Saturday, January 31, 2009

Comparing Costs

Xiamen is a second-tier city. Unlike Beijing and Shanghai which are considered their own jurisdictions directly under the central government and get many benefits because of their municipality status, Xiamen is their poor cousin.

And you can see it from the poorly constructed roads, sidewalks that aren't properly maintained so you have to constantly watch where you're walking, and people's fashion sense aren't quite up to Beijing standards.

But the cost of living is almost the same as the Chinese capital.

Taxis start at 8RMB (Beijing is 10RMB), but when you arrive at the destination, 1RMB is added to the total bill as some kind of fuel surcharge.

We took buses most of the time, and they were 1RMB each way, the same as Beijing. If you have an electronic bus card, it was 0.9RMB, but in the capital it's 0.4RMB.

Groceries were also quite similar. For example, for a 4-litre jug of Nongfu Spring water, at the grocery store where I live, it's 7RMB, but in Xiamen, it's 8RMB. Restaurants charged almost the same prices, but the exception was fresh seafood.

At a restaurant across from Xiamen University, four of us ate garoupa, half a cattie of clams and some prawns and four other dishes came to 300RMB.

What was also interesting was that when we checked into our hotel, the Xiamen Plaza Hotel, reception staff asked for 2,500RMB up front even though the total amount for four nights should have been 1,780RMB. When we checked out, I was given back the balance.

It seemed they wanted to make sure we really were going to stay there...

You also know you're in a second-tier city when people didn't seem to carry crisp, clean bills, but crumpled, dirty ones. They also rarely carried 100RMB notes.

In the evenings, we saw many people sleeping in the street or begging. In front of one storefront that wasn't open for the New Year holidays, I counted seven people bundled in blankets sleeping side by side.

While beggars have started to drift back into Beijing, I have yet to see any sleeping on the street.

Xiamen seems to be a tough place for people to live -- and particularly bleak for those who don't have much.

Friday, January 30, 2009

An Unsettling Rub

We did find a place to get our feet rubbed -- legitimately -- at the Millennium Hotel.

I didn't know this, but the Millennium is an international hotel chain with locations in the United States, United Kingdom, New Zealand and four cities in China -- Beijing, Shanghai, Qingdao, and Xiamen.

We had passed it many times on the bus and so we decided to check it out.

Right at the back of the lobby was a sign for "reflexology" and we walked in.

They do all kinds of variations on foot massages, from the standard ones for 98RMB ($14.33) for 90 minutes to a full on foot and body massage for 580RMB ($84.80).

We chose the former option and were seated in comfy chairs in a small room with a flat screen TV that we later realized had CNN and got our news fill in English.

After soaking our feet, two young women in Adidas uniforms massaged our sore feet from walking everyday.

They quizzed us about North America, especially how much it cost to fly to the States. When my friend told them, they were shocked at the price.

They tried to guess my friend's age and they weren't far off -- one of the women was 19, the other 24-years-old.

When the younger one heard my friend used to be a journalist she said she wanted to be one too. We pressed her to explain why but she didn't have much of an answer except that it seemed to be a cool job.

The older one chastised her saying it was a tough job with long hours.

We changed the subject and talked about our trip to Xiamen.

They asked us where we went and when we said Gulang Yu, they moaned and said it was a boring place.

"The buildings there are so old," they remarked. We tried to explain that that was interesting, but not having traveled much, they didn't think it was so fascinating. Or was it because those colonial houses reminded them of foreign powers encroaching on China as they had learned in their history textbooks?

They asked if we had gone to Nanputuo Temple and we said we did. But they didn't find that or Xiamen University interesting.

Then I asked them if they could recommend any seafood restaurants to us. The younger one didn't even know fish is considered seafood.

It seems they really didn't like their hometown and there wasn't much more to say.

In the end we just concentrated on watching CNN for the rest of the massage, refreshed, but perturbed by our masseurs' indifference to Xiamen, as if they were contemptuous of civic pride.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Xiamen Sketchiness

My friend and I were on a search for a foot massage.

And unlike Beijing where every other block seems to advertise zuliao, or foot massages, we could hardly find any of those signs.

Then we noticed our hotel had a sauna and massage on the second floor so we decided to take a look before dinner. We thought it was a bit strange services were only available from 11am to 4pm, and concluded it was probably a typo.

But when we got to the second floor, the lights were on dim. On the left side of the elevator was a glass door and some young girls who were dolled up in skimpy clothing and smoking up a storm.

On the right was a counter and two men. One approached us and I asked about massages.

He was a bit embarrassed and said there were only "rooms" here.

Next to the counter were rows of large comfy chairs and two older men smoking and chatting, but there was no television for them to watch. What were they doing?

The young man repeated that there were only rooms available as I wandered further in and then saw a narrow hallway and a series of "rooms"... probably for more than just massages.

My friend and I quickly beat a retreat and were horrified the hotel we chose had an "East Asia Sauna". Then we realized probably from 11am to 4pm the services were legit, but things turned shady right after.

So much for getting a workout... unless you had a different kind of workout in mind...

More sketchiness ensued later when we ate dinner in the Xiamen University area and thought we'd try out a place called "Loving Hut" for dessert.

It's all white inside and looks like it offers healthy snacks -- and it's actually a vegan restaurant.

