Friday, July 31, 2009

Picture of the Day: Great Mall

Behind my office is a building called "The Great Mall", probably a riff off "The Great Wall".

In Chinese it literally says "China's First Mall".

But when you go inside, there isn't much there.

A giant golf store takes up two floors, selling clubs, bags, and in the basement is a screen when you can drive the balls on a virtual course. As not many people have taken up golf yet, I wonder who these customers are... every time I go in there, I never see any one in there except staff.

Other than that, there's the Industrial and Commerce Bank of China (ICBC) Bank that's very busy, and a pretty decent Japanese restaurant that has a small spit in the middle to roast fish and meat for diners.

So "The Great Mall" is a great misnomer. It's like false advertising...

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Artistic Frenzy

On Wednesday the government announced that state-owned performing arts groups won't get anymore public funding and they'll have to focus on market demand than on satisfying the tastes of officials.

The Ministry of Culture said this on its website, saying all provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities, except Tibet and Xinjiang to complete at least one privatization by the end of this year.

From 2010 onwards, performing arts groups need to be public or private companies. The government promised the groups would continue to get funding, but would eventually be weaned off, which means they have to find other funding through subsidies or loans.

This is a great leap forward in terms of changing the arts landscape in China.

Hopefully this will mean the cream of the crop will rise to the top, and the mediocre left to fight for survival; it will help raise the standard of China's artists, and perhaps breed innovative works and better performers.

Will this result in fewer performances of Peking Opera, The Red Detachment of Women, or bizarre avant-garde theatre?

It will probably mean fewer opportunities for up-and-coming new talent to perform, but it will also lead to audiences getting their money's worth.

The best part is that the government itself has decreed no more works geared towards officials' tastes -- they must be really bad if Beijing has decided to crack down...

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Beijing's Education Gap

There's a lot of income gaps in China: There is the one between urban and rural areas, then the one between coastal and inland areas.

I had always assumed that those who live in big cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou pretty much have access to good services and infrastructure.

However, there is another income gap -- the further you are from the city centre, the worse basic services are.

This is understandable, as major cities in North America have inner cities that seem left behind in development and infrastructure services like schools and hospitals that are barely surviving, but they somehow manage to maintain some kind of minimum standard.

However, it is shocking to discover primary or elementary schools in the outskirts of Beijing lag way behind their counterparts in everything -- it's almost as if these schools could be found in the rural areas.

My colleagues told me of a primary school in Beijing, but at the northern edge of the capital where the classrooms barely have enough florescent light bulbs to make the room bright enough for the students to read; as a result, many are near-sighted.

In the summer there's no air conditioning but a fan, which only works when there isn't a blackout. In the winter, there's a crude humidifier where water is boiled and the steam is somehow supposed to warm the air even though the children, most of whom aren't wearing enough clothes due to their financial situation, are shivering.

What I find most bizarre is that there is no clean drinking water for these children. Some cave in a drink tap water, but there are others who don't drink a drop of water when they are in class for several hours, but make up for it when they get home.

None of these students have access to plastic bottles to even bring water to school which is also strange.

Doesn't the school think providing adequate water resources is a basic necessity for the students, especially when you can't drink tap water here?

Apparently not. Their argument is probably that water costs money and they'd rather spend it on more important things, even though there is a whole laundry of list of things they could use the money on.

The conditions are so bad that no qualified teachers want to teach in these kinds of schools.

So what does the municipal government do? It hires fresh university graduates who have no teaching experience or a degree in education or in the subjects they're teaching, gives them a monthly "salary" or less than 2,000RMB ($292.73) and expects them to teach these children something.

Some "volunteer teachers" do it for the experience; others for hukou, or the highly-coveted residence permit; or because they can't find any other jobs.

While I sympathize with this generation's young people who have invested money and time in getting a university degree and in some cases have little choice but to do this kind of work, it's the students I worry about most.

Unlike some inner city schools in North America that may be lucky to have a dedicated, qualified teacher willing to sacrifice a lot, these kids on the outskirts of Beijing have few role models to look to. While some of these "volunteer teachers" may really care about the kids, they don't necessarily have the experience or the knowledge to meet the educational needs of these students.

This just puts them at a further disadvantage in education and later, career prospects.

Is this the kind of situation the government is proud of?

China is constantly warning the United States not to squander its $801.5 billion investment in US treasuries; it spends billions on building massive Olympic venues to impress the world.

And yet children on the edges of the city can't get proper drinking water at school or even a qualified teacher at that.

Is it me, or is there something wrong with this picture?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Not Well Thought Out

Uighur dissident leader Rebiya Kadeer has arrived in Tokyo to drum up support for her people in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, almost three weeks after the riots.

China is furious that Japan granted Kadeer a visa.

In an interview with the Kyodo News Agency, Cui Tiankai, the Chinese ambassador to Japan said, "How would the people of Japan feel if a violent crime occurs in Japan and its mastermind is invited by a third country?"

He also hinted the exiled Uighur's visit could lead to tensions in Sino-Japanese relations.

"We must prevent important matters that should be worked on together from being disturbed by a criminal or attention to our common interests from being diverted," he said.

There was also uproar a few days ago when Chinese directors pulled out of the Melbourne Film Festival after it was discovered a documentary film about Kadeer, called The 10 Conditions of Love would be screened on August 8.

It's about Kadeer and her activist husband Sidik Rouzi, and the effect her campaign for more autonomy for some 10 million Uighurs in China has had on her 11 children, three of whom have jail sentences.

A representative of the Chinese government even called the organizers of Australia's largest film festival demanding that they not show the film.

However, organizer Richard Moore refused to comply with the request, even describing the cultural attache as extraordinarily ignorant, making him even more determined to show the film.

The ironic thing is that it's the Chinese government who has inadvertently shone the spotlight on Kadeer and given her so much free publicity.

Before the July 5 riots, she was not well known and hardly any people outside China knew about Uighurs and their plight.

But after the violence erupted and Beijing wanted to find someone to blame instead of taking responsibility for its policies, Kadeer was thrust into the international limelight.

The more attention the Chinese government draws to Kadeer, with Melbourne and now Tokyo, the more the outside world will be interested in her cause and become more sympathetic to Uighurs.

Talk about public relations blowback.

Monday, July 27, 2009

A Taste of India

The Marriott has opened another hotel, very close to its subsidiary property, the Renaissance Hotel on Xiao Yun Road on the northeast side of the city. Maybe that's why the new hotel is creatively called... Marriott Northeast.

It's a strange neighbourhood for this hotel to be in, as it's a completely local area, which probably explains why there aren't many people who have discovered this place despite the many promotions it has going on.

One of them is for its Indian restaurant called Tamarind, where if two diners come, one can eat for free, and for the three of us who went on Friday night, it was one-third off.

Located on the second floor of the hotel, Tamarind is a warm and inviting place, with a wood-paneled ceiling, green candelabras, cozy booth seating and a giant open kitchen at the back complete with a copper tandoori oven.

The menu is presented on nice parchment paper, listing numerous dishes that are divided into vegetarian and meats so that there is no confusion.

For appetizers the tandoori broccoli was a fiery start to the culinary feast, with spices and seasoning, but my friend was disappointed there weren't more florets to eat.

Thankfully that was the only disappointment.

We had a clay pot filled with rice and vegetables that was covered with a dough and then baked. The ingredients inside were piping hot, cooked perfectly and tasted delicious.

The cauliflower stuffed flatbread was also good, but a pity that one serving only had four pieces.

Nevertheless, the Indian butter chicken was divine, the meat tender and the sauce even better with the aforementioned vegetable rice. We also ordered stewed black lentils called dhal makani that were hearty and thick.

The lamb shank marinated in seasonings was great, almost falling off the bone. Our server helped us dissect the meat off with not too much difficulty.

When we finished the relatively small-portioned dinner, it was just enough, but also left room for dessert.

My friend ordered a mango ice cream that he quite enjoyed, while I tried gulab jamun, basically deep-fried dough balls served in a syrupy sauce.

In the end our bill came to about 244 RMB ($35.70) for three, which was a great deal. There were only two or three other tables occupied that night which meant the place didn't have much atmosphere. But it also means there will definitely be a table for us when we come back again soon to sample more Tamarind dishes.

2/F, Marriott Northeast
26A Xiaoyun Road
Chaoyang District

5927 8888 X 8328

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Sampling Xi'an's Famous Noodles

Xi'an is known for its street food, from chua'r, or kebabs, yang rou pao mo, or a lamb-based soup with pieces of flat bread in it, and noodles, lots of noodles.

There are shou la mian, or hand pulled noodles, dou qie mian, or sliced into long strips with a knife, and then there's biang biang mian, where the elastic dough is hit against the table many times making a "biang biang" sound.

What's interesting is that the character for biang is really big -- no one remembers how to write it as it's composed of many characters together, and it's not entered in Chinese computer programming so you can't find the character in the pinyin or character building system on the keyboard.

Anyway -- it was a street food that I had heard a lot about and wanted to try.

