Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Expat Outrage

The other day I was in line at the MTR station in Admiralty to add more money to my Octopus card at the customer service counter.

In front of me was a young British expat father, his wife holding their kid, and him pushing the stroller.

When it was his turn, he threw down his black American Express card and Octopus card and asked the woman behind the counter to put HK$500 on it.

She politely explained that the customer service counters didn't have machines to accept credit cards and that they only took cash.

He made the same demand again, saying other counters at the Airport Express did that, but again she had to repeat that the counter at all MTR stations had no capability of accepting credit cards.

By this time he was thoroughly annoyed and took back the credit card and whipped out a few hundred Hong Kong dollars and threw them down on the counter in disgust.

With a few clicks of her mouse she added the money onto his card, but one could tell she did her utmost to tolerate his rude behaviour.

It was this snobbish attitude that made Hong Kong people so relieved to see the Brits go in 1997. The SAR has another master, but that's another story.

Regardless, it's annoying to see this kind of behaviour still exist over 10 years later.

If he can't handle not being able to use a credit card to add money to his Octopus card, how would he ever survive in Beijing or China where they wouldn't even bother to give him an explanation?

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Betting on a New Landscape

In the last few years Macau has changed considerably.

It used to be a sleepy town my friends and I visited periodically, wandering down the narrow alleyways and checking out Chinese antiques and eating Portugese egg tarts.

The old famous spots are still there -- the ruins of St Paul's, A-Ma Temple, and of course Casino Lisboa.

But nowadays it has morphed into a mini version of Las Vegas, with names like Wynn, The Venetian, Sands and MGM Grand tacking their shingles onto the Macau skyline.

It's so odd seeing the American version of gambling in this former Portugese enclave and one wonders how long it will be sustainable.

In October the Chinese government again restricted the number of times mainlanders could go to Macau to gamble. Now it's only four times a year and they must apply for permission separately from Hong Kong.

As a result, business has slowed down considerably there leading to many lay-offs in the hospitality industry and construction on new casinos on hold. However, it was good for us, as it wasn't too busy and we didn't see a lack of taxis which was previously the case.

We didn't gamble, but checked out the Wynn. Even before we walked into the hotel, we watched the fountain show that happens every 15 minutes. And the coordinated fountains danced to which song?

Money Makes the World Go Round. How appropriate.

Then we went inside and oohed and ahhed at all the designer shops -- Prada, Chanel, Tiffany, and Louis Vuitton. There was even a Ferrari store, selling accessories featuring the Italian car brand.

In another part of the hotel, there was another show even half hour. The round ceiling was divided into 12 segments, each with an animal from the Chinese zodiac, and below a half dome.

At the appointed time, the ceiling opened up to reveal a screen showing crazy graphics. But one comment was that it was like watching his screen saver on his computer. True...

But then the graphics later revealed a giant chandelier that descended and then the dome below opened up to reveal... an oak tree.

The tree rose up and it was covered in glitter so that when the lights shone on it, it would change to different colours according to the four seasons.

People started throwing coins at the tree, perhaps suggesting it was a wishing tree, or a symbol of fertility, good luck, or maybe environmental protection?

In the end the tree descended again, the chandelier disappeared and was covered up by the animals again with a loud dramatic thud.

Show over.

While the city has changed so much since the handover in 1999, the food remains the same.

For lunch we had pork buns, half bagettes that had thin slices of pork chops that were absolutely delicious, and small Portugese egg tarts that we popped into our mouths for dessert. We also had some spicy pork jerky that was better than the non-spicy ones.

And then in the late afternoon, we headed to Hac Sa or black sand beach where we at Fernando's, a culinary institution in Macau.

We had the roast pork that featured russet-coloured thick crispy skin, and tender meat, and prawns in a tomato-based sauce with a touch of spice. The only sad thing was not having enough bread to soak up all the sauce.

It was disappointing not having the stir-fried clams, but the waitress told us the clams today had too much sand so they didn't buy any. Instead we also had pan-fried fish and crab that had a thick shell. I managed to pry most of the shell off the pincher to get a big chunk of meat.

Many raved about the salad, particularly the tomatoes that were very fresh and tasted ripe. Many salads these days have what look like red tomatoes but don't have much taste. The flavours were heightened by sprinkles of sea salt.

Our stomachs sated, we headed back to Hong Kong, with fond memories of the food and marvelled at the changes in Macau.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Bargain Bazaar

This afternoon we checked out The 43rd Hong Kong Brands & Products Expo held in Victoria Park in Causeway Bay.

I don't normally check out these kinds of fairs, but it was a way to kill some time in the afternoon.

After paying a HK$10 entrance fee, we were inundated by the scale of the bazaar and the number of people in it.

Practically covering the entire area of the park, booths were set up everywhere in rows and organized into categories like "Hong Kong Brands Square", "Living & Household Zone", "Beauty & Healthcare Zone" and "Fashion & Stylish Products Zone".

But we first encountered the "Food & Beverage Zone" with vendors shouting out to people to try a variety of snacks for sale, from fish balls to slices of pancakes filled with jam and drinks. Luckily there were lots of garbage cans around for people to dump their trash.

There were also lots of food demonstrations from how to best use knives from Henckel, to buying XO sauce from Lee Kum Kee (three jars for HK$200), and Pei Pa Koh, a kind of Chinese herbal cough syrup that apparently had some bird's nest in it. We sampled it but didn't find any of the Chinese delicacy in the plastic cup.

However, we got a good deal at the Sun Shun Fuk stand that is known for its noodles. They were selling four bowls of instant noodles for HK$60 and we bought eight and the woman threw in several other packages of noodles and udon.

We won't have anymore hunger pangs in the middle of the night anymore.

