Thursday, April 30, 2009

Watching and Waiting

A few days ago when cases of swine flu in Mexico, the United States and Canada were reported, friends and family asked me if there were any in China.

I joked that if there were, we didn't know about it.

And now the World Health Organization has raised the alert to Level 5, one short of a pandemic.

However here in China, apart from a handful of people wearing masks on the street, everyone is going about their daily business.

They don't seem concerned about it since the government has said there haven't been any cases of swine flu in the country yet and it has ordered students be taught about the virus and how to protect themselves -- washing hands, using tissues when they cough or sneeze and avoiding people who have flu-like symptoms. Didn't they teach them this when SARS hit in 2003?

China is about to start its three-day May Day or Labour Day holiday which could be a good or bad thing. Some who want to avoid crowds will stay cooped up at home, while others might take the opportunity to go outside and see the sights.

This will be a real test to see if authorities really do move quickly and also how informed its citizens are about going to the doctor if they have flu-like symptoms.

According to Dr Hans Troedsson from the WHO representative in China, the country is prepared for swine flu and has set up a surveillance system that looks into suspected cases and investigates them thoroughly.

While he confirmed China didn't have any cases yet, he stressed it was imperative for the government to report any possible cases as soon as possible.

"What is important is transparency and openness, not only to the WHO but also to the public. It's very important that the people understand the situation," Troedsson said.

In media reports on Chinese state media, there aren't many informative stories explicitly telling people exactly what to do in terms of hygiene and what precautions to take, which makes one wonder if the government is assuming alot of its citizens in terms of common sense.

In the meantime Singapore has taken pre-emptive measures by having many staff of businesses and offices working from home to avoid any positive cases.

One wonders if or when China will follow suit. With temperatures rising in Beijing today, the chances of a virus lingering in the air may be higher.

Although it might not provide much protection against swine flu, I may don the mask in the next few days...

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Hard Sell

Some friends outside of China think the country isn't impacted by the global financial crisis.

But I am seeing many signs in the capital that the economy isn't booming anymore.

While there are lots of people on the streets and in the stores, not many are buying, and if they are, they are purchasing cheap goods and food.

Good restaurants aren't seeing high-rolling customers anymore and you can practically walk into these places for a table that previously needed a reservation.

Beggars are returning to the streets now that the weather is getting better and no Olympic Games to shoo them away.

Last week as I was walking to the supermarket and back, two men casually dressed approached me on the street about selling me skincare products. It was so dodgy that I didn't bother to even look at the small white boxes they had in plastic bags.

Then the other day at the office when I was in the washroom washing my hands, a girl I didn't recognize tried to engage me in conversation and attempted to sell me something. I wasn't quite sure what she was saying but I basically ignored her and left. She popped up again yesterday, brazenly walking into our office and trying to sell thermos. A colleague asked her to leave.

Today I got a call on my cellphone from a foreigner who claimed to be from a company that would offer a trial service where I could integrate all my banking online and even get financial planning advice.

The company wasn't a major international bank and the man on the other line was aggressively trying to get me to have a free one-on-one session to try out this online platform.

Although I kept saying I wasn't interested, he kept trying to tell me that it was a great way for me to find out how much to save for retirement. In the financial crisis, everyone's just trying to save whatever they can -- do you need a website to tell you that?

I tried to get him off the phone, but he wouldn't quit. I told him not to call me again.

But later in the afternoon, his colleague (or boss) called me again.

He tried to repeat the sales pitch again which infuriated me. I said that if you think I have a big expat package you're knocking on the wrong door. But he insisted that he had clients that included 20-somethings who only made a few thousand yuan to millionaires.

Even though I kept saying I wasn't interested, he wouldn't give up.

Eventually I just hung up.

So it's not just locals who are having a hard time -- foreigners are too.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Picture of the Day: Window Washers

I don't envy window washers here. They have a perilous job, probably just as bad as construction workers, as they don't have much safety equipment and just seem to somehow suspend themselves on what look like unsafe pulleys and ropes.

And the office building I work at is a drag for window washers. The windows jut in and out, one after the other, so they have to be washed and wiped individually instead of in patches.

The other day a crew was at work and while a few people looked up to watch them, I snapped the window washers almost finished one section of the building.

They're dressed in red and on their backs in white it says hong(2) zhi(1) zhu(1) or "red spiders".

How appropriate.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Backtracking on Promises

The first year anniversary to the May 12 Sichuan earthquake is fast approaching and media, domestic and foreign are currently trying to file their stories in news specials.

While domestic media have been given pretty much free access through guided tours, they know not to tread on sensitive topics like the shoddily-built schools and the numbers of students who died.

Chinese reporters also have access to mostly cheerful residents who will give soundbites saying how thankful they are to the government for helping them after the earthquake when many still don't have a permanent place to live, or infrastructure still not built.

But one year on, most people want to know why the government-built schools that collapsed while other buildings around them were still standing. They also want to know the total number of students who perished which to this day has not been released.

And sometimes it is left to the foreign journalists to ask these tough questions and demand accountability.

However, in recent weeks, some have been harassed, detained, or told to go through bureaucratic hoops even though before, during and after the Olympics the central government promised foreign journalists could have reasonably free access to report around the country.

The Foreign Correspondents Club of China has documented three cases so far:

On April 1, a French journalist was working in Dujiangyuan on a story about a family whose daughter was killed in a school collapse when he and the family were stopped and detained by both uniformed and plainclothes police. The parents were released. The reporter was forced to go the police station and informed he needed to register to report in the area.

On April 2, a German reporter was barred from Yingxiu while attempting to cover the area ahead of the first anniversary of the quake. The reporter was in a public cemetery amid a group of Chinese journalists interviewing relatives of the dead when authorities approached him and told him he had failed to register. They led him away from the cemetery.

On April 6, a German television crew working in Shifang and nearby areas was physically prevented from filming and detained for over five hours. When the crew was waiting to meet the father of a child who died in a school collapse, unidentified men grabbed the man in front of the journalists.

