Monday, August 31, 2009

All Mine

In a move to show China is really serious about hording as much natural resources as possible, a draft report from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MITT) calls for a total ban of exports of terbium, dysprosium, yttrium, thulium, and lutetium. Other metals such as neodymium, europium, cerium, and lanthanum will be restricted to a combined export quota of 35,000 tonnes a year, far below global needs.

China mines over 95 percent of the world's rare earth minerals, which are mostly found in Inner Mongolia.

All those mineral names sound like gobbledygook, but in fact are essential for today's technological gadgets.

For example, terbium, which sells for $80,000 a tonne, is used in low-energy light bulbs that cut power costs by 40 percent.

Neodymium is used to enhance the power of magnets at high heat and is essential for hard-disk drives, wind turbines and electric motors of hybrid cars. Each Toyota Prius uses 25 pounds of rare earth minerals. Europium is used in lasers.

And for those who use the all important Blackberries, iPods, mobile phones, palm TVs, and navigation systems might be interested to know their handy gadgets use bits of rare earth metals too, along with air defense missiles. These metals are also used to filter viruses and bacteria from water, and clean up Sarin gas.

If China's State Council does pass this draft into law, the rest of the world is at the Middle Kingdom's feet. Literally.

Japan is already freaking out. Before the just concluded election where the Democratic Party of Japan soundly lost to the Liberal Democratic Party, the then government already drew up a "Strategy for Ensuring Supplies of Rare Metals" to stockpile and 'secure overseas resources'.

In a way China's proposal sounds preposterous -- protectionism to the hilt -- but the country is serious about stockpiling resources it needs.

Does this have something to do with Rio Tinto?

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Picture of the Day: Poseur

There are many outdoor statues scattered around 798, from giant heads with stern Asian faces to a semi-nude pink woman with perky breasts riding a bicycle, to unidentifiable bodies with penises.

It's definitely an eclectic mix.

But this poseur caught my eye as I walked past, only to find he was a statue leaning against the doorway.

Was he looking towards the future or wondering what to eat for dinner?

No one seemed to worry about his concerns...

Saturday, August 29, 2009

798 Still Bullish on Art

The 798 Beijing Biennale started a few weeks ago and this afternoon I decided to take a look. Unfortunately the area is so sprawling that it's hard to know which galleries are participating and where they are, so I ended up just wandering around.

I haven't been there in almost a year and the 798 area has changed quite a bit with much more commercialism. Every other street corner has a stand selling drinks and popsicles and Chairman Mao has officially become commercial in this art district. Many spaces that were previously galleries are now shops selling Mao's face plastered on canvas bags, mugs, notebooks and T-shirts. What used to be kitsch is now a free-for-all.

The art is on the whole the same quality, young artists still trying to shock viewers. One had a solo exhibition opening today called "Emergency Exit" which seemed to feature only one piece -- a larger-than-life large man pinned to the wall by a charging bull with steam blowing out of its ass like a rocket. It was disturbing to look at, but you couldn't help but want to get a good look too.

Nevertheless, there were some other interesting pieces worth checking out.

Another piece was a giant square that was completely red -- as if it was covered in the ink used for Chinese chops. And in it were hundreds of Chinese characters in varying degrees of relief.

I particularly liked one oil painting called Flag Raising, a long rectangular work showing Tiananmen Square in the background with the flag in the middle, but everyone who has come to watch the daily ceremony are behind a chain-link fence. It's quite apt because today the square was closed off for rehearsals for the upcoming October 1 parade featuring 200,000 participants.

A quirky piece was a photo sequence of several months where the photographer made a small model of the CCTV tower and took a picture of it on a patch of dirt. Several weeks later weeds start to grow around it and then another few weeks later the greenery almost covers it up. The next picture shows it set on fire and then it is covered in snow. The following images shows it completely disintegrates and disappears completely, covered by weeds again. So much for making a lasting impression.

There was also another exhibition called "Our World At War" presenting images from war photographers. A number of areas were covered, like Afghanistan, Liberia, and Somalia. Some pictures featured people with limbs amputated, others of women with written captions saying they had been raped or been forced to watch their parents be shot to death. While the captions were shocking, the photographs gave dignity to the subjects.

My favourite show on the moment is "The Chinese", portraits by Mathias Braschler and Monika Fischer. A year before the Olympics they covered 30,000 kilometers photographing a variety of people, young and old, rich and poor. What's even more striking are the juxtaposition of the images, particularly when a poor person is placed next to a wealthy one.

All the portraits are staged, but that is the only consistency -- there's a rotund man in designer jeans standing in front of his mauve Lamborghini; a man carrying on a pole live chickens and ducks strung by their feet; a blacksmith with a cigarette dangling from his mouth as he holds a hot iron in a clamp; a rich woman who made her money through a cosmetics empire sitting by her dresser table and dripping in jewels; a young acrobat with a determined look on her face as she travels with her circus family; and even a prostitute in her underwear striking an unattractive pose.

Before I left 798 I checked out the UCCA or Ullens Center for Contemporary Art and found it had expanded with a lounge area for drinks and snacks as well as a restaurant called Super Gan Bei. I had read that the former chef of Blu Lobster, Brian McKenna was working at the restaurant, so I'll have to return and see how the food is.

In some ways it's disappointing to see 798 as commercial as it is now, but in other ways it's good to see so many people out to see art, even if some of it is mediocre...

Friday, August 28, 2009

A Precarious Position

Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou is trying to win back political points after his administration's slow response to rescue and relief in the days following Typhoon Morakot's destruction of the island.

He has approved a proposal for his Holiness the Dalai Lama to come visit Taiwan next week to comfort typhoon victims.
However, the idea actually came from the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), mayors and local officials, trying to take advantage of Ma's missteps.
"We have jointly invited the Dalai Lama to visit typhoon-hit areas and pray for the victims," Chen Chu, mayor of Kaohsiung, one of the worst hit areas in the typhoon, said Wednesday.
Last year Ma turned down a proposal by the Dalai Lama to visit the island last December, saying "the timing is not right", even though the spiritual leader has visited Taiwan twice before.
And as expected, China is outraged by this visit.
"We resolutely oppose the proposed visit of the Dalai Lama to Taiwan in whatever form and capacity," said a spokesman for the State Council Taiwan Affairs Office. "The Dalai Lama is not a purely religious figure. Under the pretext of religion, he has all along been engaged in separatist activities."
The Chinese government is spinning this as an attempt by the DPP to ruin the progressively warming relations between Taiwan and the mainland.
"When people from all sectors on the mainland are lending a hand to help Taiwan reconstruct and overcome the typhoon disaster quickly, some DPP members have taken the chance to plot the Dalai Lama's visit to Taiwan," the Taiwan Affairs Office spokesman said. "Obviously this is not for the sake of disaster relief. It's an attempt to sbotage the hard-earned positive situation in cross-Straits relations, he said.
China can criticize the visit as much as it wants, but really Ma's political life is at stake; if he loses his mandate to continue ruling Taiwan, how can China continue having better cross-Straits relations?