A colleague offered to take me to a biang biang mian restaurant -- which curiously are hard to find. We got the address of one online, but it turned out it had already closed down.

We finally found one down a small street with the giant biang character above the door.

Inside the simple eatery just had stools around tables, but sadly no "biang biang" noises were heard from the kitchen.

And how was the biang biang mian?

It was a bowl of wide noodles, as if eating ravioli skins, in a thick meaty sauce with a side of scrambled eggs and tomato, a homestyle staple dish.

While I like eating noodles, this one wasn't quite what I was expecting, with the rich oily sauce. I just barely finished mine, while my colleague wasn't quite into hers and left half of it.

If all the biang biang mian in the city taste like this, no wonder many of these shops have closed down. Oh well. At least I can say I tried it!

A Frightening Look into the Future

A recent article in a state-run newspaper interviewed a professor asking him why many believed the post 1980s generation in China were slackers.

He gave many reasons, most of which pointed to the family situation: When you have two parents and four grandparents doting on one child, the chances of the kid being coddled and lazy are very high.

The professor explained since so many people were looking after the child, he or she was so used to having everything done for them that there was no need to excel or be determined to achieve something.

This is also further enhanced when these only children become adults.

Their first few jobs earn them very little money, and so they depend on their parents for stipends, or even to buy them cars or apartments in the hopes of making them more eligible for marriage.

And even if they get married, the parents still dote on their children, helping out the newlyweds, from giving them more spending money, to buying groceries for them or even cooking and cleaning for them.

When will these kids ever grow up? Or rather when will these parents let their children grow up?

Many seem to have few goals in life. I know of a girl in her early 20s who quit university and started working in a restaurant, finding it more stimulating than going to class. Her parents didn't seem to mind as she was bringing home some money for them.

I have other ex-colleagues whose parents continue giving them allowances because they can't seem to budget their monthly salary and have fun at the same time. While they complain about their low-income situation, they have little or no motivation to try to get ahead, even if I offer to help them.

And then there are those who are looking to escape altogether.

Soon after I arrived in China I met a young man, Lin in his early 30s. He is currently working in a state-owned enterprise, having a desk job he doesn't particularly like, but he's good at it with his pretty decent English skills.

The nerdy-looking man married a slightly younger woman who wears trendy clothes and is the more vivacious of the two. They have a small apartment they bought beyond the Fifth Ring Road and a small car to boot.

Lin was keen on studying abroad and asked me which were the best universities in the United States and Canada, but I had to ask him to study a post-graduate in what?

He didn't care -- he just wanted to apply to the best schools and see where he would be accepted in order to determine what he would study.

This backwards method didn't make sense and I explained that it was better for him to have some kind of interest first and then find the best schools to pursue that subject.

I didn't seem to give him the guidance he wanted and dropped the subject.

I heard back from him a few months ago, telling me he'd been accepted for a program in business in London, England, starting in September.

We had dinner recently and our mutual friend told me Lin and his wife had sold their apartment and were ready for the next chapter in their lives.

"I don't know what they are doing," our friend said to me after dinner. "They're crazy."

As Lin and his wife have been married for a few years, and don't have children, perhaps they are trying to escape the pressures of having to complete the family circle temporarily, or the burdens of parental pressures, or hoping they can escape China completely.

While they will definitely have an eye-opening experience living in a western country and learn more about themselves and what they want, will that be a means to an end?

However, their situation is probably better than those of the younger generation, who are so used to being coddled that if the wheel ain't broke, why fix it?

Friday, July 24, 2009

Picture of the Day: Multifunctional Souvenirs

A few more pictures of Xi'an...

On the way to Beilin, the Forest of Steles, there's an open market selling calligraphy materials, handicrafts and souvenirs.

As Xi'an is home to the famous terracotta warriors, there are many of the miniature ones for sale for tourists who can't get enough of these Qin Dynasty warriors and must take at least one back with them.

One of the stalls had them in clay and bronze -- but this one seemed to have picked up a bad habit while waiting for a customer to buy him...

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Cycle Continues

Almost three weeks after the Xinjiang riots on July 5, the Chinese government is trying to spin the violence that left almost 200 dead as an issue about separatism, not ethnic tensions.

Wu Shimin, vice minister of the State Ethnic Affairs Commission said Tuesday that government policies "had nothing to do with the violent crimes" that occurred in Urumqi, a statement foreign scholars, exiled ethnic leaders and residents of ethnic minority regions disagree with.

The Chinese prefer to look at it from a purely economic point of view, that the Han Chinese have injected billions of yuan into the region and have built it into what it is today, and for some strange reason Uighurs aren't appreciative of the efforts.

The "ungratefulness" comes from preferential policies of hiring Han Chinese over Uighers, or encourgaging Han to settle in Xinjiang, leaving Uighers further behind in getting any benefits from the economic development.

Han Chinese are envious of ethnic minority groups as they are allowed to have more than one child, but Uighers are still vastly outnumbered population-wise in the region.

And although Uighers are supposed to speak, read and write Chinese, the government is now coming out and saying that this minority group is allowed and even encouraged to communicate in Uigher and their culture is being preserved.

Meanwhile, the Uighers' traditional homes that their families have lived in for generations are being demolished because of government's concerns that an earthquake may lead to a high death toll in these old dwellings.

Not everyone believes the propaganda, as many Han in the country don't really buy all the spin.

Many on both sides are blaming Wang Lequan, the party boss in Xinjiang who has been in that position for a long time, under the auspices of President Hu Jintao. They believe Wang waited too long to stop the unrest -- and in fact the police knew of the simmering tensions hours leading up to the actual violence but did nothing to pre-empt it.

When the government continues to take the separatist stand, that the riots were started from exiled dissidents, it shows Beijing refuses to take any kind of responsibility for what happened.

Either the central government is blind, or is in complete denial. Its handling of this tragic incident shows it is following almost to a T how it reacted to the Tibet riots last March. And when a person or group allows history to repeat itself... what does it tell you about him/her/them?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Picture of the Day: Nuclear Playthings

When I was at Beijing Capital International Airport waiting at my gate to fly to Xi'an, I saw this sign.

Featuring a boy and a girl, it's supposed to show a designated area for kids, but what are they playing with? A ball that has nuclear ingredients?

It's probably the biggest visual oxymoron I've seen -- children together with a nuclear-looking ball.

Better steer clear of that play area. You never know what kinds of toys kids have these days.

A Simple Solar Spectacle

Today there was the historic total solar eclipse that was seen over many parts of Asia.

It started in India before moving to Nepal, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Bhutan and then China and Japan.

Here in Beijing we should have been able to see a partial eclipse, but the sky was such a thick humid gray soupy mixture of pollutants, clouds and dust that we couldn't see anything.

Shanghai didn't have much luck either as it was raining.

But places like Hangzhou had a very clear view and CCTV broadcast pictures of the sun almost covered up by the moon, leaving a bright corona shining around a black disc.

The TV network went crazy on this once-in-a-lifetime event, with correspondents in various places in China who tried to interview people with high-tech equipment, but they themselves were too busy to talk, trying to get ready for the big event.

Each CCTV reporter wore a yellow polo shirt, probably to signify the sun, but really, that colour is the worst one for Chinese people to wear...

Anyway, the media tried to warn people not to look directly into the sun and so the sale of special glasses were selling like hotcakes. How well those eye wear really protected people's corneas we'll just have to see a few years from now.

If there is a spike in people going blind in the near future, we'll know why.

Also local governments had to prepare, turning on lights when the eclipse happened, and warning people not to panic. One city called Tongling in Anhui Province, and considered one of the prime places to see the eclipse, even prepared a special plaza for residents and visitors to watch the event.

Chinese media were hailing this as "China's eclipse", as it covered many parts of the country, meaning a good chunk of the 1.3 billion population would see this event which lasted six minutes and comes around once every 500 years.

People here were so excited by the natural spectacle, that some of us foreigners felt their enthusiasm was overboard.

A friend of mine got an email greeting from a colleague saying, "Happy solar eclipse day!"

Is it so easy to make Chinese people happy? Maybe the central government can figure out a way to shoot rockets into the air to manipulate more eclipses so that its people will forget about all the corruption, unemployment and its authoritarianism....

In the late afternoon the skies in Beijing went dark. Was there another eclipse?

Rain finally fell, cutting the humidity, bringing cooler temperatures and clearing the skies just before I went home.

If only the eclipse was tomorrow, then I could have had a decent chance to see some of it.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Misplaced Purpose

Every year state-owned enterprises are forced to take in a certain number of university students for the summer.

And for many of these companies, it's a chance to exploit free labour, as they don't have to pay them anything, not even transportation or meals. It's just a way for the government to fudge its employment figures for a few months.

However, for those of us who are stuck having to practically entertain these students for the summer, it's a trying experience.

Part of the problem is that company management give little thought to having these interns, thinking it's a great way for the different departments to have free grunt work.

However, some of these departments are at a loss of what to give these kids to do, as they are only around for two months but yet they need to be trained somewhat to be able to perform some tasks at a decent standard.