However, on October 17 last year minutes before the rules giving foreign reporters more freedoms was set to expire, the Foreign Ministry held a hastily-organized press conference to announce they would be permanent.

That meant foreign correspondents were allowed to travel where they wished without prior permission and interview whoever wanted to speak to them.

But now the authorities are demanding that foreign reporters register in advance to go to the quake-hit areas.

Why is China changing the rules all of a sudden? What is it so afraid of?

The country has a tendency to move the goal posts -- constantly.

If it wants to be a responsible world power, it has to be consistent in its policies not only on paper but in implementation.

While giving access to foreign reporters is a small policy compared to other big issues like the economy and unemployment, backtracking on the rules becomes the story and perpetuates the belligerence of the government in trying to avoid the truth.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Wishful Thinking

Last night I met someone who used to work on the new CCTV building project.

I'll call this person X.

We asked X what it was like to work on the project and while X wasn't involved with the design concept from the beginning, X liked the idea of the continuous loop being a kind of public space where the public could go through the building like a public viewing gallery.

However, the idea of a public gallery has come into question now as the government seems more intent on wresting control of the project from OMA or The Office for Metropolitan Architecture headed by Rem Koolhaas.

X said OMA still has design control, but it's been hard to constantly monitor everything on the construction site.

We also wondered about the round helicopter pad that is now perched on one of the edges of the building. X explained it was a last-minute change that even OMA didn't know about. Seemingly overnight an army of people built the pad and the architects were shocked to see it practically appear out of nowhere the next day.

X continued, saying while Chinese builders are fast, they don't take direction very well. Some things are done not according to the plan and it's too late or impossible to correct the mistake.

So what's going to happen to the burned out building?

X didn't know, having left the firm, but believed there was political wrangling going on as to what should be done with it. However X agreed it is not safe to try to salvage the burned out building that was supposed to house the Mandarin Oriental.

In a conversation X had with someone at CCTV, this person told X that actually 10 people died, not just the one firefighter reported in the media. These people had been injured and in the hospital and later succumbed to their injuries but this was not reported. One of them was apparently a CCTV staff member.

X's colleagues had visited the project just days before the fire and at that time it looked like the construction was almost complete.

And now the CCTV tower is in limbo, with billions of yuan literally gone up in smoke. "Shao qian" or "burn money", as my local friend said.

X didn't know when the CCTV tower would be finally completed, but for many Chinese, their pride and joy is now like an albatross, a shameful and embarassing reminder of the fire and the fiasco that followed.

So much for national pride in a building that was meant to push the country to the next level design-wise.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

East Meets West

Yesterday morning after visiting the peonies in full bloom, I headed to the National Art Museum on the edge of Wangfujing to see the new Turner exhibition that just started.

Joseph Mallord William Turner was a tour de force in his time.

He was born during the industrial revolution, a time when there was a huge gap between the rich and the poor. His father was a barber in Covent Garden and so the younger Turner was determined to get out of economic hardship through his talent in art.

At the age of 14 he managed to be enrolled in the Royal Academy of Art, then a new institution that encouraged full time artists. Turner had a background in architectural watercolour drawings and his talent was so good that one of his works was shown at the 1790 annual exhibition the year after he entered the academy.

When he was 26, he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy, meaning his work would definitely be shown at the annual exhibitions without having to go through a critique process.

But he soon grew out of watercolours and moved to oils. He exhibited his first oil painting, Fishermen at Sea in 1796 and it's in the exhibition. It's a dramatic piece, dark save for a bright white moon shining above while fishermen are struggling with the rough seas below. The triangular composition is very strong and compelling.

The conflict between man and nature was a constant theme for Turner, how man is completely dwarfed by the power of nature despite his attempts to modernize with technology.

He also began drifting away from the exactness of realism and moving towards impressionism. Another is that he was tired of the academy's mandate to constantly look towards classicism to justify art. While studying classical art was good for a foundation, Turner wanted to move forward to the present.

For example, when the Houses of Parliament were on fire in 1834, he rushed to the scene and made many sketches of the chaos. In his watercolours you can see the power of the fire engulfing the building with frantic strokes of colours swirling together evoking fear and uncertainty.

After the war with France was over, Britons were able to travel again and Turner took the opportunity to go to Italy, Germany and Switzerland among many other countries. He made hundreds of sketches that were later worked into paintings.

As Turner grew older, his works became even more abstract. In one piece called Sun Setting Over a Lake, it's reddish orange on one side, and white on the other with no clear definition of anything.

Critics complained his work could be upside down and it would look the same, but Turner ignored them. He had said his art was a result of hard work -- he never once took his talent for granted, constantly honing on his craft and forging new ground in art history.

When Turner died in 1851, he bequeathed his works to the British nation, over 100 paintings and over a thousand sketches. They are now shown at the Tate Gallery.

But until the end of June, many of them can be seen here in Beijing. What a treat.

Friday, April 24, 2009

A Plethora of Peonies

This morning I headed out to Jingshan Park, which is just north of the Forbidden City. Over a year ago my friend took me there and we saw the area where peonies are grown, but as we were there in winter, there were just bare branches cut back in sectioned off squares of dirt, waiting for the spring.

And so this year I was determined to check out the peonies before they finished blooming for the season.

Already before 11am the park was flooded with domestic tourists visiting Beijing by the busloads. The locals were already there doing their daily exercises from balancing a ball on a kind of racquet and ribbon dancing.

Along a path there were many peony bushes and everyone was taking pictures of them. A young man in a security guard uniform periodically used his bullhorn to politely tell people to get off the grass even though there were already signs by the bushes with a pair of bare feet and a red line through them.

Last night we had a strong rainstorm and heavy winds, blowing many of the peonies and the rain drops weighed down the flowers.

Nevertheless this morning the peonies were the stars of the park, looking even more beautiful with the rain drops on them.