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Fact of the Day: Tobacco statistics

The Tobacco Atlas from the World Lung Federation and the American Cancer Society say some 100 million people were killed by tobacco in the 20th century and 1 billion more will die from it in the 21st century.
"Tobacco accounts for one out of every 10 deaths worldwide and will claim 5.5 million lives this year alone," the report, issued by cancer experts said.
If current trends continue, by 2020, about 7 million are expected to die from tobacco, and 8 million by 2030.
Tobacco use costs the global economy $500 billion a year in direct medical expenses, lost productivity and environmental harm.
The report also says of the 1 billion male smokers, 35 percent are from rich countries, 50 percent from developing countries.
In China, "nearly 60 percent of its men smoke" and the country "consumes more than 37 percent of the world's cigarettes," the report said.
Only 60 percent? One would think the number was much higher.
But the even more horrifying statistic is that 50 million Chinese children, mostly boys, will die from tobacco-related diseases.
If that number doesn't shock Chinese parents, mostly fathers into going cold turkey, who knows what else will make them quit.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Drawing More Attention

Last week I mentioned my colleagues talking about the new CCTV tower and how the burned out hotel next to it looks like a male organ.
And now the ongoing saga continues.
The numerous online comments and media criticisms of the futuristic building and the blackened one next to it have led to architect Rem Koolhaas striking back, saying both buildings do not allude to female and male genitalia at all.
On the Office for Metropolitan Architecture website, Koolhaas apparently makes the following statement (which I cannot find right now): "The glorious CCTV building stands as the shining symbol for the ever-changing world order, and that's the exact intent of our design."
The statement also denies that pictures portraying the tower as human genitalia were produced by OMA, and that instead they were pictures circulated on the Internet in 2005 and are not connected to the architectural firm.
Did he really have to issue that denial?
Some recent media headlines include, "Designer fools 1.3 billion Chinese," and "the building should be pulled down as a national disgrace."
When the construction plan for the building was published in 2003, many here were outraged by the unusual shape, thus the nickname, "da kouchar" or "big underpants", and its high construction cost using large amounts of steel to support the structure. Others were annoyed that foreign architects were chosen to design an iconic building in the Chinese capital.
Maybe that explains why a few months back Koolhaas did an interview with CNN's Talk Asia in South Korea at the opening of his "transformer" building in Seoul, than face the wrath of Chinese citizens in Beijing over his CCTV building design.
The even graver injustice was the fire that destroyed the building next to the CCTV tower that was supposed to house the Mandarin Oriental Hotel on February 9, the last day of Chinese New Year or Spring Festival. The culprit? CCTV officials themselves who set of high-grade fireworks, which enraged citizens to a degree hotter than the inferno itself, seeing all their taxpayer dollars go up in smoke.
This is why the Chinese have an even greater disdain for CCTV, even though they already make fun of its ultra-conservative newscasts with robotic anchors. Even when the building was engulfed in flames, there was no breaking news to say its own building was on fire. Not really on the ball.
Since then construction workers seem to still continue working on the building that was supposed to be ready for the Beijing Olympics last year, and then in December and then in the spring, but that was postponed after the fiery incident.
The broadcaster has said its staff will move into the new building in time for October 1, the 60th anniversary of the PRC and the 50th anniversary of CCTV.
They had better move in soon, otherwise the public will have yet another reason to complain about this complex that has already become legendary in having more criticisms than praises.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Big Party Plans

Yesterday the government announced what we already know -- China will have a massive celebration to mark the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on October 1 in Tiananmen Square.

President Hu Jintao will give a keynote address, followed by a military parade highlighting China's military achievements and a mass pageant featuring 200,000 participants and 60 floats going down Chang'an Avenue. The theme? "Motherland and I Marching Together".

In the evening of October 1 there will be a gala event at Tiananmen, where Xinhua describes there will be "colourful performances" and a fireworks display with all senior Chinese government officials present.

It all sounds like your typical festive fare, but wait -- there's more.

In the last two weeks of September, a musical called "Road to Revival" will be staged at the Great Hall of the People. With a cast of 3,200, the show will depict the past 169 years of history. That means it starts in the year 1840 when foreign powers were occupying China and the Opium War.

"We will try our best to create a festive environment at an economical cost," said a government spokesman, alluding to earlier reports that due to the global financial crisis, this year's celebrations would follow a budget. "Preparations are going on smoothly," he added.

However, many are complaining about how security measures have severly restricted people's lives.

Subways still continue to have baggage screening even though those monitoring the X-ray machines hardly even look at the screens and are usually asleep in front of the computer.

Police are stepping up security measures to be as stringent as last year during the Olympics. In that case, no one will even be allowed near Tiananmen Square.

One person on Twitter remarked, "The National Day Celebrations are being celebrated as if everyone were attempting to overthrow the government."

Who will actually be there to witness the grand event?

Sounds like security checks on that day will be so bad that most people would rather stay home and watch the events unfold on TV than try to prove they're not a terrorist.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Waiting for a Good Deal

A great shopping tip a friend of mine introduced me to is to get delicious goodies from the Kempinski Deli, next to the You Yi Shopping Mall or Lufthansa Center.

If you're willing to wait until 9pm every night, all cakes, pastries and breads are half off. You heard me right -- 50 percent off.

However it's not a little known secret. Many locals take advantage of this and some line up over half an hour before the appointed time to take advantage of the great deal.

They stand there and oggle at the selection of cakes -- the number of which depends on how many were consumed earlier that day.

Some come with their families, in which case the young kids run amok all over the deli, constantly opening and closing the freezer door that holds various takeaway sizes of Haagen-Daz ice cream, changing their mind of which slice of cake they want to eat, or rearranging the furniture. Other adults come with friends and they strategically talk about which slices they want to eat and have second and third choices ready in case they are already gone by the time it is their turn to order.

It really is about strategy which is why people want to get their early so they can get their first picks.

I'm sure they also drive the staff crazy with their numerous questions, asking what each cake flavour is and how much things cost. Sometimes customers who have waited for a long time will try to trick staff into thinking it's 9pm, but they are used to this behaviour and politely ignore them.

As soon as it's 9pm, the staff spring into position and start taking orders. Then by the time customers go to the cashier to pay for their items and come back to pick up their goods, their orders are already packaged and bagged.

The good thing is that I pretty much get whatever I want because I'm not there for the cakes, though they look delicious. I'm there for the bread.

Supermarkets here don't sell good bread -- Chinese-made bread is usually very sweet and use refined flour.

Here at the deli I can get multigrains and some interesting combinations like dark beer bread, the Kempinski house bread, a dark large round bread, olive ciabatta, and sunflower bread -- all half off.

I usually buy three loaves at a time and then freeze them if I'm not eating them right away.

