Tuesday, March 31, 2009

More Evidence of Spring

The other day I walked out of the Jintaixizhao subway station, which is right by the new CCTV tower. And by the way that burned out hotel next to it that was supposed to house the Mandarin Oriental is still standing there.

While 12 people have been arrested in relation to last month's spectacular fire, there has been little or no talk about what will happen to the building.

There was talk of somehow salvaging parts of the building, but really, the fire has weakened its structural beams and could be dangerous to occupy. It really should be knocked down.

But it's still standing there, a monument to the stupidity of CCTV officials and reminding others of where they were the night of February 9.

However, I digress.

What I really meant to talk about was more evidence of spring despite the low temperatures.

Right by the construction site is a small spindly tree sprouting cherry blossoms.

If anything these puffy pink flowers soften up the sharp lines and metal sheets... if only there were more in the city...

Monday, March 30, 2009

China Then and Now

Last night I had a chance to meet up with some family friends I haven't seen in over 15 years.

After us kids graduated from high school, we each went our separate universities and from there our respective careers.

But before then our two families took a trip to China in 1985 -- the first for the younger generation.

We didn't quite know what to expect then, but saw Beijing, Guangzhou, Guilin and Shanghai.

The sea of black heads in Shanghai was overwhelming, the food somewhat dodgy, and the sites not as commercial as they are today.

I still remember we had to use a special currency for foreigners and not renminbi -- limiting us in where we could shop, eat and stay.

Our tour guide escorted us all the time and I remember her English being quite good, very proper textbook English.

And it was when we went on the Great Wall at Badaling did it hit me how impressive China was.

The trip intrigued me enough to major in Asian Studies and from there go to Hong Kong... and now Beijing.

My friends haven't changed much and they are again overwhelmed by how far China has progressed on this trip.

One observed that while he has read so much about China, coming here and seeing it for himself still didn't prepare him for the sight of construction sites everywhere, the numbers of cars, the shiny slick buildings and the people everywhere.

We quickly ate dinner and then headed to Tiandi Theater, just north of Poly Theater in Dongsishitiao.

It hosts acrobatic shows nightly at 7:15pm for about an hour and 15 minutes.

My friends' tour guide got there earlier to pick up the reserved tickets, but when we arrived a bit later, apparently our seats were already taken! We asked the attendant and they said first come first seated. But that's why we reserved our seats in the first place!

In the end we were separated, spread out at the bottom half of the seating area. And next to me was a Chinese couple, middle-aged who were talking throughout the entire show, and his cellphone even went off despite repeated warnings to turn cellphones off...

The show itself? The acrobatics show has definitely moved on from the rigid programs they had years ago. They are trying very hard to emulate Cirque du Soleil, but is no where near there in terms of costumes and choreography. Nevertheless, the standard is quite high and impressive to watch.

There was a young man in a quasi bullfighting outfit who juggled a number of balls while tap dancing at the same time. And a man balancing on a slack wire that was amazing to watch. He would swing himself on the wire and at one point hung himself from a short ladder, practically defying gravity.

The contortionists made my friends squirm in their seats, but their act was quite routine. However, there was a trio of very young boys who were fantastic doing amazing one-handed handstands and using "crutches" to do these handstands too, bopping around on the small round stage.

You could tell that Cirque had borrowed Chinese elements, like the pole climbing routine and Chinese yo-yos. The acts here were technically brilliant, for the most part lacked sophisticated choreography, as the music didn't quite fit the routine, or they did extra poses that were not necessary.

What was also sad were the costumes. While they got rid of the traditional Chinese outfits, some of the male performers had strangely designed clothes that were supposed to be cool but were weird. Were they functional? Were the fabrics breathable? Nevertheless they didn't seem quite practical for the things they were doing.

The finale was the bicycle routine where a number of young girls climb on a bike ridden on stage. They updated it a bit with girls wearing red dresses with fringes so it looked like they were wearing red rugs with go-go boots.

My friends' mom was impressed with the show, saying it's updated and better than before.

Last night's show was a reflection of China trying to do a lot all at once, but the results were only slightly better.

If they have more exposure to outside acts, hopefully these young acrobats will see they're almost there... and improving on those costumes would help alot.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Traditional Celebrations

Over a week ago I contacted my friend whose twin girls were turning one this weekend.

"What are you going to do for their birthday?" I asked.

"Do you have any suggestions?" he asked back.

Kids don't usually remember their first birthdays though parents usually go all out, but knowing he was busy at work I suggested McDonald's.

That didn't impress him much.

Instead he topped my idea with a Beijing-style celebration.

"We're going to eat at a small restaurant on the north fourth ring road," he said. "We found this old man on the street who does opera so he's going to perform."

"He's going to serenade your two girls?" I asked jokingly.

He texted me the address and I showed it to the taxi driver, who amazingly found it, hidden in an alley in Zhongguancun, dubbed the "Silicon Valley" of Beijing with many IT firms there.

It was a small brick two-storey tea house restaurant with traditional Chinese wooden doors. Upstairs the Chinese-style small tables were formed in a U-shape to make room for a sort of stage area in front.

The birthday girls were dressed up in red embroidered cotton outfits, and parents in Chinese-style jackets too.

The menu isn't a book, or a sheet of paper, but a tray with wooden tablets, each with dishes carved into them. Apparently the ones you want to order you turn over with the red back showing. It's the old school menu that was interesting to see used today.

There was a constant stream of dishes served at our tables, a Chinese-style salad, chicken liver, deep-fried shrimp, cabbage stir-fried with dried chillis, roast duck with lotus root, rice in soup with beef, chicken wings, and many desserts, including a coconut milk pudding shaped like a fish, glutinous rice rolls with a bean paste, and deep-fried dough laced with diced hawthorn.

Needless to say we were stuffed, but when we finished most of the food, the entertainment began.

An older bald man with a few missing teeth made an appearance and began singing old-style folk songs with his Chinese guitar. He also had a woman performing with him too, either accompanying him with a bamboo clapper, drums or voice.

Our hosts even tried to get members of the party to sing too -- with one of the grandfathers belting out a few tunes before he forgot the rest of the words.

Then the duo came out again, this time doing a few skits that were fun. In one of them the woman hides behind a fan speaking the lines while the old man lipsynchs.

The party ended three hours later and we left with a memorable birthday that you'd probably only find here in Beijing.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Waging the PR Battle

China has declared today a holiday -- Serf Emancipation Day.