The area where the peonies were was far from bare and now covered with many bushes in full bloom. They were in various shades from light pink to mauve, dark fuchsia, white and pale yellow.

Gardening fans would be in flora heaven seeing so many peonies together.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Fudging the Numbers

A few days ago China's top statistics official vowed to improve the authenticity and accuracy of government statistics after foreign media questioned the credibility of Chinese economic data.

"To keep (official statistics) true and credible is not only our duty but also our need to accept public supervision," said Ma Jiantang, head of the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), in a statement on the NBS Website.

Ma made the pledge, commenting after an article on the Wall Street Journal by Tom Orlik, who is also a former advisor to the British Treasury.

Orlik raised concerns of dubious figures that could overstate or understate the country's real economic situation.

The problem is that the central government depends on provincial and municipal governments for statistics and the numbers can be below the actual reading to get more government subsidies or inflated to make the economic picture look good and benefit officials' work performances.

While the central government probably knows the numbers aren't exactly accurate, and so it adjusts the raw data it gets, thus further skewing the picture of the country, from stats on population to agricultural output and exports.

While China is revising its law on statistics this year, including the strong possibility of penalizing officials who "intervene in government statistical work and manipulate or fabricate data", there has to be a better way to get more accurate numbers.

So in the meantime, all the statistics you read coming out of China, take it all with a grain of salt, or two, or three...

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Precious Goods

My company is stingy on the stationery supplies.

The above photo shows all the stuff I was issued today -- and had to sign for, no less.

On the right is a triple magazine holder, and then on the left at the bottom are two grey folders and then one unsharpened pencil, one glue, one exacto knife, a box of paperclips, a rollerball pen, some tape, scissors and some clips. That's it. No notebook, no stickies, no pencil sharpener either.

I'm not too sure how a cutting knife will help me perform better on my job, and glue, when I have an entire box of paper clips to keep papers together... of which I have none.

However, I fear that if I lose any of these prized possessions I'll have to sign for them again and it'll be forever noted in administration records...

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Trying to Appeal to the Masses

Martial arts action star Jackie Chan has landed himself in some hot water after comments he made last weekend at the Boao Forum for Asia in Hainan.

During a panel discussion about Asian entertainment industries, Chan was asked to talk about movie censorship in China.

"I'm not sure if it's good to have freedom or not," he said last Saturday, adding freedoms in his native Hong Kong and Taiwan made those societies "chaotic".

"I'm gradually beginning to feel that we Chinese need to be controlled. If we're not being controlled, we'll just do whatever we want."

These comments enraged Hong Kongers, including a group of scholars who published a letter on the Internet accusing Chan of "not understanding how precious freedom is," even though "free Hong Kong provided the conditions for you to become an international action star."

There's also lots of backlash against the Rush Hour star on Facebook, calling for Chan to be exiled to North Korea. Members of the social networking site also posted letters urging Hong Kong's Baptist University and Academy for Performing Arts to strip him of the honorary degrees they gave the actor.

And the Hong Kong Tourist Board is probably wondering what to do now, as Chan is (or was) its best spokesman promoting the city.

So far the HKTB has received 17 complaints, but has not yet commented on the fiasco.

And opposition parties in Taiwan are pushing for the city of Taipei to strip Chan of his role as ambassador of the Deaf Olympic Games to be held there in September.

Meanwhile, China has been silent on the issue and probably wants to stay out of the fray.

What some entertainers will do to sell more tickets or try to become more popular...

Monday, April 20, 2009

Pushing Soft Power

China Daily is getting some competition now with a new English-language paper called Global Times.

It just launched today with a big bash in a hotel this evening.

The new paper is part of China's plan to use its soft power to influence the world.

But will it work?

As soon as people hear "state media" attached to any mainland Chinese outlet, the sirens psychologically go off and dismiss it as propaganda.

Should we immediately discount it?

Most people believe state media is one-sided even though they claim to give a more balanced view for foreigners to "understand more about China". Some critics have the theory that if you tell a lie 100 times it becomes fact.

And then there are the China watchers who are intrigued by the way some stories are written, looking at the articles as coded messages hinting what officials and leaders are saying with regards to a certain issue or policy.

But the majority of people outside of China have never been to the country and don't understand how it works or why things are worded the way they are mostly thanks to difficult translations and the naive perceptions the Chinese have of foreigners.

People from overseas are usually called "foreign friends", a cringe-worthy term that simultaneously points out our differences yet at the same time urges us to not be the bad cop.

Unfortunately the Chinese -- the government -- doesn't understand that for the majority of people outside of China, freedom of the press is crucial in terms of credibility. No matter how many new papers are launched, or an Al Jazeera-type news broadcast are aired, the intended audience won't believe them without a big dose of skepticism.

Until the government cuts its links with the media and these organizations are free to report on whatever they want will people -- both foreigners and Chinese -- really take China seriously.

When that will happen nobody knows.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Fishing for a Good Meal

Last week some of my friends told me about a restaurant in the university district that serves what many say is the best roast fish or kao yu in town.

They had gone all the way to the north west side of the city from the south east side, only to find there was a giant line up. They got a number, but their growling stomachs couldn't wait so they went to a nearby restaurant to eat instead.

When they finished, they went to check up on the fish restaurant but their number still hadn't come up...

So this weekend they were determined to eat there, and asked me to come along.

I'm not too familiar with the university district, but we got off at the third last stop on Line 10 called Haidian Huangzhuang and then caught a bus that took us to Weigongcun.

At Weigongcun Jie there were several restaurants, one after the other, each ready to cater, from all kinds of Chinese food, to Mongolian and even Dai minority.

And this fish restaurant called Wushan Roasts the Entire Fish (Wushan Kao Quan Yu) is easily identifiable with many people standing outside, even at 5:30pm.

Luckily some of my friends had arrived earlier -- early in the afternoon -- to get a number and we only had to wait 30 minutes to be seated. A few tables before we were seated we were given the menu to order as it took a while for the fish to be cooked.