Who says eating western food has to be expensive? You just have to be willing to wait.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Ending the Beijing Pilgrimage

Up until recently, people who had disputes with their local governments and didn't trust them to resolve their issues properly would have to make the pilgrimage to Beijing and hope officials in the capital would hear their case.

However, they became so numerous and vocal that allegedly the government began creating "black jails", putting petitioners in there so they wouldn't have a chance to plead their cases.

Then these "black jails", some were low-rated hotels in the outskirts in the Beijing, were getting too full and provincial officials would hire people to stop petitioners from even leaving their respective provinces.

Senior government officials later urged local authorities in every province, county and city to set aside one day to deal with disputes, but not much has been reported if this has effectively eased the situation or not.

Now the government is taking things into its own hands by sending out its own crew of legal officials to hear complaints in the provinces across the country. This is a way to ban petitioners from coming to Beijing.

Also the complaints can also be filed online with a response given within 60 days. Most of the cases involve confiscating land, not enough compensation for land, police abuse or legal abuses.

While filing online would be more systematic, most of the petitioners do not have much education, let alone a computer. They clutch bundles of papers that supposedly prove their case and that's all they have along with a strong dose of determination to fight for justice.

The increased number of petitioners is embarrassing for President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao whose mantra is a "harmonious society".  It shows the immense lack of distrust in the government and people's growing sense of legal rights.

With the upcoming 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China coming up in October, the need to show all is well in the Middle Kingdom is even greater.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Word of the Day: Dan Xiao Gui

In the past several months I've been listening to Chinese Pod on my iPod on the way to work and back home.

It's great because the lessons are dialogues that use vocabulary and sentences most people would use on a daily basis.

The conversations are then analyzed for meaning and give more insight into the way the Chinese language works.

What's also great is the slang they will throw in. This is one of them:  胆小鬼
dan (3) xiao (3) gui (3)
Literally it means  "coward ghost", but in a kind of friendly term of endearment.

So instead of saying "mon petit chou chou", you can throw in "dan xiao gui"...


Friday, August 21, 2009

Still Fuming

Today three of my colleagues and I had lunch together.
We somehow started talking about the burned-out building next to the new CCTV tower, probably because our office is really close to it.
The latest news is that the police have arrested the owner of the factory that made the fireworks that the CCTV officials set off on February 9 next to the new Mandarin Oriental hotel that was engulfed in flames.
They all commented that the investigation was not moving forward by catching the fireworks boss, as he was not the one who set off the high-quality fireworks that were the same ones used in the Olympics last year.
Chinese media have been told to stay away from the story, which is a pity as so far it's a fascinating tale of corruption, ineptness and stupidity. There must be some serious backroom political deals going on as progress of the investigation going so slowly. How can it be so difficult to figure out who gave the green light for the fireworks to be set off on CCTV property when it's completely illegal to set them off in such a densely-populated area?
Then came the same rant of how much of their taxpayer dollars went to build the giant and expensive complex that was promptly burned down by CCTV officials themselves.
It's interesting to see how people here are beginning to acknowledge that their hard-earned money is going to these grandiose architectural projects that are now a source of shame or waste, like the Bird's Nest that seems to be neglected in terms of maintenance.
I heard a person who had worked at the Olympics last summer said she couldn't bear visiting the National Stadium as she had heard garbage was everywhere and no staff were around to keep the area clean.
We talked about how although the investigation on the burned out building was finished, it was still standing there, though it is probably structurally not safe to use even if it was renovated.
One coworker pointed out to me that everyone nicknames the CCTV as da kouchar or "big pants", while the building that was supposed to house the five-star hotel is sarcastically named a male organ, as it sort of looks like an uneven "W".
But as it is burned to a crisp, the male organ has now been castrated.
So much for national pride.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou has been caught flat-footed after Typhoon Morakot hit the island 13 days ago.

So far 141 people are dead, and there are estimates that up to 500 people are missing.

There are numerous calls for Ma to resign but he has so far refused. Yesterday two senior officials, the defense minister and cabinet chief offered to resign over the government's slow response to rescue and recovery work.

The typhoon caused landslides and flooding which stranded thousands of people in mountain villages for days.

While Ma has apologized deeply several times, many Taiwanese feel he hasn't done enough -- fast enough.

He blames it on the military not being trained in disaster prevention and rescue. For the past 60 years, Taiwan has been focused on defending itself from a possible attack and invasion from the mainland, that the military was unprepared, Ma said. He pledged they would be given the necessary training in the future and more resources would be poured into disaster and rescue work.

While Taiwan has received millions of dollars in donations, there is the tricky political situation for countries keen to help Taiwan but not make it seem like a political statement to China.

And in the last few years Taiwan has been losing out in the diplomatic front. It used to do a lot of "cheque-book diplomacy" -- doling out money to countries in return for political recognition, but lately China has whipped out an even bigger cheque book with fewer conditions attached.

As a result, the US sent over aid in an unmarked helicopter from Japan in a low-key mission, as the US has recognized the One-China policy.

However, the even more delicate line Ma has to tread is aid from the mainland. So far China has given 176 million yuan ($26 million) and 25 million yuan in relief aid.

While China is keen to help out more with relief and recovery work, Taiwan is hesitant. For some the thought of People's Liberation Army soldiers on the island's soil is frightening and could mis-communicate intentions.

This puts Ma in a tricky spot, who, though spearheading warmer relations with China than ever before, must keep in mind his constituents are not that keen in being too cozy with the mainland.

While China will always be "the motherland", the Taiwanese aren't exactly eager to embrace all aid from the mainland. Even when lives are at stake.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Spreading Her Wings

At around lunchtime today I said good-bye to one of my best friends in Beijing.
She was at the airport, on her way to Denmark to start a two-year fellowship program sponsored by the European Union.
On the phone I could tell she was feeling excited, scared and sad all at once.

While it's not the first time she's been abroad, this is the first time she will be living overseas, a dream many here have, but few actually achieve.
A 25-year-old from Inner Mongolia, she is definitely a trailblazer in her hometown, having scored well on her gaokao or college entrance exams, and then going to Renmin University in Beijing.
After graduating, she has had the uncanny luck of meeting influential mentors along her young career. One of these mentors put her and I together and we instantly became good friends.

She is not the typical young Chinese who is materialistic or too naive; nor is she like most others who were taught to believe foreigners are enemies or a bad influence and stay away from people like me.

Instead she embraced many foreigners, eager to learn more about the real world or other opinions.

Although she was considered a star in the department of the state-owned enterprise she worked at, she refused to join the Party even though it was a lure to better promotions.

She said her parents joined when they were young, but soon after were disillusioned by the benefits and what the Party had done for the country; she herself didn't hold disdain for the Party per se, but was not blind to its inner workings

And many times when we would meet up for lunch or dinner, she would tell me interesting goings on in the office, how the company would be bogged down by bureaucracy, or how senior management made their sometimes bizarre decisions. There was also juicy gossip of older men taking advantage of young pretty women, asking them for shoulder massages as they checked their proteges' work.