Apart from the food stalls, there were others selling homeware, like plates and bowls, vacuum cleaners and even heated toilet seats from Korea.

But the fashion section was disappointing, with booths selling lots of fleece or winter jackets, strands of pearls that seemed too good to be real, and shoes that were not quite stylish.

On the whole it was quite crowded, but things went relatively smoothly as long as you were patient and willing to take your time. After about an hour we had had enough and just before we left, spied a statue of Queen Victoria, after whom the park is named.

The public space is best known as the place where candlelight vigils are held to remember the victims of the Tiananmen Square Massacre and usually the start place of protests.

I remember many years ago sitting above the park at the Park Lane Hotel and looking down during the Mid-Autumn Festival, and seeing it completely it with candles and lights, creating a beautiful, luminous atmosphere.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Stylish Face

We heard about a good Thai/Vietnamese restaurant in Hong Kong's IFC, so we went to check it out today for Christmas lunch.

Fearing there may be hordes of people, we made a reservation for 12:30pm and we warned that our table would only be held an extra 10 minutes.

But when we got there a few minutes early, the restaurant was practically empty save for two tables that were occupied.

It didn't look like a good sign.

But the atmosphere is very chic, with dark wood, sleek lines and cool atmospheric music in the background that helped us escape temporarily from the cheesy Christmas songs in the mall.

Because we were early and made a reservation, we got to sit in a booth by the window that looked out onto IFC One, where the Hong Kong station for the Airport Express is located. Beyond that is Victoria Harbour.

The menu wasn't too cheap considering it was Thai and Vietnamese food. Vietnamese spring rolls with prawns were over HK$100. Not quite what I had in mind.

However, we were recommended to try deep-fried buttered chicken wings and it was a hearty serving with six wings and drumsticks that had a light-coloured batter and covered in chopped garlic.

They weren't that special and it seemed strange that as a side dish it was the last one to arrive at the table.

We also ordered the seafood pad Thai that was quite good, with large prawns, squid rings, rice noodles, chives, scrambled eggs and generous amounts of bean sprouts. Dried chillis and peanuts were on the side along with half a lime.

Stir-fried Morning Glory was also delicious, cooked with fresh chillis for a slight kick to the green vegetable.

Our drinks were refreshing -- mine a lemongrass lime soda that came with a stick of lemongrass in the glass that looked round at the top and then oval at the bottom. The other, freshly squeezed pomelo juice was good.

The restaurant is quite the people-watching place, as the centre of the room features a rectangular seating area and in the middle is a fountain level with the table surface.

Other design asethetics caught our eye, from the water jugs to the chairs that had a wooden slot that slid out for people to place their purses and shopping on.

In the end lunch for two was HK$386 ($49.80).

Shop 2004
2521 1117

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Still Humming

Despite technically being in a recession, Hong Kong seems to continue its bustling pace. Or then again maybe it's because it's Christmas.

I arrived yesterday afternoon amid the Christmas eve rush only to be caught in a traffic jam in Central.

And later at dinner time, my relatives and I had wanted to go to a Japanese restaurant at the International Finance Centre or IFC. This place that serves sushi on a rotating belt is already popular so we thought we'd get there before 6pm.

But when we arrived at 5:45pm, we got a number -- 62 -- and they were serving number 41.

So we changed gears and headed over to another part of the mall to Crystal Palace, a chain restaurant run by Maxims and luckily we only had to wait about 10 minutes.

But that place was packed and it wasn't hard to see why.

Serving northern Chinese food, like dumplings and hand-pulled noodles, the dishes were delicious and hearty.

The six of us ate 14 dishes and bowls of noodles, and almost polished off all of them.

My uncle was quite impressed. "Dessert?" he asked.

We all shook our heads.

"You wouldn't know there was an economic downturn here," he said to me. I remarked things in Beijing had already started slowing down, in the restaurants and shops.

He said things will start to look bad next year. Hong Kong slowing down was a sad thought.

As we wandered around the shops at IFC to get to the MTR station, we could see many "sale" signs everywhere, some with "50% off" or "further reductions".

Lots of people were still getting in their last-minute Christmas shopping, but retailers are probably just happy to get rid of as much merchandise as they could.

But back in our hotel, things were in a festive mood in the lobby lounge, where a live band was playing, people dressed up and wearing hats and crowns usually reserved for New Years' parties.

There were even balloons caged up on the ceiling waiting to cascade down at midnight.

It was a bit surreal celebrating the birth of Jesus with champagne.

Maybe the city is in denial about the economic downturn, or maybe it's its perennial fighting spirit that nothing will get Hong Kong down.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Canine Couture

The temperatures in Beijing have been really dropping. And when it's windy, it's damn cold.

I've already been wearing my long padded coat -- or as a friend has quipped -- the sleeping bag jacket to keep me pretty warm.

But don't forget the pets.

Most of the dogs I've seen around town with their masters are dressed up too. Many wear sweaters or coats, some probably wondering why they have to wear outfits.

But today has topped all of them.

As I walked to the office I saw this dog done up in a suit with Chinese floral fabric complete with booties.

It was outside a shop waiting for its mistress to appear. I know it's a mistress because I've seen the dog before in other fashionable threads.

Either it was pleased to get all this attention, or dying to get home so it get rid of the human-like clothing.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Warming Up to Winter Solstice

Yesterday was winter solstice and it was definitely a blast of freezing cold air.

My friend and I were waiting for the bus and when he drank some water and it spilled onto his ski jacket, it immediately turned into frost.

Yep it was that cold.

But the good thing was, we were heading to a place to warm up.

Comptoirs de France is a nice hangout for lazy weekend afternoons, with its tempting array of pastries, sandwiches and ice creams.