The menu has vegan burgers, a variety of salads, noodles and drinks -- including its own wine.

We ordered an apple tart and taro tart (they were out of pumpkin) and waited for them to arrive.

Meanwhile the restaurant has several screens and they were showing a strange documentary about religion... Palestinians and Israelis coming together... young people talking about "finding the way" and how "he has guided us"....

It was really freaky listening to these pronouncements.

We ate our tarts as quickly as we could, paid our bill of 8RMB and scooted out of there while the staff smiled broadly thanking us for coming.

Uh, yeah, sure.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Colonial Memories

Gulang Yu is a small island off of Xiamen and you can take a ferry to get there.

The five-minute or so journey is fine for 8RMB, but for most of the travelers it's standing room only and you sometimes wonder if the book is overcrowded...

But once you get on Gulang Yu, there are no gas-powered vehicles -- only power carts that seem to zoom around blasting bizarre western songs like Auld Lang Syne for people to get out of the way.

There isn't really a need for the cart -- the island is easy to walk around and it's even better exploring it this way.

Once you get away from the commercial stores selling shells, seafood, tea, and other tacky souvenirs, then the beauty of the island appears.

Xiamen, which was known as Amoy in colonial times, was home to many Europeans and the Japanese. And many had houses on this island. The European-style architecture still remains, many in deteriorated condition, others fixed up and still have people living in them.

It's this architecture of a time gone by that you just stop and admire and wonder what life must have been like a century ago. The detailing of the houses are still there, from the window sills to the gates, but some are half destroyed or have gone neglected through the decades.

The place has inspired many a visitor to buy a beachfront house and fix it up...

There are also many music and art schools here, and even some footpaths have musical notes on them.

A Dr Lin Qiaozhi was born on Gulang Yu in 1901 and died in the 1980s. She was doctor of gynacology and obstetrics and when she died she willed that her 30,000RMB in savings be donated to kindergartens and arts schools on the island.

In return the island immortalized her, creating a garden in her name and even a white marble statue of her likeness.

The walk around looking at the colonial architecture transported us to another world, but soon after we made our way back towards the ferry, the crass commercialism was a big turn off.

On the beach there were kids fumbling around in big plastic balls floating in the water; people on paddle boats, tons of green coconuts discarded on piles on the floor and kids holding balloons and snacks.

While it's great the island has enforced the no car rule, perhaps the tourism board should look into regulating the tourism industry on Gulang Yu. It deserves to keep its quiet atmosphere as a respect to its past.

Enlightenment and Education

Yesterday being the first day of the New Year, many people made their pilgrimage to Buddhist temples, and one of the best known in Xiamen is Nanputuo Temple.

It's north east of Xiamen University and if you don't know the way, you can follow some monks who are probably heading back there.

The prelude to the place is a nice park area complete with a pond, pagodas and even some beggars trying to get some compassion from visitors.

The temple was festooned with colourful prayer flags strewn around the temple and many people paid the 3RMB admission fee to get in as well as bring in lots of incense to burn.

It was built in the Tang Dynasty over 1,000 years ago and was destroyed and rebuilt many times, which probably explains the different architecture in the various temples.

Many people burned incense at first temple for Buddha and his cohorts. Then behind that was another temple, and yet another one -- complete with a European-style chandelier and a white jade sitting Buddha.

And even behind that temple was a hill for people to climb. Stairs were made into the hill and it was quite the trek. I only made it two-thirds of the way but my friend was determined to make it to the top.

What was up there? Some old folks manning a snack shop.

How enlightening.

Today we went back to the university to take a look around and it was a really nice campus. There are lots of trees and greenery, what looks like Dutch architecture mixed with Chinese-style buildings, and some modern interpretations of Chinese roofs. There's even a large performing arts hall being built in the same style.

Most of the buildings are old and living in them is probably a challenge, as I could see one bedroom with a mosquito net around the bed. Underwear hanging outside to dry seems to be a constant theme here.

Nevertheless, it looks like a pleasant campus to be in... except that there are no street lamps. So evenings would be a perilous trip unless you were armed with a flashlight. The only things to guide you are the tree trunks which are partially painted white...

Sleepy Xiamen

I'm ushering in the Year of the Ox in Xiamen, a port city in southeast China.

It's a two-and-a-half hour plane ride from Beijing. The plan was the escape the frigid weather in Beijing, but it turns out this coastal city is chilly! I've been wearing my down jacket these past few days even though I brought a thinner jacket...

My hotel is right next to the train station which is convenient in terms of taking the bus. It's also near Wal-Mart and KFC and McDonald's. There seems to be a McDonald's every 500 metres, each of them open 24 hours. You won't go hungry in this town.

Most restaurants were shut for Chinese New Year's Eve or already full for big family dinners. So we had to settle on eating dinner at a Thai restaurant -- but we made sure we ate a whole fish -- flavoured with lemongrass, spring onions and ginger, as well as prawns in a spicy soup with cabbage, carrots and turnip.

Interestingly not too many people were setting off fireworks and firecrackers, which was a bit of a relief for the ears. After dinner we wandered to a park called Jinbao which was lit up with green lights.

The park stretches up a hill and you can see many of the city's modern buildings are lit with LED lights creating a colourful but tacky effect.