But despite all the things she saw in the office, she knew there was a world beyond China that she had to explore.

She only made her first trip abroad last year -- to the United States no less -- and our mutual friend there observed she could have been a local, absorbing everything quickly and walking in a confident stride.

While I have encouraged other people the same age as her to move onto to other things or find ways to study abroad, she has done it all on her own.

When she was offered the fellowship position, she promptly accepted, a few months later quit her job and then began traveling to a few places in China, including Tibet. She met many people there who were so enamoured with the religious place that they stayed, starting businesses there like bed and breakfast inns.

Then she spent several weeks at home, her mother constantly cooking for her. In the beginning, she was happy to see her parents were so excited for her to get this overseas opportunity. But then towards the end of her stay there, she saw her mom was sad and she was also melancholic.

I reassured her, saying she'd been living away from home and in Beijing for the past nine years -- going to Europe was basically the same thing but further away. Her mother was sad that she wasn't in the same country, but that she knew this was a good chance for her to go abroad and learn more. I added that if I could come to China with my limited Mandarin, then she could live in Europe no problem with her excellent English.

It's natural to be anxious and excited starting something brand new, and, in a completely new environment too. And I have full confidence she won't hesitate spreading her wings and flying out of the cage and seeing the world that the rest of us have taken for granted.

That alone is an education in itself, an unforgettable experience I'm sure she will treasure for the rest of her life.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Driving for an Explanation

With progress, comes social education and legal punishment.
These days there are more cars on China's roads. For example in Beijing, an average of 1,200 new cars join the capital's streets everyday, or 261,000 vehicles were registered from January to July this year.

As there are more private cars on the roads, the chances of getting hit by a drunk driver are getting higher.
During the first six months of this year, there were 22,000 drunk driving cases in China, up 8.7 percent from a year earlier, according to authorities. In Beijing, 103 people were killed in 87 crashes related to drunk driving.
The government is now launching a new campaign to crack down on drunk driving, something that is starting to decline in the west, but still a serious issue.
The Chinese need to be educated on the dangers of drinking and driving, not just the punishment they could be handed down or that they shouldn't do it. When I was in high school every year we would get talks from policemen and representatives from Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) to talk to us about the consequences of driving drunk. Their stories were enough to deter us or make us think twice about getting behind the wheel.

This is the kind of education campaign the government should be waging, not just imposing laws on people with sentences that can range from several months to death.

People need to hear the heart-breaking stories of those innocent ones who were killed, or those who had to pick up the pieces of their lives after they murdered someone while driving drunk. They need to understand the consequences of their actions, not that being able to afford a car means they have a license to drive.

Some blame China's heavy drinking culture, which is a factor. Those who must attend business banquets to clinch deals have to sit through rounds of maotai or erguotou, distilled spirits that leave a fiery sensation down the throat. And apparently the goal is for everyone to get drunk before a dinner like that can be proclaimed successful.

This need to get pissed and forcing others to as well has to stop. It's not only unhealthy, but dangerous too. What's the point of getting drunk and then killing someone later while driving back home?

How this thinking can be changed is anyone's guess. The relatively good thing is that the younger generation isn't as interested in Chinese liquor as their parents, and prefer beer and wine instead. However, that doesn't mean they can avoid the dangers of driving drunk too.

More education needs to be done at a grassroots level, but there are no non-profit groups like MADD here; the government is leery of people rallying around a cause and would rather shut them down than give them a chance to help society.

So in the end it's up to the government to tell people the dangers of drinking and driving, otherwise how is the public supposed to know?

Monday, August 17, 2009

An Indelible Scene

This morning as I waited at the bus stop for the 635 bus to go to work at around 9:15, I saw a strange disturbing scene.
A middle-aged woman with slightly disheveled hair in a loose ponytail wearing a two-piece pink top and elastic pants tried to climb over a white railing that divides the traffic directions on Dongzhimen Wai Dajie.
A police car was nearby along with an obese policeman on a motorcycle watching.
They did little to stop her as she climbed over the railing from the traffic going westbound, to the eastbound lanes into oncoming traffic.
I was sure she would get hit as she literally tried to dodge incoming cars.
She tried to catch a taxi in the middle of the street but none would stop for her as it would have been illegal and policemen were standing right there.
What was this woman doing? Was she insane? Did she want to get killed? And why weren't the police catching her for jumping the railing which was dangerous?
Then she crossed the lanes of traffic back towards the railing and ran eastwards as one of the policemen made a half-hearted attempt to chase her on foot; the motorcycle policeman just sat there when he could have stopped her right away.
Another policeman on the other side of the railing also came to the other cop's aid when they finally caught her as she tried to get over the divider again to the westbound traffic.
The first policeman chasing her jumped over the rail and the two of them grabbed each of her arms and had to drag her forcefully back to the police car. She resisted as much as she could, placing her feet in front and sliding them, moving her arms so they had to hold her tighter. The woman didn't scream, but was trying to struggle free.
The police car was now backing up so they could put her in the car faster, but she still tried to resist and they had a hard time putting her in, her legs kicking horizontally as she lay in the backseat, and arms flailing.
It was at this moment that I realized that perhaps she had tried to escape from the police car and they had to recapture her again. What had she done? Where were they taking her?
Finally they had her in the car, two policemen sitting by each passenger car door and her in the middle.
A bus obstructed my view and when it finally left the police car was long gone along with the motorcycle.
What led to this woman trying to escape from the police? What was her story?

It was one of those moments where you wondered what had happened earlier to result in her creating a scene at the tail end of rush hour.

We may never know.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Power of the Fairer Sex

I recently started taking pilates classes at my gym which offers it every Sunday at 5pm. For 50 minutes we do a variety of exercises, our arm, leg and ab muscles trembling from working hard. Our teacher is quite accomplished -- he can instruct us and do the exercises at the same time.

Pilates is different from yoga, in that it works on core muscles as well as balance. Poses are held longer or doing challenging moves that require balance and stamina. It's not uncommon for us to break into a sweat in the first 10 minutes.

Most of the attendees are women, most in their 20s and 30s.

However, today a rotund Chinese man in his late 40s, early 50s decided to give the pilates class a try. As we were waiting for the Latin dance class to end, he seemed obnoxious, talked loudly and drank from his water bottle, while the rest of us quietly and patiently waited for the dance teacher to finish.

He seemed like the stereotypical Chinese man who thinks he is superior to others just by virtue of who he is. There are many of these men in China who hardly consider women as their equals in any way. Unfortunately most of these men are in power positions, making it almost impossible for women to rise to the top.

Anyway, last week our pilates teacher saw that a handful of people were new so he worked more on basics. Each week is different so I haven't had a chance to see if I'm improving at a particular move.