Some of these students aren't even studying in the field that the companies specialize in, making the situation more difficult if they don't even have an interest in what the enterprise does.

You'd hope some of these kids would be pro-active as well, but many chat online with their friends most of the time, or think they are being enthusiastic, but don't have the proper skills to match.

The most unfortunate thing of all is that because these companies don't give much thought to these students, they are missing an ideal opportunity to market the enterprise to the future generation as a possible potential employer or as a place that offers a service or product to be proud of or strive for.

Instead the students just slog through whatever tasks are given to them, and these assignments are haphazardly done because they haven't had much or any training.

Meanwhile the rest of us have to pick up the slack creating heavier workloads and dubious quality control.

While giving these students an internship is a good way for them to have a taste of the "real world", it would be better if the "real world" was more organized and gave them the tools and training to do a decent job.

But why worry about the next generation when we have things to deal with now?

Besides, we're all cogs in the state's machinery -- why not let them get a taste of what's to come...

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Same Tired Routine

Last night an ex-colleague took me to a well-known restaurant called Da Zhai Men, which was inspired by a television drama series of the same name set in the Tang Dynasty. The two aren't related, but on the walls are a few pictures of specific scenes from the show.

It has several locations in the city and we went to the one near my old office, on Huixin Xijie Beili. It looks like a grand-looking place with the traditional tiled roofs as the entrance facade.

Inside looks like a traditional Chinese tea house, with many small square tables as well as a few round ones, which were mostly filled with tourists here for the dinner show.

We got a reserved table right by the stage which looked a bit worn, with the red carpet showing signs of wear and tear. The show started at 7:10pm and as we got there about half an hour early, we ordered dinner which on the whole was fine, nothing particularly outstanding and not expensive either considering there's free entertainment.

A hostess dressed in a pink ballgown introduced the show, starting with a solo Peking Opera performance by a woman. She was dressed up in the make up and costume, using a mic to project her voice. Many kids gathered in front of the stage to see what was happening and as soon as the singer opened her mouth the children immediately put their hands over their ears and cringed which was hilarious to watch.

My ex-colleague complained he found the Peking Opera boring mostly because he couldn't understand what she was saying and that the high pitch was hard to listen to for long periods of time.

The next act featured a woman who lay on her back on a special bench where she balanced a giant ceramic pot with her feet, rolling it around and spinning it. She raised the stakes when several male staff hauled an 84kg giant pot and she managed to balance that on her feet and roll it around. My friend was so worried, as one misstep and the pot would fall on her head.

That wasn't all -- they then called an adult man from the audience to climb into the pot which they then put on the woman's feet and she spun it around twice. Nuts.

The crazy stunt made me realize how uninspiring Chinese acrobatic shows were; instead of trying to innovate on the presentation or even the whole concept, instead they think let's do it higher, bigger, longer... as one Chinese performer who had a brief stint with Cirque du Soleil explained, Chinese acrobatic shows make the audience fear for them instead of Cirque which is more about entertaining the viewers.

This was also true for the climax show, which featured a trio of young men practicing Shaolin kungfu. They looked angry and held aggressive-looking poses as they went through their routine. One broke a wooden pole with his arm, and the highlight had one drive a nail through a piece of glass to pop a balloon on the other side. The first time he attempted it, the balloon was so scared that it popped on its own. The second time he did it, creating a hole in the glass. It's a crazy stunt you shouldn't repeat at home.

However, not all were stressful to watch -- there was a "changing faces" performer who was excellent. Another friend thought she saw lots of strings around his waist to manipulate the masks, something I could not see, mostly because I was mesmerized by the spectacle that was very energetic.

Another was a young long-haired magician who wasn't very good at hiding things so we could see the playing cards in between his fingers as he tried to make it look like they magically appeared from his hands. However I don't know how he put the ones in his mouth which he pulled out. The best trick? Taking a plastic bottle and somehow putting a cell phone into it. He got it out by using scissors. That trick was a copy of Criss Angel that I had seen on TV.

The most entertaining one was a man who pretended to be a cook in a restaurant and spinning plates. It was definitely harder than it looked as he gave a few members of the audience a chance to try it themselves. The climax was him spinning plates on a special table and juggling at the same time. The kids kept pointing and shouting to him anxiously which ones needed more spinning again so there was no chance the plates would fall to the ground.

It's sad that most of these performers are ones that failed to meet the standards of national acrobatic troupes or even have the chance to join international troupes. They don't have much education as they started on this career path when they were young, so this is all they know in order to make a living.

However, in a way they are lucky there are restaurants like these that gives them a place to perform and get paid for it; however, it's time to revamp the Chinese dinner show and try to present something more updated and innovative to keep those customers coming in.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Bizarre Business Practices

My friend's lease is coming up and is looking to find another place to live.

While my agent Holly who helped me find my place three months ago wasn't quite on the ball, after several misses, she did eventually find me something I was very happy with. I passed on her number to my friend and we met her yesterday.

Holly arrived late at our meeting place and seemed more pre-occupied with her phone than trying to get to know her client and what he wanted. She didn't even seem to remember me and ask how I was settling into my apartment...

We ended up seeing nothing because although she had made appointments for him to see apartments, none of them met his requirements.

After a firm chat with her about what he wanted, she later understood and said she'd look again.

However, in the afternoon Holly called him, saying she needed to urgently get back to her hometown... to arrange something for her wedding...

As far as excuses go, that has to be the weirdest one I've heard.

Undaunted, my friend called up another agent called Tom that his buddy had recommended; mind you his friend probably leased an apartment with a much higher rent and thus had good service.

Tom sounded like he was knowledgeable on the phone about what my friend wanted and off the top of his head listed three apartments, but not quite what my friend wanted.

Nevertheless, they set up to meet to see two places this morning and I went along.

When we arrived at the meeting place, a young woman on a scooter approached us to say Tom wasn't available and that she didn't have the keys, but someone else who did would be coming soon. It was pretty unprofessional of Tom not to even text or call my friend to say he couldn't come but that another person would take us there.

It was a full 15 minutes when this other person arrived, another agent, who was on a bike. The two offered us to ride their bike/scooter side saddle but we refused and walked some distance (again not what my friend wanted).

We ended up looking at an old Chinese building with no elevator, and the tenant had barely gotten his shirt on when we arrived.

The place? It looked like a hovel with two sets of bunk beds with no mattresses, a few chairs, pathetic kitchen and toilet, and strangely an ornate chandelier in a tired-looking room.

These agents work on commission, usually from landlords who are anxious to rent out their apartments.

What I can't understand is why these agents waste our time and theirs, showing us pathetic looking places that aren't even near where we want hoping this will wear us down and make us increase the rent expectations before showing us something better.

Why not stop and listen carefully to what your client wants and then try to match it as close as possible? That is probably the fastest way to make a buck.

As far as I can tell, there is no centralized database for rentals in Beijing; it seems to depend on which agents know which landlords, and also a dose of good luck in terms of which apartments just happen to be released around the time you're looking.

These agents could potentially provide a much better service if they tried, (and thus leading to more word-of-mouth recommendations), but they either don't care or just prefer to have bigger fish to fry.

Is everything such short-term thinking here? I think I've just answered my own question.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Clogging the System

I usually hit the pool downstairs from my apartment a few mornings a week before going to work.

This was the first time I went in the afternoon and the pool was getting crowded. There are three 25-metre lanes and a partial lane which is more of the kiddie section that is on the shallow side.

One of the lanes was occupied by two people who were just standing in it, not really swimming and when they were it was obvious they weren't seasoned swimmers.

It was annoying they didn't have the common courtesy to just move into the kiddie lane so others could freely do their laps.

Nevertheless, I was doing my workout when a female staff member flagged me down.

"Excuse me, you have to wear a swimming cap."


"You have to wear a swimming cap. It's on the rules," she said, pointing to a red sign on the wall.

"I don't read Chinese characters," I said in Chinese, but in retrospect I should have just said in English and continued swimming.

At the end of the pool she stopped me again.

"Here, wear this," she said, trying to pass me a used bathing cap.

I said, "I have been swimming here all the time and no one told me to wear this," I said. "I'm from North America where I have never had to wear a bathing cap."

"Well, you have to wear it here," she tried to insist, as others swimmers in my lane gave me a strange look.

I said that I washed my hair everyday so what's the problem?

She replied that it was to prevent the pool from being clogged with loose hair. Short hair can clog the pool?

Either I had to swim with my head above water or get out of the pool, she said. Meanwhile those lame people were still standing around in the lane, not really swimming -- why couldn't she bother them than me about my swimming cap? Couldn't she stop the swimming lanes from being clogged instead?

In the end she let me continue swimming but NEXT time I had to have a swimming cap...