While there wasn't celebrating in the streets here in Beijing, Tibet saw President Hu Jintao visit his old stomping ground -- he was previously party boss of Tibet -- and was responsible for crushing a series of riots in December 1988 where thousands of Tibetans and martial law was declared in Tibet.

Meanwhile at today's events, the government's hand-picked successor to the Dalai Lama was present as well as some "living buddhas" participating in a Chinese Communist Party-style event, in that from the video clips relayed from CCTV, there wasn't much religious chanting or rituals going on.

The first-ever Serf Emancipation Day is the latest in a number of public relations tactics China is using to persuade not only Tibetans but mostly people outside the country that the government has definitely made things better for them in the past 50 years.

In various media stories, there are attempts to show that China has helped pull Tibet out of the feudal area into the modern age, with Tibetans themselves saying that now they have computers, they can choose their own spouses, they have access to education and their incomes have increased significantly.

But why then has the government blocked access to YouTube this week, apparently preventing people in China to have access to videos that supposedly show police brutality on Tibetans who were allegedly protesting?

And why has the government not allowed foreign journalists to travel to the area now to see for themselves how things are in Tibet? There are reports, mostly from human rights groups, that Tibetans are being beaten or dragged away by police for the slightest form of protest. Without third-party confirmation, it's hard to tell what's really going on there.

It seems no matter what Beijing does to try to put a positive spin on things, the west refuses to listen. Is it because the claims are so far-fetched that they're hard to believe? Or is it because of many other brutal crackdowns (6/4) that people have read about that have made them leery about trusting whatever the government says?

Celebrating Serf Emancipation Day doesn't really quite have a nice ring to it either...

Friday, March 27, 2009

Picture of the Day: Springtime

You know spring has finally arrived in Beijing when the magnolias start blooming.

Yesterday I spied them about to open their petals as I walked towards the Ikea store to get a few things.

If only the temperatures would get back up and I can ditch my winter jacket for good...

Thursday, March 26, 2009

China Rage Rears its Ugly Head

It's amazing how much or how little the Chinese know about the west.

And after having lived here for a month shy of two years, some things still leave me flabbergasted.

Today a colleague that I don't work with directly and I walked to the canteen together.

I try to do my environmental bit by bringing a plastic container and chopsticks that I dutifully wash after lunch.

She spied my chopsticks and exclaimed, "Oh! You know how to use chopsticks?"

For someone who has used chopsticks for almost my entire life, it was a shock to hear.

"I've been using them since I was three!" I replied exasperated.

"I thought people in the west use forks and knives," she said sheepishly, assuming that everyone regardless of what ethnic background they were, sat down to eat with these western utensils.

"Many people in North America know how to use chopsticks!" I explained.

If she said this to me during my first few months in China, I would have smiled and let it go.

But two years later you're making that observation?

These kinds of blanket assumptions are not only naive but also ignorant. Where they get these perceptions I'm not sure, but it's sad to see them have tunnel vision rather than look around and absorb the world around them.

Only through daily interaction with foreigners will some even begin to change their ideas about the west. And even then that's a small percentage of the population.

There's a huge divide between foreigners and locals, and bridging the gap is a difficult task. For the most part many foreigners are reaching out. It's up to the Chinese to rid themselves of their old-fashioned perceptions and take the leap of faith.

It's a win-win situation... if they only knew.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Gentrifying the Rails

Riding the train is the great equalizer.

If you buy your ticket too late, you could be riding in cattle class, or worse, standing.

But one good thing is that your ride could soon be less tedious.

China is upgrading its railway system by installing more high-speed trains in the network.

Last year the Beijing-Tianjin link was upgraded before the Olympics, shuttling people from the Capital to the port city in half an hour compared to the one hour previously.

And starting April 1, passengers will be able to travel to other destinations faster.

The Hefei-Wuhan, and Hefei-Nanjing lines will run with bullet trains running 250 kph. It will take less than three hours to get from Hefei to Nanjing, when it currently takes eight now.

And from Wuhan to Shanghai the time has halved to one hour and 45 minutes.

Another line that will seriously cut travel time is the Shijiazhuang-Taiyuan railway, reducing the travel time between Hebei and Shanxi provinces from five hours to one.

The shorter times has forced bus companies and airlines to slash their ticket prices too.

However, time is money.

The Ministry of Railways has set the prices for a sleeper ticket from Beijing to Shanghai or Beijing to Hangzhou to 600-700 RMB ($87.83-$102.47).

Those tickets on regular trains sell for only 300-400 RMB. Seats are less than 100RMB.

While it's understandable that bullet trains mean higher ticket prices, not everyone can afford them. It may force more people to take perilous buses instead and there have been many cases of bus accidents due to speeding or weather.

The government should really be raising people's incomes first before increasing ticket prices especially in today's economic climate.

However, Zhang Shuguang, chief of the transportation department of the ministry doesn't worry about trains that aren't full and spins it this way:

"Passengers will see more half-empty trains than crowded ones in the future, thanks to the progress of longer railways and better and faster trains."

Sounds like the government is gentrifying the rail network rather than providing better, more efficient customer service.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

"Economically Fit" Guys in Vogue

If there's a good thing that's come out of the financial crisis here in China other than forcing previously frivolous young people to save, it's the criteria for husband material.

Women eager for a leg-up on society were on the hunt for men with thick wallets and flashy lifestyles, a home already paid for and a nice car.

But now these women have stopped the gold digging and are preferring "economically fit" men instead.

They are young men who make between 3,000 to 10,000 RMB ($440-$1,460) a month, have jobs in education, manufacturing, IT and other "boring industries".

They tend to be very conservative in their looks, have mild temperaments and no bad habits -- no smoking or drinking. Best of all, they are responsible husbands who will pay down the mortgage and even give some money to their wives to spend.

Women are now looking for men who will be home for dinner and not out most nights, possibly carousing with lady friends.

Here's a good analogy:

A sales manager at a multinational corporation surnamed Zhao who earns 20,000 RMB a month justified her decision to marry someone who makes less than half her salary: "The modest guy and the golden guy are like tap water and a soft drink. Tap water may not be as tasty as a cola, but it quenches the thirst and does not leave a saccharine aftertaste."

Perhaps this is a sign that happy and healthy family units will be back in vogue after years of fast living.

China may soon have its harmonious society...

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Olympic Spirit Continues

With less than a year to go until the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, the Canadian consulate in Beijing is doing its part to help promote the Games in China.

At one corner of the consulate facing Dongzhimen Wai Da Jie is a big banner with the three mascots, Quatchi, Miga and Sumi with their names translated into Chinese.