And today the instructor decided to take a more difficult tack and gave us more challenging poses to do.

We started off with legs apart and knees bent in a squat, our arms straight, reaching for the sky. We had to hold the pose for more than a minute, but when I looked over to see how one of our newest fellow pupils was doing, he didn't seem to be doing too well, only slightly bending his knees and not holding up too well.

Later on we moved to lying on our stomachs on our mats and then grabbing our ankles and raised ourselves up. Granted not everyone could do this well, but the Chinese man could not do it, thanks to his big round stomach. He couldn't even grab his ankles and just lay on his stomach, exhausted.

Not soon afterwards -- less than half way through the class -- I saw him get up and leave, not even putting the yoga mat back on the pile -- not surprising that men leave things behind for women to pick up.

But it was come uppance for the women in the room who were sticking it out to the end and obviously showing greater core strength than their male counterpart.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Party Mode

Even before the first anniversary of the Beijing Olympics, Chinese television was already out in force promoting the upcoming 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China, or "new China" as they like to call it.

On television screens in buses and subways, China Central Television (CCTV) features a female singer decked out in a flowing white ballgown, hair swept up and dolled up with dangling sparkling earrings, red lipstick and long black lashes she bats a lot.

And in between her warbling on about the country and its achievements, there are images of people trying to recreate the propaganda socialist images of the 1950s with the ruddy cheeks, red scarves around their necks and standing at attention towards the flaming red sun.

The best part in the more than five-minute segment is the symbol of the Chinese Communist Party, the hammer and sickle that is cast in red hot iron and then it flies through the sky with everyone looking above and pointing at it or smiling broadly.

There are also pictures of Chinese soldiers rescuing people in Sichuan, the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, and the recent space mission where astronaut Zhai Zhigang did China's first space walk, waving a small Chinese flag to the nation.

All these images are supposed to make everyone proud of their country and its 60 years' of development.

However, when I was watching this "show" last night and previous times, it seems no one is really paying attention to it.

Unlike the Olympics when the Chinese were swelling with pride of hosting the international sporting event for the first time, now people seem indifferent. They are seeing more and more cases of corrupt officials being caught, the economy not picking up even though the government keeps releasing statistics that seem too good to be true, and there aren't enough jobs to keep people busy.

So while the government is trying hard to play up its 60th birthday, the people seem to be wondering, what's in it for me?

Friday, August 14, 2009

Hitting the Town with Panda

A group of six young entrepreneurs in Beijing are hoping their panda dolls will become an international brand in the future.
It all started three years ago in Paris when fashion design student Vivian Liu drew a picture of a bear for Lucas Gao while they were studying in Paris. Gao, a graphic design artist, took the design and made it into a stuffed bear and hid some love notes in the ursine's tummy for Liu.
It wasn't until later that she discovered them and the two were in love. When they came back to Beijing, they found two other friends who had also studied overseas, and two who had not and transformed the bear into a panda.
Each founder has his or her expertise, in areas like fashion, marketing, distribution and sales. When they were studying, they were determined not to work for others and used their studies and part-time work experience to apply it to their business.
The company, Panda Town, sells female and male pandas, the girls with large anime-like eyes and curly lashes, the boys with crosses in their black patches. The dolls are about a foot and a half tall for 256RMB ($37.45). But that's not all. There are a variety of clothes for them to wear, from trendy skirts and pants, to sneakers, flats and even qipao and wedding attire. For those nostalgic about the Cultural Revolution, there are Red Guard uniforms for them to wear complete with the green hats topped with red stars.
Set up in less than two years, Panda Town's sales are not bad, keeping their two stores afloat, but not yet covering other expenses. Nevertheless, they are an ambitious lot who want to do projects in the future with international fashion brands like Louis Vuitton in creating fashion accessories and clothes for the pandas.
If these pandas do take off, it's quite possible that top fashion brands will be knocking on their doors to dress these adorable bears.

It goes to show China isn't just a land of fakes, but starting to burgeon with home-grown talent.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Crash Course in Survival Skills

An interesting article in a Chinese paper today talks about how many of the 90s generation who are going to college and university this fall have no clue how to look after themselves.
Up until now parents were so concerned about their only children getting into good post-secondary institutions that knowing how to wash clothes or cook took a back seat.
Student Li Jiarui was constantly told by her parents, "Dont spend a minute doing housework. High marks in the entrance exams is our best return from you, so you study, and we'll clean and cook."
She duly returned the favour, getting a high score of 480 on her gaokao or entrance exam. But now her parents have another anxiety.
"My daughter has never done any housework at home before," says Li's mother. "I am worried about whether she can clean up her room or wash her clothes properly when she gets to Beijing."
So in the last few weeks before classes start, many parents are giving their children crash courses on housework.
Zhang, the father of an undergraduate also recounted that as soon as his son received the letter that he was accepted into university, his wife became so worried about his survival skills that she began training their little emperor on how to do household chores.
"We taught him how to wash clothes, cook meals, sew and mend clothes, shop and deposit or withdraw cash at the bank," he said.
A university student doesn't know how to withdraw or deposit money at the bank? Shocking.
But the parents defend themselves, saying he woke up at 6am to go to school and didn't finish his homework until 11pm. On the weekends he took extra math and English classes to boost his marks.
"On the weekends we hated waking him from his sleep for the extra classes, so making him do housework was the farthest thing from our minds," he said. "To live a happy life in the future, you must have a good job, and for that you need a good university background, not good cleaning skills." Zhang said.
How ironic for parents pushing their children to get a university education, and yet not teaching them the basic skills of looking after themselves.
Now there are calls for the education system to offer home economics courses to secondary and university students.
Currently some universities do have such courses, but few students take advantage of learning these survival skills.
Education expert Zheng Ruoling of Xiamen University says parents should teach their children the importance of housework and that they should make time for these chores.
"Good exam marks are only a part of a comprehensive quality of a person. Children should learn about the hardships of life through their parents and should understand rooms do not clean themselves and so on," she said.
"Parents who do make their children help out with the daily chores help them improve their independence and sense of responsibility."

Imagine millions of young men and women in their late teens learning how to mop the floor and fold their clothes right now...

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A Taste of Morocco in Beijing

On Friday night my friend and I tried out a Moroccan restaurant called Moro in a non-descript area west of Liangmaqiao station. Walking a few hundred metres west takes you to a small narrow restaurant that is a bit cramped.

For the first hour or so we were the only diners in the dining establishment which made us wonder if the place would get busier later on.

However, the food proved that it's a small gem in the Beijing food scene with hearty dishes. Chef Youssef Moro is Moroccan and apparently buys most of his ingredients everyday at the nearby Sanyuanli market that I've also been to a few times. It definitely has fresh meats, seafood, vegetables and fruits.

He previously cooked for Starwood Hotels and has had enough of the corporate scene and last summer opened his own restaurant.

