Sunday, May 31, 2009

Changing the Rules

Today is the deadline for Chinese lawyers to renew their permits that allow them to practice law in China.

It is an annual bureaucratic paperwork process of being summoned to the local judicial bureau or Lawyers Association and presenting a payment of dues.

However, some, particularly those who have worked on human rights cases, or those incidents that have attracted worldwide attention, may not be getting a renewal stamp in their booklets.

It's the Chinese government's way of preventing cases that challenge it from going ahead.

Some lawyers offered to defend Tibetans accused of inciting riots last year; some represented families affected in the tainted milk scandal; or others helped the parents who lost their children in the Sichuan earthquake.

Many of these lawyers may not be able to practice law this year -- which means they technically have no job, as no law firm will not hire lawyers who don't have the permit to practice.

However, when the Asian Wall Street Journal asked the Beijing Judicial Bureau about this problem, Dong Chunjiang, a deputy director of the bureau replied: "All lawyers are treated equally. Our 19,000 lawyers are protecting people's rights."

But they haven't just been legally barred from representing people's rights. A few lawyers have been reported physically beaten and detained.

Some lawyers believe the renewal process has stopped or been postponed because of the sensitive time period with June 4 coming up and the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic.

Nevertheless, the fundamental question is this -- how is China supposed to progress if its laws are not challenged or defended by lawyers?

The country needs these lawyers now more than ever to encourage people have faith in the system, that there is justice and equity.

When the government prevents lawyers from doing their jobs, how can anyone have faith in the rule of law in China?

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Exotic Dining at Your Own Risk

To celebrate duanwu or the Dragonboat Festival, two friends and I decided to pay a culinary tribute to Aung San Suu Kyi who is currently on trial, by having dinner at an Indonesian/Burmese restaurant.
It's located in the embassy district area, which despite having the various embassies shoulder-to-shoulder, there are still pockets where a number of small restaurants and western-style grocery stores thrive along the tree-lined lanes.
Java & Yangon is situated behind the German embassy in a quaint small space with al fresco dining. However, we opted to eat inside and took in the perpetual Christmas decor with plastic evergreen boughs that lined the ceiling complete with blinking lights.
The menu is extensive, with a large selection of Indonesian and Burmese dishes complete with pictures that looked good to eat, making it hard to decide what to order.
Papaya salad is a refreshing starter -- but caught my two dining companions off guard because they were expecting papaya, not green papaya which is tart and more like a vegetable. Nevertheless, they took to it right away, with thin slices of the papaya with red onion, roasted peanuts, and sauce of shrimp paste and lime.
We also had bakwan, deep-fried vegetable cakes that came with a spicy and sour orangey-red dipping sauce. There were too many pieces as an appetizer for three, but ideal for a bigger group.
A winner was the mee goreng, a classic Indonesian dish of fried noodles with fish balls, tofu, egg, chicken and shrimp. While we liked the sauce for the lamb curry with Indonesian spices coconut milk, it was unfortunately the cubes of lamb were tough, revealing inferior meat quality or not enough tenderizing before cooking.
I asked the server for less spice in all the dishes, but the stir-fried morning glory with chili was too spicy to eat without having to douse the flames with water.
My two friends enjoyed the deep-fried yellow croaker with a mango sauce and virtually finished most of it... until one of them spied a sign at the front of the restaurant declaring the dining establishment a "C" for its cleanliness.
We joked that perhaps the restaurant didn't pay off the health inspectors and thought the dinner was pretty good and reasonably priced too.
But we paid for it the following day when my two friends reported having stomach aches and had to be close to the bathroom for a good part of the day.
We suspect it's the fish dish as I didn't eat much of it and I only had minor stomach problems.
Too bad... otherwise we would surely come again.
Java & Yangon
Sanlitun West Fifth Street
(Opposite northeast corner of German Embassy)
8451 7489

Friday, May 29, 2009

Celebrating Milestones

Howie Snyder is a New Yorker who first came to China in 1981 to study Chinese.

At the time there were so few foreigners who could speak the language that people crowded around him every time he walked down the street. And being the Jewish New Yorker he is, he thought there must be a way to get people to pay for tickets to see a lao wai speak Chinese.

So with the aim of becoming the host of a Chinese TV show, Snyder came back in 1996 to study xiang sheng (相声), or stand-up comedy with young kids at the Cultural Palace in Beijing with Ma Laoshi.

Every weekend the then 34-year-old would come to the rundown classroom with his classmates and learn the art of xiang sheng which involves talking, singing, and mimicking in order to induce laughter from the audience.

And while learning xiang sheng, Synder got to see up close the lives of his eight-year-old friends, the first generation of only children and the transformation of Beijing and China.

He went into their homes, met their parents and found out about their hopes and aspirations.

In the process Snyder made a short film about it called My Beijing Birthday, where he returns 12 years later for the Olympics, working for Coca-Cola. He finds Ma Laoshi who in turn helps him locate his classmates.

He shows them the old footage and asks them how they have changed in the dozen years, some with very deep observations. One young man remarked in the film that he cannot relate to his own peers who seem so caught up in foreign brands that they have forgotten what it is to be Chinese.

Another young woman cried after watching the film because it reminded her of how simple things were back then, and how much has changed.

In the intervening period, many of the classmates' homes were demolished to make way for high-rise apartment complexes and their parents complained that $10,000 was not enough compensation for them to buy a big enough home like their old one.

The film also gives a peek at Ma Laoshi's life. She was an orphan when she was adopted by her parents, who were then in their 50s. However, during the Cultural Revolution, her parents made a mistake while copying down slogans celebrating Chairman Mao that they were punished for it. But because they were already in their 70s when Ma was a teenager at the time, she offered to bear the punishment for them, which meant being sent to Mongolia for five years.

She recalled the hardest part was the loneliness, but it was her love of xiang sheng and songs that kept her company. And when she came back to Beijing she started teaching children as young as four the art form, and now she is probably the only teacher left in the capital who teaches children xiang sheng.

Ma is disappointed the government doesn't appreciate xiang sheng more, and that people are only concerned about buying cars and apartments, not appreciating their culture. To her, it took a lao wai like Snyder to bring attention to the art form and make the public realize it's a dying art.

Unfortunately none of the students from Snyder's class have gone on to become xiang sheng performers, but it's partly because of people's perceptions of people in this industry as not being educated, and also the pressures of having to find a steady job to support their families.

These now early 20-somethings feel young people today have even more pressure on them to succeed than they themselves. They feel at least when they were children they had the opportunity to study and do whatever they wanted, whereas kids now are expected to do even better than their parents. As one of Snyder's classmates, who is now a teacher says, while today's parents put so much of their hopes and dreams into their one child, they are not educators, so there is a disconnect between the parents' hopes and the child's abilities.