The bakery has just started its chocolate fondue special of 99RMB ($14.45) for two.

We were given a small glass of water each with a plate, spoon and fondue fork each.

After a while, the mini feast arrived, a large pot of melted chocolate heated by a tea light, surrounded by cookies, diced dragon fruit, kiwi and a selection of ice creams.

I'm not quite sure why they included ice creams, but we had to eat those first. The flavours were mango (not quite mango-y), strawberry, raspberry (very good) and a creamy chocolate.

Then we dug into the fondue itself, dipping the cookies in and lavishing them with lots of warm liquid chocolate before putting them into our mouths.

It would have been better to have more fruits, especially strawberries, but they weren't available. Marshmallows would have made it an even sweeter experience.

Nevertheless, we soon finished the small plates and didn't have anything else to go with the chocolate... perhaps we should have asked for some bread for some pain au chocolat...

Comptoirs de France
Business Building No. 5 First Floor
Hairun International Apartment
B2 Jiangtai Road, Lido
5135 7645

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Hangin' with Santa

Yesterday at Wangfujing Street, people were getting into the Christmas spirit even though December 25th isn't a holiday here.

The shopping area was busy as always, but there were lots of decorations to get people into a festive mood in the hopes of getting them to spend their money.

And at one street corner from behind, it looked like there was someone dressed up like Santa Claus and people taking turns to take pictures.

But when I came around the other side I realized there was a nice seat for people to pose next to the Big Guy who was jazzing things up with a saxophone in hand.

It's just interesting to see how the Chinese see Christmas and they may wonder eventually wonder if they will get the day off to celebrate the birth of Jesus and get sucked into the commercialism of the holiday.

Or maybe not.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Get Moving... Now!

China is so thrilled because its citizens are becoming more physically active.

How many? According to a State General Administration of Sport survey, 340 million, or 28.2 percent of the population.

The survey adds the urban population exercises more regularly than those in the rural areas.

One wonders what this definition of physically active is, because I'm sure there are millions of farmers in the countryside who don't have a desk job or watch television all day.

Nevertheless, the government believes this awareness of physical fitness came about after China was named the host city for the 2008 Beijing Games seven years ago.

The Chinese people's most favourite activities? First on the list is walking and jogging, followed by table tennis, badminton, basketball and tennis.

While Sheng Zhiguo, head of the Sports for All department under the administration raves about the increased numbers, he does admit the figures are much lower than that of developed countries, that have even stricter criteria in grading people who do regular exercise.

For example, in 2006, 49 percent of seniors in the United States spent more than 30 minutes doing physical exercise five times a week.

Maybe for some of those numbers, that entailed window shopping at the mall...

Anyway, Sheng blames China's numbers on people here having less time devoted to exercise and less sports facilities.

The latter might be true, as people here are more inclined to do sports or activities that are practically free.

But not having much time to exercise is an excuse for many.

Ask any of my colleagues who live in the company dormitories or near the office what they do after work, and many of them say watch TV, watch DVDs or sleep.

As a result, many of them come to work looking tired, bags under their eyes or with pale-looking faces.

I've tried to encourage them to do some exercise to give them more energy and feel less stressed.

But few have taken my advice, and the sallow lacklustre looks continue coming into the office, dreading the work day.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Not So Bad After All

Tomorrow is the 30th anniversary of Reform and Opening Up, thanks to former leader Deng Xiaoping, China has become the world's factory.

But no one could foresee the current global financial crisis which has put a damper on the celebrations with factories closing, people losing jobs and consumers tightening the grip on their wallets.

Even though the factory closures are in southern China, people here in Beijing are pinching their pennies.

Fewer people are dining at restaurants, but a good thing is that fewer customers are wasting food. I used to see tables of two eating for at least four people and then leaving dishes barely touched.

There seems to be more people taking public transit these days, and squeezing onto a subway train takes as much patience as you can muster especially during rush hour.

Bus assistants seem to have shorter tempers too, constantly shouting at passengers to move to the back of the bus when we're already packed in like sardines in puffy nylon coats.

Almost everyone seems to be in a foul mood.

Yesterday I had a rough day, but not because of money. I caught a bus in the morning but when I wanted to get off, I was stuck behind some people and the door closed before I could get near the door. The bus drove off to the next stop which I got off of and I had to run back to my bus stop to catch another bus to work.

I didn't sprint, but jogged quite fast. By the time I made it to the bus stop, I was wheezing from the dry cold air.

After I got on the bus, thinking everything was fine, I checked my bag only to realize I had left my cell phone at home.

I thought I could live without it for the day, but by lunchtime I was itching for it and after I finished eating, I took the bus home and retrieved my phone.

For the rest of the day I was still coughing periodically which frightened me; was I developing some kind of lung problem?

I was relieved when my cough subsided and then disappeared after drinking lots of chrysanthemum tea.

After work I hunted around the Silk Market for Christmas gifts, and bargaining took lots of effort. However, my evening was salvaged after a delicious dinner that gave me some energy. I was too tired to face the subway so I took a taxi home.

And the taxi driver was so polite and quiet, and driving steadily, I felt like I was driven home by a chauffeur.

It renewed my faith in Beijing.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Havoc in the Skies

It's not even Christmas yet, but already there is a mad rush for Chinese New Year or Spring Festival airline tickets.

Yesterday afternoon I tried to book tickets to Sanya, Hainan Island for some sun and surf from an e-ticket purchasing website called e-Long.

About half an hour later a woman from e-Long called to confirm my reservation and could I pay for the tickets now even though I promised to pay for them a few days later on Saturday.

I explained I didn't have the cash on me and would rather come get the tickets myself.

But today I received a text message from the company saying the airline had cancelled my reservation.

