Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Anxious Countdown

This is a picture of the CCTV tower this morning just before 10am... if you can see it through the fog.
 
Beijing meteorologists are probably on edge hoping the skies will clear up in time for the National Day parade in less than 24 hours. Yesterday was also overcast with a sprinkle of rain.
 
This was a sharp contrast to Monday, which had blue skies and warm temperatures.
 
Meanwhile on the ground, this morning on the way to work I must have passed by over 10 policemen and women on one block, as I walked from my bus stop to go around the corner to take another bus. Why so many police were necessary to hover at one street corner seemed a tad overboard.
 
People whose offices are near Chang'an Avenue don't have to work these few days leading up to the big day tomorrow, and now I'm beginning to wonder if I'll be able to get home relatively smoothly after work today. Tomorrow the buses I usually take will be shut down so I will need to take a subway to work instead.

Update at 2pm:
 
Today at lunchtime only a few people were in the CBD or Central Business District... if I had known I would have gone to have lunch earlier instead of going later, thinking I was avoiding the crowd. None of the restaurants seem to be open tomorrow either which may be a problem for my colleagues and I who will have to eat somehow.

One of my coworkers called Shin Kong Place, a giant mall relatively near us and it will be shut down tomorrow too.

That means brown bagging it tomorrow... and heading to the grocery store to get food. My colleagues cannot remember any previous National Day being such a big deal before, with so many traffic restrictions and shopping malls closing.

Update at 10pm:

I got off work at 7:15pm and got to the bus stop just as the bus was leaving. However, the bus driver completely ignored me and drove off, even though I was banging my hand on the side of the bus and shouting to the bus attendant.

However, the next bus left the terminus at 7:35pm and amazingly I got to the grocery store just before 8pm. Amazing. Traffic was quite light and we hit the green lights.

I stock up on canned food like a refugee and headed home.

When I got to my apartment complex, the doorman told me that I had to have my own door pass to get in. "Oh, so you won't be here?" I asked. He explained he and his cohorts would be opening doors, but we had to show our passes to prove we lived/worked here.

These extra security measures are getting to be too much. But obviously someone from above is putting pressure on everyone to make sure there are no problems and only what happens in Tiananmen Square is the focus of the entire country... and the world.

Today sort of feels like Christmas Eve, everyone rushing home or getting last minute food items because tomorrow everything will be closed.

But in the case of China's National Day this year, everything's shut down and there's no presents to open or relatives to hang out with; instead everyone will be stuck at home watching TV and wishing this was over already.
 
What kind of celebration is that?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

His Legacy Continues

Yesterday marked the 2,560th birthday of Confucius which was celebrated in many parts of the country, including Qufu in Shandong Province, where the great sage was born.
 
It is believed that Confucius was born September 28, 551 BC and died in 479 BC.
 
More than 10,000 people participated in the event, dressing up in traditional Chinese robes, and performing dances and music, and reciting poems.
 
His philosophy was about social rituals and morality, justice and sincerity. He believed a society would not have conflicts if every person knew their place within it, and adhered to the traditions and culture he had prescribed. For example, in the family, children must have filial piety and look after their parents in their old age. He also had the saying which is similar to what Jesus preached -- "Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself".
 
Confucius lived during the Spring and Autumn Period, where the country was made up of several states, and he tried to influence the leaders of such states as Lu, Wei, Song, Chen and Cai. But his ideas about social order and the morality of rulers fell on deaf ears. That led to Confucius setting up his own school of thought and teaching his disciples to carry on his ideas. They included Mencius and Xun Zi.
 
Fast forward into the 20th century and when the Chinese Communists were in power, Chairman Mao denounced Confucius on many occasions. In a passage written in 1969, Mao boasted he had outdone by "more than a hundredfold" the first emperor Qin Shihuang, who buried alive 460 Confucian scholars and burned their books. "I think he [Qin Shihuang] killed too few Confucian scholars," Mao wrote. "All those Confucian scholars were indeed counter-revolutionaries."
 
During the Cultural Revolution, traditional things were destroyed or criticized, Confucianism blamed for the country's backwardness. And as a result two generations of people had to forget or unlearn what they had known about Confucianism, particularly at home. Children were forced to denounce their parents, and instead obey the Party first.
 
But decades later the philosophy is back in fashion, with even the central government condoning it. The government has set up "language schools" called Confucius Institutes all over the world. While there are concerns surrounding the actual aim of these schools as just for promoting language learning and culture, the fact that they are called Confucius Institutes shows the government is eager to promote his name.
 
Some Confucian academics here are making good money going on TV to explain Confucian thought to wider audiences and how his philosophy applies to today's world. Some entrepreneurs have set up private Confucius schools for young children, getting them to recite the Analects of Confucius, even though his teachings are still not officially part of the education system.
 
Most importantly, Confucius' ideas on society help back up President Hu Jintao's ongoing proposal of a "harmonious society". He echoed this repeatedly in China, most recently in his landmark address to the United Nations last week.
 
So Confucius continues to live on in China and with the blessing of the Communist government, the wise sage will continue to be "worshipped". As his ideas are still practiced today in many Asian societies, he will never be completely forgotten, which would probably please him greatly.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Battling for More

Many street vendors from those selling snacks to jewelry and cheap toys are fast disappearing from the streets as the city prepares for the run-up to the National Day celebrations.

However, not all of them are going away willingly.

A friend of mine who lives in the south side of Beijing recounted a scuffle he saw earlier today.
 
The bao'an or street security, scrawny young men who wear a kind of uniform but don't have much authority, were trying to move street vendors and other unsightly entrepreneurial spots in the area.
 
But the ones my friend saw didn't comply right away. A slugging match erupted, and at one point my friend who witnessed this from his apartment complex, thought the young security guys would be beaten to death.
 
"You're doing this to us and we are all Chinese!" one rebellious vendor shouted.
 
Then the police came, waded into the scuffle and eventually broke up the scene.
 
Everyone's just trying to do their jobs, but when times are tough with the economic downturn, every extra yuan counts, especially when you're not making much.
 
The central government is doing all it can present to the world that for 60 years the Communists aren't just a guerrilla group, but an organized empire that has amassed trillions of US dollars, lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, built shiny modern skyscrapers and has hosted the Olympics.
 
At the same time, though, this system is barely holding things together, with the systemic corruption, lack of accountability and transparency. It completely quashes any kind of dissent and only those who have guanxi or relationships will do well in the system -- which is why those people are doing anything to keep the system going.
 
How much longer can it last?
 
People have been speculating for years when it will fall apart. But it is becoming even more evident that if the government doesn't make any drastic overhauls to the system, it will/should collapse.

If that's not enough of an argument, then what about this: when more officials and the rich use every opportunity to travel abroad, send their children to study overseas, and buy up houses there with suitcases filled with cash, perhaps they know something that we don't?
 
 

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Picture of the Day: Manufactured Elegance

Everyday on my way to work by foot, I pass by this curious development. It's a new building complex which is behind a hotel called Radegast. When the hotel opened, I wondered if it would get any business with such a strange name. But a few weeks after it opened, a stream of cars and taxis drive up to the entrance depositing guests or picking them up.

However, I did wander in the hotel one day after work and hardly saw anyone in the lobby and the fifth floor where the business centre and banquet rooms are...

One has to wonder which rooms are really being used there.

But I digress. Behind the hotel a posh Chinese seafood restaurant is being built. The sign is within a giant marble-like frame with what looks like carved bamboo leaves in it. And next to it workers are building a grand entrance.

A few weeks ago it was strange to see such a modern building have a classic European facade complete with Corinthian columns superimposed on it. I thought they would try to make it look like natural stone, but instead they painted it white and then some kind of peachy shade.

And now they are building a gazebo-like dome jutting out of the arch.

Is this their idea of a stylish entrance?

In a period now where Internet users passionately and sometimes even fervently defend China and how great it is, they cannot stand anyone who is less of a patriot than themselves and make that known all over cyberspace.

But more importantly people in China must be Chinese. However what is the definition of someone being Chinese? How can someone be lesser Chinese than another? This monolithic belief is such a stereotype, especially when the country is keen to promote that it has 56 minority groups.

So why is it, that even after the two Opium wars, and the imperialists who came in and carved up China, leaving it to become "the sick man of Asia", that its people still think European things equate with high class?

Or is it perhaps old habits die hard?

Friday, September 25, 2009

Trying to Live an Honest Life

Months after the explosive book by Zhao Ziyang came out, there is another one the Chinese government again tried to intervene in stopping the publication of, but was released a few days ago. It is banned in China.
 