Snyder is still in touch with his classmates and Ma Laoshi, who unfortunately is struggling to keep her classes going financially which is why Snyder is doing a bit of fundraising for her.

Nevertheless, he hopes to continue his documentary project in the next few years, following his classmates as they enter adulthood and beyond, seeing contemporary China through their eyes.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Keeping Patriotism Alive

Today is duanwu jie (端午节) or Dragonboat Festival holiday that remembers a patriotic official named Qu Yuan (屈原).

The scholar and minister, known for his loyalty, served the King of Southern Chu during the Warring States Period.

In the legend, the King of Chu fell under the influence of corrupt ministers who slandered Qu Yuan.

He felt he had no choice but return to his hometown and wrote poems expressing his love for his state and concerns for the future.

Then the story goes that he was so depressed that he drowned himself in the Mi Luo river.

When they heard the news, fishermen rushed out in their boats to save him; and to prevent fish and evil spirits from eating his body, villagers threw rice into the water.

However, his body was never found and today we commemorate him by eating zongzi (粽子) or rice and other ingredients wrapped in bamboo leaves.

It's interesting how, despite the advancement of society, technology and education, somethings are still the same.

Today the Chinese government is still battling corruption within its ranks. It also had trouble reining in the almost invincible power of local officials who, in many instances, ignore central government directives and instead concentrate on generating their own power base and wealth.

There is also the problem of officials who are demoted for disasters that happened on their watch, from the tainted milk scandal, to coal mine floods and explosions, or polluted lakes and rivers. These people are removed from their post soon after the incidents happen to quickly appease the public, but later on these people resurface elsewhere -- sometimes even promoted.

And when that happens, they use their newly gained status to try to make sure no more news on these catastrophes ever get out.

This explains why only six children were reported to have died after drinking tainted milk, and only 5,335 students officially died in the Sichuan earthquake.

When will the government stop the constant rotation of officials? When someone is found at fault, they must leave public office immediately, and even be legally punished for their faults. There are so many other young talented bureaucrats who earnestly want to help their country so why not give them a chance.

The perpetuation of this system shows the government isn't really determined to clean up its accountability -- which is all the more important that we remember Qu Yuan and what he wanted to do for his state and the people.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Culinary Transformation

A few months ago I blogged about how my friend and I tried out a
Norwegian restaurant just east of Worker's Stadium on Gongti Dong Lu.

The salmon dishes were wonderful, using fresh ingredients, but it was
a bit annoying having to sit and listen to a documentary promoting
Norway as we ate.

So a few weeks ago I took the trolley bus home that passes by the
second floor restaurant and I looked up and saw that it had changed to
Budapest, a Hungarian eatery instead.

I texted my friend about the change and he was disappointed because he
had wanted more of the smoked salmon appetizer.

The change had happened at the beginning of this month and from my
tracking of the restaurant scene, there was no news or explanation for
the switch in national cuisine.

Nevertheless, tonight we and another friend decided to give Hungarian
food a shot.

The decor was basically the same, with the plain wood tables, wooden
chairs covered with purple cushions and even the empty wine bottles
with candles on for a slightly romantic touch.

The new owner greeted us and explained he would give us two free
starters, an eggplant, avocado dip, the other made with pork pate.

They came with a supply of toasted bread. What was interesting was
that the pork pate didn't taste like pate at all which was a bit
strange, but good.

After, servers brought small samples of goulash to our table, served
in small metal buckets complete with mini handles which was a nice

Although a bit oily and salty, the soup was delicious, with cubes of
beef, carrots and celery spiced with cumin seeds.

While it was only supposed to be a small sample of the soup, it was
just enough to satiate our taste buds.

I ordered "knuckle with ham and cabbage", which was a big portion of
pork and (fat), but no knuckle. The meat was tender, but there was a
higher ratio of fat than meat. Also on the plate was a generous
portion of boiled red cabbage and a delightful scoop of mashed potato
seasoned with herbs and spices.

My friends ordered the roast carp that was deemed excellent, save for
the numerous bones, and the paprika chicken that was accompanied with
twisted pasta pieces that were filling. We also had the side of
cucumber salad that the owner suggested went well with the chicken and
my other friend agreed, but couldn't finish it all.

We were too full to order dessert, so the owner gave us a small treat
instead. They were chocolate covered cheese in a cylindrical shape. We
were confused because he had told us the dessert was Hungarian, but
the packaging had "Tuli Kiity" on it with a Japanese anime-looking cat
and then Chinese characters that said "piece of cheese chocolate" that
was produced in China.

The taste? For me it was strange eating chocolate with a kind of
cottage cheese middle. One of my friends, who loves chocolate and
cheese thought it was the best thing ever; the other begged to differ.

In the end the meal came to 265 RMB for three, which gave us a good
taste of Hungary and we may come back again for more...

2/F, Tower 6, China View
Across from the east gate of Worker's Stadium
8587 1028

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Batten Down the Hatches

The Chinese government is clamping down on any kind of subversive
activity leading up to the 20th anniversary of June 4.

State media outlets have been instructed to be careful with the news
sources they use from now until the first week of June, and websites
and online forums must monitor any comments left anonymously.

During sensitive times, the directive is typically that only stories
from Xinhua can be used, and they are usually far from balanced.

It's a way for the government (and country) to maintain one voice, and
when the media is state-funded, these organizations have little choice
but to follow orders.

This heightened state of alert illustrates how far the government is
willing to go in order to deny a catastrophic incident the entire
world saw, and yet its own people are not allowed to recognize or know
about it.

Seems like the government is digging itself into yet a deeper hole,
making it harder for it to get out and justify itself.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Sore Loser

Something tells me Chinese people are not very good at accepting
competition, or at least a friendly rivalry.

Over a month after I left, my ex-colleagues are finding out where I've
gone (to the competition) and while most of my friends there are
supportive, one associate made it clear she wasn't very happy.

I didn't work with her closely, but helped her out a few times. The
daughter of a diplomat, it was clear she didn't get a job from her own
merit, but naively thinks she did.

And because I didn't talk to her daily I was surprised to get an MSN
message from her this morning.

"Why are you working there... are you happy there?" Why are you
helping the competition, she asked.

"Why are you so concerned about where i am?" I retorted.

"Because I thought you are a good teacher," she wrote.

"I am a good teacher," I replied to which she could not rebut.

Then she tried to put down my company, saying how bad it was without
any relevant justification except for her biased opinion, and then
tried to shame me into being associated with such an organization.

I tried to explain that after two years of working at the same place
it was time for a change and I'm the type of person who likes to have
a change and do something new.

"Try to think of it as the Olympics and having a friendly
competition," I reasoned with her.

It wasn't quite the answer she was looking for but we seemed to have
settled on that.

State-owned enterprises are not used to competing amongst themselves
-- they were mainly created to be monopolies. And when they became
really big, they went into the big leagues -- in the international
market, where sovereignty is at stake, so everyone's on the same side.