On Chinese New Year's Day not much was open and so for lunch we had Xinjiang Uyghur food -- not quite traditional fare on the first day of the new year. We ate lamb kebabs, naan bread, French fries that were seasoned with cumin and paprika (very good), and then a noodle dish where the thick round noodle is cut into 2cm long bits and stir-fried with bits of lamb, peppers, Chinese celery and spices.

Xiamen reminds me a lot of Macau, with lots of storefronts on the ground floor followed by residences on the second and third floors. The buses too are relatively small and bus fare is 1RMB one way.

When you hit the beach area, some views look like the south side of Hong Kong, with container ships in the ocean and what looks like something similar to Lamma Island off in the distance complete with three chimneys.

I collected a few shells on the beach, including some sea glass in pretty shades of blue. The sand? It's golden yellow, ranging from rough to relatively fine.

Xiamen also similar to Lamma Island with lots of seafood restaurants where you pick your dinner from the fish tanks.

Last night we joined up with two other friends and had a feast of steamed star garoupa that was cooked perfectly, along with stir-fried clams in a thick soy sauce, prawns with salt and peppers, beef stir-fried with onions on a hot plate, a giant plate of spinach, and dou pi, tofu skin fried with spices.

We were hoping to have some tong yuan, or glutinous rice balls filled with black sesame paste, but the restaurant didn't have any. And by the time we got out of the restaurant, many of the other dessert places were closed!

So we ended up having ice cream at McDonald's... because it's always open.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Almost Closing a Chapter

The China Dairy Industry Association says some 90 percent of the families whose children were affected by the contaminated milk have been compensated.

As of yesterday, families of 262,662 children who were sickened after drinking the milk mixed with melamine signed compensation agreements with the dairy companies the association said.

The rest are stuck in paperwork limbo, and the association claims it's because of wrong or untrue registration of names. It adds only a handful of families are still holding out to launch lawsuits.

The Ministry of Health claims six babies died and 296,000 ill with urinary tract infections.

Sanlu Group and 21 other dairy companies have offered 200,000 RMB ($29,236) to those families whose babies died, and 30,000 RMB to those with serious cases like kidney stones and acute kidney failure, and 2,000 RMB for less severe cases.

This announcement comes after two men were sentenced to death for their part in the melamine milk scandal earlier this week.

Zhang Yujun was convicted of running an illegal workshop in Shandong Province and producing some 776 tonnes of melamine.

Geng Jinping was found guilty for adding melamine to raw milk and selling it to dairy companies.

And the former general manager of Sanlu Group, Tian Wenhua was sentenced to life imprisonment for selling the contaminated milk even after she knew melamine was added to it.

The two men were charged under Article 144 of the Criminal Law which is about producing and selling poisoned food; Tian and other dairy executives were charged under Article 140 which is about producing and selling shoddy products, which explains the different sentences.

While the government hopes this is the end of the milk scandal, there are still several families who feel justice still hasn't been served.

They blame the government for not regulating the industry properly, which they believe led to the scandal.

Only time will tell if the dairy companies keep their word and really do make sure their products are safe; they are desperate for business as people still aren't drinking as much milk as they used to.

The whole industry needs to be revamped, but no one really wants to take the lead and are perhaps waiting for government direction...

Friday, January 23, 2009

Word of the Day: Bu Zheteng

On December 18, President Hu Jintao made a speech marking the 30th anniversary of reform and opening-up drive.

And in it, he used the colloquial phrase bu zheteng which is rare particularly in such a formal occasion.

In his speech, Hu said: "Don't sway back and forth, relax our efforts or get sidetracked, but firmly push forward the reform and opening-up as well as adhere to socialism with Chinese characteristics. In that way, we will definitely achieve our grand blueprint and ambitious objectives [on realizing modernization in the middle of the 21st century]," according to a Xinhua story.

However, translators were caught in a tizzy wondering the best way to translate bu zheteng.

It has the meaning of "stop making trouble" or "stop wasting time".

It gives the impression Hu is lecturing the people as if they are children.

The Chinese ambassador to Namibia Ren Xiaoping weighed in on the matter and she felt it should be "avoid self-inflicted setbacks".

Sounds similar to collateral damage.

Then a few days ago Chinese linguist and translator Ji Xianlin said it should be translated as "no trouble making" which many agreed was pretty much spot on.

Perhaps bu zheteng will fast become the catch-phrase of 2009... because in these bad financial times, we should all do our best to avoid self-inflicted setbacks.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

An Indecent Proposal

These few days young people are fleeing Beijing by the thousands and taking trains home to see their parents for chun jie, or Spring Festival.

And some take the opportunity to bring home their girlfriend or boyfriend to their parents for approval before popping the question.

If sons or daughters come home empty-handed, they may get a hard time from the parental units about time ticking away and their desire to hold a sunzi or grandchild in their arms.

Which is why some young people are now resorting to hiring a girlfriend/boyfriend for the Spring Festival.

In a newspaper article, a young man who works in Ningbo, Zhejiang Province has put out an ad online seeking a "girlfriend" for five days during the new year and he'll pay her 6,000RMB ($878).

He's looking for a girl who has "a kind heart, high level of personal integrity, and good communication skills".

And the response has been swift -- after three days some 400 women are interested in the proposal.