You choose what kind of fish you want -- usually over 1kg each which is split down the middle and opened up so it looks like you're getting two fish. Then, unlike other fish restaurants, you choose six fillings to put underneath the fish, like mushrooms, peanuts, dried tofu, turnip, seaweed, and baby napa cabbage.

The restaurant itself is cosy -- looks like a cafe more than a restaurant with books lined along some shelves and post-it notes stuck all over the walls, mostly complimenting the restaurant. There was one that had a drawing of a guy and a girl, each with a fish in their stomachs.

And then as you wait for the main event, you can snack on sunflower seeds.

After a short time, it arrives, a giant tray with hot coals underneath to keep it hot and cooking.

Since there were six of us we ordered two fish, with different toppings. One had diced celery and peppers, the other a bit spicier with chillis and preserved vegetable. Each were further seasoned with other spices like cumin and coriander.

And the taste? While the fish is cooked in a layer of oil, it's delicious, but I wouldn't say amazing. The vegetables underneath the fish were a good touch, making the meal more complete. I ordered a side of noodles, which interestingly came cold and on a plate.

The fish overall was a bit too spicy for me, which made it necessary to down lots of cold Yanjing beer. But in the end we polished both fish eventually and waddled out, red-faced and all. The damage? Only 252RMB ($36.87) for six.

Maybe that's another reason it's considered the best roast fish in town.

Wushan Roasts the Entire Fish
No. 16 Weigongcun min da bei lu
Haidian District
Tel: 6841 7169

Saturday, April 18, 2009


I recently finished a book called Microtrends by Mark J Penn, CEO of Burson-Marsteller, and at one time as advised former President Bill Clinton, then Senator Hillary Clinton and Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates.

In 1996 Penn identified "soccer moms" as a critical group that helped re-elect Clinton to the White House.

And in his time of looking at numbers and trends, Penn believes it's the microtrends, or under-the-radar groups that although may be small in population, could have a significant influence on new products and services, or influencing new policies.

For example, there's the working retired, those who have retired, but pick up new jobs because they like to keep busy and not because of the money; "southpaws" or lefthanders are growing in population and there aren't enough products catered to them; and people in relationships but would rather live separately than together.

So when I came across this Mini Cooper with Hello Kitty splashed all over it in front of the BMW store, it made me wonder -- is this a new trend?

There are many Asian women in their 20s and 30s who love the Sanrio character and buy up all kinds of accessories from toasters that burns an imprint of the cat's face on toast to Hello Kitty underwear and toilet bowl cleaners.

So do Hello Kitty fans like to drive Minis? Or is the Mini the car Hello Kitty likes to drive?

It's a possible microtrend watchers may want to track...

Friday, April 17, 2009

Firing up the Grill

Last night my friend wanted to take me to a kosher Jewish restaurant in Super Bar Street.

Right across from the new United States embassy, this enclave is a bizarre mix of shops, restaurants and bars catered to the diplomatic crowd, and seedy characters in the evenings. A mish-mash of establishments, it probably would not have sprung up have it not been for the number of consulates in the area.

However, when we got to Dini's, the place was closed for a private party celebrating Shabbat, or the day of rest.

My friend, who is a fraction Jewish, but not too familiar with the religion, was annoyed about not calling ahead of time to make a reservation.

Nevertheless, we wandered down the winding strip that included a Syrian restaurant that was empty, some Japanese restaurants, a tattoo parlour, shops selling casual clothing and bags, and even a Texas-style eatery.

We ended up at a Japanese teppanyaki place called Liu Wen Qian that was also empty. One of the chefs was hanging outside when he opened the door for us and shouted to the back kitchen that customers had arrived.

The decor was very strange, reflecting the bizarre mix of establishments on Super Bar Street -- on the left was an industrial look, with steel beams making a red "X" against the wall, and opposite it was a Chinese red gate theme complete with lion heads for door knockers.

There were two teppans or iron griddles on either end of the cut-out rectangular table, where diners sat around on European-style chairs.

The menu was very confusing -- Having had teppanyaki before, I thought there would basically be a set menu to choose from for 158RMB ($23.12) each including drinks. But instead, the waitress said we could basically chose whatever we wanted, save for a small section of the menu that featured things like foie gras and premium beef and seafood.

We started off with tuna and salmon sashimi, both very fresh, and a small bowl of jellyfish, seaweed and cucumber, and then the cooking began. There was enoki mushrooms wrapped in beef, cubed beef tenderloin that was slightly tough, but delicious with garlic and onion, and sweet prawns cooked whole. There was also spinach cooked with bacon which sounds like an oxymoron health-wise, but was delicious. Overall the meal was a tad too salty.

Our chef didn't display cool teppankayi skills save for dousing our cut of beef in alcohol and and oil and setting it alight.

Meanwhile two Chinese men drifted in later, but they seemed like they were the bosses of the place. They later opted to sit across from us and before we left one passed out business cards to us in hopes we'd return.

Unfortunately including beer and water, we left the restaurant still kind of hungry and wandered to Mondo Gelato at the nearby Luftansa Shopping Mall for a scoop of Italian-style ice cream.

While the dining experience made my friend even more keen to try a better teppanyaki restaurant, it was unusual being in China and paying so much for so little.

Liu Wen Qian
West Gate of Jingcheng Towers
Xinyuan Nanlu
Chaoyang District
Tel: 8454 2851

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Mind-boggling Banking

In some companies, foreigners get paid in cash. That's a lot of dough come pay day.

Employees are led one by one into a back room or the finance office and are handed a thick brown envelope full of red Chaiman Maos.

And then other companies have become more sophisticated with direct bank deposits. But your salary isn't put into your bank account. Your employer issues you a bank card with whichever bank the company banks with and puts the money in there.

So with my first company, it was with China Merchant's Bank. But then where I lived was near a Bank of Beijing with whom I had to open a bank account in order to pay telephone and electricity bills. OK, I think I can handle that.