Only in China.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The True Situation

It is almost two weeks after the July 5 riots rocked Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and Chinese state media are still on the offensive after the place is supposedly back to normal.
Some websites have set up special channels dedicated to presenting the "real Xinjiang", while radio outlets interview tourists and people in the area to give the impression life is great and the Uygurs are all happy again.
Opinion pages in newspapers are still complaining foreign media presenting biased reports about the situation, and again accusing them of mislabeling pictures which in some cases are honest mistakes.
Can someone tell the government they are flogging a dead horse?
However the fact remains that not all is fine in the western region.
My friend in Beijing is trying to contact someone he knows in Hotan, Xinjiang by cellphone, but he has only been able to get in touch with her once late last week. Since then when he tries to call there is a recording saying there is no phone service, and since last Sunday, the Internet service too.
We here in the Chinese capital still have Facebook, Youtube, Twitter and Blogspot blocked and who knows for how much longer.
This time it has infuriated local Internet users, not just us foreigners; they are starting to get used to accessing proxy servers in order to update their FB statuses.
So it is a misnomer for the government and state media to say everything is back to normal in Xinjiang because it isn't.
Is anyone reporting on that?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Ulterior Motives

The ongoing Rio Tinto case has multinational companies in China carefully watching the events unfold and wondering what implications it has for them.
As far as we know, four employees were taken into Chinese custody on July 5, and one of them is Stern Hu, a Chinese-born but naturalized Australian citizen a lead negotiator for Rio Tinto.

China now accuses the iron ore giant for bribing all of the country's 16 big steel makers in exchange for confidential industry information.

However, things have become murky with the disclosure that President Hu Jintao himself authorized the investigation into Rio Tinto.

The incident comes at a bad time, as the iron ore company last month rejected a $19.5 billion bid from China's Chinalco, to have a big stake in the mining giant.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has weighed in, saying, "Australia of course has significant economic interest in its relationship with China," he told the media in Sydney. "Let me also remind our Chinese friends that China, too, has significant economic interests at stake in its relationship with Australia and with its other commercial partners around the world."

As China is Australia's biggest trading partner, Rudd's critics are calling for him to do more. Lu Kewen, or Rudd, is known for his fluency in Mandarin, and members of the opposition are saying the prime minister should pick up the phone and personally call President Hu and find out what's going on.

However, while Rudd says he's personally involved in the matter, he is leaving it to be handled at the consular level.

What's particularly interesting is Stern Hu's nationality -- when he becomes an Australian, it means he has renounced his Chinese nationality, as Chinese law forbids dual citizenship. So why, according to Chinese law, was he not immediately granted access to consular officials, a lawyer, or his family?

The most troubling aspect of this case is, what is the aim of detaining these people? Is it really because Rio Tinto bribed officials, which the company denies? Or is it to clean up the industry and use Rio Tinto as an example?

The problem with doing business with China, is that everyone knows palms need to be greased, one way or another. Entertaining officials seems to be the norm to get anything done. But, as one businessman put it, "If I host some officials for a dinner, is that a bribe?"

It will be difficult for these four employees to be released soon as President Hu ordered the investigation; what does Hu want to prove? Is he personally punishing the company for calling off the deal with Chinalco? Or is he trying to root out corruption in the sector with a particular official or group of officials in mind?

Regardless, it sends a chill down the backs of multinational executives who are trying to do legitimate business in China. Will they be next? Or does this mean the rules have have changed?

This is another sign that the country's rule of law is not followed properly or waived when the president says so.

If this is the way China intends to do business, it really isn't bargaining in good faith.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Old Beijing Versus Old Shanghai

Tonight I went to The Bookworm at Sanlitun to watch a friendly verbal joust, a debate over which is more interesting -- Old Beijing or Old Shanghai?

And the two debaters were Derek Sandhaus, who wrote Tales of Old Beijing and Graham Earnshaw, author of Tales of Old Shanghai.

All in good fun, the debate was divided into three sections, pro-Beijing, pro-Shanghai, anti-Beijing and anti-Shanghai, then last comments from each before we the audience voted on which we thought was better.

Sandhaus launched the debate, explaining that the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties were based in Beijing, the centre of the Middle Kingdom, and the powerbase of the country. It is also the centre of Chinese culture that was not influenced by foreigners in any way unlike Shanghai.

Earnshaw begged to differ, saying Shanghai was much more interesting in that Shanghai was nothing until the Opium Wars and through trade concessions forced the port city to open and develop from a boring fishing village into what it is today. He added that it was more cosmopolitan because foreigners were more integrated into society and everyone got a chance to make something of themselves.

However, Sandhaus rebutted, saying the Chinese who fled to Shanghai in the 1800s and for about a century, were treated like second-class citizens in Shanghai, as they were at the mercy of the French and international governments for safety. He also added Shanghai was filled with gangsters, opium traders, and prostitutes, making it a seedy place to be.

Nevertheless, Earnshaw did point out that during this period in Shanghai, many young single women went to the city as a chance for them to create new lives for themselves. Shanghai at the time represented something new and while most of these women ended up as prostitutes, this was the first time in history single women were able to make a living on their own and have their own identity.

He went on to slag Beijing as being full of villagers from Hebei and then the giant bureaucracy placed on top of the city like two different solitudes. He joked the only way to climb up in Beijing was to have your genitals cut off...

Sandhaus admitted that much of old Beijing's architecture has disappeared, with the destruction of hutongs and the old city wall that is now Second Ring Road. Chairman Mao ordered the destruction of it more as a statement than for practical reasons, trying to show that the Communists were signaling a new era in New China.

When it comes to sightseeing in both cities, an audience member said Beijing seems to win hands down for all the historical sites, whereas Shanghai doesn't seem to have much other than the Bund, Xintiandi, the Yuyang Gardens and Pudong.

But Earnshaw said that when George Bernard Shaw visited Beijing and was asked if he saw the Great Wall, he observed it was like any other wall...

There was also a question from the audience about the Soong family and their influence on the two cities.

Earnshaw replied Charlie Soong was quite the entrepreneur, printing Bibles just as people were interested in the Boxer Rebellion, and his three daughters marrying well. However, the Sino-Japanese war changed everything for them, leaving Soong Ai-ling and Soong Mei-ling to become what he called "negative characters" in that their relationship with Communist China went sour, whereas Soong Ching-ling was feted by the CPC.

If it wasn't for the Sino-Japanese War, he continued, there would be no Communist China and the fate of the Soong family would have completely different.

In the end through a show of hands, Old Beijing won over Old Shanghai by only a few votes, probably because the home crowd was in the audience. It was all in good fun and enlightened me with more of each city's history... though Shanghai's sounds much more interesting...

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Questioning the Truth

The Chinese government is now saying the number of deaths from the Xinjiang riots on July 5 has climbed to 184, with 137 killed are Han Chinese, 46 Uighurs, and one ethnic Hui minority.
Some find it difficult to believe that the vast majority of the victims were Han Chinese rather than Uighurs, but as the Chinese government has clamped down on information, it will be hard to find out what really happened.
Others can't understand why security forces and police were lax in trying to stop the violence earlier, instead arriving on the scene several hours later, when most of the damage had already been done.
The situation is even more polarized now, after the police shot three Uighurs yesterday, killing two after a skirmish that the authorities say was against another Uighur.
It seems the government is trying to muddy the waters and portray the Uighurs as violent thugs who just want to cause trouble, while also presenting images that the capital Urumqi is back to normal.
It's hard to see what's really going on, even though foreign journalists have been allowed in the area, though heavily escorted.
They are trying to present stories that they are seeing and hearing, that innocent people try to scrape a living senselessly died in the violence, the ever greater ethnic divide, and how preferential policies sidelined Uighurs in their own homeland.

While most people would call this relatively objective reporting, the Chinese beg to differ.

Currently Chinese state media are waging an all-out assault on foreign media, accusing them of biased reporting that only tell one side of the story, or exaggerate the truth. This is reminiscent of the Tibet riot coverage all over again.

One editorial writer in the People's Daily wrote he used to read the Wall Street Journal for 10 years, but now after this incident, he feels the US-based paper's reporting is biased and is calling everyone to boycott the newspaper.

First of all, only a small percentage have the proficiency to read English newspapers. Second, that paper is hard to buy on the street, unless you read it online.

Finally, why boycott a paper? It won't do anything -- why not write an angry letter to the editor and see what the rest of the world thinks of your petty and insecure arguments?

The scary thing is that so many people in China have been sucked into this belief that western media are bad, that they have become biased, only because state media have told them so. They have become so wrapped up in this ideology that some are even trying to persuade foreigners like me of the same.

One ex-colleague who is studying his MBA in the United States sent me a mass email, in which he tried to undermine a New York Times story point by point. However, he didn't address the real crux of the matter -- the reason why the riots started -- a Chinese policy that has no sensitivity towards ethnic minorities, choosing instead to crush their will by force.

Even those who are half a world away become even more nationalistic despite having access to all kinds of media, an opportunity to open their eyes and try to develop some critical thinking skills.

But no -- they are all blinded by the belief that separatist forces must be defeated. However there is no separatist movement -- Uighurs just want to live freely and treated equally in their own homeland. They don't feel particularly Chinese, but are forced to live under Chinese rules. And so they comply, but the bias against them is so extreme, they feel helpless, and the frustrations are pent up.