But competing amongst themselves is a new concept for them. They don't
realize that despite working for different companies, in the end we
are still colleagues working in the same industry.

However, their bosses don't see it that way and are exposing their
greatest weakness -- insecurity.

Instead of wasting time trying to degrade the company I work for and
shame me for working there, why not try focus on improving your own
product and then we'll see who's better.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Lost Opportunity

The second annual Expat Show was on this weekend at the China World
Trade Center. And as I went last year the organizers had my email
address and bombarded me with emails in the last few weeks, promoting
the event and announcing which companies would be there.

I've been on both sides of the fence at these kinds of things. As a
visitor you're interested in knowing what's new or at least have some
kind of scoop on a deal that can only be had at the show. And as a
promoter, it's important to look energetic and eager to meet people so
that they have a good impression of your company and remember you.

But the problem is that at many of the booths today, the big cheese
marketing and sales guys didn't want to waste their time on these
events and sent their underlings instead, who didn't care or
understand the significance of these shows.

The Marriott group of hotels had at least six people manning its booth
-- and five men in suits sat down chatting amongst themselves while
one woman also in business attire smiled and handed out cards
promoting a newly-opened hotel in Beijing.

I told her that I would be staying at their Tianjin property later
this week for the Dragonboat Festival holiday, thinking this might
entice her to do a promotional sales pitch on me, but she didn't seem
to care at all.

If senior managers were there and smart enough, they would have taken
down my reservation details and make sure I will have a good time in
their Tianjin hotel, or in any of their Beijing hotels. That's how you
build brand loyalty, but it wasn't on their radars.

The same was with both English-language papers, China Daily and Global Times.

They basically hired students to man their booths and hand out free
papers, hoping for the odd subscription. Again senior managers should
be there chatting people up and encouraging them to subscribe. And why
not have laptops showing the news website as well? Lost opportunity.

Meanwhile Time Out magazine got its act together.

The editor and another staff member were sitting at the booth which is
appealing because when you meet people directly involved with the
product or service, you are more interested in talking to them,
especially with a magazine you read regularly -- and they appreciate
the instant feedback they get from people too.

They were trying to encourage people to sign up for a year's
subscription for 100RMB ($14.65) and have a chance to spin a
multi-coloured wheel for a prize, including an iPod or a one night's
stay at the Hilton Wangfujing.

I thought the subscription price was a deal and signed up right away,
and then I was invited to spin the wheel.

It was covered in blues and reds and yellows, but only two thin slices
were in green which were for the top prize.

I spun the wheel and for a moment felt like I was on The Price is Right.

And it landed... on green.

Not having caught on the iPod craze yet, I will probably become an
addict very soon.

While I already like Time Out as a product, I definitely like it much,
much more.

Picture of the Day: Making Noodles

Today I checked out the second annual Expat Show at the China World Trade Center in Guo Mao, south east of the city.

It's basically a platform for all kinds of services and businesses to promote themselves to expatriates living in the capital, everything from international schools to restaurants to Chinese classes.

And of course kids got a chance to play in a makeshift playground area, as well as try their athletic skills with Wii Fit.

For those wanting a more cultural experience tried to make shou la mian, or hand-pulled noodles.

This girl was probably wondering what kind of a mess she got herself into...

Friday, May 22, 2009

We Remember

More voices are calling for the Chinese government to recognize its
responsibility for what happened 20 years ago this June.

Last week it was the political bombshell of Zhao Ziyang's memoirs that
will soon be published, telling the world his side of the story and
trying to reinstate himself in the history books.

This week a former senior censor who helped Zhao record his voice on
his precious cassette tapes is also pushing for accountability for
Tiananmen Square.

Du Daozheng, reformist chief of the General Administration of Press
and Publications in the late 1980s helped Zhao with his recordings
before he died under house arrest in 2005.

Two decades on, Du felt it was time to rehabilitate Zhao, who was
ousted from the party and his post as General Secretary weeks before
the crackdown in 1989.

"At the major historic juncture of June 4, Zhao Ziyang acted
responsibly to the Chinese nation, to history and to ordinary people,"
he said in a statement that will be published in the Chinese version
of Zhao's memoirs.

His is not the only defiant voice.

A small group of intellectuals met recently in the outskirts of
Beijing pushing for this "secret" to be out in the open and

"As time has passed, this massive secret has become a massive vacuum.
Everyone avoids it, skirts around it," Cui Weiping, a Beijing-based
academic, said during the meeting.

"This secret is in fact a toxin poisoning the air around us and
affecting our whole lives and spirit," he added.

Also a few weeks earlier, the mothers of those who died gathered for a
private memorial in Beijing on condition of no media allowed. They
confirmed the memorial after the event.

Apparently hanging on the wall of one of the homes they met in was a
couplet that read: "Seeking truth is the basic right of Tiananmen
mothers" and "Upholding justice is the hope in the deep darkness of
the night."

They are still trying to seek justice two decades after their sons and
daughters died after the government ordered the soldiers to fire on
these young unarmed people.

Tan Shuqin, a mother who lost her daughter, made a memorial speech at
that gathering:

"Our courageous, intelligent, heroic and innocent sons and daughters,
we have by no means forgotten you all, although 20 years have passed.
All Tiananmen mothers will resolve ourselves to [seeking justice]
without hesitation and we do believe your grievances will be resolved
some day. May you rest in peace, our beloved children."

We cannot forget them either.

Wang Dan, one of the leading student leaders at the time and now
exiled in the United States is calling for "White Clothes Day" to
remember those who died. He is urging people to wear white, the colour
of mourning in Chinese culture on June 4.

We can all do this -- and most importantly make a statement to the
Chinese government to remind them -- we still remember.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Exercising the Right of Refusal

I've started a new exercise regime this week -- increasing the
frequency from every other day to four days straight during the week
and one more workout on the weekend.

This entails alternating swimming in the pool and running on the
treadmill for about 30 minutes each before going to work.

While I feel great while working out, I must admit to bouts of
drowsiness in the office. My friend jokes that it's due to boredom,
not physical tiredness.

As I running on the treadmill this morning, one of the fitness
trainers came around and started chatting me up.

He asked me how often I come to the gym and what exercises I do.

Then he asked me what I ate for breakfast.

"An apple," I replied.

"That's it?" he asked.

"Well I eat more after I finish exercising."

He shook his head as if eating an apple were just as bad as a
chocolate bar and suggested I eat at least two pieces of bread or
crackers before working out to keep my sugar levels up.

My Chinese isn't good enough to say that I eat a soft-boiled egg and
museli with yogurt for breakfast. Instead I explained that I lived
upstairs so it wasn't like I was commuting to the gym, but he still
didn't think it was good enough.