And now my new employer also uses Bank of Beijing. So I told the HR woman that I already had an existing account so could I let her know the account number?

"No that's not necessary," she said. "The company will issue you another bank card."


Thinking she didn't quite understand, I repeated what I said, but she shook her head. "No the company issues everyone a bank card. I don't know why but in the time I've been here, the company has issued me five bank cards."

"So you have five bank accounts with the Bank of Beijing?" I asked.

She smiled, nodded and walked off.

How crazy is that? And how does everyone in China keep track of all their accounts if they potentially have more than one with the same bank?

While Chinese banks can boast having the largest number of accounts in the world, surely they're some of the most inefficient, creating serious accounting problems.

This shows the Chinese banking system is still highly bureaucratic, or finance departments of companies are too lazy to try to pay its staff in their preferred bank accounts.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Wandering for Help

Yesterday when I was having lunch at a fast-food Chinese restaurant near my office, an elderly woman dressed in a navy blue Mao suit, looking a little confused, shuffled in. She stood out from the office worker crowd who were chatting with each other or just having a bite to eat.

She was soon shooed out by the manager despite her pleas.

I finished my lunch and wandered into a nearby boutique selling cute accessories, toys, notebooks and clothes. And then I saw that same woman standing there, trying to get the attention of the young shop girls who tried to ignore her and then she eventually left. I don't know where she went after that.

Today after work I did a bit of shopping at Wu-Mart, the Chinese version of Wal-Mart. It's not an upscale supermarket which is surprising for the neighbourhood, as the produce doesn't seem that fresh and the selection of foods and goods is limited.

Nevertheless, I picked out some vegetables that needed to be weighed and priced. And as I looked around for the shop assistant to do this for me, I saw an elderly man who had disheveled hair, and he had a blazer on, hanging carelessly as dirty bags hung from his shoulders.

He just stood there, eyeing all the food as hungry shoppers went around him, completely unaware this man may not have eaten for a while.

Later on he moved into the sauce section and again was ignored.

To see this in the past two days and never before in all my time in Beijing was disturbing. Don't get me wrong -- I have seen beggars on the streets and others eeking out an existence scrounging for bottles, but never before homeless and hungry people going into shops hoping for a handout.

While the west hasn't found the ideal solution to deal with this problem either, at least many major cities have soup kitchens for these people to gather and have some sense of community.

Social welfare is crucial in maintaining a "harmonious society", and this is where China falls short. This is ironic considering the country used to pride itself on its socialist values.

But these have fallen by the wayside in the past 30 years as its people are caught up in a race to catch as much money as possible.

Seniors do get some small pensions called dibiao depending on where they worked, what job they had, and for how long. But these hardly amount to much, totaling less than 1,000RMB per month. If they haven't saved enough before retirement, how is a few hundred yuan enough to feed oneself for 30 days?

While China's silver-haired population is fast increasing, they deserve more -- especially those who aren't supported by or living with their families. They have suffered through so much before and after the founding of the People's Republic. Would it hurt to make sure they had enough to eat in their old age?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Two Years On

This week marks my second anniversary in Beijing.

In some ways time has flown by, but in others, it's been a long journey.

I had hoped to leave Beijing around this time, but the global financial crisis has forced all of us to rethink our plans. For me hunkering down in the Chinese capital proved to be a good choice. With a new job and new apartment closer in town, hopefully my social life will kick up a notch.

However, it's already evident that my new job eerily feels like my first one (see previous posting "Power Struggle") and I won't have much to do. Nevertheless, I intend to make the most of my time in the office perfecting the art of looking busy...

All is not lost. I do try to periodically wander the city or revisit places as if it's my last time so there are no regrets. I still take visitors to my favourite restaurants and savour every bite.

Maybe it's because I know Beijing isn't really my kind of city, but am trying to enjoy it for what it is. I've now accepted the overwhelming size of the place, with its monstrous buildings hovering over us having to walk for ages to cover one block.

But it's my local friends who have really given me more insight into China and the city. One has recently been so helpful in helping me find the best route to get to work and home each day. After lunch we wander around the office, checking out the bus stops to see which bus would be best for me.

And while I don't know Beijing off the back of my hand, I can get around by public transit quite confidently and find my bearings. I prefer taking the bus to see where I'm going and notice landmarks along the way. Bus fare is also only 0.40RMB.

Language is still a challenge, as Beijingers constantly roll their r's creating their own dialect. However, I'm understanding more and recognizing more Chinese characters. It's an ongoing process that gives me more confidence as I increase my vocabulary.

I still can't follow a news broadcast because the anchors talk so fast, but once I know the context I can figure out what is being said.

So I'm looking at this upcoming year as possibly my last in Beijing. I don't know for sure, but it could be. I'm still keen to explore new places, try new eateries and meet new people. I haven't tired of the city yet, which is probably a sign more adventures are ahead.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Power Struggle

The Chinese have an ambivalent relationship towards foreigners.

If they come to visit, Chinese people welcome foreigners with open arms, taking this golden opportunity to give them a tour of the "real China". A trip to Beijing includes visiting the usual sights like the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, The Great Wall at Badaling, oily Peking Duck at Quanjude and a cheesy acrobatics show.

Visitors leave the Middle Kingdom with memories of warm-hearted people, endless plates of food, the challenges of trying to master chopsticks and cute chubby babies. Luckily those seem to resonate more than the other images of spitting, squat toilets and jostling crowds.

But when it comes to the Chinese working with foreigners, it's another story.

After two years and now working in another state-run company, I can safely say that Chinese bosses have a love-hate relationship with foreigners.

They hire people from overseas mainly for their language or expertise in a certain area and hope to capitalize on their skills.

And at first the Chinese are polite, genial and encourage feedback or suggestions, to which the foreigners take as an opportunity to let 'er rip. Some may give constructive criticism, others good suggestions, but there are others who will just gripe and complain.