The situation will never be resolved. The Chinese government would never have equal talks with the Uighurs as that would be a sign of weakness. Instead the repression will continue and they will wonder why ethnic minorities like Tibetans and Uighurs are so ungrateful for all the economic development and investment they've made.

And now with the majority of the population on the side of the government, the Uighurs are in a losing public relations battle, even if foreign media are seen as more sympathetic to their cause.

The propaganda machine will continue churning out "the real" stories of Xinjiang...

Eager for More

A little known fact is that Xi'an is a pioneer in the software industry for China. The second-tier city is also the top place in the country for outsourcing and it's not hard to see why -- an average university graduate with English skills in Beijing has an average monthly salary of 3,000 RMB ($439). But a graduate from Xi'an with similar qualifications is paid 1,000 RMB ($146).
While the standard of living is cheaper in Xi'an, it doesn't necessarily mean these employees are worth one-third less, despite doing the same amount of work as their counterparts in the Chinese capital.
My Xi'an colleagues, although not as open-minded or as exposed to worldly things as their Beijing cohorts, they are just as bright, hardworking and determined -- if not more.
When I said good-bye to them before going back, some hinted to me they were eager to work in the capital one day and hoped to see me in Beijing.
Many of these ambitious ones are young women in their early 20s, anxious to get out of what they think is a backward city and go to where the action is, but more importantly the money.
While their parents are trying to push them to get married by the time they turn 26, these young women feel there's more to life than husbands and babies. They are eager to discover the world out there and expand on their careers if possible.
While I know they can probably find a job with their skills, getting hukou or a residency permit will be their biggest challenge, along with adjusting to life in a really big city.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Carving Out History

After making the trip back into town from the Han Yangling tombs, my colleague and I went east of the south gate to Bei Lin, or the Forest of Stone Tablets. Along the way is an artisan street, basically stalls selling all kinds of calligraphy items from paper to brushes, handicrafts, jewelry, jade and stone-carved seals.

Bei Lin was first built at the end of the Northern Song Dynasty and buildings from the Ming and Qing dynasties were subsequently added.

It's a giant compound, with numerous rooms containing an amazing collection of stone tablets with Chinese calligraphy carved into them.

Almost all the best ones were collected around the country and put in this museum for safe keeping. In total there are seven showrooms, with more than 3,000 tablets and epitaphs from throughout Chinese history.

It's like a library of the best calligraphers put together in one place.

However, unlike a library, they aren't catalogued and arranged chronologically or in terms of styles -- it's literally a mish-mash of tablets haphazardly put together which is unfortunate. Nevertheless, it gives an idea of how busy stone carvers were throughout the ages.

One thing I still can't understand is how the carvers were able to take a sheet of paper with calligraphy written on it and translate that, brushstrokes and all, onto stone. My colleague wasn't able to explain this to me clearly, but it sounds like a tough job. It would be a drag to carve a giant piece of stone and then make a mistake...

Each calligrapher has his own style, and like a painting, experts can recognize them easily.

She pointed out a few famous calligraphers to me, such as Yan Zhenqing of the Tang Dynasty, whose writing was rigid and straight, whereas those from Wang Xizhi and Zhang Xu had a running script style, where the brush hardly left the paper and the characters "run" into each other.

Huai Su from the Tang Dynasty also wrote in a running script and Chairman Mao liked to follow his style.

There's also a tablet that looks like a carving of bamboo trees, but in fact the leaves are a series of Chinese characters that make up a poem.

Some staff put thin pieces of paper over some carvings, carefully spread it on top and then with a round cloth pad, used ink to blot around the characters to make them show through. These are later sold as souvenirs in not only the gift shops there, but in the vicinity as well.

Another room contained a number of Buddhist statues, but not as extensive as the collection in Beijing's Yonghegong Temple.

And finally there was a room dedicated to funeral carvings, including a giant coffin where a senior official's body would have been placed. Inside were paintings of figures, probably attendants who would look after him in his afterlife.

There were also a series of horses that were carved in stone from the Tang Dynasty. They look very lively and it's too bad they are not all in tact. Apparently the owner loved horses and had six carvings made on his tomb. However, two of them were apparently plundered in the 1860s and are now in a museum in the United States. My colleague specifically pointed out this horrible crime... they always seem to remember negative things about foreigners...

Nevertheless, it was an educational trip to Bei Lin, one that left me with a greater appreciation for calligraphy, but probably more for the real unsung heroes, the stone carvers who helped preserve these works for centuries.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Road Less Traveled

Getting around Xi'an is a trying experience. Currently the roads are being dug up to build the subway, which apparently will take at least another decade to complete as periodically they will discover something of archeological importance and then everything stops. Meanwhile, above ground, buses and cars have to manoeuvre around these giant pits. Oh and good luck trying to find a taxi as there doesn't seem to be enough of them around.

It was these logistical challenges that made my visit to Han Yangling almost not worth the effort, but I'm glad I went anyway.

As I've already seen the terracotta warriors of Emperor Qin Shihuang, my Beijing colleague suggested I check out Han Yangling, the tomb of Emperor Jing of the Han Dynasty. While it's only an hour's drive east of Xi'an near the airport, it took my local colleague and I over two hours by public transport.

At 8:30am we set off to a nearby bus stop that would take us to the outskirts of the city, bus 207, but it took almost half an hour for it to arrive. Luckily we managed to get seats as we were riding it all the way to the terminus.

Our bums sore from sitting on hard seats for about an hour, it was nice to finally get off, but then we waited another long stretch for the you 4 bus. You means "tour" or "travel". My colleague, unsure of the situation, asked some locals at the bus stop of this was the place to wait for the bus, and we started getting conflicting reports.

It was all confirmed when bus 4 did come... and though we tried to flag it down, it sped right past us.

So we had to walk further on in the heat to where others had suggested we go. Luckily not too far down another bus 4 came by and we got on the empty bus that we had all to ourselves.

The bus attendant explained there are actually two bus 4's, one that takes people from the city into the outskirts, and then the second one that takes passengers all the way to the Han Yangling Museum.

We asked her why the bus had passed right by us and she said the route had changed, and changes constantly depending on traffic and construction of the roads. Talk about an unpredictable bus!

She said this bus route was a money-losing one, even though the government had mandated that this route be open to the public to take them to the museum. She said few people used this bus or knew about the museum that was opened in 2005.

As soon as we got there, we didn't even take a bathroom break, but plunged right into the museum and caught a guided tour.

Emperor Jing isn't as well known as Qin Shihuang di, who was infamous for his dictatorship, ruthless ways and many accomplishments, the most important being unifying China, along with a set of laws and even calligraphy style that were practiced throughout the land.

Qin also spent a lot of time building his tomb with lifesize terracotta soldiers, horses and chariots, and when he died, everyone else had to be buried with him -- alive.

However, Emperor Jing was the polar opposite.

Apparently he was influenced by his mother's interest in Taoism and was more benevolent to his people, giving them tax breaks and had a general policy of non-interference.

Also he was known to be thrifty, which is revealed in his tomb at Han Yangling. What's neat here is that after we put on blue plastic covers for our shoes, we can shuffle down into the pit and walk over certain parts of it. You can look straight down into the pit and see things pretty much as they were found, unlike the terracotta warriors which have been fixed up and dusted off.

Here thousands of small statues -- armless as their arms were made of wood -- lie on the ground, probably because they fell as the tomb was filled. Each of the faces and limbs are slightly different. The museum also showed tiny pieces of copper fashioned into coins and cups, bowls and bells. It's as if they were made for children, not an emperor.

He also had many animals with him, including horses, dogs, goats, pigs and chickens, a motif that is repeated many times.

Unfortunately the pit opened to the public didn't offer that much to see and then that was basically the end of our visit there -- in just over an hour.

While it was really neat to see the tomb presented in this way, why does it have to be so difficult to get there? That probably explains why so few people bother to go.

Thankfully our trip back into the city didn't take as long, but we were stuck in traffic near the bell tower or zhong lou, again because of subway construction... which at this rate, will never end.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Another Side of Xi'an

When a foreign colleague of mine heard I was going to Xi'an, he immediately told me to go visit the lady boy bar.

What? They have such things in Xi'an?

This I had to check out. And he demanded that I come back with a full report and pictures.

He hadn't been to the bar himself, but his friend who used to work in Xi'an had been there and gave me basic directions.

It was near the Hyatt Hotel so I decided to treat myself to a good dinner there after a whole week of greasy food and not so good quality ingredients.

My meal was expensive -- 142 RMB ($20.77), but it was good quality food and of course excellent service. I also had a freshly squeezed juice of carrot and orange, along with a dessert of poached pear with almonds and dates.

After that my adventure began to find this lady boy bar.

I wandered south of the Hyatt and pretty soon I was on the right track, and then bingo! I found a bar... called... Number 21 Bar (er shi yi hao jiu ba).

It was as the description said, with orange lights, though the Heineken and Corona beer signs were gone.

I wandered down the stairs and found... and empty bar.