Called Chinese History Revisited (中国文明的反思), a tome that took Xiao Jiansheng (萧建生)20 years to write, is about the policy failures of the ruling Communist Party and calls for the mainland to embrace western democratic ideals.
 
Xiao reflects in an academic analysis, how traditional Chinese teaching, with its emphasis on obedience to authority and the centralization of power caused the decline of Chinese civilization, and how it now badly needs diversity, openness and an outward-looking environment.
 
Two years ago academics praised it and the China Social Sciences Press had planned to publish it.
 
But a CCSP editor who was in charge of Xiao's book says, "We had everything ready for publication. We had done the proof-reading, printing, advertising and even started to take pre-orders. The academy leadership suddenly called and asked us to stop distributing the book," he recalled.
 
"To be frank, I don't find anything wrong in the book. It's a great book that offers critical reflection on Chinese culture and thinking."
 
However now Hong Kong publisher Bao Pu, son of Bao Tong, Zhao's former aide, is publishing the book in the former British colony.
 
Xiao writes in the preface his motivation for writing this book that took him two decades to complete.
 
My birthplace is located in a remote village in Feng Huang Prefecture, Xiang Xi, Hunan Province. It is about 50km away from Feng Huang town. My grandfather dyed fabric for a living when he was young. He was very hard working and enjoyed what he did. His business thrived. He accumulated some wealth and bought some land. During land reform, my family's land was categorized as a small lot operation. Actually my grandfather should have been regarded as a wealthy farmer, but since he was very kind, honest and giving, his good reputation prevented that from happening. In the end, my grandfather was categorized as a well-off medium-level farmer, and became a target for unification.
 
Bad luck, however, soon came to find my grandfather. In 1958, a people's commune was set up in my hometown. Our land, farming, cows, farming tools, and even our pots, bowls and chopsticks were all confiscated. From then on, each person had to go to the public canteen to obtain a little bit of rice. Since we did not have enough food from the canteen, we had to survive on wild vegetables. My grandfather was very upset and enraged by the situation, and decided to end his life of 74 years by going on a hunger strike. For the entire week, my grandfather did not even consume a mouthful of water and finally starved to death.
 
I had just turned three when my grandfather passed away. At that time I did not understand his cause of death. My mother told me what happened when I was a bit older. She said my grandfather made a comment on the situation. He said, "Now we can only come to the canteen to obtain a few mouthfuls of rice. What hope do we have left?" Grandfather was totally disappointed by the situation at that time, and was determined to fight back with death. The sad fate of my grandfather marked me for life. I could not forget what he had done. I truly admire his integrity and honourable personality, and I also learned that when a person's private property is infringed upon, his right to pursue happiness is taken away, there could be dire consequences.
 
Xiao later talked about when he was 19-year-old when he dared to criticize the government's policies. He had visited many villages in Hunan where people were starving to death and Xiao questioned the need to continue Mao's class struggle and revolution. His article prevented him from going to university, but he was lucky he was not arrested and thrown into prison. Nevertheless, he continued working as a journalist and all this time he has continued to question the current system and wonder what is best for China's future.
 
But, as a banned book, it may eventually end up in the mainland one way or another... and hopefully will influence more people to wonder, like Xiao, what will happen to China in the future with the Party at the helm.
 

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Shades of Mao

An interesting footnote is that the anniversary of Chairman Mao's death -- September 9 -- has come and gone, and there was no official commemoration of this event, that was earth-shattering back in 1976.
 
Instead, textbooks are devoting less space to the Great Helmsman, and, according to Italian journalist Francesco Sisci, Mao's portrait in Tiananmen Square is shrinking by a few centimetres each year.
 
Despite this quiet process of de-Maoification, people are still fervent about the Great Leader, now appealing to young people who see him as a pop culture figure than as someone who inspired but also tortured people's lives during his tumultuous reign.
 
And this being the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic, how would Mao feel about China today? Would he shrink back in horror at all the capitalist ideas taking root (albeit with Chinese characteristics)? Seeing young women in mini skirts and permed hair, nails painted black, while young guys slouch in their low-slung jeans and wearing trendy T-shirts?
 
But perhaps he would be thrilled to know that as more people are purchasing cars (apparently China is the number one car buyer now), many are planning to take "self-drive tours", or as we'd say in North America, a road trip around the country for the National Day holiday.
 
My friend told me that for this year's week-long holiday, his colleague is planning to take a road trip to Yan'an with her husband, to the caves where Mao was based towards the end of the Long March.
 
But my friend pointed out, "But don't you have a child?" as her mother is back in her hometown looking after her baby daughter.

"She's with my mom so my husband and I can go travel," she replied.
 
He was flabbergasted on hearing his coworker express no interest in seeing her daughter who she only sees a few times a year.

It won't be surprising when her daughter grows up and hardly knows her parents. Then again this is not unusual as many young professionals and migrant workers leave their progeny behind to work; but not even wanting to see her child is bizarre.
 
Perhaps Mao would be pleased to hear that in some respects he is still able to break up the family unit. It's not work units or danwei, but economic conditions that have created this splitting up of families.

His legacy continues.
 
 

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Dinosaur Hunter

On the weekend I went to another Bookworm event, this time a talk presented by well-known paleontologist Xu Xing (徐星), a professor of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
 
He has named over 30 dinosaurs in his career so far and published many papers in Nature magazine. One can tell from his presentation how passionate this 40-year-old is about dinosaurs and educating people about these creatures from hundreds of millions of years ago.
 
A lot has changed about what we know about the dinosaur world since I went to school eons ago. We used to think of them as mammoth creatures, but now we know there was a whole range of sizes.
 
Xu's work mainly focuses on finding more evidence to prove that birds came from dinosaurs. He says they have proof as all birds have wish bones, and as it turns out, dinosaurs do too -- even meat-eating ones. He has also found fossils showing dinosaurs in a sleeping position that are similar to birds.
 
However, most of the dinosaurs that were found had scaly skin and no evidence of feathers.
 
But in 1996, they were able to find one in Liaoning Province. They applied for permission to dig in the area, but when they got approval from the provincial government, it was in the winter time, Xu explained, showing us a picture of them digging with snow that lightly covered the ground. They dug for 30 days but found nothing. But on the last day, Xu, who was staying in a farmer's home, met with a farmer who showed him some fragments, and indeed one of the fossils showed imprints of feathers.
 
Xu and his team were all excited and applied to dig there again the following year, this time in the summer. They planned to be there for 70 days, but little did they know it was the rainy season, making it very difficult for them to do their work. Again nothing much turned up. Xu had to leave two days earlier to go back to Beijing. And on the last day of the dig, one of his assistants called him to say they had found a fossil of a bird-like creature that had sharp teeth.
 
Their theory is that feathers evolved from being like a strand of hair, into a kind of leafy fringe and then becoming like the feathers we know today.
 
There are also theories on how early dinosaurs flew. One is that they started from the ground by having a running head start before taking off, while the other is that they lived in trees and took off from the branches like birds today. However, scientists have yet to find evidence that dinosaurs lived in trees.

Xu and his team also named the Microraptor - a dinosaur that had four wings on its arms and legs. They also found a giant dinosaur pictured above that they called a Jinzhousaurus, a herbivore, after the place it was found. And they discovered the Gigantoraptor, a giant dinosaur with feathered wings that looks like a precursor to the ostrich.

He explained that there are many fossils under the ground, but those covered beneath vegetation are hard to find. That's why he and his team go to quarries to find fossils, mostly in the Gobi Desert, Erlian Gobi in Inner Mongolia, and Xinjiang. The fossils are found in slate, which is made of layers of rock.

China Central Television (CCTV) and NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corp) have both filmed Xu and his team, and each time they resulted in finding more dinosaur fossils.

CCTV wanted to do a documentary so Xu invited them along. After the interviews, they wanted to film them pretending to dig. So his assistant threw her hat into the air and where it landed they started digging. About half an hour later they found a new dinosaur.

Then with NHK, the crew also wanted to film them digging. One of Xu's assistants remembered there was something nearby and so they went there and there was a kind of bone fossil sticking out from a cave-like earth. They dusted it off and they surmised the bone was a kind of dinosaur, but not one that would help them futher prove that birds came from dinosaurs. But the more they uncovered it, the more they realized it was not the particular dinosaur but another one that would have been over 30 metres long.