He's even set out a contract, describing the daily schedule, payment method, and safety precautions.

He's not the only one who has done this and apparently more women than men 25-40 years old are seeking someone to put on an act in front of their parents to pretend they're a couple and give the impression they may tie the knot.

What's also shocking is how many people are interested in helping others with their scam, or they're only interested in doing it for the money.

Why are young people going to such lengths to pretend they're in a relationship when they really aren't? Can't they just tell their parents straight out that they have yet to find "the one" or that they're too busy at work to meet anyone? What's wrong with that?

Instead they turn to an elaborate scheme to give their parents some kind of false hope.

Or perhaps they're secretly hoping they will get along with this "partner" and something genuine may blossom during the Spring Festival.

Either way it's crazy desperation that can only lead to more problems that will need more solutions.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Hope Begins Now

In a few hours Barack Obama will be sworn in as the 44th President of the United States.

Everyone around the world is watching anxiously, waiting for this day to come after eight years of George W. Bush and the Republicans in power.

Obama has invoked Abraham Lincoln in taking an abbreviated train ride to Washington, and will have the theme of Lincoln in his inauguration speech.

America's first black president is calling for all of us to be accountable for our actions and to work together to deal with the numerous challenges confronting us, from the global financial crisis to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And here in Beijing, many American expats are gathering in bars to watch the swearing-in and swelling with pride. "America is great again," as one said to me.

Many Chinese are speculating over how Obama will deal with Sino-US relations... will he confront China on its human rights record? Will he be protectionist? Or will he try to get China to revaluate the yuan to a higher rate?

At this point in time many believe he won't be too confrontational as the entire US economy is at stake.

He has some top China advisors who will hopefully dole out sagely advice and it'll be interesting to see when Obama visits the Middle Kingdom.

Will he win over China's leaders with his irresistable charm or leave them mystified as to how this dark horse managed to capture the world's imagination with his platform of Change.

Now that will be interesting to watch.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Booming in the New Year

The big booms have already started.

Yes -- the fireworks and firecrackers are being set off in the prelude leading up to Chinese New Year which starts on Monday January 26.

As soon as it's dark you start hearing the thunderous booms -- but now that I think about it -- some idiots also set them off during the day.

Some places forbid setting fireworks and firecrackers off mainly to avoid having to clean up the endless bits of red paper, but that doesn't mean they can't be set off nearby, resulting in the noise pollution setting off car alarms and freaking out house pets.

Meanwhile traffic's been really light now that most students are off and traveling back to their hometowns. Our office will have fewer staff each day as the lucky ones manage to secure train tickets, making Beijing easier to get around and quieter, well sort of.

In supermarkets people are buying up expensive liquors and chocolates to give as gifts to loved ones, or carrying giant plastic jugs of peanut oil and corn oil to take home.

Subway carriages are packed with people and their luggage; they all disembark at the Beijing Railway Station stop.

The rest of us left behind are either trying to save money and celebrating the Spring Festival away from home, or waiting until the official holiday starts to go on trips.

This year will be bitter sweet for many who have lost their jobs and have to go home; after the Year of the Ox begins, that will give the true indication to how the Chinese economy really is faring and more importantly, how the government will react to what looks like pretty dire straits.

An Enlightened Government?

In an interesting move, the Chinese government yesterday announced it will restore or rebuild 12 churches, mosques and temples in Beijing.

Yang Xiaodong, a Beijing Religion Bureau official said the municipal government will spend 12 million yuan ($1.75 million) so that Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Buddhists and Daoists will have better access to places of worship.

For instance, it seems many of the churches are not well maintained, or in some cases, like the Changxindian Church in southwest Beijing was used as a warehouse in the 1950s and 1960s.

And so the government is trying to help meet the huge demand for religions these days in the Chinese capital.

Father Matthew Zhen Xuebin, secretary-general of the Catholic Church of the Beijing Diocese says there are 50,000 to 60,000 Catholics in Beijing, but only 20 Catholic churches , eight downtown and 12 in the suburbs.

"The number of Catholics is growing as people enjoy more freedom to choose their religions and because more foreigners are coming to Beijing," Zhen said.

Are there really that many foreigners coming to Beijing who are Catholics? Or are they an excuse for the government to save face and fix up the churches?

Nevertheless, Zhen is probably referring to the number of Catholics who go to government-sanctioned churches; there are probably thousands more in underground churches.

But even then the numbers he cites indicates how many people are turning to some kind of higher spiritual being for guidance in their daily lives.

Seems like government doctrine doesn't quite have that mystical feeling that gives people a sense of wonder and awe.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Paying a Heavy Price

The parents of one of the first children to die from drinking contaminated milk received compensation from Sanlu Group Co.

Yi Yongsheng and Jiao Hongfeng in Gangu County, Gansu Province, lost their five-month old son on May 1 last year after suffering kidney failure from the milk mixed with melamine.

The couple received 200,000 RMB ($29,000), in return for not suing the already bankrupt company.

The lawyers for the couple claim if they went to court, the most they could probably get is 200,000RMB, and that "legal procedures are too complicated for them, which made them decide to take the money".

One wonders if the lawyers were really working in the best interests of their clients, or someone told them the case wouldn't go anywhere and it was best to cut their losses now.

It seems Yi and Jiao are not educated people and the court procedure would be a difficult and overwhelming thing for them to go through.