On the far left is the sasquatch Quatchi and his Chinese name is 魁特奇, or kui (2) te (4) qi (2).

Next to him is Miga the seabear called 米加, or mi (3) jia.

And finally Sumi, a combination of an orca whale, bear and thunderbird is 苏米, su (1) mi (3).

Both Miga and Sumi have the Chinese character for rice in their names... is that a subtle way of saying Canadians like rice?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

A Culinary Trip to Ethiopia

Last night a few friends and I checked out "Beijing's first Ethiopian restaurant" as it proudly says on its signage.

Ras Ethiopian Cuisine is a hard place to find, making the trip there either frustrating or adventurous.

While it's relatively close to where I live, on Jiangtai Lu off of Jiuxianqiao, it's not an area that gets a lot of foot traffic let alone much exposure on a main street.

Nevertheless, once you get there, you feel like you've entered a cozy atmosphere that's warm and exotic, inviting you to chill out and absorb the smells, tastes, sounds and sights of Ethiopia -- or at least the overseas version.

The first time I tried Ethiopian food was in Toronto. We didn't really know what we were doing when a giant flat pancake the size of a monster truck wheel was served at our table with various sauces all over it. And being told we had to eat with our hands was a bit of a shock.

In the end the four of us hardly made much of a dent in the injera, or pancake made from a nutritional grain called teff, and we walked out wondering what we had just eaten.

However this time things were less unwieldy.

Inside the relatively small restaurant were the typical tables, but also wooden stools around a straw-woven circular table that's like a giant platter called a mesob. There's also a stage and colorful umbrellas hung from the ceiling.

To start off we had sampussas, thin baked pastry dough filled with either lentils and onions, or minced beef and wrapped like triangles.

And as we ate these appetizers, two dancers, a man and a woman came out and started performing in front of us, dancing to the music with energetic steps. They would come on stage periodically through the evening with grander costumes than the last and more frenetic dancing too.

This time the injera we had featured a variety of sauces, from chick pea, beets and lentil, to spiced lamb, and diced collard greens, split pea and beef curry.

The pancake wasn't as large as the one I had before, but a manageable size for at least three people with diced tomatoes in the middle. The waitress then took each small ceramic bowl and put half of the sauce on one side of the injera, the rest on the other, doing that for each sauce we ordered.

Then she gave us each rolls of the pancake that sort of looked like toilet paper! But we would unravel a portion, rip it off and use it to grab or mop up the sauces either separately or together.

Once our rolled up portions were done, we continued eating the injera on the platter until everything was cleaned up. Very communal and environmentally friendly.

We even ate another serving of it, but towards the end we were getting stuffed and the five of us just barely finished it.

The owner came by and told us Ras, which means "king" or "head" has been around for a year and he's looking to move the restaurant to Sanlitun which would be a good choice. That area has so many different cuisines featured there that Ras would fit right in.

If only they could give us the pre-packaged wet towels instead of actual wet towels before we literally dug into the food, that would be even better.

Ras Ethiopian Cuisine
14 Jiangtai Lu
Chaoyang District
8479 8388

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Fallows on China

Speechwriters aren't necessarily good orators.

But former speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, James Fallows, was a delight to listen to on Thursday when he gave a talk to promote his book, Postcards from Tomorrow Square, a collection of his articles written for The Atlantic Monthly.

The end of his three-year stint in China is almost over and it's made him reflect on how China has changed his sense of himself and the world.

His conclusion: Why do I generally have a positive attitude about China when it drives me crazy everyday?

We all laughed and nodded in unison.

"I have a 90 percent hatred of daily China... like being a pedestrian. It makes me want to take an uzi."

His first introduction to China was at Harvard in 1966 sitting in John K Fairbank's class in which he basically said: "We know something is happening but we're not sure what it is."

This was just when the Cultural Revolution was breaking out.

And from there Fallows studied in the UK where he became interested in nationalism, especially about the United States relative to the world.

He lived in Japan in the 1980s where he saw the boom and then stagnation of the economy. He's seeing it again in China, but with different factors and circumstances, making China's economic slowdown a totally different story.

But possibly what he loves most about China is its excess humanity. "I'm not talking about the size of the population, but the overflowing humanity."

He illustrates his point by describing a recent dinner he had a Sichuan restaurant with his wife and friend.

And while they were eating, in the back of the restaurant the kitchen staff were having a fork fight, throwing the utensils at each other. "You'd never see that in Japan," he said with a smile.

Fallows observes that with it comes to the US, many Chinese are very admiring of many things American, but at the same time, the Chinese can be resentful because they have thin skins and have inaccurate views of the US through the TV shows and movies they watch.

"Chinese readers know enough English to misunderstand what I write," he says of his witty columns and blogs that are known for their subtle humour.

At the same time the longer Fallows is away from the US, the more he feels it is self-indulgent, decadent in certain ways, but also very inclusive and has a feeling of self-renewal, especially with Barack Obama voted into office.

Fallows packs up his bags in July and is madly writing and interviewing before he goes.

Hopefully he has helped more Americans understand China from here, and how he says we shouldn't fear it, but become more aware of it and include it as part of our understanding of the world.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Admiring from Afar

While the food at the company canteen isn't much to rave about -- except for jiaozi on Wednesdays -- it's a great place for people watching.

I like to observe who comes in, who doesn't, what people are wearing, who they sit with, and of course what kind of lunch they've chosen to eat today.

And of course it's really easy to pick out the foreigners among the sea of black heads in the large dining hall.

The other day my two female colleagues saw one Caucasian man walk around checking out the various dishes on offer.

"That one -- he looks like Hugh Grant," one said. Everyone craned their necks to look at the young man whose wavy foppish hair had a slight resemblance to the famous English actor, but in a shade of light brown.

The two women continued to stare at him as he walked around the room, got his lunch, and then actually sat near them to eat.

As he ate and talked with other foreigners, the two would steal furtive looks at him periodically and ask people around them, "What do you think?" in murmured Chinese with a little giggle or knowing look.

Then they asked me: "Do you think he's good looking?"

I said he was OK.

"Who do you think is good looking?"

I reeled off the usual suspects -- David Beckham, Brad Pitt...

"But they have boyish faces," one said. "They don't look manly enough."

"What about George Clooney then?" I offered.

She agreed. "I like Daniel Craig... you know, James Bond."

"How about Clive Owen?" I asked.

"Oh yeah," she nodded.