We started with the harira soup, a slightly spicy tomato and lentil soup with braised lamb. Definitely a perfect winter starter and was full of flavour.

Next came the tapas platter, which had a number of small ceramic bowls filled with braised eggplant, peppers, fried calimari, mushrooms, grilled celaric and marinated kalamata olives. These were all eaten with pita bread. The button mushrooms were served in a plate of oil which was disconcerting, but they were cooked with lemon and garlic for a tangy flavour. The grilled asparagus with cheese was delicious.

The main event, the lamb tagine was divine. It was braised for a long time with prunes and garnished with almond slices. The meat fell off the bone and the sauce that included cinnamon had to be mopped up with our order of cous cous cooked with herbs.

Afterwards we had just about enough room for dessert, but the dessert of the day wasn't available; only ice cream. We decided to give it a pass as we were quite full.

In the next few weeks the restaurant will move closer to Sanlitun which will not only give it more exposure, but also hopefully more room for customers to sit back, relax and savour each bite.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A Peek Inside the Hermit Kingdom

When former US President Bill Clinton made his secret trip to Pyongyang over a week ago, former European Union Member of Parliament Glyn Ford was also there.

He explained he was on his way to a museum when the roads were blocked off and a fleet of cars whizzed past.

"Who is that?" he asked his minders.

"A senior US official," was the reply.

An hour later he found out it was Clinton and the next day the state-run newspapers had headlines that exclaimed that a senior US official was there to meet with Kim Jong-il. The part about him securing the release of the two American journalists was considered a footnote. It was more important that Clinton met with Kim for three and a half hours and gave the apology North Korea so fondly likes to get from the US as Ford puts it.

Ford was an EU MP in the 1980s and tried very hard to establish diplomatic relations with North Korea. However even after tabling a resolution about it, nothing was achieved in the end. Nevertheless, that didn't stop Ford from traveling almost two dozen times to the Hermit Kingdom from 1997 and on this recent trip he brought Russian photographer Irina Kalashnikov to take pictures.

Her images were startling for most of us who have never been there. There were the usual nationalistic photos, with everyone wearing a pin of Kim Il-sung, the "Dear Leader" on their left chest, right by their hearts. But there were also pictures of ordinary people drinking liquor on trains, people frolicking on the beach, women wearing quasi-fashionable dresses and heels, and babies in maternity wards.

Ford remarked that 12 years ago wealth distribution was very egalitarian, but now especially in Pyongyang, there are people who can spend several years' worth of salary on a meal. You can get hamburgers and pizzas, along with stiletto heels, $60,000 gold watches and $450 Montblanc pens. He stressed that the capital is completely different from the rest of the country in terms of material goods and services.

In the past year, about 48,000 people now have mobile phones that use an Egyptian carrier. The number is expected to more than double to 100,000 in the next year. Ford also imagines the small percentage who have mobile phones probably have Internet access as well.

While people can afford to buy things (mostly from China), they are having to work hard for it.

Currently the government is pushing for people especially in heavy industries to work 18-hour days. The thought is that if they produce more coal there will be more electricity and steel.

However, people are already getting exhausted from this 100-day exercise and are using every moment they can to catch up on sleep.

When it comes to military power, Ford doesn't think North Korea has much capability, let alone nuclear. He says the debate there is that North Korea wants to be a strong and prosperous country, but there are two schools of thought -- one where resources should be funneled to the military and then the country will reach its goal; the other is to do more to simulate the economy and then use the profits to invest in a better military. The latter sounds familiar...

As for the Six-Party Talks, North Korea thinks they're over -- it is time for bilateral talks. Ford says nothing will go ahead until the US comes to the table.

He didn't have much information on succession, other than that there are family tensions between the older generation of Kim's brother-in-law and half-brother versus the younger generation of Kim's youngest son. If the regime does collapse, Ford predicts it would be a "human catastrophe" and a shotgun wedding with the South would not be good either.

We will all be watching and waiting to see what happens in the Hermit Kingdom and hope it is for the best, not the worst.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Fighting for the Advocate

China likes to say that it has rule of law.

But the rule is according to the Chinese government.

Courts are hardly independent of the state -- with many verdicts politically driven rather than through interpretations of the law or evidence presented.

And that is why there are a few lawyers who are dedicated to upholding the rule of law by challenging it. They take on cases like the families whose children died or were severely sickened by the melamine milk scandal, or the families who lost their children in the Sichuan earthquake last May. They even try to represent those held in "black jails", people who come from all over the country to Beijing who try to petition the central government to hear their grievances, but are prevented from going any further by being held illegally in hotels in the outskirts of the city.

But the Chinese government feels these lawyers are challenging its mandate to rule the country, since it doesn't want to seem like it's in the wrong by the laws it created.

So it has retaliated by harassing these lawyers' defense witnesses or courts refuse to hear cases. And most recently it has refused to renew licenses for some lawyers, preventing them from practicing law.

And now it recently shut down a legal aid centre called the Open Constitution Initiative called Gongmeng supposedly on tax evasion charges. The centre distributes a newsletter to its constituents and the government claimed that Gongmeng didn't have a proper publishing license to print these newsletters. However, technically the centre is not putting out mass publications nor is it for profit, even though the government claims the non-profit group is not properly registered. Despite not playing by the rules, the government still closed down the legal clinic and has detained Xu Zhiyong, one of its best-known lawyers.

The 36-year-old is known for his determination to fight for the rights of the common man, having represented migrant workers, deathrow inmates, and the parents involved in the milk scandal.

Many believe the charge of tax evasion is veiling his true offense -- angering the Chinese government by challenging it through the rule of law.

However, many are shocked by his detainment as Xu is not a radical lawyer who doesn't take on politically sensitive cases.

In the New York Times story about Xu, he is from a Christian family in Henan Province and likes to note his birth in a county called Mingquan which means "civil rights".

And apparently this had a profound influence on his desire to help society.

"I strive to be a worthy Chinese citizen, a member of the group of people who promote the progress of the nation," he said. "I want to make people believe in ideals and justice and help them see the hope of change."

What is it about his goals that the Chinese government doesn't like?

Or is he striving to do what the government failed to do? Stand up for the common man and help them fight for the justice they deserve?

Sunday, August 9, 2009

It's All About the Shoes

Yesterday I checked out Qianmen Street, just south of Tiananmen Square. The last time I was there was in October, when only a handful of shops and restaurants were open, the rest of the retail space dark and empty.

However, this time many more stores were open including H&M, Zara and New Balance.

Renovations were still going on, making grating noises and creating dust, but that didn't deter a number of Chinese visitors from taking lots of pictures and window shopping. It was bizarre seeing an older man with a poor man's paper hat walk in and out of Zara...

Anyway -- I checked out the New Balance store, as I had read in Time Out magazine that it had just opened. But it turns out last week was its grand opening and yesterday was actually its first day of operations.