If it had happened to a couple with tertiary education and were white-collar workers, they would probably try to go all the way through the courts to get some kind of justice and put everyone in the hot seat.

In the meantime, one hopes Yi and Jiao don't burn through that money too fast -- while the amount is a big number for them, it should represent the earnings their son would have made were he still alive.

However, it doesn't seem much and will never replace their little boy.

What is even scarier is wondering if all China's food producers will learn from this deadly mistake and not try to make a quick buck over killing people.

But methinks it will only be a matter of time before another scandal erupts again...

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Hanging Out to Dry

Today as I left my friend's place in Changchunjie, south-west of the city, I saw a clothing line strung between trees along the sidewalk.

People had left their washing to dry, which is a common sight near hutongs.

But then I spotted this giant fish, also left hanging to dry out too.

Hope the owner is keeping any eye on it otherwise he/she may not see it again...

Turkish Delight

Last month a new restaurant opened in the Sanlitun area, near the Tuanjiehu subway station.

It has the strange name of Turkish Mum, but the owner explained it was better to be straightforward about the kind of food and also show that it's home-cooking but in a restaurant.

The decor is reminiscent of the previous French dining establishment, with European-style mouldings on the ceilings and a kind of living room area off to the side complete with faux fireplace.

I've now been to the restaurant twice and thoroughly enjoy the dishes here which my friend says is quite authentic as he loves Turkish food.

The hummus is a smooth texture that's slightly runny, while the tabouleh is refreshing and light with the dash of lemon juice to tart up the finely diced parsley and bulger wheat.

Another good starter especially on a cold winter's day is the lentil soup, the lentils blended smooth in an almost creamy soup.

Some mains to enjoy are the lamb stew with okra, skewers of lamb, cod and beef patties, and the black cod poached in parchment paper. It's baked with fennel leaves, tomatoes, lemon and onions. Pity the cod is frozen, but otherwise delicious.

The desserts are pretty good -- and in thoughtful portions. The baklava isn't too sweet, but served in a small piece, and the pumpkin pie too is a small slice for those with a tiny bit of room left. The milk pudding isn't too sweet either, but would be better mixed with some vanilla in it.

The prices are pretty good too, just too bad there isn't enough buzz around this place to bring more diners in.

Or maybe I should keep this my own dining secret in Sanlitun.

Turkish Mum
Gongti bei lu 3-3

Friday, January 16, 2009

Celebrating the Past Year

Just before people rush home for the Spring Festival or Chinese New Year, companies hold their year-end parties.

These aren't just wine and dine fests, but can also be an opportunity for employers to openly praise their staff, and for employees to show off their hidden talents.

Today after lunch my colleagues and I filed into a large but stuffy conference room, where for the next three-and-a-half hours we discovered much more about each other and our bosses.

First our president gave a 45-minute speech, outlining our achievements and plans for this year. The power point presentation seemed to go on forever, outlining things point by point.

And then he finally said "Happy Niu (Ox) Year," and we all clapped enthusiastically.

Then various departments put on skits -- and many of them chose news-related themes.

A few poked fun at the powered milk commercials, but many seemed to like recreating the scene of the guy throwing his shoes at President George W. Bush.

One couple showed off their sexy salsa dance moves, while one introverted young man who started working with us about half a year ago broke his silence with an energetic taijiquan routine.

The best was a young woman who emulated the character of President Hu Jintao, talking with the same kind of language and mannerisms that were hilarious, from his hand clapping to his one-liners and she did it all with a straight face even though we were all rolling in our seats.

Lucky draws were also made periodically and I scored a small suitcase along with four others. The next batch of winners got electric slow cookers, and then three lucky winners got domestic-made mobile phones.

Awards were also handed out.

And yours truly was recognized as one of 12 outstanding employees for 2008.

We each got a certificate and a bonus of 3,000RMB ($438.73).

But it wasn't management who chose us, but our peers who nominated us. And apparently more than one person had put my name forward, the first foreigner in the company to receive the award.

It was such a wonderful validation to be recognized in this way, and made me feel like I have, finally, made some difference in my workplace and with my colleagues.

I haven't just come to Beijing to witness the changes before and after the Olympics; I have also come here to help others.

And I have become a better person for it.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Belt Tightening with Chinese Characteristics

In these tough economic times, Queen Elizabeth II has asked her family members to be frugal and not fritter away public coffers on outlandish displays of wealth.

And Chinese President Hu Jintao has echoed the same mandate to officials of all levels.

"Under the current situation, maintaining [the practice of] hard work and frugality makes practical sense," he said in a keynote speech at a plenary session of the Communist Party of China's (CPC) top anti-corruption body earlier this week.

"Officials must see the facts and tell the truth. They must do practical work and produce actual results."

That's a subtle sign for officials to stop the wining and dining, jetsetting around the world, driving expensive cars, embezzling money, gambling public coffers and actually doing some work -- which in this case means serving the people.

He said "the interests of the people" should be the officials' top priority which seems quite obvious, but there's no harm done in emphasizing it again.

And already some provincial and municipal governments have complied by cutting their operational costs this year.

A newspaper reports the Guangdong provincial government has promised a "zero increase" in the purchase of cars, conferences, and receptions, as well as officials' overseas inspection tours.