Xu recalled he also invited a writer from National Geographic to come on a dig with them for a story. They didn't find much, but the American writer showed him some fossil fragments and Xu immediately dismissed them, saying they were not what they were looking for. Also, as Xu has been lucky finding many fossils of dinosaurs pretty much intact, he was hoping for better specimens.

However, they did bring these fragments back to the lab and later realized that it was a primitive crocodile. It has a similar skull to today's crocodiles, but had slender legs so it was very agile unlike its lumbering predecessors.

On the topic of evolution, Xu praised Charles Darwin for his theory of evolution, saying that no other person has come up with such a revolutionary concept that still basically applies to today.

While Xu has found many fossils that are strong evidence to prove that birds came from dinosaurs, he has not found all the pieces to the puzzle. But his case is getting stronger and it will only be a matter of time before most of the pieces will be discovered.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Metropolitan Red

The capital is getting ready for a grand celebration. City workers are decorating specific neighbourhoods in a variety of decorations. One street near my office that goes by the People's Daily is awash with colourful frantic but gaudy lights at night.

Other areas near there have banners congratulating the country for celebrating 60 years of Communist rule.

Some shops are whipping out Chinese flags and more red lanterns, and even giant Chinese knots made of thick red ribbon, making the city awash with red.

In the meantime seniors are spending their days looking sharp in their 60th anniversary volunteer watchdog yellow shirts complete with Olympics-esque passes. They are posted every few metres from each other, a group of at least two or more sitting on tiny stools, apparently on the lookout for skirmishes, but really it's a social event for them to hang out in the neighbourhood all day.

What's interesting though is that despite all these security measures, they haven't really been able to stop serious incidents, like a knifing attack that happened near Qianmen, where two died and 12 were injured.

My friend told me of two fist fights that broke out in recent days that he saw. One was in Carrefour and another in a restaurant across the street from where he lived.

Perhaps all the frustration of having been told to be on their best behaviour in the run-up to the October 1 festivities is starting to bubble over and people can't take it anymore.

T-minus 8 days to go...

Monday, September 21, 2009

Back on Track... For Now

Photo: Xinhua

Hurdler Liu Xiang did make an appearance yesterday at the Golden Grand Prix in Shanghai, and came in second in a photo finish against American Terrence Trammell at 13.15 seconds.

It was a strong sign that the 26-year-old Liu is back, though he faced tough scrutiny after his shocking pullout at the Beijing Olympics last year when he limped out of the Bird's Nest in the preliminary round of the 110m men's hurdles.

Nevertheless, last night he was thrilled by the result. "I hesitated a bit and started late, he told CCTV after the race. "But I was more and more excited as I ran along, as if I was taken by some spirit."

The spirit was probably the crowd, thrilled that their hometown boy was running a tight race and returning to restore his country's pride.

Last summer, Liu was labelled a "coward" and "shame of China" for his bowing out of the Games. That shows not only the intense pressure the young man had -- carrying the hopes of 1.3 billion people -- but also that the Chinese look at sports as a great sense of national pride, and not looking at it as just a race.

Those two things have to change. China still puts so much pressure on its athletes, valuing only gold medals and in turn makes the public feel that they have every right to demand more from their athletes. Also, star competitors like Liu are coddled so much, that they train in an isolated environment that makes it hard for them to function in society, especially after they retire.

After the endorsement contracts end and the races are over, these athletes are literally left to pasture -- on their own -- and really don't know how to look after themselves. Ai Dongmei, a former Beijing marathon champion, sold popcorn and clothes on the street. Zou Chunlan, a former national champion weight lifter, scrubbed backs in a bathhouse. China has no real program in place or interest in helping retired athletes get jobs or the education they need to function.

Which is why stars like Liu are trying to milk it for all it's worth and try to retire in relative comfort.

In the meantime though, it looks like Liu's back... but for how long, no one knows.

Yet to be Crowned

Today marks the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), China's top advisory body.
 
Yesterday they marked the occasion, with President Hu Jintao giving a speech to some 800 representatives from various fields.
 
The event followed the end of the tail end of the annual plenary session of the Chinese Communist Party's 17th Central Committee which was held over four days.
 
While most of the strategy session was meant to tackle the income gap between the rich and the poor, put more effort into dealing with corruption and creating more inner party democracy, most China watchers were waiting with baited breath to see if Vice President Xi Jinping would be appointed a military post to assure his ascendancy as president in 2012.
 
But this did not happen.
 
Analysts now think Xi's appointment of vice chairman of the Central Military Commission could happen later, perhaps after the National Day holiday.
 
That could make sense, considering Xi, who was responsible for the smooth running of the Beijing Olympics, and now the National Day festivities, that they want to see how well things go on October 1 before handing him the mantle.
 
The heavy-handed use of security measures in and around the city -- not just Tiananmen Square -- shows Xi is doing everything in his power to make sure nothing goes wrong before he inherits what he believes is rightfully his.
 
However, there are others who are also vying for the post -- Vice-Premier Li Keqiang who is backed by Hu, and Bo Xilai, currently the party boss in Chongqing who recently tried to break up some corruption rings there.
 
Both Bo and Xi are "princelings", whose fathers were heroes in teh 1949 revolution. Xi has the backing of former President Jiang Zemin, who seems to still hold power behind the scenes.
 
It'll be interesting to see what happens after October 1, when the rest and relaxation of the National Day holiday is over and the power brokering continues behind the scenes.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Scoring More Fans

China and the National Basketball Association are doing a lot to promote basketball in the country.

The NBA manages the Wukesong Gymnasium in west Beijing, where the interior looks like any other North American basketball stadium complete with sound effects and electronic banners.

And the NBA regularly sends it stars to China, like Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant a few months ago, and most recently Shane Battier of the Houston Rockets, teammate of Yao Ming's.

This afternoon while I was getting my hair cut, the TV was on and it was a light entertainment/talk show with four hosts. Yes, like The View, except it's two girls and two guys dressed in similar-themed outfits, except they stand around on a large stage and do some fun contests with their guests.

Today it was Shane Battier, and despite the language barrier, they seemed to make the interview work; it was pre-taped and so there were subtitles when Battier was speaking. One wonders if most of the studio audience understood what he was saying or that had to be translated too, but it didn't seem to matter as the crowd was so excited to see the 6-foot 2-inch star in person. His female translator had to stand on a stool to be somewhat close to his ear without him having to lean over too much.

The hosts asked him about his personal life, like how he met his wife, Heidi Ufer. He explained that when he was 13-years-old he knew she would be his future wife, but it took him five years to convince her. They have a 15-month-old son Zeke, and they showed a few pictures of him and his son.

Then it was time for some antics. First they had him acting out different things and one of the hosts had to identify what it was. He was a good sport, doing a good impression of a washing machine, a chicken and a pug.

After that it was what he did best -- basketball. Two much shorter Chinese guys came on stage and tried to outplay him, each doing a short routine and he had to try to replicate the moves. He did well and even challenged them to bounce two basketballs, one in each hand and then at different heights, one at waist level, the other much lower.

Following that was shooting, and again a similar thing, where he had to follow their snazzy layups, some of which went in, and in Battier's case a few did not go in.

The most fun was when they invited a cartoonist to come show the audience how to draw Yao Ming. The hosts and Battier followed the cartoonist, who first taught them how to draw Yao Ming (basically using a square). Then Battier was invited to judge which one was the best. Some members of the audience also drew Yao too.

Then it was time to draw Battier. The shape of his head? A bulbous gourd that curves in the middle. Some drew hilarious portraits of Battier, and he went over to inspect them and asked aloud, "Does that look like me?" which got gales of laughter from the studio audience.

That was the end of the show, which was fun, entertaining, and most of all, Battier has secured his Chinese fan base.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Making Sense of it All

Last night my friends and I had a wonderful six-course tasting dinner at Mosto in Sanlitun.

Afterwards we walked towards The Village on Gongtibeilu and saw two military convoy trucks parked on the sidewalk and although the back was covered, we could tell people were inside, probably waiting for midnight.

We had to get home before midnight as the streets in the area would be shut down as there was going to be a full dress rehearsal of the October 1 parade overnight in Tiananmen Square.

Police were already in the area, trying to clear out the party revelers who were still hanging out at 10:30pm. Some shops in The Village were already closed when we got there at dinnertime, its staff and management probably writing off the evening for any chance of sales.

When I got home to Dongzhimen, it was all very eerie, seeing the usually busy streets all empty and everything so quiet.

Tonight I heard from two masseuse that after midnight they saw many tanks rolling down the street. They seemed excited by the spectacle as they watched from the windows.