Good taste in men is a universal thing.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Protecting One's Own Interests

This afternoon China announced that it was blocking Coca-Cola's $2.3 billion bid for Chinese fruit juice producer Huiyuan Juice Group Ltd to Coca-Cola.

The Ministry of Commerce said the biggest foreign takeover of a domestic company would have been "negative for competition" in China's juice market.

It claimed that Coca-Cola might have used its dominant position in the market to push up prices, making the drinks too expensive for consumers. The multinational already controls more than half of the country's soft drinks market.

The announcement led to Huiyuan's stocks in Hong Kong to drop a record 19 percent until trading was halted in Hong Kong.

The argument of making products too expensive for people is weak -- a company is not going to price itself out of the market. If anything, Coca-Cola may have made the juices more affordable with its larger buying power, or developed other fruit juices to expand Huiyuan's range.

What is also interesting about this story is that it didn't go through the courts in terms of testing the anti-monopoly law that was enacted last year. The decision-making process was hardly transparent, making it difficult for foreign companies who want to invest in China to know what they can and can't do.

In the end the effects of this decision are already being labelled as protectionist despite China's calls for other countries not to close their borders (to Chinese goods).

This announcement could also impact China's attempts to acquire companies abroad as well, with other countries using the protectionist excuse as well...

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Guerilla Tactics

This week reporters are taking a breather after the 10-day marathon of covering the National People's Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).

While many news organizations tried to map out strategies for their mostly rookie reporters, even the best of plans didn't guarantee getting quotes or soundbites from deputies and officials.

A friend told me today about his first-time experience covering the liang hui, or two sessions.

Every Chinese province camps out in one of the hotels in Beijing. This is where the representative officials not only stay, but also discuss government policies and issues pertaining to the area. Every morning my friend had to go to the hotel and try to get a comment from these officials.

He only had a few options: when they came down from their hotel rooms to the meeting halls; when they finished meeting; when they went out for a cigarette or bathroom break.

The last time the two sessions were held, some media even dared to follow these deputies into the loo which crossed the line of privacy.

While it wasn't difficult to surround these officials as soon as they emerged, getting them to say something was even harder.

These government types really have their game down. Most of the time they'd say, "No comment". Or they'd disarm reporters by saying, "My, you've been working so hard. Why don't you come and have a picture with us." What cub reporter wouldn't want his photo taken with a senior government official so they could tell the grandchild later?

One tactic my friend used was to try and memorize faces with names and their titles. It worked one time when he correctly identified one by name which impressed the official, but he didn't get much farther than that when trying to get a question answered.

My friend was quite impressed though, watching his Hong Kong counterpart at work.

Armed with a video camera on her right shoulder and a microphone in her left hand, she confronted a PLA official over the Chinese and US incident in the South China Seas last week.

Like a machine gun she shot out one question after another, not even waiting to see if he'd respond. He was so annoyed by her attack, but then because she was so relentless, he eventually gave in, even though it was not quite the answer she was looking for.

My friend quickly learned that he was the predator seeking out his prey and that persistence pays off. Watching her get the story only fueled his desire to continue this cat and mouse game.

China needs more people like him, hungry to find and tell the truth.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Picture of the Day: Tree Stop

Hey! You thirsty? Let's grab a drink from the tree.

If you walk along Gongtibeilu near Sanlitun, on the south side you'll see a curious looking cartoon tree.

And in this faux arbour is a little drinks and snacks stand that is open until late. They also sell cigarettes for those who badly need a puff.

What's curious is what is this fake tree doing along a busy road that's now becoming hip and modern with brand name shops and cool restaurants?

Shouldn't it be in a park somewhere? Or does it have some kind of environmental message I'm not aware of...

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Apartment Hunting

After almost two years of living in the apartment the company assigned to me, the lease is ending and I'm off on my own to find a place.

There are many listings geared towards expats (ie more expensive) on the Beijinger website, but after a while the same ones are repeated over and over again which is tedious.

I've also enlisted the help of an agent who came recommended by a friend as she helped him and his fiance get a nice apartment.

However, probably like many other cities, you have to see many before you find something half decent or better.

While Chinese buildings have flats that are cheaper, it can be a dizzying experience going through endless hallways that all look the same until you reach your apartment. I think I could easily get lost in there.

The hallways are also very dark and while the flats themselves may be "renovated", it usually only means relatively new appliances and everything else looks old.

Other buildings follow the Hong Kong style of having a flashy-looking lobby with lots of marble, but upstairs, the apartment is nothing special.

Some of the flats I saw had bathrooms where there was no divider for the shower, which meant water would run all over the floor and toilet.

I don't understand why people have refrigerators in the living room -- my agent suggests maybe it's for people who want to have snacks and drinks within easy reach. But in some cases, the kitchen is too tiny to fit the fridge in.

While I've told my agent I want a place that's a short walking distance to the subway, she's shown me places that are in the middle of nowhere and would take a good 20 minutes to get close to the subway. That's how desperate she is for a deal.

One of the worst-decorated places she took me to featured a collection of seashells in two glass boxes complete with lights on the floor by the door. The nautical theme continued in the living room with thick rope wrapped around one of the railings.

There were also pumpkin-shaped orange lights for the bedroom...

In the other extreme, I've seen a practically brand new apartment complex where developers have decided to cram in as many studios or one-bedroom flats in as possible. The hallway looks like a rabbit warren with several doors along it.

And inside, one has to practically fold himself into an origami shape to get into the studio apartment that's just over 50 square metres (around 500 square feet).

Except that it looks much smaller than that, with a hallway kitchen, bar fridge and the bed right next to the kitchen. There's no storage space and the bathroom too doesn't have much of a divider for the shower despite having glass walls.

It's ideal for a male tenant who's in Beijing for a short stay and won't be cooking much. It's definitely not for long-term stays unless one is really living the minimalist lifestyle.

So the hunt continues... it's tiring and frustrating, but really, it's where you're going to live for at least 365 days. But it's interesting to see what Chinese people consider great versus your own living standards. There is quite the divide...

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Documenting the Youth

There are some 300 million young people in China.

Most urban youth hang out at KTV, or a building that looks like a hotel that houses rooms for people to sing for hours on end, go shopping, hang out at Starbucks or play basketball or soccer.

But there are several subcultures that two writers have documented in their debut books. Zackary Mexico has written China Underground and James West's book is called Beijing Blur. They both talked about their work in "Destination China" during The Bookworm's Literary Festival that's going on here.

Mexico hails from the United States, and spent some time in China and then wanted to write a book about the people he met that weren't covered in the many other China books he'd read.