However, "zero increase" can be interpreted as no increase -- spending the same budget amount as last year.

So Guangdong residents may see new government cars on the roads -- just not more.

How is that being frugal?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Virtual Popularity

President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao not only have FaceBook pages with thousands of friends, but also an Internet portal dedicated to them and other top officials from the national down to local levels.

Called the PRC Officials' Fan Circle, it already has pages focused on the top leaders of three provinces, six cities, and even Hong Kong.

Thirty-three-year-old Yang Yunhe calls himself the first creator of a politician fan site in China.

The site covers the party secretaries of Zhejiang, Shaanxi and Guangdong provinces, as well as Hong Kong's Chief Executive Donald Tsang.

Fans can leave admiring comments for the leaders, and even gives them opportunities to upload pictures they've snapped of China's top leadership and post stories.

An article on the fan site gave Hu 98 for a recent speech he gave, but suggested he should smile more.

But despite the Internet being a platform for top officials to engage with the people, none of the featured leaders on the site have responded to their fan mail.

Nevertheless, considering some use the Internet to expose officials' abuse of power or corrupt activities, knowing that there are millions of fans out there supporting the leadership couldn't hurt either.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Getting Punked in China

Joe Keithley is known as Canada's godfather of punk. In 1978 he was one of the founders of D.O.A. and the punk band has been cited as an influence to such groups as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Green Day and Rancid. D.O.A. has toured with The Clash, The Dead Kennedys, and Nirvana.

The Vancouverite was drawn to punk as a teenager and was hooked ever since, using it as a form of expression and rebellion.

But he's isn't just about writing angry lyrics and kicking up a ruckus -- he's also an activist on the political stage. In 1996 and 2001 he ran in the British Columbia provincial elections for the Green Party, a group mainly focused on environmental issues.

And this week Keithley and his group are celebrating 30 years of D.O.A. with a tour of China.

Their trip started on January 9 with a show at Mao Live House in Beijing, followed by Wuhan, Shanghai and tonight they're back in Beijing with one more show at D-22.

I had a quick chat with Keithley on the phone earlier this evening just before he grabbed some dinner ahead of his last gig in the Chinese capital.

He was quite pleased with the China tour and likens it to his tour in Poland in 1984.

"When there's a lack of political freedom, artists -- writers, painters, musicians, poets, sculptors -- will find a way around it to express themselves in another way.

Punk is gaining popularity in China and the handful of bands I've seen have dedicated fans, both Chinese and expats, punching fists in the air and nodding their heads. They're thrilled to find the right musical outlet for their feelings.

Keithley is excited seeing the hardcore fans come out despite the language barrier and envisions China as a way to expand his already global fan base.

"You can watch as many specials as you want, read as many articles on China as you want, but that doesn't replace actually coming here and seeing what it's really like," he says.

"I've been blown away by people's mobility," Keithley notes, "though I haven't met poor people as we've been in mostly urban centres... but people seem generally happy."

During the trip he's collected CDs from various Chinese bands and may help some of them get their music out to the west with his Sudden Death Records company.

Keithley hopes to come back to China again in about a year-and-a-half, and perhaps be welcomed by bigger audiences, eager for a taste of genuine punk rock from Canada.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Great Migration

Thousands of people have already started making their way back home less than a month before Chinese New Year or Spring Festival begins on January 26.

And for those who are trying to plan getting home, it's become a logistical nightmare for the Ministry of Railways.

It expects a record 188 million people to travel by train, 8 percent more than last year.

On Saturday 4.5 million boarded trains, and around 4.7 million yesterday.

However the ministry surprisingly admits that it didn't expect so many people to travel so early.

Were rail officials sleeping on the job when it was reported that thousands of factories around the coastal areas went bust and hundreds of thousands of migrant workers came home early?

There are also those who are still employed, but because there isn't much work now, they get to have an extra long holiday. It doesn't sound like it's going to be a festive homecoming for them, with uncertainty over their next pay cheque.

Does this demonstrate officials' inability to sympathize or react quickly to situations and help people get to where they want to go?

Also related to the Spring Festival rush are the train tickets themselves.

Today at lunch my colleagues were discussing their inability to secure train tickets to get home.

One who lives in a town near Shanghai in Jiangsu Province, said the tickets were supposedly available for sale, but when she tried to get them, they were gone. She's not sure what "gone" means, if the tickets really aren't available for sale yet, or they have all been sold.

Others were discussing days, times and strategies to get tickets at certain locations around the city.

The problem is, train tickets can only be bought by physically standing in line. The majority of the people who ride the train are of a lower income bracket and thus the concept of buying a ticket online is unreal. Also China doesn't have the infrastructure to support online sales of tickets since it's still a cash-oriented society.

However this only opens up possibilities for schemers to print fake tickets or buy hordes of tickets through rail clerks they know and try to scalp them.

The country has to find another way of selling train tickets and also logistically catering to everyone's needs.

After all, doesn't the ministry, and all other government departments serve the people?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Tip of the Iceberg

Chinese media reports say officials from Guangdong Province have gambled away more than $3 million of public money in recent years.

They tend to go to Macau and play the tables like there's no tomorrow, or take a cruise from Hong Kong that goes to international waters to gamble, or bet on football matches.