And there was another reason why Gongtibeilu was shut down as well -- housed in the Worker's Stadium are many floats that will be used in the parade. One includes a giant Chinese flag with what looks like gold coins from a distance. I couldn't make out what the other floats were.

This morning things slowly got back to normal again. And there was an announcement there would not be another full dress rehearsal next weekend. Either it's because people complained so much about the disruptions or they had scheduled in the rehearsal just in case and in the end didn't need it. What a relief.

However, there's a rumour going around that a bomb went off at Tiananmen Square, killing two and injuring six. The government has not confirmed this, and neither have foreign media. If it is true, the government is definitely not going to disclose it; and if it was more transparent then we all wouldn't have to second guess what's really going on.




Friday, September 18, 2009

Shutting Down the City

Beijing is preparing to be locked down -- locking down its own citizens from going out.

After I came back from lunch, my colleagues told me that the street our office is on will be closed and even pedestrians will be blocked from wandering the streets.

This is all related to the rehearsals for the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on October 1.

However, our office is nowhere near Tiananmen Square or Chang'an Avenue, and yet our street will be sealed off as well as around where I live in Dongzhimen and the Sanlitun area.

My friend speculates it's because they are moving in the tanks and other military equipment to practice for the upcoming parade two weeks away. As a result no one can be on the street checking out the military hardware or even have a peek at the upcoming celebrations before the big event.

So I left the office after 1:30pm and at that time, other people had the same idea of fleeing the area. Buses weren't too crowded, but strange to see so many people needing to take public transport at an odd time.

When I arrived in Dongzhimen, there were tons of people in lines snaking from the bus stops.

It was as if we were in Hong Kong and the Typhoon 8 signal had just been raised so everyone was scrambling to get home.

But instead of a natural phenomenon happening, it's a man-made one trying to shut down the city and keeping its residents inside.

Apparently the streets in my area and Sanlitun will be shut down at midnight, pouring cold water on many people's plans to party up the start of the weekend.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Building a Fan Base

Yesterday was the debut of 建国大业 (Jianguo Daye), or The Founding of a Republic, an epic film just in time for the People's Republic of China's 60th birthday party.
 
The star-studded flick that is part historical and part fantasy, is filled some 170 famous artists, all clamouring to have a part -- any part -- in the 30 million RMB ($4.39 million) film.
 
There's everyone from Jackie Chan and Zhang Ziyi to Andy Lau and Jet Li, and director Chen Kaige helping to depict Chinese history from 1945 to 1949.
 
"Many superstars applied for the roles without payment. They competed to get a part, whether it was a leading character or a supporting character," explained director Han Sanping, who is also chairman of the board of China Film Group Corporation.
 
In other words, this is a government-sponsored flick that wants to spread the good works of the PRC.
 
The movie garnered a lot of attention well before it came out, especially after Han announced the star line-up.
 
Many members of the public were outraged that some of the stars in the patriotic movie technically were not Chinese citizens anymore, like Jet Li and Gong Li, who have American and Singaporean residency respectively.
 
While some actors and actresses tried to defend themselves saying that regardless of what passport they were holding they were still Chinese, some people, mostly Internet users, were not impressed and continued to denounce them as unpatriotic and therefore were unqualified to be in the movie.
 
However, now that the film has been released, many who saw it were particularly gripped by the story rather than who was in it.
 
"At the beginning, it was the all-star cast that attracted many young viewers, yet they told me yesterday after watching the movie that the story itself was more attractive then the stars," said Wang Li, a staff member of the Guangdong Provincial Film Company's public relations department.

Or so the publicity department wants us to believe...
 
The movie, along with several others with a patriotic theme, will be shown in the next few months and are practically guaranteed to be hits. This month Beijing issued 900,000 movie coupons for those films that can be used up to November.
 
Maybe with fans flooding the theatres to watch The Founding of a Republic, it will inspire more young people to become CPC members  -- a goal the CPC would like to surpass its current 76 million... You can never have enough Party members to consolidate the government's power base...

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Unwarranted Punishment

The Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region is still on edge after the alleged syringe attacks have subsided and police have so far arrested 76 suspects.
 
Last Saturday, three Uygurs were convicted of syringe stabbings in the capital Urumqi.
 
The Municipal Intermediate People's Court sentenced Yilipan Yilihamu, 19, to 15 years in prison for apparently using a needle to attack a woman on August 28. In another trial, 34-year-old Muhutaerjiang Turdi got 10 years, and Aimannisha Guli, 22, was sentenced to seven years. The pair had allegedly threatened a taxi driver with a syringe on August 29 and robbed him of 710 yuan which they used to buy drugs.
 
Meanwhile, Xinjiang officials have found nothing toxic in the blood samples taken from 250 victims in some alleged syringe attacks in Urumqi. Qian Jun, head of the disease control and biological security office with China's Academy of Military Medical Sciences, said the academy's Beijing lab found no radioactive substances, toxic chemicals or HIV virus. Neither were the samples contaminated with other dangerous viruses or chemicals like anthrax.
 
As a result, these three people in prison should not even be put in the slammer for such a long period of time -- there was no definitive proof they stabbed anyone, and if they did, there was no evidence to show the syringes contained anything dangerous. 
 
These convictions are completely blown out of proportion. They are politically motivated to quell public dissatisfaction over how the incidents were handled, creating hysteria among the public, mostly Han Chinese.
 
This shows that while the government is doing its best to calm the public down and make people realize their fears are groundless, it also shows the government has no one to blame but itself for creating such a tension-filled region.
 
Also, a court that follows the rule of law would have given them lighter sentences, and in the case of the couple threatening the taxi driver, treatment for drug abuse. 
 
However, this is a country of one-party rule, where it does everything in its power, regardless of how ludicrous it may be, to maintain control.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Dogged by Canine Cuteness

A number of retirees in Beijing keep dogs as pets, probably to avoid being total empty nesters and still have a baby to spoil in the family.
 
Many don't bother putting the pooches on a leash, and some even carry them everywhere even though the dogs badly need to exercise their legs.
 
And now there are more young people in their 20s interested in having their own fido, but they haven't really thought of all the responsibilities involved.
 
A friend told me about a colleague in his office who keeps telling him she plans to get a dog next month.
 
"I love golden retrievers! And pugs too!" she exclaims in an online conversation with him.
 
He tried to explain to her that she probably wouldn't have enough time to look after the dog properly as she would be spending most of her time at work. However she didn't seem to care about the reality of the situation and only thinks of the dog as a play thing.
 
"Will it bite me? I hope not! I am so scared of dogs, especially when they get bigger," she said. Then why get a golden retriever which will grow to become a medium-sized dog. And afraid of dogs if they bite her? Why even get one?
 
He tried to persuade her to get a cat instead because they are low maintenance, but she already has her heart set on a dog.
 
One of my colleagues used to have a dog and then last year when she was working for the Beijing Olympics she was too busy to look after it and gave it away to someone else.
 
I also heard of another young woman who was going home from work and saw some cute puppies sold on the street. She made an impulse purchase and bought one of the dogs for 50RMB and took it home. She played with it that evening and then tried to go to sleep. But the puppy was nervous and restless being in a new environment that it kept her awake all night and she gave it away the next day.

People here don't seem to think straight or even do all the research required in looking after a dog. They are cooped up all day at home while you are at work and you have to walk them in the morning before going to work and then in the evenings for their exercise. If they are left alone, the dogs will start being destructive at home and my friend says they can develop behavioral issues because they are social animals.
 
Dogs are not playthings that people can dispose of or transfer on to someone else; they are living things and owners have a responsibility and commitment to look after them for the rest of the pet's lives. 
 
This short-term thinking is not only shocking but sad. People think they can shirk responsibility whenever they feel like it or not really have compassion for animals. 
 
It's not surprising there aren't more strays on the street, or perhaps they end up somewhere else? 

Monday, September 14, 2009

Marvelous Mosto

On Saturday my friend and I made amends for what was a pathetic lunch last weekend.
 
We tried out Mosto, a restaurant that has opened for a year with chef Daniel Urdaneta who used to be at Salt.
 
The restaurant is located in Nali Patio, a small mall behind Sanlitun Village that houses restaurants and many beauty treatment places offering massages, manicures and waxing.
 