If he thought he was dealing with a local who has no concept of
exercise and diet, he was barking up the wrong tree.

"What kinds of exercise goals do you have?" he asked.

I replied that I had none.

"Have you done a fitness appraisal?" he inquired.

When I replied no, he asked why (of course).

"I'm not interested," I said. For me, fitness is not how many push-ups
I can do or how far I can run, but exercising on a regular basis and
gradually increasing the distance or number of laps. Reaching goals
are fine, but not something that particularly motivates me.

Meanwhile I'd been running on the treadmill for several minutes,
working up a sweat and slightly out of breath from the conversation
that clearly was going no where.

Grasping to continue the chat, the instructor asked if I had some
water, to which I pointed to my giant plastic bottle of water half
hidden by a small towel.

"Oh... well I'll leave you to it then," he said, defeated and walked away.

Kind of good-looking and muscular, he was probably annoyed I had
refused a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a one-on-one fitness
session with him.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

China's Water Crisis

The good thing about living in Beijing is that on the whole, the
infrastructure works.

Also, because it is the capital, and where the country's highest
officials live, you can be sure the utilities work, food is relatively
safe to eat and scams minimized.

Last week I paid my water bill (both hot and cold) for use in my new
apartment for one month. The amount? 30.40 RMB ($4.65).

When I vacated my other apartment, I paid my water bill for the past
two years that amounted to about 480 RMB ($70).

While the government implements strict regulations on when gas heaters
can be turned on (November 15) and air conditioning turned on only
when it's boiling hot, water seems to be frivolously used and wasted.

Meanwhile the capital and the surrounding areas are getting thirstier
and the nearby areas have to quench their needs.

Before the Olympics last year, water was being diverted from Hebei
Province, draining the area of most of its water to grow crops.

And now that the Three Gorges Dam is practically completed, another
project is underway, more than twice as expensive and three times
longer than the railway to Tibet, called the South-North Water
Diversion Scheme.

In Jiaozuo, Henan Province, massive tunnels are being built to
transport water from under the Yangzte River and send the H2O up to
parched areas in the north.

The scheme was proposed in 1962 and approved by Mao Zedong, but only
now was there money to fund the 500 billion RMB project.

However, there are ecological, financial and political concerns may
delay the project or even shelve it -- a sign that perhaps this scheme
is too big for China to handle properly.

The ecological concerns seem the greatest. A 2008 Xinhua report cited
4 billion tons of industrial waste and sewage were pumped into the
river system, making 83 percent of the water too contaminated to drink
without treatment.

But places like Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei demand a total of 9 billion
cubic metres of water annually, and water tables are falling, rivers
are drying up. How can that be when the population -- while the
biggest in the world -- has not increased exponentially in the last 30

Water treatment plants would seem like a good idea, but apparently
they are too expensive. More needs to be done to stop industries from
polluting the river -- but that requires uncorrupt officials to
monitor them closely and punish them if they find fault.

Also, I had read in an article that so much water was being wasted in
transporting water to irrigate the fields, that this also has to be
looked into and improved as soon as possible.

We as the world, not only China, cannot afford to waste water,
especially potable water.

More needs to be done to protect water resources and to educate people
about not wasting water. Maybe it means raising the price of water or
mandating people (in the cities) can only use a certain amount.

Almost two weeks ago the head of the Beijing water resources bureau
said water prices would be increased, but details would be released...
in two months. The aim would be for Beijing to reduce its water
consumption to 3.58 cubic metres this year. Good luck with all those
plants and trees to water as well...

A few months ago, my uncle told me that my grandmother used to use the
water to rinse rice and use it to wash dishes because the starch got
rid of the grease. Maybe it's time we be made more aware of how
critical water is and that we not waste it.

With a population of 1.3 billion, you'd think China would try to make
sure all of its citizens have access to clean water, but a large
number don't. While it's good to give them jobs, people also need to
survive with basic necessities in order to function daily...

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Weighing Pros and Cons

Political pundits are still buzzing about Utah Governor Jon Huntsman's
nomination as US ambassador to China.

Some think it's great having a fluent Mandarin speaker with living
experience in the region (Taiwan) and adopted a Chinese daughter to
boot, but others wonder how if any those brownie points may translate
into having better dialogues with the Chinese.

What's interesting is that President Barack Obama has politically
managed to postpone Republican Huntsman's presidential aspirations for

Again some consider China to be a prestigious post which will give him
the international experience he needs to demonstrate he is an elder
statesman; others think being in the Middle Kingdom may pull him
further away from the White House because he's not in Obama's inner

Nevertheless, Huntsman has accepted the nomination so he must think
the position will lead him somewhere...

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Losing its Charm

Today I saw a dear friend who used to live in Beijing but moved back
to the United States almost two years ago.

She had a great opportunity to visit the Chinese capital again and we
met up today. And where did she want to hang out? At her old stomping
ground, Panjiayuan, the antique flea market.

In the past year the place has had a major overhaul, changing it from
the nickname of "dirt market" to gentrified entrepreneurial compound.

Almost all the areas are now under covered areas and there's even a
multi-level parking lot, where cars are backed into these elevator
things. Very high-tech.

And you can't get lost there anymore, with signs marking off which
area you are and even listing the kinds of things you can buy there.
For those more audio-visually inclined, there are giant LCD screens in
various areas, basically promoting the place, but no real message or
tagline, which is kind of a missed opportunity for a place that
encourages everyone to make a deal.

We tried to find her favourite paper-cutting shop but it seems to have
moved on. In the end we had to settle for another shop that didn't
have as much selection, but quite reasonable in price.

But we also stumbled across a great stall where a woman from Shanxi
was selling sewn handicrafts, from little toys like dolls to trinkets
that fit in your hand that were all hand embroidered. Many were old
and not in good condition, but also many other beautiful pieces as
well. My friend scored a pair of Chinese earmuffs, more like ear
covers, that had butterflies embroidered on them. She gave them a test
drive which sold her immediately.

I was tempted to buy a goldfish with intricate stitching and in very
good condition, but it turned out to be 450RMB ($65.92) which was way
too much for a little trinket. I sadly had to give it a pass.

Nevertheless, it was interesting but also sad to see our humble flea
market turn into a spruced up area that was quickly losing its charm.

The Announcement We've Been Waiting For

Yesterday I was about to blog an entry when I found out that blogspot
was blocked! It was confirmed on danwei.... dammit.

Some seem to think it will be blocked for a while with the upcoming
June 4 anniversary. In any case I hope it won't last long as in over
two years I haven't had much trouble posting until now...

Anyway what I was going to say is that more than 100 days after Barack
Obama took office in the White House, the United States may have its
ambassador to China. The announcement will be made on Saturday.

Associated Press has reported that it could be Utah Governor Jon
Huntsman, a Republican.