I've never had New Balance shoes before and decided to try them out. The staff quickly figured out I overpronate by asking me to stand on my left leg slightly bent, and putting the top of my right foot behind my left knee. I was immediately trying to balance outwards which showed overpronation.

Then they measured my feet's length and width before suggesting specific shoes for me.

I settled on a pair that was quite expensive at 990RMB ($145), but since I had a recent foot injury, I didn't want to take chances by getting the wrong pair of shoes.

The staff were so excited to make their first sale, signing me up for email newsletters and filled out a small card that gave all my foot details so I didn't have to remember them all the next time I buy a pair of runners.

And since I was spending a princely sum on these shoes, they also threw in a free T-shirt worth 180RMB that says "New Balance Beijing 2009", that the staff say is only available in the Qianmen store.

The ironic thing about New Balance is that the shoes are made in the United States, unlike Nike and adidas which are made in China and southeast asian countries. That explains why New Balance shoes are more expensive.

I'll see how things go with these new shoes and hope the extra investment will keep me running for a while.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

One Year On

Time has flown by and today is the first anniversary of the Beijing Olympics.

All those years of preparation and hype paid off to result in euphoria and national pride.

But a lot has happened since, then, with the global financial crisis, and then the recent riots in Xinjiang that have turned people's attention away from the warm feelings of holding a successful Games.

To mark the anniversary the government has declared today National Fitness Day, but there's no brief on what we should be doing to celebrate other than some kind of exercise...

It's kind of lame given that many of the well-known venues aren't being fully used, especially by the public.

For example, the Bird's Nest is pretty much empty except for streams of tourists who come to ooh and ahhh over the stadium. It's pretty hard to fill the giant space that seats 91,000. But at the same time it costs $9 million to maintain so someone has to pay for the bills.

The only events that have been held there is a Jackie Chan concert and the Super Italian Cup being held today for football fans.

And next door, the Water Cube was only opened in the last month, and even then you have to prove to them you're a serious lane swimmer. Apparently you can't even swim in the pool where Michael Phelps won eight gold, but in the practice pools -- the main one is being used for some Las Vegas-like water show...

The Wukesong basketball stadium has also been under utilized, only holding a pre-season NBA game and an Avril Lavigne concert a few months ago. And the Laoshan Velodrome that prompted one coach to call it the "cathedral of cycling"? It's now being used by fencers to train, not cyclists. And there is talk it may be turned into a television studio!

While most of the updated university gymnasiums are being used, it's these new venues that need to be opened up to the public and used. After all, isn't that supposed to be the legacy of the Games? To encourage people to take up sport?

Why spend so much money and then leave the venues to practically rot?

Or was this whole thing all for show and not really for the people afterwards?

Friday, August 7, 2009

Exercising Regulations

A friend of mine is moving to an area near Sanlitun and he was looking for new gyms to join. There are two, next to each other, one called Nirvana, the other is in the Pacific Century apartments.
He first went to Nirvana and asked to be shown around.
However, before they even began the tour, a young woman brought out a wand and explained that she had to scan him to make sure he didn't have swine flu, or the A(H1N1) virus.
He was not amused and tried to explain he was healthy, that he lived in Beijing and that they had no right to intrude on his privacy.
She tried many times to explain that this was the rule -- they had to do this health check before they proceeded further.
But what were they going to do? If they did find he had a fever were they going to call the police and send him to a quarantine hospital?
She even offered to give him the wand to do the scan himself, as if that solved the problem.
Realizing this was going nowhere, he stormed out, without having a look at the gym facilities at all.
Then he went in search of the other gym, which he eventually found and as he describes it to me, it is an exercise nut's paradise.
The gym equipment is all new, and members get fresh towels and water. The indoor pool is about 17m long and at the time it had two people swimming in it.
My friend asked if it got busy in the pool and the woman who showed him around replied that it was busy now.
There is even a hot yoga instructor who is bilingual and got her teaching certificate from the Bikram's Yoga College of India in the US and was crowned the Women's World Yoga Champion in 2005. However, a look on her website reveals she is quite the prima donna. 
Nevertheless, it looks like not many people use the gym thanks to the high membership fee (6,500RMB).
After the tour my friend was completely sold and wanted to sign up.
But then the woman whipped out the same scanner as the previous gym to check to see if he had A(H1N1).
He questioned her on having to do it, but she sheepishly agreed he didn't need to and put it away.
Why does China still have these stringent regulations on swine flu when the rest of the world has pretty much given up on containing the virus which is not as virulent as people had feared it would be?
This is what China is good at -- enforcing silly rules that create more frustration than productivity.
How it became an economic miracle is beyond me. 

Thursday, August 6, 2009

A Petulant Generation

Most of my colleagues are from the post 80s generation or what the Chinese call ba ling hou. These mostly only children are an interesting bunch to deal with.

They have come to depend more on friends as they don't have siblings, but at the same time they are not used to sharing things or cooperating with others.

Some are used to having things their way, others, worried about not being included can be very accommodating.

And it's the former who are the hardest to deal with.

There's one young woman in her early 20s in my department who seems to have slipped under the radar in terms of getting a job at the company. Apparently she aced the written "entrance" exam, but in fact her skills on the job day-to-day hardly reflect her supposed superior language skills.

She also likes to be as low-key as possible, slipping into and out of work as quietly as possible and only completing the absolute minimum to make it look like she is doing her work.

She avoids dealing with me as much as possible, resorting to MSN messenger if she has to chat with me online and even then it's like pulling teeth.

In person she avoids answering my questions directly, instead throwing out a number of other statements she hopes will answer my queries but in fact exacerbates the situation.

When I try to advise her on how she can tackle a problem, she has already decided how she will do it and not even consider advice from an experienced person.

This all makes it harder for quality control on my part, but now I realize it's practically a lost cause.

I have appealed to superiors about her poor work performance; one has agreed with me, but others don't seem to want to deal with this HR matter.

Chinese companies these days seem less keen on firing people with the new labour laws that came out in January 2008. But really, sometimes people don't match the jobs they're in and letting them go can sometimes be a blessing in disguise for them. However, managers like to procrastinate, or avoid the situation as they don't have to deal with that person on a daily basis.

When I talked to another colleague in another department about her, he also moaned about having a similar person in his work group.

What irks us the most is their petulant attitude -- like a child insistent on having his or her way despite having to conform to company standards.

So imagine -- millions of 20-somethings like the one I described -- and they will become the next generation leading China.

Scary thought, isn't it?