He specifically profiled people who don't have regular jobs and they are a bunch of interesting characters.

One of them is a slacker, a man from Shandong who lives in Dali, Yunnan Province. All he seems to do is keep his long, shiny hair down to his ass and scopes out girls all day with his binoculars.

Another is a Uighur musician who speaks in a funny American accent.

Meanwhile Australian West gives a personal take on Beijing and the people he meets. He describes himself as having a torrid affair with the capital, but it's a nasty relationship in which it doesn't seem to care if he clings on or not, taunting him, making him come back for more.

As a gay person himself, he also talks about meeting Chinese men who seem to be gay, but decide to turn off this behaviour once they decide it's time to find a wife and have a family.

He finds it curious that these men think they can have flings with men on the weekends, but during the week they're straight and have girlfriends. But West did note that while this phenomenon was not only in China, the familial obligations here are very strong. While most may heed the call and go straight, there are some who have decided to ex-communicate themselves from their families in order to continue the lifestyle they choose.

There was also a discussion about the punk scene in China. While a record company may only sell 5,000 album copies, they don't really know how many people are listening to it because when tour dates are booked, the venues are sold out due to illegal file sharing and downloading.

Mexico observed many of these bands would sing some lyrics in English to avoid the censors, and that the government probably thought it was OK for kids to listen to punk and blow off some steam. It's when the number of these head-banging youth get to a certain number, then the government takes notice and clamps down.

The same goes for gays and lesbians. West explained that many gays and lesbians are calling for marriage rights and may have one-off protests like a recent one at Qianmen Street that the government turns a blind eye to. But once a festival or a large demonstration is organized on a big scale and calling for equal rights, then the event is shut down.

An audience member brought up an interesting point that language may have played a role in both the books.

In West's case, he said many kept asking him if the book would be published in Chinese. When he replied no, they agreed to talk. But the audience member said that maybe perhaps it's also because when it has to do with family, they would feel protective and use Chinese; and when it came to their activities outside the home, it was better to use English, as if thinking of it in an entirely different realm as a way to separate them.

It's an interesting point worth considering, as well as the fact that the ones who can speak English are pretty well-educated and may have the money to fuel their certain lifestyles. So in a way Mexico and West are only capturing a certain section of Chinese urban subcultures and that there are many out there, yet to be discovered.

Quote of the Day: Premier Wen

Yesterday Premier Wen Jiabao held a press conference marking the end of the second session of the 11th National People's Congress.

He was asked by a Taiwan reporter if he would like to visit the island and what would he like to see.

Wen replied: "Although I am 67-years-old, if it is possible, I would like to go to Taiwan. Even if I am too old to walk, I will crawl."

Cue the applause.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Flighty Hobby

Last Saturday afternoon I was walking along Gongtibeilu, right by the Worker's Gymnasium and decided to take a break.

At first a young girl on pink roller skates caught my eye and a few people walking their dogs and the gymnasium was their meeting spot for the canines to hang out and play.

It was a nice warm afternoon and signaled that spring was just around the corner.

Then behind me did I realize there was a small group of men, about five of them, hanging out with their birds.

These aren't the small ones old men like to keep in bamboo cages that they swing back and forth as they walk.

The birds here were much larger but seemed to be on leashes -- string wrapped around their necks -- that were tied to sticks.

Their wings weren't clipped because a few of them were released and flew to a nearby tree. When called, they would return to their master, with an edible reward in hand.

And the men weren't just retirees, but middle aged and even in their 30s.

All afternoon, that's all they were doing, hanging out talking about their birds and letting them stretch their wings and fly around a bit.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Patriotic Duty

Hurdler Liu Xiang made an appearance at the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) today in Beijing.

He had just flown back to Shanghai earlier in the week after having surgery and rehabilitation in Houston for three months.

When he arrived in his hometown of Shanghai, Liu was whisked away and didn't say anything to reporters. His handlers had said he would be busy with his rehab and training and wouldn't have time to attend the CPPCC meetings.

However, last night word got out to the media the athlete would be in the Chinese capital to fulfill his patriotic duty and so this morning he was swarmed by reporters and cameras at the Great Hall of the People.

Dressed in a black shirt and black blazer, Liu admitted he was a bit nervous attending his first-ever meetings -- he became a member of the CPPCC last year -- but was training for a competition at the time.

While there is talk of him gearing up for the World Championships in Berlin in five months and even competing in the 2012 London Games, one can't help but think Liu's track days are just about over.

My colleague who is his number one fan thinks while Liu may physically be up to it, after removing calcium deposits from his right Achilles tendon, psychologically he's still scarred from disappointing the home crowd at the Beijing Olympics.

With so much at stake, the entire country expecting him to win gold in the men's 110 m hurdles, and then knowing you may not be able to do it, it's hard to break the news to 1.3 billion people.

The chances of Liu competing again are slim, and his coach Sun Haiping may make as many excuses as he can for his top star to keep the suspense going, possibly for more lucrative endorsements.

While he's still a hot commodity, Liu's popularity has faded somewhat and he could retire as early as this year.

He has lived a fishbowl existence for several years, training on his own, his coach as his only companion. Not even his parents get to see him often.

Perhaps it's time to let the 26-year-old live a somewhat normal life and let the next Liu Xiang take his place. He's done his patriotic bit for the country.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Another Twist Revealed

The ill-fated auction of the bronze animal heads will not go away.

Now an art expert says in The Economist that the man who Cai Mingchao beat to successfully bid for each of the heads at 15.7 million euros ($36 million) but then refused to pay for them, was interested in giving one of them back to China.

Sarah Thornton wrote that a London-based Chinese businessman had been willing to bid up to 12 million euros ($15.1 million) for the heads and then give one of then as a gift to China.

If that's the case, then Cai really is an idiot.

Cyber Discussion Unplugged

The Bookworm Literary Festival is on and on Sunday evening I attended the discussion called "China and the Internet".

Danwei founder Jeremy Goldkorn moderated with three guest speakers: Andrew Lih, whose book The Wikipedia Revolution is soon to come out; Time Magazine's China correspondent Simon Elegant; and Vanessa Na, a Chinese author and blogger.

While Goldkorn joked wondering if someone was going to "twitter" the event, the discussion was really off-line which was engaging.

What they talked about wasn't much new about the Internet and how China controls it through "the great firewall". The government isn't so much concerned about blocking websites from abroad, as not many Chinese seek information from overseas websites, but keeping a watch on what's happening within.