Excuse me?

I called back e-Long and they politely explained they were at the mercy of the airline who felt a reservation wasn't good enough and took back the tickets to re-sell at another price, usually a more expensive one.

The manager explained that this was a common practice of airlines, a way to make customers pay as soon as possible to secure seats.

However, the airline industry in China is still a fledgling one as the majority of consumers cannot afford to fly.

So how is it that airline companies can treat potential customers this way, cancelling a reservation when I had the intention to pay?

What is also interesting is that because of the current financial crisis, airlines in China are losing lots of money.

Most of them have some kind of state ownership and they have been told by the government not to purchase anymore new planes to cut costs.

But also most of these airlines are saddled with huge amounts of debt that amounts to hundreds of millions of yuan. Each.

For example Shanghai Airlines reported losses of 414 million yuan ($60.47 million) in the past three quarters this year, with its debt-to-asset ratio at 91.35 percent.

That's not a really good financial position to be in.

Just the other day the government bailed out China Southern Airlines and China Eastern Airlines with 3 billion yuan ($438 million) each.

Many have not paid their airport fees, others also hedged on jet fuel, buying when it was a high price and now oil has dropped to below $50 a barrel. Some have even reported airports refusing to refuel their planes unless they paid the cash upfront. Literally.

How embarassing.

The government really needs to look at the airline industry and restructure management and also look at how they are run. It looks like there may be too many companies and none of them seem to be managed properly let alone efficiently.

In the meantime, what about us customers? If these airlines are losing money like the constant news reports say they are, then why treat us like shit?

Monday, December 15, 2008

Still Enthralled... Sort of

Today I talked to my colleagues about the biopic of Mei Lanfang that I reviewed yesterday.

We unanimously agreed Leon Lai as the older Mei was not very good, not even a good actor! What was director Chen Kaige thinking! we all wondered.

But some managed to confirm some facts about Mei for me.

The movie trailers play up the affair between Mei and Meng Xiaodong, another Peking opera performer played by Zhang Ziyi. The film just hints that it's an affair, but in real life they were "married", as Mei took her as a concubine. Apparently he was given permission to do this before the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949.

But we're not sure when she "divorced" him and went to Taiwan to marry a tycoon.

The film also has a main character called San Ge or Third Brother who become's Mei's agent, promoting him. My co-workers say that he did exist and was a major influence in Mei's life.

One colleague felt the section about the Sino-Japanese war was too dramatic, as Mei was appreciated by many Japanese. But I explained to him that plots need tension to create suspense for the audience.

"So critics say the director changed the history too much," he said.

Poor Chen.

This is probably his most challenging work to date, but fictionalizing history may have been too much, even for Mei Lanfang, who depended on a bit of drama to enthrall his audience.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Review: Forever Enthralled/Mei Lanfang

Last year I visited renowned Peking opera star Mei Lanfang's home in Beijing and was amazed to learn about this talented man.

He raised the standard of Peking opera and exposed the art form to the west when he visited the United States. There he met such stars as Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford.

He is also forever immortalized in Chinese students' textbooks for resisting the Japanese when they tried to force him to perform for them; but he refused and protested by growing a moustache as he was famous for interpreting female roles.

There is also a scandalous side of him -- having an affair with another Peking opera star, a woman named Meng Xiaodong who was known for playing male roles.

So how do you incorporate all of these elements into a film?

Director Chen Kaige attempts to do this in two hours and 40 minutes in Forever Enthralled or Mei Lanfang; it's challenging and requires viewers to already have background knowledge on Mei and modern Chinese history.

The biopic shows Mei's rise in the Peking opera world, upstaging his master in popularity and challenging traditions in the art form.

The younger Mei is portrayed by Yu Shaoqun and is an excellent choice. He himself is a Peking opera performer -- but he usually plays male parts. So he had to learn all the movements and songs of female parts and is very convincing. Also as an actor he looks like Mei in real life, with puckered lips and a sweet round face.

Then into adulthood we see the older Mei played by Cantopop star Leon Lai (Li Ming) who seems to immediately fall for Meng (Zhang Ziyi). My colleagues who had seen the movie complained Lai was very stiff and I have to agree. It seemed like he was holding back and not giving enough emotion to the role.

Nevertheless, the audience can see the attraction between the two and his wife's frustration at their relationship.

This section of the movie is quite short; we don't see what happens to her, but when the Communists took over, she fled to Taiwan until her death. My friend said she was very unhappy for the rest of her life despite marrying rich.

The third phase of the film follows him to America, and his fear of Peking opera being shunned by westerners, but in fact he's a rousing success.

Finally, the last part looks at the Japanese occupation and how they tried to force Mei to perform.

In the movie he asks a doctor to inject him with a virus to give him flu-like symptoms making him unable to perform, along with growing a moustache. A Japanese commander who admired Mei had tried to lure him back onto the stage and in the end paid with his life.

And then it kind of ends abruptly with no footnotes about what happened to Mei after the end of the war to the rest of his life, nor about Meng.

While most of the content of the movie is there, one can see Chen had to make several edits to keep the movie under three hours. Scenes start and stop abruptly without much time to set the scene or atmosphere which is too bad for a film like this.

That's why it's important viewers already know the background behind Mei to be able to follow the story.

Also -- I watched the film and it had no English subtitles. Luckily I was able to catch most of what was going on and afterwards had to ask my friend to go over certain parts to understand the details of the dialogue.

It's not as beautifully filmed as Chen's other Peking opera film, Farewell My Concubine, but then again this is more a biopic than an artistically stylish piece.

Hopefully Forever Enthralled will give Mei a new life especially to younger audiences who hardly know much about the man who was revolutionary in his own day.