Mosto is on the third floor, looking down at a courtyard and has a breezy, casual feel. Some patrons were outside dining al fresco, but inside was pleasant too, with a rough brick wall with the odd bricks sticking out with lit candles. There are more candles by the bar, a year's worth having dripped their way into a white Gothic-like wax mound. Meanwhile the floor is polished concrete and sturdy sets of wooden chairs and tables.
 
Even the layout of the menu is straightforward, presented horizontally on wooden cheeseboards.
 
The food is to the point too, allowing the dishes to speak for themselves using simple but delicious ingredients.
 
For a late lunch my friend started with a trio of ricotta and spinach crepes, which were roasted with pine nuts. It was not too heavy and had the right combination of spinach and ricotta, the pine nuts adding a nice balance. I had eggs Benedict, featuring two poached eggs on a slice of Canadian ham that was also laid on not an English muffin, but a light puff pastry which was a delightful surprise. It was finished with Hollandaise sauce that wasn't too rich and garnished with roasted cherry tomatoes.
 
If that wasn't enough, we shared a Venezuelan arepa, a flat unleaven patty of cornmeal that is baked and then in this case later grilled. It was stuffed with finely diced chicken and avocado mixed with mayo, making it a scrumptious sandwich with wet and crunchy textures, and the flavour of corn from the bread.
 
We were so sated by our meal that it could not be complete without dessert. We patiently waited 15 minutes for the chocolate souffle, a dark molten chocolate cake with dark and white liquid chocolate slowly oozing out, complemented with a scoop of Sichuan peppercorn ice cream and dressed with raspberry coulis. The slightly spicy taste from the ice cream cut the richness of the chocolate perfectly, each bite requiring a pause to savour the decadent taste.
 
And to round out the dining experience, the wait staff were friendly, asking us straight out when we sat down if we wanted free still water or sparkling, and then constantly refilling our glasses with orange-flavoured water.
 
Apart from the taste, the wallet was grateful too -- two appetizers, a main and dessert came to 240RMB ($35) for two.
 
We're definitely coming back to try the dinner menu!
 
Mosto
3/F, Nali Patio
81 Sanlitun Beilu, D308
Chaoyang District
Beijing
5208 6030
 
 
 

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Speaking for the Environment

Last night I went to hear a Chinese wildlife biologist and her fight to protect the environment.
 
Lu Zhi is a giant panda expert and professor of conservation biology at Peking University. She gave a slide show recounting her experiences of studying pandas in the wild. The first picture she showed were two clumps of panda feces. She explained that it can be hard to find pandas in the wild, so the next best thing is to track their feces, and in this case one clump was from a mother, the other from a baby.
 
However, later on she did show pictures of a baby panda 36 hours old until it was several weeks old and of her cuddling the panda cub.
 
When Lu started working in the field in 1985, the word conservation was an alien one in Chinese. She admitted being an innocent naive young student at the time, who wanted to do something different without realizing the problems she would encounter. For seven years she spent time observing pandas in the wild and she remarked that China still has few people who study animals like this partly because of the hard work involved. As a result, there isn't much systematic data about wild animals, not enough to prove to the government and the public in the importance of conserving wildlife and the environment they live in. There is comparatively more data on pandas, but more needs to be done on it as well as other animals.
 
There were many misconceptions about pandas when Lu started her work. There was a preconception that pandas were stupid, partly because they ate bamboo, which at the time they thought had not much nutritional value and it was so coarse; that pandas are slow and walk slowly; and that they didn't have many babies.
 
That led to the belief that human intervention was needed, and so some pandas were captured and sent to live in zoos. Lu showed a Washington Post cartoon where a panda talks to someone on the payphone from the zoo complaining that they were forcing him to have sex, making fun of man trying to force an animal to mate.
 
There was also the problem that once a baby panda was born, the mother was so negligent that she would step on her baby, thus killing it, so the baby had to be taken away from her to be kept safe. However, Lu explains that the pandas that were captured and taken to zoos were young -- they did not have enough life experiences to understand how to mate and look after their young.
 
Through Lu's research, they also realized that bamboo was a good food source for pandas -- it was available in all four seasons, and while they spent a lot of time eating it, it was enough nutrition and no one else was competing with them for this very coarse food. She did point out that males do have a problem breeding, with less than 20 males in zoos that are able to successfully breed. In the wild, inbreeding will become a problem as populations become more scattered.
 
Up until the late 80s, pandas were hunted; but now with severe punishments imposed by the government hardly anyone does this one. However, logging soon became a problem for Lu and her colleagues. She showed a photo of a hilly area that was covered in tree stumps that were affecting the panda's habitat. She wrote a letter to Jiang Zemin in the early 1990s, but there was no immediate response.
 
She would see 60 trucks hauling out raw logs everyday. The area, Pingwu, was dependent on the sale of this timber to fund health care and education programs.
 
But finally then deputy premier Zhu Rongji put out a national ban on logging. He did this not because of the pandas, but because of serious flooding. However, this ban ends next year and one wonders what will be done, if anything, to stop the logging companies again.
 
The action taught Lu a lesson -- what she had been working for five years to achieve, the government did overnight.

But despite the logging ban, other things are threatening wildlife -- hydropower stations, more roads and tourism development. Of invertebrates, 35 percent are threatened; 36 percent of vertebrates; and 87 percent of flower plants. Development is moving at a much more rapid pace than conservation.

Lu explains that most people are benefit driven -- and it's usually money that motivates them.

Therefore, she and her group, Shanshui are trying to come up with creative ways for communities to protect their environment but also make a living. For example, in Pingwu, they started growing oak trees, where mushrooms grow and are exported to the Japanese. Carbon trading is another way to make a financial benefit from planting trees.

Post-Kyoto Protocol, Lu says China needs to think about forest management. The country needs to improve carbon sequestration and the quality of forest management. While tourism is good, how much is too much?

In the end, Lu believes conservation is the government's responsibility. NGOs like hers can help guide policy, but in the end it is the government that must educate and have laws in place to protect the environment.

After her presentation, a young Chinese woman came up to me and remarked that environmental protection was such a long-term thing that you could only see the benefits after several years.

I said that her generation had to worry about these problems now because they were going to affect her generation and the generation after. Right now there is not enough clean water to drink and the air is polluted. For example, I said, the government talks about recycling, but does not explain how ordinary people can get involved in doing that. I said it was the government's responsibility to educate people and also give them the means to practice recycling and other environmental efforts.

Whether she really understood what I said, I don't know. But really, China needs to take a long-term view on everything, including the environment. The reality of situation is that the country's natural resources are quickly depleting -- a few more years and they will be gone. Then what?

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Picture of the Day: Old Slogans

This afternoon I walked to the Sanyuanli market to pick up some vegetables and dried goods. And on the way I passed by the Westin Beijing Chaoyang, which has an IFC Mall attached to it that has yet to open.

And on one of the giant windows of the IFC Mall, staff were trying to tear down a giant poster.

The Olympics was over over a year ago, folks! Can we please move on!

Or has the "One World, One Dream" ideal lost its lustre?

Friday, September 11, 2009

One Saga is Over, Another Continues

Today the over-extended drama across the Taiwan Straits is finally over.
 
Former Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian was sentenced to life for corruption and bribery. He was charged last December for money laundering and bribery. He and his wife, Wu Shu-chen, were charged with embezzling 104 million Taiwan dollars ($3.15 million) in public funds and accepting bribes of at least $9 million in a land purchasing deal during his presidency.
 
Wu was also convicted and handed a life sentence. In addition, they were fined $15.2 million.
 
Hundreds of Chen supporters gathered outside the Taipei court and held flags and banners that read, "free him" and "Chen's innocent".
 
A Taiwan television station is going wall-to-wall with coverage with a picture of a spider's web and pictures of all the people caught in the case, and "911" prominently displayed, as if this was Taiwan's September 11. A panel of experts are weighing in on the verdicts, while also showing scenes of people fainting on the street and police having to carry them away.
 
Ah, the drama.
 
Interestingly Chen, 58, chose not to attend the verdict hearing and instead stayed in his Taipei jail.
 
It finally brings to an end a dirty chapter in Taiwan's history, as many believed Chen was guilty of at least some of the charges. It didn't help that Beijing did whatever it could to sully him in the media because of his pro-independence stance. Also, while President Ma Ying-jeou tried to make it look like he and his administration were not actively involved in the court proceedings, the various delays and judicial officials not really following the rule of law made it look like they may have had some hand in it.
 
Nevertheless, hopefully this case has demonstrated, as Ma is hoping, that no one is above the law, and that corruption at any level will not be tolerated.
 