Chinese management may not expect such a barrage of comments, looking at it as a loss of face rather than an honest assessment or pathetic whinging.

And soon afterwards, Chinese bosses decide to close ranks and effectively shut out foreigners from any further discussions by conducting meetings completely in Mandarin.

Besides, foreigners are employees, not partners so they don't need to know everything that's going on.

From there, the chance to create something new that is better through a collaborative effort is lost.

In the end foreign employees just do what they're told to do -- just use their skills or expertise for their one function in the company and that's it, rather than being able to contribute further to create an even more competitive product or service that could have global potential rather than just have a domestic audience.

Part of it comes from Chinese management's lack of trust that foreigners have China's best interests in mind or that those foreign devils are actually undercover spies and have a subversive plan up their sleeves to thwart the country.

However many of us are genuinely interested in helping China improve itself. Living here we've gotten to know locals and the way the country works and we can see that if small and big changes were made, they could have profound effects on everything from efficiency to quality.

But now it looks like change will only come from within -- from the small percentage of people who study or work abroad and then come back and try to reform the system bit by bit.

Imagine if different ideas were more openly accepted and implemented -- China would be an even greater power than it is now.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Hazy Days are Here

Today the weather forecast was for rain in the evening. But it's past 10pm and not a drop has fallen from the sky.

These last few days it's been very hazy, but not humid enough for it to rain.

Foreigners and locals ask me if the haze is because of the pollution or it really is fog. "Perhaps both," I reply, to which I get nods of agreement, confirming their fears.

However, it's also snowing too -- not the cold snowflake kind, but white fluff balls called catkins are falling from the trees around this time to pollinate. There had been talk of somehow biologically preventing the catkins from flying all over the city, but seems like nothing was done about it.

But while they may be nice to look at, they can be a nuisance. As I rode the bus home today, hundreds if not thousands of the white weightless balls flew into the vehicle through the open windows and some small enough to be accidentally inhaled.

Outside it looked like snow was falling on the streets and maybe these little things are contributing to the grayness of the sky. Or maybe it really is pollution -- from the sand storms.

Every few days I have wipe down my coffee table at home and the white surface is covered in a thin layer of yellow dust.

Friends who came through the capital recently told me that while they were impressed with the Bird's Nest, they were disappointed to find the architectural marvel wasn't well kept, and was covered in dust, a fading shadow of its former glory from almost a year ago.

Please make it rain... Beijing needs a good thorough rinse and now's a good time as any.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Creating Better Lives

It dawned on me recently that young people in China today are making huge leaps forward compared to their parents a generation ago.

Many 20- and 30-somethings have either gotten post-secondary education and/or moved to the cities to find work unlike their mothers and fathers.

They text message on their cellphones, surf the Internet and have the ability to make several times more money than their parents can in one month, even if it's only 3,000RMB ($439).

My hairdresser Ah Yong is one of them, in his late 30s. He's Chinese, and born in Vietnam. When the war broke out, he was eight-years-old when his family escaped to Guanxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and made their livelihood on the fields. They grew rice, pineapples, lychees and longan, or dragon eyes.

His family has roots in Guangdong so he grew up speaking Cantonese, Mandarin and Guanxi dialect. He only finished middle or secondary school before learning the hairdressing trade and then coming to Beijing.

Now working seven days a week at a salon, he owns a small apartment and a jeep, and regularly sends back money to his family in Guanxi who are still tending the fields.

He may not have a good education, but his achievements have been astronomical for his family.

Minus the trauma of war, many other young Chinese have made similar success, either being the first in the family to have post-secondary education, or making what their family considers is a lot of money.

While we in the west might think those achievements are small, they are huge leaps and bounds for China, which was and still for the most part poor and rural.

This afternoon I was in a lineup for the changing room at Uniqlo, a Japanese clothing retailer that has beaten the recession blues with its quality and reasonably-priced basics.

And behind me was a 20-something trendy girl in a T-shirt, cigarette pants and flats with buckles with her ruddy-faced dark-skinned mother in a red gawdy sweater with beading all over it. The two of them together was such a striking contrast, but these two lives still exist -- the older generation sacrificing everything for the next one to have a better life -- and cool clothes too.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Picture of the Day: Frightful Taste

Tonight my friend and I had dinner at Jianwai SoHo, which is at Guomao Station, in the south east of the city.

Named after the trendy New York area, it seems every other area in Beijing is named SoHo, which makes it very confusing for people to know which SoHo you're talking about.

Nevertheless, this area is a mix of residential, office and commercial space which tonight was quite lively with young office workers letting loose on a Friday night.

And after dinner we walked towards the subway station and we passed by this bakery.

Among the cakes that looked like cats, porcupines and a basket of fruit, was this horrific-looking one, complete with an eyeball falling out.

When would you ever serve a cake like that, other than at Halloween?

I don't think it would make a good birthday cake...

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Picture of the Day: CCTV Building

I've changed jobs and the new office I work at is one block east of the new CCTV tower.

From where I used to live in Wangjing, on a clear day I could see it from far away.

But now I can pass by the dakouchar ("the big pants") everyday, up close and feel overwhelmed by this giant steel angular loop.

Almost all the buildings in Beijing make me feel so small and insignificant -- they seem to demand subservience from the people who live here. Or are they considered giant monuments that are a testament to the physical achievements of 1.3 billion people.

In any case looking at the CCTV building everyday to and from work might give me a new appreciation for this piece of architecture that aims to establish a new definition for skyscrapers.

Here it is in its shining glory just after 6pm as the sun was setting earlier today.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Not Quite a Deal

Tonight I took my relatives to Din Tai Fung, a Taiwanese restaurant that serves Shanghainese cuisine.

And its location in Shin Kong Place at Dawang Lu is usually quite busy, even on weekdays.

But today, Wednesday night it was quite mellow, with only a few second seatings by the time we left at 8:30pm.

This is the impact of the financial crisis on a popular restaurant with the well-to-do.