The majority of the 270 million Internet users are young people, mostly under 40-years-old and they are either surfing for pornography, playing games or chatting with friends. Most of their blogs and online social networking are about themselves and their aspirations rather than anything politically subversive.

Another interesting fact is that there are some 500 million who use surf the net on their cellphones and this is a market that's already being tapped by game developers and others creating applications.

However there are some "netizens" who have become socially active in pursuing justice. They have "caught" officials who seem to have lavish lifestyles and after enough complaints it is found they really did received bribes and are sacked or demoted.

But there are still sensitive issues on the Internet that cannot be discussed in the Chinese cyberworld. The usual ones are Tibet, Tiananmen and Falun Gong, but there are also other issues, like the schools that were destroyed in the Sichuan earthquake and families are still trying to get the government to release the actual number of students who died on May 12 last year.

Nevertheless, Elegant seems to think the government is ahead of its users in terms of controlling the Internet. And there is a theory that as the young people take on bureaucratic posts, they will also use the net to their advantage too, furthering the cat-and-mouse game to an even higher level of sophistication.

The panel was asked if the Chinese felt deprived of not being able to see everything that people in the West can see on the Internet. Lih answered that if someone gave you a Mercedes you wouldn't be asking for a Lamborghini, you'd take what you got. So no one is really complaining and the few that are have tried to find their way around The Great Firewall through proxies.

And Elegant says it's going to be the social protests the government has to be more careful with. He explained the day before the Sichuan earthquake, a "walking protest" was organized in Chengdu. These had spread around the country, seemingly harmless walkabouts that were silent, but also peaceful protests about Nimbyism, or Not In My Backyard.

These ambulatory protests against things like nuclear reactors planned to be built in their neighbourhoods had been happening in Shanghai and Xiamen as well, organized through the Internet and text messaging. But since then they've been either shut down or forgotten due to other economic matters at hand.

So it's going to be interesting to see what's next in China's Internet development and how both the people and the government use the cyberworld to their advantage.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Setting the Record Straight

On the eve of China's takeover of Tibet, the government has launched a new website to try to sway people's thinking of the disputed area.

In Chinese it's called www.tibet328.cn, with 328 meaning March 28, Serf Emancipation Day, the first year it's being marked.

China is eager to show it released Tibetan serfs from slavery, living in squalid conditions and how the lamas physically abused them, reportedly gouging their eyes out as punishment or using human skins.

It's Beijing's public relations attempt to show that China has done a lot of good for Tibet in the past 50 years.

The website, about Tibet human rights, lists numerous statistics to show how much Tibet has improved economically, while also quoting foreign experts on Tibet.

But is this site, also available in French and German as well as Chinese, really going to sway the outside world?

The issue is so polarized that it's hard to see how a website will change opinion.

Only through transparency and talking in good faith with the Dalai Lama will things ever move forward.

Survival of the Fittest

China's number two man after President Hu Jintao has announced China will not adopt western-style democracy with a multi-party system.

During his speech to the National People's Congress (NPC) today, Wu Bangguo said maintaining the correct political orientation is essential to the success of the work of the people's congresses.

The most fundamental aspect in maintaining the correct political orientation is to "organically integrate the leadership of the Party, the position of the people as the masters of the country and the rule of law," Wu noted, adding "the core" is to uphold the leadership of the Party.

"We must more fully recognize the essential differences between the system of the people's congresses and Western capitalist countries' system of political power," said Wu, chairman of the Standing Committee of the NPC.

"China's system of political parties is a system of multiparty cooperation and political consultation under the leadership of the Communist Party of China, not a Western-style multiparty system," he said.

His comments are perhaps a direct rebuttal to the quiet cyber challenge of Charter 08, circulated late last year, a political manifesto calling for an end to one-party rule, free elections, the rehabilitation of dissidents, religious freedom, and an end to Communist Party interference of the courts.

The Charter 08 does not call for the end of the CPC, but for the opportunity for other parties to run for power.

Circulated and signed online by people from various professions, from academics and economists, lawyers and journalists, one of its original authors is currently under house arrest.

Liu Xiaobo, a 53-year-old literary critic and dissident who took part in the Tiananmen Square demonstrations is accused of being the mastermind to Charter 08. But some think there is someone even more powerful in the shadows who helped stir up trouble.

Many outside in the West are calling for Liu's release, from Vaclav Havel, whose Charter 77 is the inspiration for Charter 08, as well as writer Salman Rushdie.

Despite the house arrest, and blocks on websites, it is still being circulated even though those who have signed it are questioned by police, some even to the point of intimidation.

It's like a quiet revolution, but it may not take hold for several more years.

Right now the economy takes precedence, but Charter 08 may still keep going.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

International Women's Day

People in Beijing are wishing the fairer sex a "Happy International Women's Day" today.

But how exactly are you supposed to mark the occasion?

One female colleague suggested women "should buy delicious food and eat it all up," while a male one said, "Let your hair down."

Malls are using the opportunity to promote sales in the stores with discounts to buoy the sagging economy, and I've seen a few girls getting bouquets from boyfriends.

Most patronizing was Foreign Minster Yang Jiechi yesterday during a press conference on the sidelines of the National People's Congress (NPC) and Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).

During his closing remarks, he said that he wished all the female journalists a happy international women's day and that during the two hour session he had tried to give more opportunities to the female journalists to ask him questions.

Why should it matter who asks him the questions?

The whole point is equality, not special treatment.

Before and After

When I go back to places I've visited before, I'm always curious to see what's new or has changed.

And in Houhai, there are a few homes that are being redeveloped... mainly knocking down the old to make them look... old again.

Back in the fall of 2007, there was an old Chinese-style home facing the back lakes that was demolished and rebuilt.

And now it's completed... albeit looking like a new antique. Perhaps some wear and tear will make it fit into the neighbourhood again.

Spring Day Stroll

A friend who recently transplanted to Beijing asked me to take him to a place he hadn't been to before.

So, not having been to Houhai or the "back lakes" since the Olympics, I thought it was high time to go back for a visit.

The sky wasn't as blue as yesterday, but it was still a nice sunny day and it wasn't too cold for a stroll around the lake.

It wasn't too busy, with a few tour groups going around in bicycle rickshaws and a few locals wandering around with cotton candy.

We did see the regular swimming group by the exercise machines, a few doing a few laps, while another old guy in his red small swim suit, sunning himself as he chatted with his fully-clothed friends.

This year it wasn't cold enough for the lake to be frozen over for skating, and so I thought all the ice was gone.

But on the south side, there were still thin slabs of ice floating around.

And there on one slab, were three ducks, having an early afternoon snooze.