It also puts behind bars a colourful character, who at times was wildly radical in his independence policies that in the beginning sparked pride in the Taiwanese people, but later shame when it was found he was funneling money to Swiss bank accounts.
 
What will also be interesting is how Wu will be treated in jail as she has been in a wheelchair for years after a car accident and can't look after herself without assistance.
 
Now that this chapter in Taiwanese politics is over, Ma probably feels relieved and can concentrate on rebuilding his links with the mainland after his serious blunder with the Dalai Lama over a week ago...
 
And in another footnote that should not be forgotten, today is the first anniversary when Sanlu dairy recalled hundreds of tons of baby milk formula and the government vowed to punish those responsible for the contamination.
 
However, no one will be marking the event -- mostly because Chinese authorities are preventing the parents of those children who died or were sickened by the contaminated milk from gathering in Beijing for a commemoration today.
 
"The scandal has affected a whole generation of China's future," Zhao Lianhai, the father of a sickened child said to the Associated Press. "This day is a humiliation for all Chinese. It is a national disaster. We should have the courage to remember this day."
 
But he and many others have been prevented from arriving in the Chinese capital thanks to the upcoming 60th anniversary celebrations.
 
While China does have so much to celebrate in its six decades of development, it also needs to face its mistakes and rectify them. Although only six babies were reported to have died from the milk contamination, the number was probably much higher, as well as the 300,000 sickened. Yes it is a shame, but the Chinese government must face the reality of its wrongs in order to make its next 60 years better.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Still Creating Controversy

Last night I went to another of The Bookworm's talks, this time on Charles Darwin to celebrate the 200th anniversary of his birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species.
 
David Quammen is a science journalist who has written a few books on Darwin, including The Reluctant Mr Darwin and The Song of the Dodo.
 
He says that some people take Darwin for granted, loosely using terms like "Darwinism" and use it in all kinds of context without really understanding evolutionary theory.
 
However, we have no excuse not to learn it because The Origin of Species is written in plain English, not like many famous scientists like Newton or Copernicus or Einstein where you have to know science or math to be able to understand their concepts. So we can directly understand what Darwin was trying to say without needing a science expert to "translate" it and explain what it means.
 
Quammen is most interested in Darwin the man and why it took him 21 years to publish The Origin of Species.
 
Darwin's father was a physician and so was his older brother, and it was expected that Charles would do the same. He studied medicine in Edinburgh, performing autopsies, surgeries without anesthetic and he hated it.
 
Then he went to Cambridge and studied the classics. It was generally understood that if you studied at Cambridge, you would become an Anglican parson. While Darwin wasn't particularly religious, he was looking forward to a life of preaching to his parish on Sundays and watching birds the rest of the week, as Quammen told us.
 
However, Darwin ended up going on the HMS Beagle in his early 20s which changed the course of his career. For four years, nine months and five days, he collected marine life from a net that trailed behind the ship, and on land he collected lots of fossils and live specimens.
 
When Darwin spent three weeks in the Galapagos Islands, he discovered brown birds with funny beaks, as Quammen tells the story. While he had knowledge in nature, biology and geology, Darwin was no expert and collected lots of specimens for other experts to examine. It turns out the birds were finches, but each were different species. It was then that Darwin realized he should have labeled which birds came from which islands as their environment may have determined the shape of their beaks.
 
Quammen also said Darwin was a great observer. He discovered fossils of giant armadillos and sloths, and at the same time saw living sloths and armadillos in the same area and wondered how that could be. The idea of extinction was not known at the time, as it was believed that God created living creatures for particular reasons and they would never be extinct.
 
After Darwin came back from his long voyage, he never left England again. This explains the some 16,000 pieces of correspondence he sent or received, asking many people going on expeditions to send him observations of things that they saw to help him develop his theory.
 
At the time Darwin believed some kind of "transmutation" was happening, but he realized this theory of evolution, determined by variation, selection and heredity would be explosive. Quammen says the scientist was a "fundamentally cautious man burdened by a radical idea". He was honest and could not compromise, which may explain why it took him 21 years to publish The Origin of Species.
 
When it was finally released in November 1859, all 1,250 copies were sold wholesale, which at that time was unprecedented.
 
The reaction was as expected -- people either violently disagreed with Darwin, and they were not only from the church, but even fellow scientists as well, including some of Darwin's teachers.
 
However, there was also excitement, like Thomas Huxley who said, "How stupid one could not have thought of it", meaning it all made sense, so why didn't someone think of it earlier.
 
There were six editions of The Origin of Species published during Darwin's lifetime, but Quammen says the later ones were watered down, and thus suggests people read the first edition to get the radical idea that he was presenting the first time to the world.
 
It wasn't until 60 years after Darwin died was he more widely accepted. The work of Gregor Mendel, the scientist who studied genetics through pea plants was rediscovered in the 1930s and people began to realize Mendel's work complemented Darwin's. The 1940s started the New Synthesis movement, or Neo-Darwinism.
 
Nevertheless, despite all the scientific proof we have today about species, including humans have evolved, many people today still don't believe in the theory of evolution.
 
The Gallup organization has done numerous telephone polls over the years and consistently in the United States, 44-47 percent believe God created man in his present form. Only between 9 and 14 percent believe man developed but God had no part in the process. The rest believe that man developed, with God's guidance.
 
During Darwin's lifetime, people wanted to believe there was a mysticism with regards to creation. However, why is there still a large number that still believe in creationism today?
 
This is probably why Darwin still holds a fascination for people, but still polarizes groups who insist on clinging to what the Bible literally says.
 
One wonders if he knew he would still be a controversial figure, 200 years later... 

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Marching to Different Tunes

On Sunday night two different people told me they saw large military vehicles parked along the East Third Ring Road by Tuanjiehu and soldiers in full combat gear complete with black helmets and masks holding serious weaponry. They said it was a pretty scary sight.
 
One of these friends said she saw a number of tour buses the soldiers were guarding so we speculated that the buses were full of participants probably on their way to Tiananmen Square for the second round of rehearsals for the October 1 festivities.
 
While the central government has issued guidelines suggesting "solemn, festival, prudent and peaceful" celebrations of the upcoming 60th anniversary, it looks like it will be an all-out affair, especially in terms of military might.
 
Yesterday morning at the gym a middle-aged man on the treadmill had the television screen above him on and it was showing a program about the military preparing for the upcoming parade down Chang'an Avenue.
 
This intrepid TV crew was able to go to the barracks where the army, navy and air force were based, on an abandoned air strip, where they have setup temporary housing quarters.
 
After a series of security checks -- even for A (H1N1) -- complete with a surgical mask -- a chippy female reporter and her crew were allowed inside to see everything from the rooms with bunk beds and the neatly folded blankets to the kitchens serving a variety of dishes.
 
But the main event was the marching. The soldiers from the army, navy and air force were all in uniform, practicing their marches up and down the runway. And there were lots of shots of them marching perfectly in time. Their superiors were watching above from portable staircases to make sure no one was out of step -- as if that would be hard to notice.
 
Every country is proud of their military, but none as much as China. It takes every opportunity to glorify the People's Liberation Army and exploit the image of soldiers as patriotic, selfless, disciplined and brave.

The propaganda machines are churning overtime to stir up patriotism for October 1 and nothing is more effective than showing the PLA marching down Chang'an Avenue.

Of course the effect would be even more proud if the laobaixing or ordinary people could witness it in person. But sorry folks, the big 60th bash is invitation only. You'll just have to watch on TV instead.

So much for founding the country for the people...

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Empty Dining Experience

After visiting Maison Boulud a few times, my friend and I decided to check out the other restaurants in the Ch'ienmen 23 compound, formerly known as the Legation Quarter.
 
We decided to check out Sadler, the Italian restaurant that boasts the culinary creations of two-star Michelin chef Claudio Sadler.
 
His Sadler Restaurant in Milan has two Michelin stars, and next to it is Chic'n Quick for casual, less expensive dining.
 
Sadler also has two other restaurants in Italy and after five years, closed his restaurant in Tokyo last year before opening Sadler in Beijing.
 
The restaurant is housed in one of the old colonial buildings, but inside the dining area has a modern nightclub/lounge atmosphere which possibly makes it a better place for dinner.
 
That's because when we arrived at lunch, there was no one else there -- the entire time we were there.
 
Aside from the a la carte menu, there were two set lunch menus of three courses each for about 160RMB which were hardly interesting -- one featuring a seafood soup and the other a meat dish.
 
So we looked into the a la carte menu which again didn't grab us right away with any mouth-watering descriptions.
 