And the eatery has decided to fight the downturn with an interesting promotion.

Printed on the paper place mats is an invitation for diners to get a "VIP" card. If you put 1,000 RMB ($145.70) on the card that is used like cash, then you can get 10 percent off -- as in 100 RMB, or two 50 RMB coupons.

If you spend more than 2,000-9,000 RMB then you can get 15 percent worth of coupons, and the 10,000RMB and more get up to 20 percent worth of coupons.

I had mistakenly thought I could get 10 percent off each time I dined when using the card as cash. Oh and you also get a "VIP" dessert not on the menu. What is it? A slightly cold red bean soup that wasn't up to the usual Din Tai Fung standards.

So while the restaurant snagged me as a VIP customer, I'm not very impressed. They really should be giving me 10 percent off each time I dine there for using that VIP card. That would keep me coming back even if I had to add more money to that card. Giving me two 50RMB coupons isn't going to cut it.

I understand profit margins are starting to get slimmer, but isn't it better to get more customers through the door than being stingy about what you serve them?

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Beating to Submission

The authorities are worried about June 4. They wonder what people have in store to mark the anniversary that rocked the leadership and the world 20 years ago.

But the government will do all it can to suppress any mention of it.

At this year's Qing Ming Festival, or Tomb-Sweeping Day on Saturday, Beijing encouraged its people to not only pay respects to their ancestors, but to also remember those victims who died in the May 12 earthquake.

However, one elderly man chose to remember other victims.

Sun Wenguang, 75, is a retired professor of Shandong University. He chose to mark Qing Ming by paying respects to Zhao Ziyang, former General Secretary of the Communist Party of China who visited the students during the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, and to Zhang Zhixin, a dissident who was killed in the Cultural Revolution.

Not only was Sun's taxi followed by nine cars sent by the police, but he was later attacked, where the assailants threw him down a two-metre drop and brutally beat the old man, breaking three of his ribs.

He is now recovering in hospital, reportedly unable to turn his head, but is in stable condition.

Sun is no stranger to surveillance and trouble -- he has been imprisoned many times in over 10 years for his opinions on political issues and has written books that have been published in Hong Kong.

Why are the authorities so scared of this elderly man? Are physical beatings really necessary?

This only shows the government is still doing everything it can to hide the truth, which will eventually come out whether it likes it or not.

While 1989 is a grave mistake that will never bring back the lives lost, China needs to come to terms with this dark event in history. Only then can the country really begin its ascent onto the world stage as an accountable power.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Forget Spring, Summer is Here

The window of my apartment building faces east. So in the mornings, I get a very bright wake up call courtesy the Sun at 6am these days.

And today was especially warm -- 27 degrees!

Spring has evaporated into the heat and is quickly being replaced with the beginning of summer and it's only April.

Needless to say by the time I walked from the subway station to the office, my back was already sweaty and needed a drink to cool down.

The rest of the week looks to be about the same... ah Spring, we hardly knew ye.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Picture of the Day: Heading for a Bargain

Today I wandered around Panjiayuan with some relatives who are in town.

I told them about the antique flea market in the south east of the city which piqued their interest and so they had to check it out.

I like to go there periodically just to see what's for sale and if there are any new items I haven't seen before.

As some antique experts have pointed out before, about 99 percent of the stuff sold there is fake, so make sure you bargain for the best price.

And in one of the rows of vendors, I spied the two bronze heads of the rat and the rabbit that were up for sale at the Christie's auction in late February.

Cai Mingchao may have left the auction world in disgrace thanks to muted public opinion on his so-called "patriotic act", but someone else can bargain for these imitation animal heads at a much lower price, as long as they're willing to pay up.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Bureaucratic Bumbling

My move to the new apartment went well -- I mean the actual transporting of my stuff from one place to another.

And now I have lots of stuff all over the one-bedroom flat and it's going to take me a while to sort through everything.

My new place doesn't have much storage space which means either buying more shelving or boxing stuff up -- or going minimalist and purging even more stuff.

I've decided to do the latter, and it's going to take a lot of determination! Do I still need those worn out pair of shoes? Yes! Do I need this sweater even though I haven't worn it in over a year? Hmmm... maybe.

Hopefully I'll get the culling done in the next few weeks and then the place will look... less cluttered. The only thing that looks good so far is the bedroom and walk-in closet. The living room is a bit of a mess...

However, when it came to begin the process of moving my boxes and suitcases of stuff into our small moving van, you'd think you just load up and go.

But the young uniformed security guard at my building tried to explain to me that he needed to make a list of all the things I was taking out.

Excuse me?

I didn't quite understand what was going on and he dragged a guy out from the management office to speak to me.

This other young guy tried to look more authoritative, again saying that he needed to make a list of all the things I was taking before I could actually move out.

I said, I'm not moving my landlord's stuff out, I'm moving my own stuff out!

He again tried to explain that it was a procedure that had to be done with my landlord present otherwise he would have to stop my move.

I was dumbfounded, while one of the movers tried to smooth talk him, saying we're only taking a few things today and will come back later, when this bureaucratic process can be finished off.

He still wasn't satisfied and I had to explain to him that it wasn't me renting the place -- it was my company who rented the place from my landlord and no one in my company had explained the process of moving out to me at all.

I said that I would come back Tuesday to sort everything out with him, including paying water fees for the past two years and any other outstanding fees.

All the while the movers continued carrying my things into the van and after a while the guy from the management office gave up trying to stop me -- what could he do really? And he said the matter would be settled on Tuesday.

I still don't understand what he needed to do, but I'll let my company sort that out with him.

And then when I got to my new apartment, the security guard said we needed to get some kind of form filled out at the management office to allow us to use the service elevator!

This time the security guards were polite and two of them escorted me one after the other to the place.

When I walked down the stairs I could see the guy in a suit lying on the sofa for a snooze, but when he saw me coming, he quickly got up.

He filled out a small piece of paper and asked me to put my name on it.