I found it strange they didn't think it was freezing to sit on ice.

Each to their own, I guess.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Dropping Associations

Right after art collector and connoisseur Cai Mingchao announced to the world that he was the successful bidder of the bronze heads of a rat and rabbit, China praised him, with newspaper headlines saying "Patriotic bidder thwarts relics sale".

The government went on to warn Christie's that there would be trouble if the auction house was caught with any Chinese relics in its possession in China.

And a former foreign minister jumped into the fray, saying the auction of the two "stolen relics" would not bring any glory "to the homeland of the auctioneer."

"No matter which country one is from and what he does, he needs to consider not hurting his country's reputation," Li Zhaoxing said earlier this week.

But now in the latest twist of this ongoing saga, China now says it denies being involved in any way in the bidding for the two bronze heads.

"The bidding was completely a personal behaviour," Shan Jixiang, director of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage told Xinhua.

Shan said the cultural department had no idea that Cai was bidding until he revealed himself on Monday.

It's interesting to see the government distancing itself from Cai... does it now realize what he did was a major loss of face for the country, or that it was a failed attempt to whip up frenzied nationalism to distract people from their economic woes?

It looks more and more like the bronze animal heads will be returned to Pierre Berge who will probably relish having them back in his possession, as he did with the unsold rare Picasso.

Seems that people are much more focused on China's economy and their own wallets to worry about items that were looted over 150 years ago in the imperialist era.

Hopefully this will be the end of the publicity stunt to try to get "stolen cultural relics" back for free.

Everything has a price.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Grandpa Wen's Amazing Talent

Premier Wen Jiabao delivered his 2008 work report to the National People's Congress this morning just after 9am.

After he bowed to the NPC deputies and members of the State Council, Wen began reading his 35-page report that everyone else was following word-for-word in booklets in the Great Hall of the People with a giant red star in the centre of the ceiling.

He warned this year would be the most difficult for China in the new millennium, and pledged that the government would do its best to stimulate the economy, continue steady and rapid development and maintain stability.

Wen believe that the country would be able to reach 8 percent growth in 2009 despite the global financial crisis and he outlined a series of stimulus plans:

- Some 908 billion yuan will be spent on low-income housing, education, health care, energy conservation, environmental protection, technological innovation and earthquake reconstruction.

- The government will allocate 293 billion yuan to fund social welfare projects, such as pensions, medical insurance, unemployment insurance and allowances for low-income groups.

- A bit more detail was revealed on the long-awaited health care plans, where governments at all levels will contribute 850 billion yuan in the next three years, with the central government kicking in 331.8 billion. There will be more regulation of health care costs, particularly medication, and more medical clinics built.

- And to stimulate employment, the government will put in 42 billion yuan into small-and medium-sized enterprises, as well as labour-intensive and services sectors.

- Agriculture will also receive a big boost with 716.1 billion yuan to maintain steady development and increase farmers' incomes. It's probably a relief to those who have been suffering a painful drought this year.

While the numbers are mind-boggling, and economists will be number crunching to see if the money is enough or doable, there are other pressing concerns.

Wen spoke for just over two hours non-stop -- how does he do that?

My colleague told me that last weekend when Wen participated in an online webchat with Internet users, he didn't stop talking for two hours either.

Those posting messages would ask him periodically, "Premier, please drink some water!"

Their pleas went unheeded as he continued "chatting".

And now "Premier, please drink some water!" has become a new online catchphrase.

But really, how does he do it?

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Painful Reality

The National People's Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Congress (CPPCC) are sitting these few days to figure out how to get the country out of the economic doldrums.

The biggest headache is unemployment and many ideas have been batted around.

There's a government policy to open more spaces for undergraduates to study graduate programs in order to avoid the unemployment crunch, but really that's just delaying the inevitable for another two to three years.

One NPC Deputy, Zhang Xiaomei who is also apparently a well-known businesswoman in China's beauty industry, has proposed a 4.5 day workweek to help employ more people and also help workers have a better quality of life.

She reasons that in the course of a work day, 2.4 hours are wasted and a shorter work schedule would encourage people to work more efficiently.

However, it if entails smaller salaries, some people might not like the idea, whereas others think half a day off doesn't really help that much.

Why is the government looking at bandaid solutions when the crux of the matter is consolidation?

Now is the best time for the country to make some real, definitive reforms to stay afloat. But they would have to be radical, free market changes.

For example, China has 80 car manufacturers. Yes, that's right: 80.

Does the country really need all of them? The United States has the Big 3 and some Japanese carmakers like Honda and Toyota. That's it.

And the Chinese car companies are partially state-owned , with the heads running these firms as if they were their own personal fiefdoms thanks to guanxi.

If the market were less government controlled, then these automakers would have to sink or swim, thus quickly consolidating them into one-third or even one-quarter the total. From there, these mergers and acquisitions can pool together their collective brain power and start creating innovative designs and environmentally-friendly cars.

The same goes for food production, steel, energy, textiles... the list goes on and on.

China should really stop coddling its industries and let them stand on their own.

That's the only way they'll know how good their brands are compared to the rest of the world, and how they are going to improve their quality and competitiveness that would make Chinese people proud to buy domestic instead of imported.

But no, in these anxious economic times, the government would rather have stability over painful reforms.

And as a result, it has given rebates, cut taxes, handed out coupons, ordered companies to retain staff even if they financially can't, and made universities open more classes for unemployed fresh graduates.

In the short term, the numbers will make China's economy look good, but in fact, it will become even more bloated than it already is.

And eventually, it won't be able to take it anymore and perhaps will implode.

Is that worse, or cutting the apron strings worse?

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

A Sign of Things to Come

Today I went to see some colleagues who work on another floor and then spied one of the women wearing a smock.

In China, it's the sure sign she's pregnant.

She confirmed she was due in mid August.

How did you know? she asked.

"Because you're wearing one of these things!" I exclaimed, pointing to her navy blue smock that's sleeveless and with pleats at the chest to create more room for her soon-to-be bulging tummy.

She explained that pregnant women wear these anti-radiation aprons especially when doing office work. "It helps to cut down on the amount of radiation exposure we get from the computer and cellphone," she said. "The manufacturer says it cuts it by 30 percent."

I asked her if she knew for sure this piece of clothing would really help, but she shrugged and said, well it's to protect the baby.

Then I retorted we should all be wearing these anti-radiation outfits. I also added I'd never seen any pregnant woman with these smocks on. You'd think North America would be leading the way in anti-radiation to protect unborn fetuses... or is this something the Chinese know and we don't?