It was probably a signal that we should have left the restaurant, but instead we decided to still give the place a shot.
 
For the amuse bouche, we were served small round glasses filled with whipped Parmesan cheese -- transforming the usually hard cheese into a soft mousse.
 
It wasn't too heavy, but would have been better to have more than just a small bread stick in it to accompany the starter.
 
Then my friend and I shared an appetizer of a Blue Fin tuna tartare. It was artistically served in the middle of a square platter with rounded edges, complete with a diagonal line of sesame seeds with eggplant rolled up and there were bubbles of balsamic sabayon on the plate.
 
This dish was very straight forward and did little to impress. The same could be said about the codfish, presented on top of a green vegetable sauce with two deep-fried mashed potatoes on either side.
 
However, the breaded veal chop was the highlight of the lunch, lightly breaded and fried to perfection, with the veal still pink and tender inside. The dish was accompanied with sweetbreads which weren't flavourful and Swiss chard.
 
For dessert, I had the limoncello parfait, which was a large and tall teardrop shaped meringue filled with lemon custard topped with lemon-infused tapioca pearls. While it had a refreshingly tart taste, the meringue was quite pedestrian.
 
The spicy chocolate pudding wasn't spicy, but had a nice caramel center that wasn't too sweet. We were also served small cutes of jellies on toothpicks, as well as a selection of petit fours which were more like mini cookies.
 
However, we were shocked when we received a bill of 1,056RMB -- including 75RMB for a large glass bottle of Evian water. We had requested still water, but were given designer water instead.
 
Service on the whole was nice, but hardly genial. When the wait staff came to take away our plates for the main course, I complimented them on the veal, but they didn't seem to understand and gave an awkward smile.
 
With an empty restaurant for lunch, one has to wonder how much longer Sadler will survive? Beijing is not known as a culinary capital; while it does have a small but extremely wealthy crowd, western food is not their first choice for dining. The restaurant has to offer more value for money to entice more people to come in. And even then, service needs to be upgraded to be more hospitable towards guests.
 
My friend and I, although full from lunch, were left unsatisfied. With all the hype of Michelin stars we were sorely disappointed and won't be going back anytime soon.
 
Ristorante Sadler
Ch'ienmen 23
23 Qianmen East Street
Dongcheng District
6559 1399

Monday, September 7, 2009

Bringing Dinosaurs to Life

On Saturday The Bookworm kicked off a month of evolution-themed events around the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth. 

Last night I went to hear all about dinosaurs in Liaoning Province from Damien Leloup, managing director of the Yizhou Geological Park at the Dinosaur Museum in Liaoning.

The Frenchman has been there for the past few years, setting up the new museum about four hours' drive from Beijing. Visitors can not only check out dinosaur finds in the area, but also help dig for them too! The only drawback is that if you do find a dinosaur, you can't keep it.

Leloup says Liaoning is a place full of dinosaurs because over 100 million years ago it was a very lush place, similar to a swamp but not as humid. He added that the latest find there is the world's oldest flower. Lots of vegetation was growing in that area which was perfect for the mostly Psittacosaurus, meaning "parrot lizard". It's about the size of a cat and has beak-like mouth. It was a herbivore that had no teeth, so it would grab plants and leaves in its mouth and swallow them directly. He says in one Psittacosaurus, they found 50 small pebbles in its belly, used to help break down the leaves.
 
Liaoning is also the first place that found the oldest dinosaur fossils with feathers. The Microraptor had wings and hollow bones, with light leathery skin with bits of feathers on it. Leloup likes to think that dinosaurs didn't disappear -- they evolved into the birds and animals we know today.
 
The province also belongs to the Jehol Biota, or the ecosystem of northeastern China from 133 million to 120 million years ago. While Liaoning was a lush area, it also had many volcanoes that spewed mostly ash, not lava. As a result, many dinosaur fossils were found covered by volcanic ash.
 
Fossils, Leloup explains, are made by depriving the living things of oxygen. The dinosaurs are either covered in ash, like the people in Pompeii by Mount Vesuvius, or die in the water and are covered by mud. It is because the corpse is covered relatively quickly without oxygen that the fossils are so well preserved, showing a lot of detail. However the fossils we see today are not the actual bones of the dinosaurs, but the cavity left behind by the organic matter is replaced with sediment, sand and dust that builds up over time.
 
Also the dinosaur models in museums today are made from a pain-staking process. He explained that first of all, you have to make sure there are many other fossils of the same dinosaur available. If so, you can pick one of the better preserved ones and in a long process, carefully extract the fossil from the ground piece by piece. Then each is carefully made into a cast with silicon which the mold is then used to make the model.
 
The province was also home to Mamenchisaurus, dinosaurs with extremely long necks and tails. The head was very small, about 1/25th the size of the entire body. Because of its long neck, it was able to reach further up trees for foliage.
 
Leloup himself has an interesting story, as a man in his mid-30s he has accomplished quite a bit.
 
His grandfather was a paleontologist which sparked his own interest in dinosaurs. One day when he was in high school he didn't get good grades on his report card. He announced to his parents that he would quit school. That day he turned on the television and watched a program hosted by Jacques Cousteau.  
 
The next day he announced to his parents he wanted to work with the famed underwater explorer. He tracked down Cousteau's Paris address and went to see the man himself. Cousteau explained to him that if Leloup wanted to work with him, he would have to take certain subjects in university and after he graduated and he was still interested, he could work for the Cousteau Society.
 
Leloup followed Cousteau's instructions and they kept in touch during his four years in university. After he graduated, Cousteau's office called him and asked if he was still interested. He joined Cousteau on many adventures in Vietnam, Singapore, South Africa and Namibia. Later Leloup went on to explore a 1911 shipwreck in Australia, which went down a year before the Titanic.
 
Here in China he helped a German company form a joint venture with the Chinese government to build and run the first foreign-majority owned dinosaur museum. With a 51 percent stake, the company, with Leloup's direction, also aimed to be the first green museum in China, running on solar panels. Some 3,000 trees were planted in the area along with a man-made lake that now has a large population of fish, creating a mini eco-system in the area, as a way to try to recreate the environment hundreds of millions of years ago.
 
I hope to make it to the museum someday as it sounds too fascinating to resist... digging up a dinosaur... or two.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Half-Hearted Effort

Late last night it was announced that Urumqi Communist Party Chief Li Zhi was sacked along with the police chief for the latest bizarre attacks in the area involving random people being stabbed with syringes. The contents inside the syringes have yet to be identified, but of the 531 who went to hospitals claiming to have been stabbed, only 106 actually had wounds consistent to being jabbed.

This shows hysteria still reigns in the capital city of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.

There were also mass protests in the streets in recent days, complaining not enough has been done to clamp down on the syringe attacks, calling for the resignation of Li Zhi and his boss, Wang Lequan, who is the party secretary and ally to President Hu Jintao. Wang has been managing Xinjiang for 15 years, and apparently Hu likes his hardline approach.

China analysts say firing Li shows the government is serious about dealing with the issue, but doesn't want to sack Wang, as he is too close to Hu. If he was fired, it would signal Hu's policies and his people were not doing a good job, thus weakening his own power base.

It's interesting that Li and Liu Yaohua, director of the Xinjiang Autonomous Regional Public Security Department were sacked now, and not two months ago, when the riots first erupted.

Apparently they knew the July protests were being organized, but did nothing about it. Isn't that a good enough reason to sack them earlier?

Or the government got nervous after Han Chinese, not Uighurs, were protesting against them.

Beijing tries hard not to look like it's bowing to public pressure, but in this case, it had to do something in the restive area.

Everyone knows more needs to be done, but the latest sackings are probably the most the government is willing to do now.

Only time will tell.










Friday, September 4, 2009

Not for the People

Another serious issue regarding children is exploding and the Chinese government is doing all it can to quash it.
 
Children in China are suffering from severe levels of lead in their blood. The average blood lead concentration of children on the mainland is about 90 micrograms, many times higher than in developed countries, according to Dai Yaohua, professor of the Capital Institute of Paediatrics in Beijing and a leading scientist in the research of child lead poisoning.
 
A few weeks ago hundreds of parents stormed a lead smelting plant in Shaanxi Province after nearly all the children, over 600 of them out of 700 in neighbouring villages, were found to have excessive lead poisoning that was 10 times over the level considered safe by the Chinese government.
 
Later it was also found about 30 percent of children under 14 in Yunnan Province were suffering from some degree of lead poisoning.  
 