Do you have a lot of stuff? he asked.

I asked him what a lot meant.

He then asked how many times I would need to use the elevator and I said once or twice?

"Oh then that's fine," he said and then told me to give the piece of paper to the person manning the service elevator.

The movers had already moved my things to the service elevator, waiting for me to give the slip of paper to the woman who refused to let them in the lift without it.

So when I leave this new place, I have to fill out that same kind form that the first apartment had wanted...

I can understand that the managers of the building worry you're moving out without your landlord's knowledge, but why should be onus be on the management office? They should really be concentrating on making sure the property is secure and fix things like the elevator that hasn't been working for the past several months, not chase you down to do paperwork that really is none of their business...

Friday, April 3, 2009

Moving On

I've just finished 98 percent of my packing in my apartment.

My friend helped me tape up boxes and pack up kitchenware, and odds and ends, then moved all my suitcases and boxes into the living room to get ready to move tomorrow morning.

I can't believe how much stuff I've accumulated in two years.

However, I can't survive without my vacuum cleaner even though I don't have disposable bags for it, and I need the humidifier in the winter when the air is really dry. Pots and pans are a must along with bedding, clothes, coats, shoes and even a tennis racquet.

In the last few weeks I've "stolen" a few cardboard boxes from the office and disposed of old clothes, newspaper clippings, old magazines and shoes. And yet I still have a mountain of stuff.

But from tomorrow I'll be starting a new life -- a new job and a new apartment.

I left my office for the last time today, with tears welling up as I said goodbye to people I'd seen day in, day out for the past two years.

They learned a little bit of what foreigners think of China and the finer points of English, while I got to know what young people in China are like and issues that concern them.

Many came by my desk to say goodbye, giving me their cellphone numbers to keep in touch, and a few even giving small gifts, from a mug and a key chain, to a jade bracelet.

For them it was only a small token of appreciation for the help I'd given them in my time there, and it was overwhelming for me to realize how much I'd affected them professionally and personally.

After I settle into my new home, I'll be energized to give as much energy, passion and devotion as I have to my old job to my new one.

My new colleagues are eager to learn and I'm just as enthusiastic to give too.

Although I'll miss my coworkers and all the work we did together, it's time for me to move on and take on a new challenge.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Honouring the Dead

Qing Ming or Tomb-Sweeping Day is this Saturday. It's a traditional Chinese holiday where families visit the graves of their ancestors.

They literally sweep or clean the tombstone, bring some offerings, like fruits and chicken, wine and other favourite foods. Buddhists also burn stacks of money for heaven, paper clothes and paper shaped like gold ingots to those in the afterlife.

Some westerners think it's wonderful that there is a dedicated day for the Chinese to remember their loved ones, though China only started observing it last year after the change in the Golden Week holidays.

Nevertheless, this year the government is pushing for remembrance of those who died in the May 12 earthquake in Sichuan.

Although the first anniversary is a few months away, state-media organizations are being sent there to cover the event.

Why is the government doing that? We have not forgotten the victims, especially those students who died in allegedly shoddily-built schools. Their parents are still demanding the government release the exact number of students who perished, and yet their request is unanswered. Instead they are hushed up or forced to find other outlets to release their frustration.

China is also encouraging people to remember those who died for the revolution. It has set up a website where 'netizens' can leave patriotic comments. And speaking of martyrs, a TV series about Lei Feng, a selfless soldier who was devoted to Chairman Mao but died at the age of 21. He has grown into a cult hero and recently his image has been revived.

However, famed Olympic diver Tian Liang will play the young Lei, but this has created controversy in online forums. Some feel Tian, who has made a lot of money through endorsements is hardly a suitable choice to play Lei, who was known for being thrifty.

While we'll have to see if Tian does make a convincing Lei, it's interesting to see how people feel about a wealthy athlete playing a young patriotic soldier.

In the west we do sometimes raise an uproar about how much an actor is paid, but if they're good, who's to say how much they're worth? And does their own personality really matter?

But for the Chinese, playing a real person means that actor has to be true, inside and out.

Perhaps that's the best way to remember a loved one.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Turning up the Heat

Some people think the G20 summit in London will actually be the G2 -- the spotlight on presidents Hu Jintao and Barack Obama.

While it will be the first time the two meet, there are a lot of expectations that the United States and China will work out a strategy to get the world out of the economic doldrums.

In recent days China has been trying to push the US off its footing, with Chinese bank governor Zhou Xiaochuan suggesting that a "super-sovereign reserve currency" replace the US dollar.

While Zhou spun it by saying the goal is to "create an international reserve currency that is disconnected from individual nations and is able to remain stable in the long run," US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke oppose the idea.

However, there are some European states that are interested in the shift too, but this radical proposal with significant economic and political implications may take time to be realized.

So what does China do in the meantime?

The Middle Kingdom has begun signing swap agreements with Hong Kong, Indonesia and now Columbia so that there is no need to do business in US dollars anymore, but in renminbi.

But despite these memorandums, China still continues to buy US Treasury bonds, now estimated to be at $2 trillion. It has become inextricably linked to the US whether it likes it or not.

When I first arrived in Beijing, I remember reading articles proudly spouting how much China had in US reserves. I wondered why China was so eager to put all its eggs in one basket -- why not invest in other currencies? Or better yet, take a few billion and improve its woefully inadequte healthcare and education systems?

Now two years on with the global financial crisis, the Chinese are wondering why their investments in the US have gone sour and why China keeps pouring money there. They also wonder even though China has this mind-boggling amount, why is the country still relatively poor?

The heat is on which is why Chinese leaders are also turning up the temperature with the Obama administration. From the beginning China has blamed the global economic downturn on the United States and its frivolous spending, but really, it's that consumption that has fueled China's economy.

So many contradictions, yet no easy answer.

It will be interesting to see what, if anything comes out of the G20 summit. We, the world, are tired of the photo calls and other pithy statements.

We want change, and we want it now.