A young man who worked there told me, pointing to the low-level stage, there would be a show at 10:30pm, but by then it was only just before 9pm.

Since I had made it this far I might as well stick around. Only another table next to me was occupied by a non-descript guy munching on microwave popcorn and a can of Coke.

But soon I saw some young slender men go into a room at the back. The door kept opening and closing and later I saw one man applying makeup to another. Jackpot! I'd found the place.

Luckily it wasn't too hard killing time, as towards 9:30pm many men started streaming in, taking what looked like their regular seats. While not all of them immediately looked gay, there was lots of hugging and some social butterflies flitting around the room saying hello to people.

Towards 10pm the place was almost full and a group of customers wanted a table. I offered to give mine up in exchange for sitting at the bar, which the server was very grateful for.

It was then that I chatted with the bar manager or perhaps the owner of the place, a friendly gay middle-aged man.

"You know what kind of bar this is... right?" he asked with a smile.

I said I did and then he asked, "Are you....?"

And I replied no, as I knew he was referring to my sexual orientation.

I explained that I was from overseas so he immediately realized that I wasn't going to freak out about what I was going to see.

"I just came to take a look," I said and he seemed pleased.

The bar has been around for seven years and probably in different incarnations as my friend's directions said the place was called Yue Gong, or Moon Palace. But now it seems it's called Number 21 Bar or Bar Number 21 in English.

The lady boys kept coming in and out of their changing room, some half dressed, others fully clothed. One of the first ones to come out was a plump-looking woman, who seemed to play the part of a madam, batting her eyelids constantly while flirting with men and giving that p'shaw! hand gesture. Another, a novice, was in a long red dress, but kept fondling her breasts to make sure they were in the right place.

Some of the performers did look like women from a distance (and in the dark), but their bra tops were too high up on the chest which were a dead giveaway. Also, despite wearing high heels, many walked like a man in heels, than try to sway their hips a bit, probably because they had none.

Before the show began, the two TV screens showed videos from Crazy Horse and La Belle Epoque, with semi-nude women in showgirl costumes and men bare chested performing many dance numbers. It was a prelude to the show on stage, which turned out to be cabaret style.

It was finally just before 11pm when the show finally started.

Girls with giant feather headdresses with colourful frilly skirts flaunted their legs, while the main performer, a very slender woman seemed to be lip synching. While she looked quite pretty, she didn't have much pizzazz or flaunt her body much. A woman in the audience went up and tried to stuff a 100RMB note down her top.

The next act was someone who could have been mistaken for a woman in a baby blue hoop dress a la Paula Tsui Siu-fung. known for her giant Gone with the Wind-like ballgowns.

Other acts included a group of them, men and women who pretended to be modeling swimwear, strutting around the stage, some not really looking interested in what they were doing.

Another was a comedy skit that I didn't understand, involving two men and an ugly-looking "woman", who rearranged her breasts periodically until it was revealed it was a pair of blown-up condoms.

And then there was a male singer in a Michael Jackson-like sequinned jacket belting out two songs, as well as a drum dance by male dancers.

The skinny woman returned, this time in a red feather dress and was in the middle of performing Jennifer Lopez's Let's Get Loud, when the music abruptly stopped and she felt embarassed and didn't seem to know what to do. But once the music was back on, a young man came up and gave her another 100RMB note and she was back on track. While she seems popular with the audience, she didn't seem to be a natural performer, perhaps still dealing with stage fright.

It seems the performers were all amateurs, but probably paid a fee for their work as some put effort into their ensemble song and dance routines.

The bar manager told me that they have shows every night, though weekends are packed. Towards midnight the crowd was already having fun with the show and heavily into their drinking games which kept the bar busy plying them with mostly beers. It must be noted there were at least a dozen women in the bar, friends hanging out or enjoying teasing their gay friends in drag.

Watching these men in their safe place quickly revealing their true selves was interesting. Some sat on other people's laps, others pleased to be in the company of lady boys, all of them wanting to have a good time on a Friday night.

My colleague from Xi'an later told me there are many gay bars in the city, but the one I went to was the most famous one.

She'd told me she'd been to a lesbian one, but it was no fun.

I recommended she check this one out as it gave me an entertaining side of Xi'an I'd never known before.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Real Life of Xi'an

One thing you notice right away about Xi'an is how uncosmopolitan it is compared to Beijing and Shanghai. Granted it is a second-tier city, but the comparison is so stark that it makes you wonder what third-tier Chinese cities are like.

There are hardly any foreign brands here, save for Starbucks, Nike and Adidas, and where I'm staying in the business district, there isn't even a supermarket, but for some strange reason there are many medicine shops. They're large, have many staff, and have marble steps, showing off what a profitable business it is.

When I arrived in Xi'an, I was hoping to buy some fruit, but the best I could find near the office were stands selling peaches and watermelons, both in season.

As I'm allergic to peaches, and watermelons are hard to eat without a knife, I was on the hunt for apples. My colleagues said I'd have to go to a big supermarket to get them, but there wasn't one in the neighbourhood, even though my walk to work is 20 minutes long and through some big streets.

It wasn't until yesterday after work I finished dinner near the office, and on my way home I saw a man on a scooter with a woman sitting behind him carrying a broom emerge from an alley. My instincts hit me to see where they came from.

However, I was immediately hit with the putrid smells of the neighbourhood waste depot, where men were shoveling garbage.

But beyond that was a bustling market of small stalls lined down the small street, selling everything from vegetables to fresh chicken (yes, sitting out there for who knows how long), tofu, stalls making a variety of snacks -- and then yes -- apples! There were also stalls selling household goods like brooms and cans of food, clothing, toys, and beauty creams.

I continued along the street towards the end which led to a perpendicular one lined with small tables and stools for more neighbourhood dining.

It's these little nooks and crannies that reveal real life in Chinese cities, and here in Xi'an you just have to hold your nose first -- and then it's a feast for the eyes and mouth.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Unresolved Issues

This morning China Central Television (CCTV) was showing pictures of calm on the streets of Urumqi. There were no scenes of soldiers, nor any remnants of burned out cars, blood-stained streets or damage. It looked as if the city had a complete makeover literally overnight and reporters were in different areas, showing it was business as usual in the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

Reporters talked to Chinese who said things were good now because order and peace had been restored, and even a few Uyghurs (middle-aged women) spoke in their native tongue to also say calm had returned to the city.

There were also lineups at blood bank stations, with mainly young Han Chinese people lining up to give blood. They said they were doing it to help others. But how would they feel if they knew their blood was donated to a Uyghur?

Meanwhile, President Hu Jintao has returned to Beijing, but none of the senior leaders have made any public comments about the ethnic unrest.

Some China watchers think Hu should do a big public relations stunt and go to Urumqi and visit with both sides and offer to talk to Uyghurs and find some sort of conciliation. It was in the 1990s that the central government urged Han Chinese to "Go West", increasing the percentage of Han Chinese in the area from 6 percent in 1990 to 40 percent today.

The preferential treatment the government gave the Han Chinese left the Uyghurs feeling their livelihoods and their identities threatened, thus resulting in the recent riots, possibly the worst violence since 1989.

This shows the Go West policy has failed, and shows the failure of the government to understand or even care to empathize with its ethnic minorities.

However, Beijing seems to be doing a great job in whipping up nationalism once again.

Young people here are angered by the violent acts against Han Chinese and the media are trying to find any way they can to discredit Uyghurs and Rebiya Kadeer, whom they blame for sparking the unrest.

State media are claiming that Kadeer showed photographs on Al Jazeera that were actually from a different incident that happened last month in Hubei Province. They are also saying that there is a group on the social networking site Facebook that is urging Uyghurs to protest at Chinese embassies around the world, with messages of "Free East Turkistan!"

What is even more interesting are those Chinese students living overseas who are angered by the foreign media reports they are reading, even though foreign journalists in China have been allowed to go to Urumqi to cover the riots.

Despite having complete free access to the Internet and all kinds of news sources, these overseas students are even more nationalistic, than when they were in China. They seem to live in a bubble, unwilling to face or understand the truth about the Chinese government. It seems only a handful are really disillusioned and don't want to come back, or are cynical about their government.

But in the meantime, while Chinese media are trying to show all is find and well in Urumqi, it's because Uyghurs are too scared to venture out, but their grievances remain. Only the government can resolve the situation. But somehow one thinks it may not happen anytime soon.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Far from the Truth

President Hu Jintao was in Italy where he was set to attend the G8 Summit, but on the third day after the riots broke out in Xinjiang, now forever named "7.5" or July 5, he decided to go home to control the chaos.

Already hundreds of soldiers have flooded into Urumqi to try to quell the violence that has hit the capital of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in western China.

The city is in lockdown, but that doesn't mean tensions will go away easily.

Now Li Zhi, the party boss in Urumqi has said that those found to have instigated the violence will face the death penalty.

That announcement, while a threat, may even encourage protestors to be even more defiant.

The turn of events in the last few days is just polarizing the situation, with state media in full propaganda mode and not really examining what is at the heart of the issue.