His dedication to his art form, as the movie says, shows the purity of his heart. If only all of us could strive for that.

Friday, December 12, 2008

G for Glam

There's a relatively new boutique hotel in Beijing called Hotel G.

It's tucked near the club district on the west side of Worker's Stadium near Sanlitun.

British architect Mark Lintott renovated a previously gaudy building into an ultra hip hotel. During the day it looks pretty much nondescript dark-coloured building, but at night, its windows light up in individual colours, with the intention of drawing in cool people.

However, on my visit it looked pretty empty.

The lobby has pieces of art work on the walls, but no bench or couch for people to sit around in. The lobby also leads to the bar and restaurant called 25 Degrees, also not really filled with customers, but I was promised served good burgers.

Upstairs in the hallways leading to the rooms, subtle club-like music is played, lulling guests into a party mood.

The rooms are pretty sleek -- looking like one cool bachelor pad -- with a glitzy chandelier, grey-silver satin bed cover, couch, HD TV and tall closets with mirrors.

The bathroom is modern too -- white with dark stone tiles, with a bathtub and a shower stall. All the bath products come from L'Occitane which adds a nice detail.

However, the heating system went haywire and I was hot -- really hot. There was no way to turn down the room temperature except open the windows. But that meant hearing sounds from outside -- residential sounds -- from kids running down the street to the garbage truck picking up refuse.

The health club is on the sixth floor but at the time the jacuzzi wasn't ready yet so I all I did was work out a bit in the cramped gym. Machines were shoved into a small almost windowless white room. A resistance machine is also set up which is kind of cool, but not really for those who want to pump some iron.

There are also lots of yoga mats, but not really much space to zone out.

Nevertheless, Hotel G offers the hip and cool an exclusive hang out that's a short walking distance to the clubs (both straight and gay) for fun all day and all night.

Hotel G
A7 Gongtixilu
Chaoyang District

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Joyride is Over

Some officials are in very big trouble after having a good time at the expense of taxpayers.

They were either sacked or given a serious reprimand after taking "business trips" abroad, but they were really having fun, shopping and sightseeing.

One group was from Zhejiang, the other from Jiangxi provinces.

The officials were originally sent overseas in February for training and business meetings in the United States and Canada, but in the end they hit Niagara Falls, Hawaii and Las Vegas; and as we all know, what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.

However, they were exposed -- on the Internet -- after an IT engineer from Shanghai found a bag of travel documents on a subway train.

Using the name Chimei Wangliang2009, he posted 37 photographs of the documents on the Internet on November 26 and informed the two governments of his find.

The documents listed the names of the travelers, itineraries, invitation letters, and payment vouchers for the world wide web to see.

The Zhejiang group's trip allegedly cost 650,000RMB ($94,835), and the one from Jiangxi 330,000RMB ($48,147).

While the officials from Zhejiang were basically only given a slap on the wrist by provincial authorities, the ones from Jiangxi were ordered to pay back the money and three of the officials who organized the trip were sacked.

The different punishments reveal how seriously each provincial government took the matter; and it shows that officials aren't afraid to wine and dine, especially when it comes to overseas travel.

What's also interesting is that if the IT engineer only found those documents in late November, what was someone doing holding onto such documents dating back from February? Were they some sort of proof of bragging rights?

The Internet has made it easier to exposure other people's failures and quickly bring them down, thus making it harder for officials in particular to cover their tracks.

Sounds like the party's over.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Trying to Stay Sane

When Chinese people feel wronged by their local government, some make the trek to Beijing and hope the central authorities will listen to them.

These petitioners carry all their documents and meagre savings, hoping for justice in the capital.

But many don't even make it to their destination.

Some are stopped by local authorities from getting on buses and trains; or they are met at the Beijing rail or bus station by the same group of shady characters and taken back home.

The others that do somehow make it to Beijing are either thrown in "black jails", low-budget hotels where provincial governments rent out the rooms to forcibly keep these people from seeing higher authorities.

Or they are deemed mentally insane and thrown into mental institutions.

Chinese domestic media is starting to cover this, with a story about some petitioners from Xintai, Shandong province.

Sun Fawu, 57, is a retired worker who was abducted by the township's petitioner officials and sent to the Xintai mental hospital for 20 days where he was forced to take oral drugs and injections and locked in a room with bars and no windows.

"My head was heavy like a hammer and my legs were weak," Sun told The Beijing News.

He said when he yelled to a doctor, telling him he was a petitioner and not mentally ill, he was told: "I don't care if you are mentally ill or not. Your township government sent you so I will treat you like a mentally ill patient."

He said only when he signed a document declaring he was mentally ill and promised not to petition again was he released.

Another petitioner Shi Hengsheng is an 84-year-old former civil servant who was detained in a mental hospital in June 2006 after he was brought back from Beijing over a property dispute.

He claimed there were 18 other petitioners in the mental hospital in a two-year period and even the doctor confirmed the names Shi had.

Shi added petitioners' families didn't even know they were being detained in a mental hospital.

Wu Yuzhu, president of Xintai Mental Hospital told the newspaper that many patients at the hospital were petitioners, and their fees were paid by township governments. He said some patients did not appear mentally ill, but "we could not say anything as most times the township officials bring with them a mental state evaluation and are accompanied by police officers."

The reasons for such elaborate ways of shutting up people?

There are more and more disputes with the authorities, and as people become more aware of their rights, they want to get justice.

But the central government is getting tired of looking at all these petitions, and have decided to evaluate officials and provinces based on the number of petitions that arrive in Beijing.

That explains why so many petitioners are stopped from entering the capital.