He is apparently fluent in Mandarin from his years as a Mormon
missionary in Taiwan and has even adopted a daughter from China.

Huntsman is a popular governor who has urged the Republicans to have a
more moderate agenda and understands that the country has to change.

I've asked a few American friends what they think of him, but no one
seems to know much about him at all.

But from seeing his basic background, he seems to be good choice,
understanding not only the language, but also the sensitivities of
dealing with China as well as the Taiwan Straits.

He could be the right person to engage China on a number of levels and
play the game on China's turf.

Stay tuned.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

For the Record

In what may be the biggest bomb to drop on the Chinese Communist Party this year is not a natural disaster, but a testimony from one of their own that they tried to silence.

Zhao Ziyang was Deng Xiaoping's right hand man, who had helped implement economic reforms 30 years ago and of which we see the fruits of the success.

But he was also the one who tried to stop the bloodshed on Tiananmen Square June 3-4.

During a Politburo Standing Committee meeting on May 17, 1989 at Deng's home where they discussed how to deal with the students protesting in the square, Zhao tried to urge leniency and communicate with them.

However, he was overruled by the hardliners who wanted to impose martial law. Zhao resigned as he said: "I told myself that no matter what, I refused to become the General Secretary who mobilized the military to crack down on the students."

Powerless, Zhao had nothing to lose. Two days later he went to the square and with tears in his eyes he tried to urge the students to leave the area, but they didn't listen.

"On the night of June 3rd, while sitting in the courtyard with my family, I heard intense gunfire. A tragedy to shock the world had not been averted, and was happening after all."

After the bloody crackdown Zhao was under house arrest for 16 years until his death in 2005.

Despite being under surveillance, he was able to record his memoirs on 30 cassette tapes.

In some of them he talks as if conversing with someone, in others he is recording what he had written down.

He wanted to clear his name for the record and to tell the world what really happened in the days leading up to June 3-4.

And somehow, through the courage of his closest friends who were determined to visit him in his home under tight security, Zhao was able to have these tapes smuggled out of China and published by Bao Pu, his personal secretary's son in Hong Kong.

Prisoner of the State will be published in English this month by Simon & Schuster.

Zhao also talks about how there should be a multi-party system in China and a free press.

"In fact, it is the Western parliamentary democratic system that has demonstrated the most vitality," he says.

"If we don't move towards this goal, it will be impossible to resolve the abnormal conditions in China's market economy."

One can only wonder how the government will react to this book -- of course it will be banned in the country, but that won't prevent others from trying to read or listen to exerpts of it here and here.

How is it that the outside world knows the truth of 1989 and China's next generation not know at all? Now they will and mourn those who lost their youth and shake their faith in the only system they know.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Growing Concerns

China is showing its transparency and vigilance in detecting the A (H1N1) virus with now a second case confirmed on the mainland.

While I was running on the treadmill after work, I flipped the channels on the TV monitor above and Beijing TV (BTV) was broadcasting a drama but underneath in Chinese and English it had a ticker tape saying that a second case of A (H1N1) was found. It then explained that the person had taken an Air Canada flight 029 from Canada to Beijing on May 8 and then three days took train D41 to Jinan in Shandong Province.

It added that if anyone was on that flight in rows 32 to 38, or in train carriage number 7 should report to the health authorities as soon as possible.

It's impressive to see China moving quickly to contain the virus as quickly as possible, but it also shows that its people are not knowledgeable enough about the seriousness of the situation to quickly go to a hospital or quarantine themselves.

The next few days will indicate if there will be more cases in China and the panic button pressed.

On the other extreme, the other day my colleague asked me how I got to work each day. When I said I took the bus, she acted surprised and said, "You're not worried about catching swine flu?"

My experience living here has always been one of polar opposites and nothing really in between. You have to take each with a grain of salt -- or sugar? and find your own happy medium.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Thinking of the People

Today on our way to lunch my colleague talked about the first confirmed case of A (H1N1) virus on the Chinese mainland.

A man surnamed Bao returned to Chengdu from the United States and caught the virus. While it's been reported his temperature has returned to normal, many are worried about the possible spread in the country.

My coworker said China's extreme quarantine measures it has imposed on people arriving in China such as Americans, Canadians and Mexicans was a result of Beijing learning from SARS in 2003.

I noted that the actions China took were quite severe, to which my colleague got defensive and said, "But China has 1.3 billion people. If the virus spreads in the country, it would be hard for us to contain."

But then I countered with if the government invested more in the health care system so that people would trust the doctors and also health education so that if they thought something was wrong with them they would see the doctor right away.

Again the argument came back: "But can you imagine if the government spent one kuai on each person for healthcare? That's 1.3 billion yuan!" he exclaimed. "And most of them live in the countryside."

I answered back that health care costs would be lower if the government spent a bit of money on educating people on hygiene, like telling people it's not good to spit on the streets, or on the floors of subway carriages for that matter.

To this he couldn't give a rebuttal.

I know 1.3 billion people is alot. But the government needs to invest in education. It has trillions of US dollars in T-bills, but at the same time it is spending billions of yuan on infrastructure stimulus packages.

Isn't it time for Beijing to do as the Communists did some 60 years ago and reach out to this large segment of the population and tell them what they need to know to avoid disease and have healthy lives? Stop smoking would be a first priority, then encouraging mothers to breastfeed would be another.

While those two things don't exactly help stimulate the economy, at least well-informed citizens who live longer and can contribute more to government coffers and the country's development a more sustainable and forward-thinking strategy that cares about the people?

I'm getting tired of the excuse that China has 1.3 billion people. It is time the government actively try to give them the necessary education to help the country move forward. Keeping people in the dark is a sign of insecurity and fear.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Commemoration with Political Ends

Today there are more stories and tributes on the eve of the first anniversary of the May 12 earthquake in Sichuan.

News reports on radio and television talked incessantly about the status of the reconstruction projects, saying they are pushing up deadlines to get people into new houses by the end of this year, months ahead of schedule.

Today the government released its first white paper on disaster prevention to mark "Disaster Prevention and Reduction Day" to mark the Wenchuan earthquake.

In it it says, "China is one of the countries in the world that suffers the most natural disasters".

But the article doesn't expand further on exactly what the government is doing or plans to do to prevent future natural disasters.

Meanwhile there are campaigns for tourists to come visit the quake-hit areas as a way to boost the local economy, but residents complain there are too many of them and not enough infrastructure and resources to support extra people coming through.

There was also outrage a few months ago when it was announced a museum would be built, costing 2.3 billion yuan ($336 million). Designed by the College of Architecture and Urban Planning of Tongji University in Shanghai and experts from 16 different disciplines at the university, it would include the museum and protecting the ruins and rebuilding roads and reinforcing areas.

While the museum itself would only cost 135 million yuan, many members of the public thought the sum was still too much and would better be used for reconstruction purposes and helping those in need.