The reports say some 50 officials have been investigated, and six jailed or punished.

Wu Xingkui got the heaviest sentence. He's the Chinese Communist Party's number two person in the town of Yunfu.

He got a four-year jail term for embezzling thousands of yuan to finance his gambling habit. According to one newspaper article, he was found guilty of losing 520,000 RMB ($76,000) on soccer bets, 70,000 on mahjong, and thousands on a cruise from Hong Kong in 2004.

Ironically Wu had conducted many campaigns against gambling, pornography and drugs.

Other officials found guilty were either jailed, had their CPC membership revoked, or put on probation in what the central government hopes is a clear warning that corruption is not tolerated.

However, if 50 were investigated and only six jailed so far, there could be many more officials in Guangdong who are frittering away public coffers on their own private joyride.

And if this is only in one province, imagine how much public money is misused in the rest of the country?

Friday, January 9, 2009

Double Exposure

Last January Hong Kong was all a twitter about Edison Chan's photographs with many well known female stars in licentious poses.

The trophy pics were leaked on the Internet and tested the SAR's laws on privacy and pornography.

And now almost a year later, actress Zhang Ziyi has found herself in her own storm of controversy.

In the last few days Chinese media have exposed pictures of the Forever Enthralled and Memoirs of a Geisha star sunning on a beach with her fiancee Vivi Nevo.

They show the Hollywood star in a red bikini and makes gymnastic poses that include doing the splits on the sand.

But then without the cover of umbrellas, she takes the top off and does what appears to be push-ups as Nevo watches her. She obviously didn't want tan lines.

The highlight reveals her lying on her stomach, her bikini bottom pulled down to reveal her buttocks and Nevo putting his hand on her right cheek and then bending over and kissing it.

Some Chinese bloggers complained about yet another foreigner seducing a Chinese woman away from her own race, while others critiqued her body.

Zhang was outraged by her cyber exposure in what she felt invaded her privacy and some netizens came to her defense.

One columnist tried to throw cold water on the controversy saying she was with her intended beloved and so it was considered appropriate for them to show their affection for each other in public; but in the Edison Chan case he was not in long-term relationships with those women and so those pictures are less moral.

Trying to split hairs on the distinction of these two cases is ridiculous.

What's interesting is that they test the public's expectations on their favourite stars and reactions to their behaviour.

But it's just another reminder to the stars that the moment they step out of their house, they are subjected to lens of the paparazzi; nothing is private anymore. And that's the life of a celebrity, whether they like it or not.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Poultry-Free Diet

China has reported a 19 year-old woman in Beijing died from avian flu or the H5N1 virus after she bought and gutted ducks from Hebei Province.

Health experts have gone around the Chinese capital as well as Tianjin and Hebei Province, testing for the virus.

And so far, China's agriculture ministry says there have been no other cases of avian flu found. "After tests for the virus and an epidemiological investigation, no trace of the bird flu virus was found in these three areas."

The woman's death is the first in the country in almost a year, the 21st reported to date by China.

However, foreign and domestic have not said whether health authorities have culled any fowl, especially the ones that were where the woman bought the infected ducks.

If this had happened in Hong Kong, there would have been an immediate culling of birds anywhere near the area where the bird flu virus was found. Confirming the presence of the H5N1 virus is only possible through autopsies as far as I know, that there is no way to test live fowl for the virus.

However, the only thing the ministry has done is to ban live poultry from entering Beijing, except those that are certified by the city's animal disease control authorities.

Does Beijing's authorities have sophisticated tests to check every live fowl that enters the city? And how do they determine if live poultry is certified? By showing a piece of paper?

The city should be cooperating with the World Health Organization in this incident to prevent the spread of the virus or further cases from popping up in the near future.

In the meantime, most Beijing residents must be worried about eating poultry, after fears of melamine in milk and eggs.

We're having fewer food options in Beijing these days.

Talk about an incentive for weight loss...

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Stamping Out Vulgarity

Some Chinese portals and websites try to increase traffic by posting pictures of scantily-clad young women.

Even some news outlets do this to increase the number of eyeballs on their websites.

However, the government doesn't think these media are setting a good example for Chinese citizens leering at these soft porn images.

And currently the China Internet Illegal Information Reporting Center (CIIIRC)under the Internet Society of China is cracking down on websites that contain "large amounts of low and vulgar content that violates social morality and damages the physical and mental health of youths."

The websites included Google, Baidu, Sina, and Sohu.

The CIIIRC demanded these 19 websites "seriously clean up their unhealthy and vulgar content", and invited netizens, the term used for people online, to report on any "illegal and unhealthy content on the Internet."

Most of the images are of young women wearing skimpy outfits and captured in seductive poses.

Compared to the pictures fallen Hong Kong star Edison Chan, the ones on the Chinese websites are very tame.

But then again, posting these images on websites could lead to a slippery slope...

Milking more Sympathy

Chinese dairy companies are trying to score brownie points with the public by apologizing on text messages via cellphones.

"We are deeply sorry for the harm caused to the children and the society. We sincerely apologize for that and we beg for your forgiveness."

The message added there was a compensation fund set up for the victims, including the families of thousands of babies who have urinary tract problems after drinking powdered milk contaminated with melamine.