The Chinese have already painted the Uyghurs as violent people, and almost calling them terrorists, but their actions show they aren't -- they are a group of people frustrated in the situation their people are in.

One account I've read on the cause of the events on July 5 stem from killings that occured in a Guangdong toy factory last month. A number of young Uyghur men went down to the southern Chinese city to work at this factory and a small group were accused of raping two Han Chinese girls. While this turned out to be completely false, it didn't save these Uyghurs, many of whom were beaten to death.

What has made the Uyghurs in Urumqi upset is that the government did nothing about the situation, not even an investigation.

On Sunday they were allegedly peacefully redressing the government to properly deal with the incident, but then their protest somehow became violent.

Of the 156 reported dead so far, the government has not released numbers on how many were Uyghurs, and how many were Han Chinese. One suspects most of the victims are probably Uyghur...

The Chinese are desperate to look like they are firmly in control of the situation, especially with Hu flying back to take command.

But this definitely looks like a major bruise, especially in the run-up to the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on October 1.

This is the worst violent clash in decades and it definitely does not show China is a harmonious society.

A Tranquil Escape

After work on Monday, three of my Xi'an colleagues took me out to do a bit of sightseeing.

I was last here during the Mid-Autumn Festival and one of the spots I visited was Muslim Street or Hui Min Jie, but didn't go into the mosque and wanted to go this time.

Now that I reflect back, I realize my coworkers may have been worried about going into this neighbourhood with the news of the Xinjiang riots coming out. Xi'an is home to some 60,000 Muslims, most of whom are Hui minority.

However, I was determined to visit the mosque and dragged the trio with me. We walked from the South Gate all the way there, taking almost 45 minutes plus a 20-minute bus ride.

We wandered down the lanes of Muslim Street and had to ask several people where the mosque was until we found the signs pointing the direction to "The Great Mosque".

And to my delight it was still open, but to my colleagues the 25 RMB ($3.66) admission fee was high, but as they all had never been in there before, I treated them to go in, much to their delight.

One whipped out her small video camera and started recording the moment. There were few people around, most were men, Muslims coming to pray or chat with friends.

Inside it feels more like a garden than a place of religious worship, with lots of trees and flowers around and birds constantly chirping and flying overhead. It was just before dusk so the light was soft, creating a quiet beautiful aura in the place.

The mosque was built in 742AD during the Tang Dynasty and was restored and expanded during the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, which explains the various architectural styles in the compound. It is divided into four courtyards, each with various arches or towers, and rooms.

There are Chinese and Arabic calligraphy on wooden and stone tablets, as well as manicured bonsai plants, giant ceramic pots filled with lily pads and very old trees everywhere.

In the middle of the courtyard is literally "The Introspection Tower", but it really should be named "The Introspective Tower" or "The Reflective Tower", as it suggests people should be looking inside their hearts.

Finally at the very end is the Worship Hall. Non-Muslims aren't allowed in this area, but you can see a giant hall with columns, where worshippers walk in without their shoes onto lots of individual prayer mats that seem to go on forever.

We all admitted we didn't know much about Islam, but one remarked that those who were religious seemed happier. I said that while that was true most of the time, I tried to explain one didn't have to be religious, but it works for some.

Soon after we left the mosque, the sun started to set, ending a relaxing and tranquil visit to the mosque and back to the dusty, noisy and crowded streets of the Muslim district.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Inequality Breeds Violence

The riots in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region have so far left 156 dead, and over 1,000 injured, in what some say were peaceful protests against the government that later became violent.
Today China Central Television or CCTV showed lots of images of burned out cars, people trying to turn over a police car, and a few bloodied people (Han Chinese), but no actual footage of the beatings or fires, which was probably too violent for breakfast viewing.
I watched the news while eating breakfast in the hotel cafe and the other guests seemed shocked and horrified by the dramatic pictures.
Han Chinese don't understand why Uyghurs are so angry and frustrated -- the Chinese government introduced mass migration into this western region and has basically "ethnically cleansed" the area by forcing locals to speak Mandarin, not allowing those who work in civil service to practice the Muslim religion during office hours, even though they have to pray regularly to Mecca, and now knocking down their centuries' old homes for fear they cannot withstand earthquakes and forcing these people to live in lifeless apartment blocks.
The government has also made it much easier for Han Chinese to do business there or get a job due to preferential treatment -- making Uyghurs second-class citizens in their own homeland.
In Beijing, there is a small Uyghur population who make their living opening Muslim restaurants, or selling Muslim foods on the streets. These people are not treated well by Han Chinese, who look down on them and make fun of their poorly-pronounced Mandarin.
One can only imagine what tensions are like in Xinjiang now -- by Uyghurs who feel their home is invaded by Han Chinese, and by the Chinese who feel Uyghurs are troublemakers and don't appreciate the economic developments they've made in this western region.
However, things are pretty much one-sided here.
Yesterday afternoon Twitter was blocked and today no access either, but we can still get all the major news websites like the New York Times and BBC.
The government is blaming Uyghur businesswoman Rebiya Kadeer who is exiled in the United States on inciting the violent protests.

Her book, Dragon Fighter was published earlier this year. I got a chance to read a few pages and was immediately gripped by the first chapter where she described how she knew she would be executed.

She was accused of leaking state secrets and knew that her fate was already decided. Instead of cowering towards death, she defiantly dressed in traditional clothes in white and went into the courtroom.

For her last words, she spoke at length of her accomplishments, of her economic and political contributions to China, as at one point was a representative of the National People's Congress (NPC).
In the end the court spared her life and sentenced her to six years in prison. Afterwards, she made her way out to the United States into exile and is now head of the World Uyghur Congress, and the Chinese government's number one Uyghur enemy.

"It is common practice of the Chinese government to accuse me for any unrest in East Turkestan and His Holiness the Dalai Lama for any unrest in Tibet," she said in a statement condeming the riots. "The Chinese authorities should acknowledge that the peaceful protest was sparked by the unlawful mob beating and killing of Uyghur workers at a Guangdong toy factory more than a week ago. The authorities should also acknowledge that their failure to take any meaningful action to punish the Chinese mob for the brutal murder of Uyghurs is the real cause of this protest."

There are Chinese claims that Kadeer was in contact with people who incited the violence, but there has been no proof of this presented yet.

In the meantime foreign journalists are allowed into the area, but heavily escorted at all times, even handing them video images of violence on their arrival that were heavily edited.

The riots these few days are considered the worst in a long time and are a black eye to the central government who was hoping to show the world that in the past 60 years China has been a peaceful and harmonious country.... not.

Tensions will continue to persist when political, economic and social inequalities still exist... a general rule of thumb the CPC leadership doesn't seem to have understood...


Monday, July 6, 2009

Wiping up More Pollution

Over a year ago the Chinese government decided to ban giving away free plastic bags of a certain thinness to cut down on pollution. However, those who decided to go to the supermarket at the last minute without a cloth bag could still buy a plastic bag that was thicker. However the inexorbinant charge of a few pennies in RMB has done little to really make people change their consumer habits.
Nevertheless, last month the National Development and Reform Commission proudly announced there was a 66 percent reduction in the use of plastic bags, saving China 1.6 million tons of petroleum.
Before the ban the NDRC estimated 3 billion plastic bags were used daily, creating 3 million tons of garbage a year, and using 5 million tons or 37 barrels of oil to produce the bags.
This is all fantastic, but can I move my complaint now to napkins at restaurants?
Why do they make the ones at Chinese restaurants these tiny cocktail-sized things, when you really need a decent-sized one that also isn't so flimsy that you need more than one?
Now this is a waste of paper resources... why hasn't someone complained about this?
As I'm in Xi'an this week, I've noticed some restaurants are taking to CHARGING customers for a small box of napkins, which are really small tissues.
Last night I went to a slightly fancy restaurant, one with multicoloured tablecloths and numerous servers.
I asked for some napkins and the waitress asked, "One portion?"
I just said yes, thinking, yeah, one napkin is fine.
Only when she came back with a small box and opened it up to reveal some tissues did I realize I was going to be charged for it.
While it only cost 1RMB, I could have been forewarned about it as I already had my own tissues in my bag!
So I took the box of tissues with me after dinner as a souvenir and am carrying them around and using them whenever the need arises. My 1 RMB will go a long way...

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Traveler's Nightmare

The Beijing Airport Express is almost a year old and was built in time for the 2008 Olympics. Meant to ease congestion to the airport by providing a fast train to the newest terminal, Terminal 3, the concept was good, but the execution was not.

I recently moved to Dongzhimen, which is the terminus for the Airport Express, called ABC or Airport Beijing City.

Today I flew to Xi'an for a business trip and thought it would be convenient to take the ABC. Not.

As I live across the street from the station, I had to drag my suitcase and carry-on through the subway underpass which has no escalator and then back up stairs.

Then I had to go to the ABC entrance, which could have been connected to the subway, but wasn't.

Even worse was that there was only a stairway going down to the train, not even an escalator and again I had to carry my baggage down.