It also shows the governments, at the various levels, not wishing to deal at all with these people, some of whom probably have a solid case against them; the challenge would probably show the authorities would lose especially when it came to unfair land claims or people being cheated out of the money they deserved for the land they gave up.

But it also reveals the government is not treating its citizens fairly according to the rule of law.

And that is an injustice in itself.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Book Review: What the Chinese Don't Eat

Xinran first caught my attention with her debut book, The Good Women of China.

In it she detailed her experiences as a host of an evening radio show called "Words on a Night Breeze", talking mostly about daily life.

But then she began getting letters from distressed women around the country, including pleas from anonymous people telling her about young women who were kidnapped in remote places and bound against their will, and asking Xinran to save them.

Many of the stories in that book were riveting and at times sad to see how badly women in China were treated even though Chairman Mao had once said they "held half the sky".

So I was hoping for more interesting stories in her third book, What the Chinese Don't Eat.

But it turned out to be a collection of columns she had written for the Guardian over the past few years.

And in many of the columns she talked about how she felt so out of touch with her culture despite being Chinese, but that's what happens when you immigrate to another country. In others she tried to bridge the gap between west and east by explaining Chinese habits and culture to UK readers.

However, towards the end of the book -- and I hope she will do a brave thing and open up her heart -- and talk about her own life in another book.

In the last entry in the book, Xinran talks about visiting her dying mother in hospital and how she never really knew her.

She explains that her mother was one of the best dancers at the Beijing military base. When Xinran was only a month old, she was sent to live with her grandparents and then when she was seven-and-a-half, she lived with her parents at the military base for only two weeks when the Cultural Revolution broke out.

Her parents were sent to separate prisons while Xinran and her brother were black-listed kids and looked after by the Red Guards.

She didn't see her parents for 10 years, and after the revolution she was sent to different cities for education and work, away from her parents.

Xinran's story is not unique -- many others in their 50s probably have very similar experiences where they hardly got to know their parents at all, thanks to the Cultural Revolution.

... what we really want is the time and energy to be brave enough to open up our past to each other. As mother and daughter , we have so much we do not know about each other. So many wheres, whats and hows from when we were separated for all those years by the Cultural Revolution. We have been scared to tell the truth.

For us of the younger generation it's impossible to even think of not being in touch with our parents for 10 years. Which is all the more reason why Xinran should tell us more of her life during the Cultural Revolution and how it changed her as a person and her beliefs today.

It would give us more insight into the Chinese mentality today and the moral and cultural breakdown of a nation.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Not Quite Adding Up

Top policymakers are in Beijing this week at the annual Central Economic Work Conference to discuss how China is going to reach 8 percent GDP growth next year.

In the third quarter this year, the country's economy slowed to 9 percent, the first time it dropped from double digits in five years.

However projections for next year are anyone's guess. The World Bank recently gave an estimate of 7.5 percent, which the Chinese refuse to acknowledge as a possibility which is why they are aiming to make 8 percent growth.

Some Chinese economists are even predicting 9 percent, with a surge in the second half of 2009, which by current indications doesn't seem likely.

Also, it seems the central government is still figuring out where all the money for its 4 trillion RMB ($856 billion) stimulus package will come from. On November 9 it just announced this gobsmacking huge amount, with no details.

It later turned out that most of the infrastructure projects the money was for are already in progress or already earmarked, and so the government was lumping everything together and not much was new in the package.

Also it was later revealed the central government is only kicking in 1.18 trillion yuan in the next two years and then expecting provincial and local governments, banks and private enterprises to pick up the balance.

While building infrastructure is good in a time of economic slowdown, it doesn't really do much to stimulate consumer spending. But it may line corrupt officials' pockets and anyone involved in infrastructure development.

Meanwhile, people's salaries are too low and only when their wage levels go up would they feel confident in spending. What the government should have really done was invested more in social welfare systems, including health and education, and actually look after its people.

But there are optimistic economists out there who think China can change its economic structure, of which 60 percent was from exports last year, to 40 percent by 2020. And they want domestic consumption to make up for 75-80 percent of the country's GDP by 2020.

How realistic is that in 12 years?

While China has grown by leaps and bounds in the past 30 years, it's not going to improve that significantly in a decade unless its government makes drastic changes in its economic model. That means doing away with state-owned enterprises of SOEs that are constantly propped up by the government, sound banking and financial systems that are transparent, and allowing free enterprise to really take hold and and dominate the economy.

But is that really going to happen?

With strikes, riots and social unrest spreading through the country, the government is more keen on preserving its authority than having the foresight to really move China forward.

It may take a miracle for China to reach 8 percent GDP growth or some numbers may be fudged...

Sunday, December 7, 2008

A Taste of Norway

Last night my friend and I checked out 66 North, a Norwegian restaurant. Who knew you could have a taste of Norway in the Chinese capital?

It's located in an office building on the second floor. When we got out, we saw some weird posters of an airplane advertising for the restaurant which gave us a strange impression of the place.

But once we got in, we saw the decor of light wood walls, deer antlers shaped into chandeliers and a fake fire going in the fireplace.

While it's a nice looking restaurant, it totally lacked ambiance, save for the constant projection of an on-going documentary promoting Norway. When we were dining there, we learned about the royal family, and famous Norwegians, like Alfred Nobel, the artist Edvard Munch and composer Edvard Grieg -- who I didn't know was Norwegian.

It was strange listening to this man's voice from the 1960s giving all these weird and wonderful facts about Norway -- kind of like propaganda. Perhaps it was the different kind of propaganda we weren't quite used to.

I later found out the restaurant has a partnership with the Norwegian embassy, allowing it to have fresh shipments of Norwegian ingredients every two days. That also explained why we were learning all these things about Norway...

The menu looks good, but the best deal was the dinner set meal for 88RMB ($12.80).