However, many of the families were not impressed after finding out the financial compensation only amounted to about 2,000RMB or $292.64 each.

How does less than $300 per family even begin to help them pay for medical bills that are over 10 times that amount, let alone those parents who have lost their only child after drinking milk they thought would help them become healthy and strong?

Some of the families outraged by the pitiful amount are pushing for a class action lawsuit, but it's still not sure if the courts, who are under the central government, will listen to the case which would be unprecedented.

Meanwhile, the government is trying to look like it's taking control of the scandal by arresting and putting on trial those they claim are responsible for putting melamine, or know about the chemical being added to the milk.

The chairwoman of Sanlu, Tian Wenhua pleaded guilty to selling fake or substandard products at a trial in Hebei Province.

There was speculation that she would be executed for her part in the scandal, but now the court is mulling over giving her a life sentence instead.

Seventeen other people involved in producing, buying, selling and adding melamine to milk have also gone to trial.

The government can try to do all it can to give the appearance of punishing the guilty, but why not give parents justice rather than trying to hush them up?

They like the parents of children who died in the Sichuan earthquake want more. They don't just want compensation. They want the truth.

There is no price for that.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Whole Gamut

During my trip to Hong Kong I talked to friends and family who have lost jobs because of the financial crisis.

One works for a bank and the financial institution has its hands tied not being able to do its job of lending and borrowing money.

Another works for a graphics design company and since he's been there for eight years, his compensation package should be big, but he doesn't expect to get the whole amount.

And another who is still chasing her old boss for back pay, couldn't even give her HK$1,000 last month for her to pay the rent. She had to call her landlord and explain the situation, who was luckily understanding.

However, there are other landlords who think they can get even more money in these tough times. A popular bakery in Hong Kong closed about a week ago after the landlord raised the rent to over HK$300,000 ($38,700) a month. How can the eatery pay that amount despite being busy all day? Imagine how many buns and tarts they'd have to sell?

In these lean times, one would think a landlord would prefer to have his or her space occupied than empty. Some people are just too greedy.

And then there are those who have had to downsize big time.

I heard about a woman who had a good job, lived in the tony Mid-Levels area with her two children who went to international schools where tuition is HK$10,000 ($1,290) a month. She also had a maid and a chauffeur.

But then this woman recently lost her job and has now been reduced to moving her family to a small apartment in Sha Tin in the New Territories minus the maid, chauffeur and car.

Meanwhile, a well-known clothing chain is trying to keep sales afloat with an interesting sales promotion.

Bossini, which produces casualwear, invites visitors to Hong Kong to enjoy a 20 percent on HK$800 or more on clothing provided they present their passport at the till.

Sales were pretty brisk at the Tsim Sha Tsui store even though many customers didn't reach the quota.

So 2009 will definitely be a test of who is most financially fit to weather the economic slowdown.

While things in Hong Kong appeared to be buoyant with the Christmas and New Year holidays, it will definitely be after Chinese New Year when things will become more apparent of how things will play out in the Special Administrative Region.

People are still buying, but being more careful with their consumer choices. They are demanding more for their buck and time is on their side.

Retailers, restaurants and other service-oriented industries are going to see it tough. But just like the 1997 financial crisis, Hong Kong will figure a way out and its people are resilient to keep going, somehow.

While service in this town is already much improved and visitor-friendly, the current economic slowdown will only result in even better service to cater to anyone willing to open their wallets.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Green Sanctuary

I have visited the Chi Lin Nunnery in Diamond Hill, Kowloon a few times before and it's a beautiful contrast to the fast pace of Hong Kong.

Nestled among tall apartment blocks, busy highways and shopping malls is a Buddhist temple built in Tang Dynasty architecture.

It cost billions of Hong Kong dollars to build, mostly raised by the help of Canto-pop stars and not a single nail was used in its construction.

It consists of a series of buildings, and inside are statues of Sakyamuni Buddha, the goddess of Mercy Guanyin and several other bodhisattvas.

We managed to go into the area where Sakyamuni sits in gold leaf before it closed for the day.

And if the statues and buildings can't create a tranquil atmosphere, the surrounding greenery does.

The pine trees and bonsai are lovingly manicured, flowers blooming at their best and not a weed in sight.

But even more impressive is the giant garden north of the nunnery. A winding path leads visitors to a pond with perhaps hundreds of Japanese koi over a foot long each, more pine trees, and flowers coaxed to bloom in Hong Kong's winter.

We all can't help but take lots of pictures. It's the ideal place for wedding pictures, but I was told later that even though the gardens are public land -- the Hong Kong government leases the land to the nunnery for HK$1 per year -- the nunnery runs the gardens and has strict rules when it comes to capturing the gardens on film, or digitally.

No wedding pictures are allowed or posing with toys or signs that may taint the garden's prisitine look. At one point, my cousin was thirsty and drank from a box drink, but was politely warned by a security guy that no eating or drinking was allowed.

In the middle of the park is a teahouse that offers expensive pots of tea (around HK$300) for visitors to sip while savouring the view.

I was told that while the garden was being constructed, trees from parts of China were used, but were taken first to Guangdong for acclimatization before they were planted in Hong Kong.

Despite the garden's stern rules, it's a wonderful, tranquil place in busy Kowloon that makes you stop and appreciate the natural things in life that are, naturally beautiful.