And again there are the families who are still waiting for the government to give the real numbers of the students who died in what they claim were "tofu buildings".

The government is trying to create a public movement for people to remember the horrific event and the warm feelings they had in trying to help people through giving their own blood, donating money or even personally going to the quake-hit areas.

But this afternoon on a radio program on China Radio International, hosts were trying to encourage listeners to call in with their memories of the earthquake and their hopes for the people there. Hardly anyone called in or had anything profound to say.

While most of the listener demographic for this show are students and young people, ironically they were the ones who were so emotional about the incident last year. And now they have nothing to say?

Is it because they are tired of having memories of the event shoved down their throats or are they so self-centred that they really don't care about how the quake survivors are doing?

A foreign doctor who is doing relief work for the United Nations says there needs to be more psychological help for the earthquake survivors who continue to suffer flashbacks and fears.

Chinese people who have never experienced an earthquake before don't seem to understand that the psychological pain survivors are going through continue long after the physical shaking has ended.

And there aren't enough trained psychologists in the country to deal with such traumatic experiences, and they are emotionally and physically worn out from volunteering their services.

While the government can rebuild houses and roads, encourage people to visit Sichuan and make donations, these do little to help quake survivors move on with their lives.

They need more reassurances that the new infrastructure is safe, built with the best materials and using the latest scientific technology. They want the government to take responsibility for shoddy construction -- the evidence is there, but no accountability as it would lead to lawsuits.

But mostly they are tired of being used in the government's propaganda to give the impression that things are getting better in Sichuan. What was a genuinely emotional event has become a political one, where no one is really listening anymore.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Three Simple Words

Today being Mother's Day, there were a few moms carrying roses, or others with bouquets rushing to meet mummy dearest.

This day is now slowly being commercialized here in Beijing, though you still can't find Mother's Day cards, so I had to make do with one that said "I love you".

That said, a recent article in the China Daily says the Chinese still find it difficult to say "I love you" to their mothers.

A poll conducted by job-hunting website says 74.6 percent of some 6,000 respondents said they knew their mothers' birthday, but only 25.5 percent would actually say "I love you" to her directly. says "This figure suggests mothers occupy an important place in most participants' minds. Yet many people still find it 'embarassing' to express their affection."

"I do love my mother deeply, but I have never said 'I love you' that often. It just feels quite weird for me to say it to her in person," said Stella Wang, a 27-year-old office worker, noting that she prefers to express her feelings in writing in birthday or Christmas cards.

"I have to say that it's difficult for me to express my love for my mother," says Liang Hao, a 32-year-old engineer. "I think if I did say it aloud, it might confuse her."

What's so confusing about saying those three words to the woman who gave birth to you?

Perhaps for Chinese, I love you has a more amorous context than familial one. But can't it have a similar meaning to show our appreciation and love for what our mothers have done for us our entire lives?

They may be three simple words, but they mean alot.

There's no time like the present. Altogether now -- I love you, mom.

See, it wasn't so bad, was it?

Saturday, May 9, 2009

A Taste of France at Tiananmen

There's been lots of rave reviews about Maison Boulud, star chef Daniel Boulud's restaurant nestled in the Legation Quarter next to Tiananmen.

However the name of the compound where it and a few other fine dining establishments are located has been changed to Ch'ienmen 23.

The area used to be home to American and European delegations who enjoyed extra-terratorial rights there during the early 1900s and forbidden to Chinese to enter. After 1949, the Communists took over the compound and pretty much left it as it was.

However, possibly due to political correctness and avoiding imperialist undertones, the name was changed to Ch'ienmen 23, though you can still see the lettering "Legation Quarter" taken off recently.

Nevertheless, it's a stately place making it more a place for destination dining celebrating special occasions or just a nice day or evening out.

Maison Boulud was opened last July and apparently business has been pretty good since. We arrived for the set lunch of 165 RMB ($24) each, but only three tables were occupied at the time.

The buildings are old but nicely refurbished, but probably a tad too sterile -- the decor and atmosphere felt more like a hotel restaurant than a stand-alone place that could have had a few more personal touches.

The dining area has very high ceilings accentuated with long mirrors on the walls and crown moldings. The tables and furniture are all dark wood, and strangely no table cloths for this five-star restaurant. Or maybe for lunch they expect a less sophisticated crowd...

One table had a young Chinese couple who seemed like they were using knives and forks for the first time. Another had a family of three with the young girl looking bored as she spooned soup into her mouth.

Nevertheless, the set lunch is a fantastic deal that would be foolish to pass up.

While perusing the menu a rectangular plate of amuse bouche was placed on the table that included a tiny bite-sized piece of curried beef in a cucumber shell and a salmon sandwich.

In between and during courses, servers constantly came by with trays of bread and refilled water without prompting.

For starters, the chilled potato soup was a rich combination of cream, potatoes and a touch of basil sauce lingering at the bottom. It was topped with dried ham and croutons.

There was also the pate enclosed in a pastry that was quite meaty accompanied with some asparagus and mixed greens.

The highlight of the meal was the main of olive oil braised black cod that practically melted in the mouth, ratatouille and a cube of couscous. Flown in from Australia, the cod was perfectly cooked and seasoned with just a touch of paprika to complement the natural flavour.

Another winner was the lamb sausage, made in-house with lamb sourced from Mongolia. The sausage was heavily seasoned with cumin and pepper for a spicy kick with green and black olives.

If that wasn't enough desserts were a delightful touch. A dark bitter chocolate crust and soft centre were an ideal combination, while a slice of lime foam made with egg whites sat on a bed or diced strawberries and sauce, with a scoop of lime sorbet for a tart finish.

Sweet tooths could also indulge in some petit fours that included a small marshmallow, grape jelly and freshly baked madelines.

Including a 5 percent service charge on the 165RMB, who wouldn't want to pass up exquisite French fine dining in Beijing?

Maison Boulud
Ch'ienmen 23
Qianmen Dong Da Jie
6559 9200

Friday, May 8, 2009

Fashion Blunders

Now that temperatures are rising in Beijing, young women are shedding their spring outfits and revealing their summer wardrobes.

However they are also revealing more skin too -- probably much to the interest of their male friends and colleagues, but not really appropriate as office wear.

One horrific trend is wearing very short shorts, or very short skirts. They also tend to wear black nylons with white-heeled shoes. What's with that? Which style maven told them to do that?

Another fashion faux-pas is instead of wearing a bra, they wear tube tops that are held up with strings tied at the back of the neck. Then on top of that they wear a wide-neck top or even off-the-shoulder one.

We're in an office, not a nightclub. How are people supposed to take you seriously when you're showing off more than your brains?

But then again, the men are in charge, and a little eye candy probably makes the time go faster.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Not Adding Up

This afternoon the Sichuan government released the figure of 5,335 as the number of students who died and 546 injured in the province after the May 12 earthquake last year.