For starters I had Norwegian shrimp, actually four prawns that were poached and the served chilled with a creamy sauce, with cucumbers in a raspberry sauce. It also came with fresh greens and a shot glass of yogurt that we were told to use as salad dressing. The yogurt was so good that I just ate it straight.

Meanwhile my friend ordered the smoked Norwegian salmon that was fantastic. The wild salmon had a light pink colour and tasted so fresh and full of flavour.

Then soon afterwards (the restaurant wasn't busy) came our soups. Mine was carrot and orange that tasted more orangey and gave me my vitamin C quota for the day, while my friend had cream of Norwegian leek.

Our main was baked salmon with lemon sauce. The thick slice was deboned, and again a beautiful shade of light pink. It was probably baked under foil as it was hardly dry and very moist. The dish was accompanied with two small scoops of mashed potatoes, roasted potatoes and yams.

And if that wasn't enough, our dessert included in the set meal was apple pie. It was in fact two small pieces, but they were definitely just the right portion after eating so many courses. The dessert wasn't too sweet and was presented with icing sugar and the silhouette of two forks.

If the ambience wasn't so dry we'd enjoy staying at the restaurant longer. But it's definitely the place for excellent salmon Norwegian style.

66 North
Room 202, 2/F, China Times
B-2 East Road, Worker's Stadium
8587 1111

The Need to Vent

A senior official admitted recently that the public should be given more channels to air their grievances, and local governments should exercise restraint in dealing with social unrest.

Zhou Yongkang, a member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee and former public security minister said it was essential that potential social problems be "nipped in the bud".

"More channels should be opened to solicit public opinion and local governments should spare no effort to solve people's problems," Zhou said.

China has seen several cases of social unrest, from violent protests and strikes to riots, and they are increasing thanks to the economic slowdown.

The current Public Security Minister Meng Jianzhu echoed Zhou's remarks, speaking of the threat of "social problems affecting stability under the current circumstances."

He said that preventin problems from getting out of hand was paramount and that officials must be sober-minded and realize the importance of safeguarding social stability.

However, Wang Taiyuan, a professor at the Chinese People's Public Security University said while officials may want to "nip things in the bud", police departments also need to standardize procedures for law enforcement to avoid aggravating conflicts.

"They have to be more cautious in the way they act," he said.

Wang warned trying to maintain social stability should not be at the cost of infringing on the legitimate rights and interests of the people.

"Protecting the rights of the people is a fundamental requirement."

That's going to be a hard balance law enforcers will find themselves in -- who takes more precedence -- the government or the people?

Thursday, December 4, 2008

This Looks Familiar...

When I was in Shanghai for the Spring Festival or Chinese New Year, I headed to Dongtai Lu, the antique market street.

There I bought some embroidery, and some plates and bowls that had butterflies painted on them.

And as I was dragging my haul out of the area to catch a taxi back to my hotel, I spied an antique clock in a stall.

It was black with the two bells at the top and looked quite cool.

The shop owner wanted 300RMB ($43.58) but I said that was too expensive. I think in the end I got it for 120RMB ($17.43).

I was so proud of the clock, thinking it was in pretty good condition. With a bit of cleaning, as it was slightly rusted on the metal handle at the top, it would look like a nice decorate piece.

Fast forward to tonight as I wandered around Ikea and I spotted THE SAME CLOCK.

Could it be the same? It looked very similar.

And the price? 39RMB ($5.67).

Now that I examine my "old" clock again, I think I've been had!

You win some, you lose some.

Winter is Here

I know it's not winter solstice yet, but today it was cold. Damn cold.

There is a Siberian front blowing across north and northeastern China for the next few days. Snowstorms have already hit Jilin, Liaoning and Heilongjiang provinces.

And today in Beijing it was minus 2 degrees but no snow... yet.

I bundled up on long johns, sweater, pants, socks, scarf, gloves and my big puffy down coat.

But when I got outside my legs were cold and had to jog to keep warm.

However, I have my secret weapon. Well it's not secret, but I have joined others in knowing how to keep my mouth and nose warm.

It's a surgical mask.

Many wear the cotton cloth ones, but I have a few disposable ones and keep one in my pocket. And today it came in really handy especially tonight.

The mask shielded part of my face from the strong gusts of wind that were chilling and relentless. Even now I can hear the howling and my doors rattling.

Winter isn't my favourite season in Beijing, but we all have to go through it... mask and all.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Flexing the Bargaining Muscles

The gym that I regularly use is the health club at the Holiday Inn Lido. I buy a membership card that's good for 30 visits at 2,000RMB ($291) and I can use both the gym and small pool.

However they just started over two weeks of renovations, and being a person who needs to work out for my mental and physical sanity, I had to scout out other gyms in the area.

The first one I went to is called Hokay in the mall across the street from my place. On the fifth floor, the gym was still coming together with renovations still being done.

A sales associate promised me it would be finished in the next day or so, but seeing wiring and other things not quite in place was a bit disconcerting.

The shower stalls didn't seem to have doors on them either. Or maybe they weren't put on yet.

While there were relatively large spaces for classes like yoga, pilates and aerobics, the middle section with treadmills and machines was very cramped.

I tried to explain this to the sales associate, but she misunderstood me and said they were going to add more machines and that the space was equal to that of two offices.

It left an uncomfortable feeling and I left without even asking the price.

Then I checked out the Marriott Courtyard Hotel which opened just before the Olympics. When I asked the staff at the door about their "exercise club", they had no idea what I meant and had to ask the concierge.

When you don't say something exactly right in Chinese, they give you strange looks without trying to figure out what you meant was the "fitness centre".

