivalent to Central Park.

It took us about 30 minutes to get there by bus and then we paid 5RMB each to get in at the West Gate entrance. What a deal.

We decided to jog around the park and took a look at the park map. The park is basically in a rectangular shape with trails inside it and the routes looked straight forward.

But when we started running, there were forks in the road and no signage to say where each route went. Worse, there were times we faced dead ends and had to backtrack.

The "main road" kept changing in design, either widely paved, or a relatively narrow path with a floral mosaic design, or with brick inlay (which are bad for running on).

We went through many detours that included running around a few ponds, the venue for Olympic beach volleyball, an amusement park area with a baby roller coaster, and an "eco-stream", that was stagnant and filled with algae.

At the same time, it was really windy, and at one point, I felt like the wind was so strong, it could almost pick me up and blow me away.

However, we were grateful to see a lot of trees around and breathe some quasi fresh oxygen. The patches of grass got my friend really excited too.

After about an hour we finally made it to the North Gate entrance, but it was more relief from frustration than a good jog or leisurely saunter through the park.

If the signage was much clearer, especially at forks in the road, then more people would probably appreciate the park. Right now it's a place people can definitely get lost in.