Five days to the first anniversary the government decided to release this "official" figure, even though a disproportionate number of school buildings collapsed compared to other ones.

Tu Wentao, head of the Sichuan education department said the delay in announcing the total was due to having to compile them from various government agencies.

"These numbers were reached through legal methods. We have wide agreement on these numbers," he told a press conference in the provincial capital of Chengdu.

However, there are other estimates of between 7,000 to 9,000 students and teachers killed. In addition, the government had admitted earlier that 14,000 schools were damaged or collapsed in the 8.0-magnitude quake.

If the government says over 5,000 students died in 14,000 schools, then that's an average of 2.64 children per school.

How is that possible?

Artist Ai Wei Wei who helped design the Bird's Nest, has an army of volunteers who are trying to collect the names of the dead in the Sichuan earthquake and remember them online.

"From this attitude you can tell the government is trying to coverup this wrong doings of schools which collapsed during the earthquake and killed thousands of students," he told the BBC.

The government is also attempting to silence the parents by paying people to watch their every move. According to an article in the New York Times, one of the fathers who is being spied on says people, mostly village officials, are being paid 150 RMB ($22) a day to watch two dozen parents who want justice for their lost children.

Meanwhile foreign journalists, who are the only ones to get some kind of accountability in China, are being prevented from meeting with these parents, some physically harmed, others having their equipment broken.

This is how much the government wants to hide the truth.

After the earthquake happened, there was pretty much free rein on reporting. Chinese reporters filed stories almost 24 hours a day, showing scenes of devastation, talking to survivors and crying with them, also trying to find images of hope in the rubble.

But after that short period of almost real journalism, the government started to control things again and tightened its grip even further on what can be said about that unforgettable event.

Even though some couples have managed to conceive again a year after the quake, they have determined that their new son or daughter must carry on the legacy of their dead child to make sure they get justice.

It is a heavy burden for these newborns. But until the government is willing to acknowledge responsibility, the next generation will continue fighting for the truth.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Puffing for Short-Term Gains

Chinese provinces are trying to find ways of stimulating the local economy and one in Gongan county in Hubei Province definitely had a creative one.

There was an order that all employees of government departments, organizations, service centres, and corporations must consume at least 23,000 cartons of cigarettes this year.

This meant some 400 cartons for most departments and state companies, and 140 cartons for each school.

The catch? They had to smoke local brands otherwise they would be fined.

The local government hopes to retrieve losses from cigarette income with the decree, said Chen Nianzu, a member of the Gongan's cigarette leadership group.

"We're guiding people to help contribute to the local economy," said Chen, according to the Hubei Daily newspaper.

But citizens immediately criticized the order in cyberspace. "Why should we use public money to pay for government officials to smoke?

"If they want a fag, they should buy their own, and put the money into social welfare, healthcare and stopping people from smoking," wrote one blogger.

China already has the world's largest smoking population at 350 million, and one million of them die of smoking-related diseases each year.

While the government does have anti-smoking campaigns, these are only half-hearted measures, as it gains so much money from tax revenues.

After the story came out, the order was rescinded.

Who thought of this silly idea in the first place, forcing people to smoke a certain amount and certain brands?

It's basically forcing someone to shorten their lifespan and quality of life by several years.

It would only further cripple the already faltering healthcare system. And is that a good way to boost the economy?

How short-sighted is that?

Or does China's 1.3 billion population mean people are expendable?

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Picture of the Day: The Bus Driver

This morning I caught the 117 bus to work.

Most of the time you don't really notice the bus driver or the bus attendants who make sure you pay the bus fare or tell you to hang on when the bus turns or makes a sudden stop.

You just want to get from A to B in a decent time.

But today I sat up front near the driver and noticed his facial hair -- Elvis sideburns.

Was he a fan? Or was he the Chinese Elvis?

I thought I'd better snap a photo as proof that I'd seen him.

Erring on the Side of Caution

Today a chartered Mexican plane is picking up Mexicans who were quarantined in the last few days in China and Hong Kong because of swine flu or the A H1N1 influenza virus.

The majority of those quarantined in hotels -- practically all of them -- haven't had any flu-like symptoms but felt discriminated against because of their nationality.

According to interviews with the media, their nationalities were determined before they disembarked the plane and those holding Mexican passports were forced to get off the plane to a different area than the rest of the passengers.

They were then holed up in five-star hotels and fed, but they felt like prisoners.

The same has happened to 20-something Canadian students, who although had no problems entering China via Beijing, they were immediately quarantined when they arrived in Changchun, Jilin Province.

In other measures, the Chinese have banned the imports of pork from Mexico, the United States and Canada, where the A H1N1 virus was found in some 200 pigs in Alberta.

While countries are crying foul, the World Health Organization hasn't condemned China's actions.

The WHO China representative Hans Troedsson said: "It's really up to each country and should be in accordance with their own regulations and legislation on public health and protection of the population."

China's tough stance on the A H1N1 influenza virus is playing up more to its domestic audience. It is eager to show its citizens that the government is taking effective measures to deal with the flu outbreak, protecting them from potential harm.

After the Chinese government's mishandling of SARS in 2003, it wants to prove to its people and the world that is has learned from its mistakes and is a responsible country when it comes to public health safety.

While officials may have won this round in public confidence, if another health scare like the milk scandal occurs, or if a virus does break out in China, people will be expecting swift action and transparency. They've already had enough with the charades.

Monday, May 4, 2009

A Reminder of China's Voice

Today marks the 90th anniversary of the May 4th Movement of 1919.

Chinese leaders President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao are celebrating not this historic event, but Chinese Youth Day which coincidentally falls on the same day.

They are calling on young people to serve the people and the country with their brains and brawns.

This call for patriotism is their way of trying to diffuse any thoughts of the one-month countdown to June 4.

That's because on May 4, students from the various universities gathered at Peking University and marched to Tiananmen Square, demanding the Chinese government stand up to western powers and protest the Treaty of Versailles of 1919.

China had teamed up with Germany in World War I, hoping that in exchange Shandong Province would be returned back to China from German control. However, in the Treaty of Versailles, the Western powers ignored Chinese demands and wanted to punish Germany by handing the province to Japan.

The students were angry with China's presence at the treaty talks, thinking that the country looked weak, and in the meantime the country itself was fractured thanks to the various warlords controlling their own fiefdoms.

As a result, the students called for a sense of nationalism, that it was time for the country to stand up and take back what was rightfully hers.

In the end the Chinese representatives refused to sign the treaty, despite the fact that Shandong was still handed to Japan.

Nevertheless, the mass protest was considered a huge victory that got the world's attention that the Chinese had an active voice that united various classes of people and later led to the creation of the Chinese Communist Party.