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Not Addressing the Issue

Internet addiction is fast becoming a problem in China where there are 338 million people who surf the net, according to the China Internet Network Information Center last month.
Most of those addicted are boys and young men who spend hours on the Internet, mostly playing online games, watching movies and chatting with friends.
And as the majority of them are only children, the parents pretty much let them do whatever they want, or are too busy working to be able to buy whatever their son desires.
In the last year or so, camps trying to break the Internet addiction have sprung up, but one case earlier this week ended in tragedy.
A teenager who was sent by his parents to a boot camp to kick his Internet addiction in Guanxi Zhuang Autonomous Region died after he was allegedly beaten by one of the camp supervisors. 
Apparently the 16-year-old Deng Senshan was put into solitary confinement within hours of his arrival and was then beaten to death by his trainers after they scolded him for running too slowly.
"My son was very healthy and was not a criminal," says Deng Fei, the boy's father. "He just had an Internet addiction when I left him at the camp. The police informed us that our child had died on Monday morning. We can't believe our only son was beaten to death."
The teachers realized the boy had serious injuries and sent him to hospital three hours later where he died 10 minutes after arriving at the hospital.
It was the police who notified the boy's father of his son's death, who then rushed to the town. He also tried to call the camp officials who denied the beatings.
The camp's principal, surnamed Xia, denied Deng was beaten, and told the father that his son was sent to hospital because of a serious fever.
However, when the father went to the funeral parlour to identify his son's body, "blood was all over his face" and "wounds on his wrists were bruises from where he had been retrained by handcuffs."
"The teachers promised me they would not use any physical punishment on my son when I dropped him off," the father said. He had paid 7,000 RMB ($1,024) for four weeks of camp.
It is frightening for parents to have their child die a miserable death when all they wanted to do was to help him break a nasty habit. 
The story has brought attention the need to regulate these camps and to look at the qualifications of the staff. What exactly do these Internet addiction camps do? While encouraging kids to be more physically active instead of sitting in front of a computer all day is a good idea, allegedly beating them for not running faster is not exactly a good motivator.
There are also calls to look into the psychological treatment of young web users, who sometimes turn to the Internet because of loneliness. These kids -- the next generation -- need to be taught that real relationships and face-to-face interaction are most important, and that the Internet is a tool, not a companion.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Skewed Results

In China, prostitutes are more trustworthy than politicians.

This is according to results of an online survey published by Insight China magazine.

The survey found 7.9 percent of respondents thought hookers were trustworthy, behind farmers and religious workers. Soldiers came fourth.

"A list like this is at the same time surprising and embarrassing," said an editorial in an English state-run newspaper. "The sex workers' unexpected prominence on this list of honour... is indeed unusual."

The poll results, which surveyed 3,376 people in June and July, showed politicians were further down on the list, near scientists and teachers.

"At least [the scientists and officials] have not slid into the least credible category which consists of real estate developers, secretaries, agents, entertainers and directors," the editorial added.

The magazine listed four reasons why government credibility was low -- protectionism, unstable policies, dumb decisions and lack of transparency.

What's interesting is that the newspaper contends it's the fault of local governments who, despite being at the grassroots level, are not listening to people's concerns and needs.

However, the magazine's observations also apply to the central government. There have been many instances where Beijing has been opaque (Rio Tinto, Xinjiang riots), made silly decisions (Green Dam), unstable policies (constantly tweaking the markets), and protectionism (creating uneven playing grounds for foreign companies).

What's also shocking is the low regard for scientists, whom we depend on for accurate statistics, innovative research and expert opinion. The other is for teachers, as millions of parents expect teachers to arm their children with knowledge that they need.

So much for the Confucian high regard for teachers.

If prostitutes are viewed so highly on the list, one wonders if most of those surveyed were men...

Monday, August 3, 2009

Picture of the Day: Attempting to Build Dreams

At lunchtime my colleagues took me to a giant complex area near our office called Wanda which is near Guomao, in the south east side of the city.

It's actually a short walking distance for us to where Wanda has clusters of office buildings and naturally the ground and second floors of these places have a number of restaurants.

There's a fast food kungfu place inspired by Bruce Lee that I had always wondered about, but my coworkers told me to avoid it like the plague as the food isn't good and the portions small.

They also pointed out a Hong Kong-style cafe and even another branch of Herbal Cafe where I can get my Cantonese soup fix.

We went to have Vietnamese pho noodles at Pho 88. They had wondered why the name is so strange, so I explained that pho is actually Vietnamese for rice noodles.

The place wasn't too busy and we manged to get an empty table at the height of lunch hour. I got a giant bowl of beef with beef tendon for 18 RMB, including a small plate of bean sprouts, chilli peppers, a bit stingy on the basil leaves and coriander, and a wedge of lime.

Nevertheless it was a good change for me as I usually hit the company canteen for jiaozi or dumplings, or to a Yunnan guo qiao mi xian or "cross the bridge" rice noodle place.

After we had our fill of lunch, we walked back and I noticed a small old brick house among all the high-rise buildings.

And surrounding the dilapilated home were giant billboards advertising "Chateau de Luze", with pictures of modern loft-style apartments.

Was this brick house the last "nail house" holding out for more compensation? Or was it an attempt to hide the ugly business of gentrification?

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Innovative Footwear

Yesterday my friend and I were meeting some people for dinner in a courtyard restaurant just off of Goulou Dajie.

However, as dinnertime approached, the sky got darker and it began to rain -- hard.

My friend was determined to make sure his shoes with a mesh top wouldn't get soaked, so he wrapped them up in plastic shopping bags.

I chastised him for wearing bags on his feet, and opted not to make that fashion faux pas by wearing my tennis shoes.

But when we got outside, it was absolutely pouring, as lightning and thunder flashed and loudly crackled in the sky.

Luckily the trolley bus we wanted to catch was in a covered area. However, the seats on the bus were wet as the windows weren't closed when it started raining...

So far my shoes were holding up well... until we got off at our stop and the small street where the restaurant was had turned into a river. I had no choice but to step into the rushing water and my runners were soaked.

Less than an hour after we arrived at the restaurant, the rain stopped and after we finished eating, the river outside the restaurant had disappeared along with most of the puddles.

While I had to deal with wet feet in my soaked runners, my friend was very pleased to have his shoes completely dry.

Sometimes it pays to more practical than stylish, especially with thunderstorms in Beijing...

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Living it up in Beijing

You know you're living the expat life in China when your four-year-old kid gets a reflexology massage with you.

The other day I went to get an accupressure massage from Bodhi, one of the good massage places in town. And the masseuse told me that many foreigners who live here bring their children to have massages with them.

She added the youngest child she's given a reflexology or foot massage to was a four-year-old.

"The child didn't think it hurt?" I asked incredulously.

"Oh well I only massage them lightly," she replied.

"And the child sits there for the whole time (80 minutes)?"

"Yes -- the kid enjoyed it as much as the parents."

Probably seeing that his parents enjoyed it, he made sure he liked the experience too; or his parents didn't know what to do with him while they had a massage so they brought him along.

The only thing was that the masseurs had to give the child a smaller chair to sit in, otherwise his feet didn't reach the edge of the big lounge one.

Talk about a pampered lifestyle. What's going to happen after the family leaves China and goes back home and the kid wonders why they don't have massages anymore?