On the fourth floor, it practically takes the whole floor, with a decent-sized gym complete with new treadmills, ellipitcal and cycling machines as well as free weights and other weight-bearing machines. There's also a gorgeous pool next door that's long and a large jacuzzi on the side.

The per visit rate here is 100RMB ($14.54) and I thought that was expensive.

But today after work I checked out one more gym relatively close to me, called Ozone Fitness in another shopping mall. It's on two floors, but now that it gets dark early because of winter, it felt really dark in the work-out areas.

Even though I asked for the prices up front, the sales associate insisted on showing me around first to see if I liked the place.

It's big and has lots of machines, most of the left idle. The weight room area is mostly occupied by guys trying to show off, and few women around.

But then the real test of endurance was the bargaining session.

I explained I didn't want a year membership because I only wanted to use the gym for a few weeks and asked how much it was per visit.

The reply? 200RMB.

I told her the Marriott was only charging 100RMB and they had a pool.

So she brought in her manager who spoke some English. At first they tried to give me a deal of 2,666RMB ($388) for 36 visits, but my interest in the gym was already starting to wane.

Then he tried to sweeten the deal by making it the same price but for 40 visits.

I said I only really wanted to use it for 20 visits, and then he went back to his manager to try and make the deal even better.

They even had the gall to ask me if I could set a schedule of coming say Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, or Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. If so, then I could use the gym for 1,880RMB ($273.44).

Why would they want to restrict me? I already explained to them I would only use it three times a week, but imposing specific days on me wasn't fair.

By this point I was completely turned off.

Their last ditch offer was the forget the specific days, but I instead decided I'd bite the bullet and go back to the Marriott a few times.

For them to drastically drop their prices meant they were desperate for members, but also meant they hadn't done their homework in terms of price setting.

I went back to the Marriott and had the gym to myself and an overly-eager gym manager showing me how to use all the equipment too.

And then I saw a woman come in who usually goes to the fitness club at the Holiday Inn Lido.

"You've come here too!" she remarked.

I'll be making sure I get my money's worth and hope those renovations get finished on time.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Lingering Misconceptions

Today is World Aids Day and China is marking it with a giant red ribbon at the National Stadium, or Bird's Nest as seen in this photo from UNAIDS China.

The country is still in denial over the actual numbers of HIV/AIDS sufferers because in order to get treatment, people need to get registered and for them, having others know would be the death of them socially.

Currently the Ministry of Health claims there are more than 260,000 with HIV/AIDS in China, but the government, UNAIDS and the World Health Organization estimate the number could be as high as 700,000.

Part of the reason is many people who have HIV don't know they have it and haven't tested for it.

Apparently the government is now blaming prostitutes for not insisting their clients use condoms because sexual transmission has surpassed injected drug use. But more onus should be put on everyone to practice safe sex.

But aside from that, there are still misconceptions about HIV/AIDS that leave many in the west flabbergasted by the ignorance and lack of information the Chinese have about it.

A survey this year of residents in six Chinese cities found more than 48 percent thought they could become infected from mosquito bites, and 18 percent believed they could catch it by being sneezed or coughed on by someone living with HIV.

In addition, nearly 32 percent thought the people who have HIV/AIDS deserved it because of their drug use or sexual behaviour; almost 48 percent would not eat with someone with HIV; and 30 percent felt children with HIV should not attend the same schools as uninfected children.

While these statistics about people's attitudes towards HIV/AIDS are frightening, the government is doing little to dispel rumours or correct misconceptions. While Chinese state media wrote about the survey, they didn't explain medically or scientifically there was nothing wrong with touching a person infected with HIV, or explain the almost impossible chances of getting infected from a mosquito bite.

Nor do the articles or any government information say anything about how people should practice safe sex or that say, using condoms are the best way to not only prevent HIV/AIDS but also other sexually-transmitted diseases as well as unwanted pregnancies.

The government always seems to skip a step each time when they claim they are informing their citizens. The same goes for environmental protection. They tell people to care more about the environment, but then don't explain that this entails not littering, separating your garbage, and using less packaging and plastic bags.

If China really wants to prevent HIV/AIDS from getting out of hand, it should really educate its people about the real facts and help those suffering from being branded as outcasts.

Putting a giant red ribbon the Bird's Nest looks good, but is it really helping the situation?

Legions of Eager Workers

Yesterday over 770,000 people sat for the civil service exams in 38 cities in China.

However, there are only 13,500 spots.

That means 98 out of every 100 exam takers will not get a chance at an "iron rice bowl" job. In these economically turbulent times, people are anxious to get a steady well-paying job. And it's a good gig working for government as long as you don't get corrupted...

It's a record number of exam takers this year and another record are the 6.1 million fresh graduates who are looking for jobs.

They have already had to scale down their salary expectations. When I arrived here over a year and a half ago, the average was around 3,000 RMB ($435.60). But now with the economic downturn and the increased number of people looking for jobs, fresh grads could be looking at starting salaries of 1,000RMB ($145.20) or even less.

What is also becoming ridiculous is that employers are now seeking overly qualified people to fill posts. In junior positions they will only look at those who have a Masters or Doctorate degree, and not necessarily in the field the job is for.

As you can see, there is not enough jobs for educated people in China. Things are not developing fast enough for people with university degrees to do jobs suited for their intelligence level, let alone something they're vaguely interested in.

Now they will just take any job they can get, making them question the value of their university education and their optimism for the future.

Hanging On

Yesterday as we wandered around the 798 Art District, we came across a curious piece of art, hanging off the side of a building.

It was a statue of a man, buck naked -- sorry -- nude, with small wings on his back.

He seems to be reflecting our times: with the economic downturn on everyone's minds, we all seem to be hanging on.

Or is he just supposed to be a piece of amusement?