While students 70 years later took to Tianamen to mourn the death of reformer Hu Yaobang, they were also inspired by the May 4 Movement. And we all know what happened after that...

So while the government wants to celebrate Chinese Youth Day, its leaders are trying very hard to play down the event as well. They don't want this generation to get any ideas in their heads.

But with the global financial crisis, most young people just want to finish school and try to get a job -- any job. If the government can help them with that, they won't be protesting anytime soon.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Burdens of Youth

Over the weekend President Hu Jintao visited students at the China Agricultural University in Beijing and urged them to work hard with the country to build socialism with Chinese characteristics.

He said this in the lead up to the 90th anniversary of the May 4th Movement that was a nationalist movement started by Peking University students to overthrow feudalism and promote scientific and democratic ideas.

"First, I hope you will always uphold the banner of patriotism, as it is the spiritual backbone that has sustained the Chinese nation through all the tribulations," he said.

According to Hu, patriotism is promoting socialist modernization through reform and opening-up, building a well-off society, and turning the plan of rejuvenating the Chinese nation into a reality.

He then urged the students to study hard for their future as well as China's.

"Our country's modernization drive calls for a large number of high-quality professionals, and so long as you study diligently, you will become useful people for the nation's development."

In his final point, Hu instructed the students to devote themselves to society.

"I hope more students will voluntarily temper themselves at the grassroots level and work at places where the country and people need them most."

Sometimes Hu talks in very cryptic messages and it can be difficult to decipher exactly what he means, particularly in the first point.

Aren't most young Chinese patriotic? They were the ones who were enraged during last year's Tibet protests that dogged the Olympic torch relay, and later the ones who were affected most by the Sichuan earthquake.

Or is Hu concerned by large numbers of them trying to study abroad and having no intention of coming back?

In his second point, students can study as hard as they can, but especially for this year's graduates, it's going to be tough for them to find a job in this economic climate. They don't have the work experience or even the pertinent technical knowledge to do the job, as universities these days are churning out students to pay for heavy debts on their campus expansions in the past decade.

Nevertheless, Hu is also hinting that he hopes some of these graduates will head to China's interior and work in less-developed areas. While some have done that and tried to assist village heads in their bid to modernize, many of these young people have been relegated to the post of a secretary and have not been able to make a viable contribution thanks to politics. Many village chiefs aren't interested in hearing what a kid from the city has to say about improving people's livelihoods when they'd rather get government handouts.

The contradictions are so apparent that some young people have the foresight or skepticism to see this, while others learn through trial and error. Others wouldn't be caught dead graduating from a university and then roughing it in a poor area for little pay.

It puts these youth in a difficult position, wanting to help their country become better, and yet feeling completely helpless thanks to the system they're in.

Curiously though, Hu failed to mention anything further about fulfilling the May 4th Movement's mandate of democracy...

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Not Really Serving the People

A few weeks ago my colleague and I wandered around Shin Kong Place, an upscale mall near our office. There's the designer labels like Gucci, Coach, Salvatore Ferragamo, Alfred Dunhill, as well as eateries like Fauchon, Bellagio and Din Tai Fung.

As we walked around we saw few people in there and he asked me, "How does this place make money when there's no one in here?"

Good question.

While the restaurants are busy, the designer shops and the department store for the most part are pretty sparse with the customers. While there aren't many wandering around, there's even fewer actually buying.

And now I know one of the reasons why.

A few days ago I got my paycheque and wanted to spend it on a pair of Ecco shoes.

Weeks earlier I had spied a pair of sandals I'd liked in the Ecco outlet in the Youyi Mall, or Luftansa Mall which is another place with few customers.

However, my friend thought the one at Shin Kong Place would have a bigger selection since it was a bigger store.

When we finally got there today, it had every other shoe except the one I wanted.

I stood right by the cashier's desk where a shop assistant was doing other things and blatantly ignoring me as I leafed through the catalogue hoping to find it and point it out to her.

But just my luck the sandal I wanted wasn't in the catalogue.

Finally after several minutes she decided to serve me.

"Do you have a shoe called... but I only know the English name," I said, as I had already researched it on the website.

"I don't know the English names," was the curt reply.

"Ok.... Do you have a shoe that's similar to this?" I asked pointing to a different one.

"Oh our store doesn't have it."

And that was that.

There was no apology and offer to call another store to see if they had it and put it on hold for me, or trying to get me to look at the other shoes they had to see if I'd be interested in any of them.

Instead she just went back to what she was doing before and ignored us.

Who trained these sales staff? Ecco shoes are not cheap, but actually it's not about the price, it's about the customer's experience in the store whether they buy or not.

While I'm still keen to get those sandals, I'm very disappointed by what happened this afternoon.

After 30 years of opening up and reform, and now especially with the economic downturn you'd think Chinese staff would be more attuned to trying to serve customers' needs.

Shiny new malls, designer labels... but the customer service, for the most part, is way behind the times.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Invoking the Past to Justify the Future

Today marks the one year countdown to the 2010 Shanghai Expo.

Construction is already underway and yesterday martial arts star Jackie Chan, basketball forward Yao Ming and pianist Lang Lang were named as ambassadors to promote the event. Is there any surprise there except Shanghai hometown hurdler Liu Xiang is absent from the list?

"I will spare no efforts to pay close attention to the Expo and help promote it throughout the world," said Chan at a performance for residents relocated from the Expo site.

"Like every Chinese citizen, I am looking forward to the event, " he said.

Yao was quoted as saying that as a native of Shanghai, he has always hoped that he could contribute to the event.

"I want to tell everyone: welcome to my hometown, Shanghai, and welcome to the 2010 Shanghai World Expo," he said.

The official mascot is the Chinese character for people, ren, in blue, with big eyes on top and of course arms to welcome visitors. His name? Haibao, or "treasure of the sea".

On an afternoon radio show today, there was non-stop chit-chat about the one-year countdown, and even mentioning that a person about 100 years ago had hoped Shanghai would host a world exposition in the future.

That was apparently Liang Qichao, a scholar, journalist, reformer and philospher during the Qing Dynasty.

He along with Kang Youwei tried to form a constitutional monarchy in the dying days of the imperial dynasty, but his proposal of "One Hundred Days of Reform" were considered too radical for the Empress Dowager Cixi.

Liang was exiled to Japan and from there traveled to Canada where he met Dr Sun Yat-Sen, then to Hawaii, and Australia, trying to rally people to support his reformist ideas.

Journalism was also a way for Liang to spread his ideas, believing newspapers were an effective way to disseminate political concepts.

Despite having a classical education, he was determined to shape China in a modern way, even the idea of democracy.

While there there isn't substantial evidence that Liang had envisioned that Shanghai would host a world exposition someday, it's possible he did.

No point in raining on Shanghai's parade, much like the Beijing Olympics, when there had also been a claim that someone had hoped China would host a major international sporting event...