Months ago I saw another female coworker, in her mid 20s wearing a smock too while she was working in front of the computer.

"You aren't pregnant, are you?" I demanded.

She affirmed she was not, but said she wore the apron to protect herself from the computer radiation.

However, the slim, trendy young woman only wore it a few times and since then I haven't seen her wear it.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Good Effort, But is it Enough?

The National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Congress are starting this week.

And one of their major achievements so far is passing the food safety law earlier this weekend. It finally answers concerns of the public especially after last year's tainted milk scandal, but there are still many loopholes.

Five years in the making, the law encompasses a number of aspects of food quality and supervision over China's 450,000 food producers.

One of the key elements of the new law is that no additives are allowed to be added to food unless proven both necessary and safe.

But how can government departments make sure every container of milk is melamine free without objectively testing it themselves or inspecting the factories and milk collection points everyday?

While a company could prove that a certain additive is necessary, the food producer could substitute it with something else in the actual production process.

It's a huge challenge to watch, especially when of the 450,000 companies that produce food products, 350,000 of them are small ones with 10 or less employees.

The new law also says if offenders know they are selling sub-standard food, they have to compensate the consumer 10 times the price of the product. So if something costs 5 RMB... and someone gets really sick, they'll only get 50RMB back? That hardly covers the cost of seeing the doctor, let alone the medicine.

A State-level food safety commission will also be set up to avoid a bog down in bureaucracy, as currently some 10 government departments are involved in food safety, causing lax supervision or lack of consensus on issues.

Finally, the law stipulates that celebrities will be held legally responsible for the food products they endorse.

They must shoulder "joint liability", which means if the food product is considered unsafe, consumers will have the right to demand compensation from the company and the celebrity involved.

Looks like no singers, actors or athletes are going to endorse any food products from now on. Who wants to shoulder such a heavy responsibility?

How were the stars who did advertising for Sanlu to know that melamine was added to the milk?

There goes that lucrative contract.

In the meantime, this will make it more difficult for food producers to promote their products.

Gone are the days of making a fast buck in the food industry.

In the Name of Patriotism

Today it's been revealed the successful bidder of the two animal bronze heads, a rat and a rabbit, won't pay up.

Cai Mingzhao said he made the more than $35 million total bid to protest the sale of the looted items.

''What I need to stress is that this money cannot be paid,'' Cai told a news conference in Beijing. ''At the time, I was thinking that any Chinese would do this if they could ... I only did what I was obliged to.''


Cai is an art collector, expert on relics and owner of Xiamen Harmony Art International Auction Company in Fujian Province.

He is also adviser to the Lost Cultural Relics Recovery Program, a nongovernmental group that seeks to retrieve looted items.

So if he or the group will not pay, what happens next?

According to Christie's, usually the buyer and the seller are encouraged to come up with some kind of settlement. But if nothing is resolved, the unsold items go back to the buyer, in this case Pierre Berge.

The Frenchman had taunted the Chinese earlier by saying that he would only give the heads back if it would "observe human rights and give liberty to the Tibetan people and welcome the Dalai Lama."

Doesn't sound like an amicable agreement will be reached.

This also brings up the issue of how Cai was able to bid in the first place, as the auction house asks all potential bidders to disclose bank and credit information as part of the registration process.

“You can’t just call up and say, ‘I want to buy a $20 million Picasso,’ ” Kate Malin, spokesperson for Christie's said. “You have to provide satisfactory credit and bank information.”

This unexpected twist to the story must be even more embarassing for the Chinese.

How can the country say they don't have the money to pay?

While Cai might have thought what he did was a patriotic act, it was just a publicity stunt that gives serious Chinese art collectors and buyers a bad name.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

A Taste of the West

I have an American friend who constantly raves about Xinjiang food. He also raves about the place too which he visited in 2007.

So I took him and a couple visiting Beijing to a Xinjiang restaurant that's in the west side of town.

Every province and region has its own representative office in Beijing, and in these compounds or at least nearby are pretty authentic restaurants from those areas.

I'd been to this restaurant back in November when some friends drove me there so I was a bit worried about finding it again.

However, after getting off at Chegongzhuang on Line 2, we took the 701 bus westwards three stops and there was Sanlihelu, just the street we were looking for. And on the north west corner was the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region compound with a brass plate in Chinese and Arabic.

We wandered inside where there's a Xinjiang Hotel, the government offices, and a restaurant on the second floor.

I had tried to make a reservation for four, but the girl at the other end said they didn't take reservations for small parties, but if I didn't want to wait, I'd had to come before 6pm. We arrived around 5:30 and were seated right away, with more than half the restaurant already full.

By 6pm the place was packed and hungry diners were already waiting for a table.

The last time I was here, we had two large tables and ordered a whole roasted lamb. It came out, head included with a red bow on its head too. We ate so many different dishes, all of which I can't remember, except for eating lamb meat non-stop.

This time, however, we probably ate just as much with four.

We started off with baozi, or buns filled with bits of lamb and vegetable, a bowl of slightly sweetened yogurt sprinkled with sesame and pumpkin seeds.

Then we had a giant plate of braised chicken that was cooked in a spicy red sauce complete with the chillis and potatoes, with slices of naan bread underneath soaking up the sauce.

We also ordered roasted lamb legs which were delicious, seasoned with cumin and paprika. We grabbed the legs like Fred Flintstone, chewing on the large bones.

But that wasn't the only lamb we had -- we also had chuar, or kebabs, that were actually roasted on tree branches. Again very tasty, thick cubes of meat, with bits of fat in between for flavour.

Another good dish was stir-fried noodles, which were actually bits of cut dough, about 1cm long, stirfried with finely diced peppers, kale, tomatoes, Chinese celery and small bits of lamb. We also had a plate of naan, flat bread covered in sesame seeds.

Our only vegetable dish was stir-fried young kale with muyi, or wood ear fungus.

At first we were worried about not being able to finish everything, but eventually, with swigs of Shinjiang (Xinjiang) beer, we practically finished everything, save for most of the naan.

But that wasn't all -- we even managed to find room in our stomachs to try a dessert of red bean paste wrapped with pastry, that wasn't too sweet, and had crushed walnuts in the mix.

In the end our bill came to 239 RMB ($35) for four. And when we walked out of the large dining area, there were many people standing around the entrance, waiting to get their hands (and mouths) on some pretty authentic Xinjiang food.

Yisila Restaurant
No. 7 Sanlihe Road
Haidian District

8683 2666
8617 5588