Finally below ground there was another escalator that took you to the security check and then ticket booth where you could buy the 25 RMB ticket at a booth or at machines. And just our luck only one window was open, but two other staff manning the other booths, but just not feeling like serving anyone.

Thankfully one of them decided to ease the line-up and I jumped ahead and got a ticket from him.

Yet another set of escalators down and then there were some benches available for people to wait and watch silly entertainment on the TV screens.

After a 10 minute wait I get onto the train, but there is no extra room made available for suitcases, like the Hong Kong Airport express, nor much legroom either.

We finally get on our way and after 20 minutes make it to Terminal 3. The train then backtracks a bit before heading in another direction to Terminal 2.

I had been told that my flight was at Terminal 2, but I couldn't find it on the screen and it turned out it was in Terminal 1 which was another 10-minute walk away. Luckily baggage carts were available and after a power walk, I was able to get there in less than the estimated time and check-in.

Needless to say, once I sat in the plane, I quickly nodded off, sleeping off some of the stress I'd had to deal with and physically lugging all my stuff around.

The ABC is like so many other infrastructure projects here -- great idea, but not much thought gone into details or long-term planning. By the same token, I find many people here are big on ideas, but not quite sure how they're going to achieve the goal, or the logistics of getting there.

So while many people take the ABC, the Airport Bus is still doing a brisk business. I used to take it all the time as one of the routes was near where I used to live. It took you straight to each of the three terminals and only 16 RMB. The only wild card is the traffic. But if you're not in a hurry, it's pretty much stress-free.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Stunted Growth

Tonight my friend took me to a Yunnan restaurant near Sanlitun. Luckily he'd made reservations earlier as many hungry diners were sitting in the entrance waiting for a table.

The food there is pretty good -- we'd ordered mashed potatoes with tea shoots, prawn salad, cold tofu with a bean sauce, baked eggplant with cheese, and the best dish of all -- roast veal that was succulent, juicy and delicious.

We just barely finished our food, but it seemed others around us had similar experiences, ordering too much food because it all looked so good.

While we were eating, there was one table in the corner that had grandparents, a granddaughter, parents and a friend.

The grandma had the child in her lap as they ate dinner, while the parents and friend chatted away, periodically interacting with the toddler.

After they finished, the little girl started wandering around, playing with long ribbons that were quasi-curtains, yanking them.

The grandmother did nothing about it, not even disciplining her right away, condoning the child to continue playing and wandering through the restaurant. Meanwhile the father smoked a cigarette, the wife continuing her conversation with her friend with hardly a look of concern.

This is a typical family scene -- the parents uninterested in their child, while the grandparents look after their precious bao bao.

My friend remarked that today's grandparents are used to hard work, having raised their own children and been through tumultuous times in the past several decades.

But what will happen later when these parents become grandparents? Will they be as devoted and physically willing to look after their grandchild?

It also reminded me of my ex-colleague who recently got married.

She's 24-years-old and talented, hardworking and good at what she does.

However, she'd rather just stay in her low-paying job and not try to get ahead because she is now in the supportive role for her husband than trying to achieve more in her career. The other main reason is that now both parents and in-laws are expecting a grandchild soon...

I've met many young wives who seem content to continue with their work and not try to get ahead even though they are qualified or have ambitious aspirations.

Coming from the west, it's very difficult for me to understand or accept their belief in their station in life, when I see so much potential around me that will be stagnated or even diminished.

The pressure to get married at a young age (in their 20s) is so strong here, that it is difficult for a woman to focus completely on her career. China needs not only men, but also women who can forge new paths for the country in whatever field they excel in. And why not let them? Why must society force its familial obligations on these young people when they have only recently reached adulthood?

China could accomplish so much more and possibly have a less male-dominated society that would inspire more girls to realize that it is possible to have it all, whatever they define that to be.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Wondering What's in the Air

In a recent report from Xinhua, there were 146 blue-sky days in Beijing in the first six months of the year, the best air quality in nine years.
"Air quality in the capital has improved steadily over the past six months," said Du Shaozhong, deputy director-general of the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau.
In the first six months of last year, only 123 blue-sky days were reported.
However, how a blue-sky day is determined is not quite clear and now the city has a competitor that is bringing not so optimistic readings.
The US Embassy quietly began giving its own air quality readings every hour on that are either meant to shock your lungs or is a realistic picture of the city's air.
For instance, at 2pm today (July 3), the reading is 0.135, 192 (unhealthy) and today's average is 0.090, 168 (unhealthy).
Beijing prefers measuring particles less than 10 micrometres in diameter (PM 10) which are things we can practically see with the naked eye. Its readings also include statistics on sulphur dioxide and carbon dioxide.
But the US Embassy's readings are more focused on PM 2.5 or particles less than 2.5 micrometres that can go into people's lungs and blood stream, causing things like cancer and asthma.
Granted the embassy is located in the downtown area, still, many people live and work in that area.
Meanwhile last year Beijing started manipulating its readings ahead of the 2008 Olympics by taking readings from stations outside the city core so it looked like air quality was good, but in fact now we find that it was not.
According to new research in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, particulate pollution levels on an average day in Beijing last year were between two to four times higher than that of Los Angeles.
Researcher Staci Simonich, an Oregon State associate professor of environmental and molecular toxicology says pollution levels in the Chinese capital in 2008 were 30 percent higher than reported by Chinese environmental experts. Needless to say these levels were considered excessive by World Health Organization standards.
"The athletes and visitors were only exposed for a very short time," Simonich said. "Millions of other people there face this air quality problem their entire lives. It was unlike anything I've ever seen -- you could look directly at the sun and not have a problem, due to the thickness of the haze."
Having lived here for over two years, I hope the air quality doesn't have too drastic an effect on my health...

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Blacking Out and Blanking Out

Last night after 9pm, all of a sudden the power went out in my apartment. Everything stopped and went pitch black.

But outside in the hallway there was light and I checked my electricity metre which still had plenty of units left.

I called the management office and a repairman came and turned the electricity back on, but soon after he left, the air conditioner stopped working. Just my luck.

Another call to the management office led to another repairman, this time apparently an air con expert.

But as soon as he saw the error message on the air conditioning unit keypad, he said this wasn't something he could fix. He said he would call the air conditioner company, Haier, to send one of their technicians over, as this air conditioner is a huge machine that sits outside my tiny balcony.

Luckily I'm not one of those people who must have air con on and was able to fall asleep, probably tired from having to deal with all the drama of not having power.

The next morning the management office called the company for me and said the technician would come between noon and the afternoon.

So I sat around and waited, working from home. Surprisingly the young man arrived just before 11am. But after he unscrewed my giant air conditioner and took the cover off, he immediately found the culprit after testing the voltage -- three parts malfunctioned, one causing the other two to die. This is probably what caused the blackout in my apartment.

He didn't have the parts on him, and wasn't sure if they were in stock, but promised to call me later tonight to let me know the status.

I didn't hear from him all day and when I came home from work I called him on his cell phone.

He seemed to be out carousing with his friends, and had temporarily forgotten his promise to me, some 8 hours earlier.

He'd forgotten who I was and that I needed to know if the parts were available and would he be coming tomorrow morning to fix the air conditioner?

And because of his lack of interest in letting me know the situation, I had to get tough with him on the phone, demanding to know exactly when he would be arriving. He quickly made up an answer and it made me wonder if he would remember, hearing him chat with his friends in the background.

I don't like having to sound angry on the phone, but sometimes it seems people like this don't mind being berated like children. Why is that?

I'm sure they don't enjoy being treated like that, so why be so unprofessional?

It just shows someone who doesn't really care about their work. While I can understand being a repairman and being dirty most of the time is not the greatest job, it's one where people are grateful when you are able to fix things for them.

So I will see what happens tomorrow... if this young man remembers our last conversation...


Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Continuing the Fight

Today marks the 12th anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to China.

Chinese state media are trying to spin the city's return to the mainland as a good thing economically, as Hong Kong has learned its lessons from the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis.

But earlier today tens of thousands of people, from blue-collar workers to professionals marched from Victoria Park in Causeway Bay to Central's Legco building.

They held black banners with white characters, voicing a variety of grievances from democracy to unemployment, to demanding the government push the banks that sold people financial products related to Lehman Brothers to compensate them all their losses, not just part of it.

While the chances of getting all their money back is slim, the chances of full democracy seem even more remote after the Chinese government said it could possibly happen in 2017, not 2012, the year most Hong Kongers were hoping for.

At the march, veteran democrat Martin Lee declared, "Hong Kong people will always fight for democracy and never give up, no matter what."

Earlier this year Chief Executive Donald Tsang angered democrats when he delayed a highly anticipated consultation on tweaking the electoral process for its leader and legislature in 2012, saying the government needed to focus on the economy.

While police estimate some 26,000 people took to the streets today, unlike the half million who protested July 1, 2003 against Article 23, it still shows Hong Kongers are still passionate about fighting for what they believe in, and why not when they can in a peaceful manner and not be arrested?

Some may think it's a lost cause protesting in Hong Kong, but it's really an exercise of freedoms that need to be preserved too.