It doesn't matter if the child is in an urban or rural area, rich or poor -- all of them have high levels of lead in their blood. Unlike most poisons, once lead is absorbed into the body, it does not leave. And this results in less room for other more beneficial minerals like zinc and calcium for healthy bodies to grow.
 
Lead poisoning can damage the nervous and reproductive systems, cause high blood pressure, anemia and memory loss. Another is that lead poisoning in children can cause their IQ levels to drop. A study led by Bruce Lanphear of the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center tested more than 1,300 children from developing and developed countries.
 
He and his researchers found that even at levels far below 100 micrograms, lead-poisoned children scored about eight points lower than their non-poisoned peers. Their ability to read and listen were most affected.
 
"Even by traditional standards, the prevalence of lead poisoning on the mainland is high," Dai said. "Most children whose nervous systems have been eroded have not received any attention. Lots of research has found that brain damage caused by lead during childhood is permanent. The key is prevention."
 
However exposure to lead is everywhere. Previously families couldn't afford to paint their homes, but during the housing boom in the past 20 years, children were exposed to lead-based paints. In the 1970s, the United States started banning lead in gasoline -- China only started doing this in 2000. And because lead is heavy, traces of it can still be found on roadsides for years. Lead can also be found in food and toys. 
 
Professor Dai says all children in China under three should be tested for lead; if there are excessive amounts found in certain areas, the local authorities should locate it and eliminate it.
 
Ding Zongyi, president of the Federation of Paediactric Nutrition Organizations of Asia says lead poisoning is a public health issue that not only affects children.
 
"In some cases, I'm afraid there will be no adults fit to enlist in the army, and the labour force will take a big hit. If you are lead poisoned, you don't necessarily have to stay in bed, but your strength and skills will deteriorate."
 
However, the Ministry of Health will not take up this recommendation of testing children. Testing a child costs between 60RMB to 200RMB, which means the treasury would have to spend billions of yuan.
 
"The Communist Party will not bring it up either," says a researcher working with Dai who refused to be named. "If parents see the test results and are told that their children will suffer brain damage, they'll take to the streets."
 
In the meantime parents are advised to keep their children safe from lead by keeping off roads and buying lead-free toys and goods.
 
However, with the way China's quality system not exactly reliable in terms of identifying which goods are safe and which aren't, people are still left wondering if the government will ever protect them.
 
With the milk scandal last year that sickened many babies and children, the Sichuan earthquake where thousands of children died in unsafe schools, and now children poisoned by lead, parents are angry. Very angry.
 
If Beijing does not properly address these issues, these people will continue to fight because their only child was killed or sickened under the government's watch.
 
Parents only want the best for their children and their own government won't even help them by providing a safe environment for the next generation.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Picture of the Day: Dog Days of Summer

It's definitely the beginning of the end of summer in Beijing.

The scorching heat we had for a few months has dissipated and now it's definitely comfortable weather.

During the summer months I pitied the poor dogs who were dragged outside in the midday sun by their masters, unaware of what it's like to walk around in the heat with a fur coat on.

However, this little dog here seems to have gotten the right idea -- a clean shave of the fur to cool off.

While his mistress was checking her cellphone, he poked his head out of the car window and a small group of people stared at his pink body and furry head.

He was probably wondering what all the fuss was about since it was probably the first time in a long time he felt really cool.

Prepping for the Party

Lots of preparations are underway to make sure the National Day celebrations on October 1 are flawless.

Roads that have been under construction for months are now suddenly being paved overnight, while highways with greenery are being spruced up with more flowers.

Security is being stepped up everywhere, from subways to even the post office -- people now cannot send liquids by mail. Your loved one will have to wait until well after October 1 for that special perfume they had been hoping for.

Police are also randomly checking people's ID in subways.

The capital is even going to wipe out mosquitoes, flies, rats and cockroaches around Tiananmen Square so that people there won't be bitten on October 1. The Beijing Center for Disease Control and Prevention carried out extermination sweeps in August and will do it again three more times before the big day.

How can you even make sure insects will not be hanging out around Tiananmen that day?

It all seems a bit excessive, but hey, turning 60 is a big deal in Chinese tradition.

However one thing organizers cannot control is the weather and there has been great debate over whether it will rain or shine that day.

But given that Beijing has had experience with manipulating the weather for the Olympics, surely this will not be a hard task, but a stressful one for meteorologists.


Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Bringing Back Nostalgia

During my wander through the 798 art district on the weekend I noticed there were many more gift shops selling handicrafts, or quirky things that are not quite one of a kind, and not too mainstream either.
 
How all these shops managed to find so many different items is interesting and prices weren't too bad either.
 
They sold all kinds of things from notebooks and canvas bags, art books, note cards, even DIY crafts and even cute rubber boots decorated with cartoons.
 
Others had artistic themes, selling small zippered pouches with Chinese contemporary paintings printed on them, jewelry and clothing.
 
Then there was one shop I just went into because many other people went in. It's called Panda Slow Delivery and in it are all kinds of postcards featuring the loveable black-and-white animal in cartoon form. The shop space had lots of exposed brick and it felt kind of homey inside with the centre of the room filled with white tables and everyone seemed to be writing postcards.
 
I later found out the shop will deliver postcards for you, even far into the future if you wish. There are also blank books on the table where people write or draw whatever they want. My colleague told me some people wrote letters to their parents, pouring their hearts out, while others left cute notes or doodles on the page.
 
The store totally appeals to those born in the 80's, even selling pages of old homework with red ink corrections on them, sheets with exam results on them, and "certificates" for good or bad boyfriends or girlfriends and even a parental test for expectant fathers. There were also many toys that these 20-somethings would have played with in their youth, from toy pianos and dolls to the metal pencil boxes they took to school.
 
While the shop had a lot of traffic, selling postcards at 8RMB a piece isn't going to make a profit anytime soon. However the owners don't seem to care. The concept of the store is to get people to slow down and enjoy the present moment.
 
In an age where young people are constantly on their cell phones sending text messages and chatting online, shopping on the Internet and taking the subway to get around, it's refreshing to see the younger generation realizing that time goes by if you don't stop and enjoy it once in a while.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Reporting an Occupational Hazard

It's tough to practice journalism in China -- as media is state controlled, and most reporters are not properly trained. I've heard that if they do go to journalism school, most of what they learn is theory rather than actual situations.

So perhaps it is a shock to their system when aspiring journalists enter the field and find it much tougher than they expected.

There are now concerns that journalism could be an occupational hazard after a 28-year-old anchorwoman from Zhejiang Province died last Wednesday while on a business trip in Shanghai.

While the TV station she worked for, Zhejiang Satellite Television denied Liang Wei, dubbed "the iron woman" died due to a heavy workload, her colleagues felt the job caused Liang to suffer from chronic fatigue.

"She worked very hard, always thinking about her job," an unnamed colleague said. "Her abrupt death reminds us that we journalists, who work under high stress, have to pay closer attention to our health."

Her death follows that of famed CCTV anchorman Lou Jing, who died of cancer in June. He was 48.

A reporter, Cai Jingxin from Guangzhou Television Station said the public doesn't understand the tough work conditions journalists go through on a daily basis.

"It's an admirable yet tough job. We're on edge because we always have to get ready for breaking news and our viewers have no idea how hard we work on a story," Cai says.

A survey of more than 460 Zhejiang Province journalists by the Wenzhou Journalist Association in July said 90 percent said they suffered from physical and mental fatigue. Cub reporters are more likely to develop cardiovascular or digestive problems due to overwork, erratic schedules and stress. The report also found journalists work on average 10 hours a day, and one-third suffer from insomnia.

Half of those surveyed regularly had headaches, or shoulder or neck pains, and nearly the same number admitting to anxiety and depression.

In 2005, the General Administration of Press and Publication said there were 700,000 journalists in China so that's a lot of people walking around either with pains, insomnia or depression.

Competition in media is a given, as good journalists are hungry for a good story. But it's quite interesting to hear reporters here complain about the stress of competing for a scoop as media is state-controlled here. The government is the one that determines what stories and issues are covered, not the news outlets. It's the few good reporters who get into trouble trying to go beyond boundaries and then suffer the consequences of their actions. That kind of stress and physical ailments I can understand.

So if your only stress is trying to beat the clock in time for broadcasts, then the work flow of the organization needs fixing to make things more efficient. With better technology too, there should be no excuse not to be able to file a story in on time.

Or are all journalists in China slobs who don't look after their health at all?