Saturday, October 31, 2009

Picture of the Day: Chrysanthemums

This afternoon my friend and I walked along Nanluoguxiang, a place I haven't been to in the last several months. There are still new shops and little restaurants opening all over the hutong, or alleyway.

A hot item seems to be takeaway cups of yoghurt and the shop had a lineup out front. There were also some funky boutiques selling notebooks with propaganda posters on them, even the famous painting of President Barack Obama with the word "Hope" underneath. And speaking of Obama, there was a T-shirt of the American president wearing a green army cap and suit and on the back it said "Obamao". Everyone is eagerly awaiting his upcoming visit to Beijing next month.

Nevertheless, it was a beautiful crisp fall day after a chilly rain the night before, and on the window ledge of one of the cafes was a pot of chrysanthemums that were huge, gorgeous and in a vibrant yellow.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Sounding the Alarm

China is getting very worried about the outbreak of the A (H1N1) flu virus in the next few months. So far the Ministry of Health says 80 percent of the country's flu infections are from the A (H1N1) influenza virus, and most of the mass cases occurred in schools.

"As the weather keeps getting colder, many regions are entering the traditional period of flu outbreak, and prevention and control work is becoming tougher," said Liang Wannian, vice director of the health emergency office under the ministry, said Thursday.

According to Liang, as of Wednesday, there were a total of 42,009 cases, 1,502 mass cases in 31 provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions, with 96 percent of them occurred in schools.

On Wednesday a university student in Beijing died of the A (H1N1) virus, the fourth in China -- that has been officially reported.

Meanwhile, one of China's top epidemiologists, Zeng Guang was encouraging people to get the jab.

"If people do not have themselves vaccinated now, there will be endless trouble in the future," said Zeng, who is chief epidemiologist for the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

"With the number of patients with severe symptoms growing, China's medical treatment capacity, such as equipment and personnel, is to face huge challenges. We need to prepare in advance."

So far about 400,000 people have been innoculated with the A (H1N1) flu vaccine and no serious side effects reported yet.

While China has a right to be concerned about this health situation, it has done nothing to give practical tips to people to help avoid getting sick altogether. Unlike Hong Kong which has given out tons of leaflets and public service announcements, the mainland hasn't told people that the easiest way to protect oneself is to wash their hands regularly with soap, cough or sneeze into a tissue, avoid sharing food with others, avoid going out or working if you feel sick and take the proper medication and rest.

One would think those low-cost tips would be more feasible in a country with such a large population...

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Mandated Team Building

Some companies like to do team-building exercises by having "outings", usually to places outside the city for a bit of fresh air and nice scenery.

But the company I'm in now prefers to do things on a grand scale -- by having a company-wide sports day.

Originally it was scheduled for June, but then there were unfounded fears about catching the A (H1N1) virus so it was postponed until the fall.

The sports day involves such events as 100m, 800m, baton relays, tug-of-war, and bouncing a shuttlecock with only your feet. There are also some relay events to remind you of high school.

When the sports day was first announced I was roped into competing in an event, and as many people wanted to run in the 100-meter dash, I chose the 800 meter event.

Word quickly got around that I was running in the 800 meters and I tried not to think about it too much. It was just for fun, right?

But when the sports day was confirmed for this Saturday -- at 8am -- there was no way I was going.

And I wasn't the only one. Almost all the foreigners in the company balked at the thought of spending our weekend at a company event. When I was asked again if I would participate, I gave a firm "no" and said it was my weekend. No one tried to convince me to change my mind.

However, my colleague, who recently ran the Beijing marathon, was visited at his desk by at least six people, who, in turn, tried to persuade him to run in the 800-meter event to bring pride to our division. He politely refused, even though his female boss tried to sweet talk him into doing it.

While management can't really force the foreigners to take part in the sports day, it's the local staff I feel for, being coerced into this exercise on their precious weekend. The stadium is all the way in Haidian, diagonally across town and people have to get there on their own -- the company isn't even organizing shuttle buses to get people there.

But that's not all.

This afternoon practically all the staff were away from their desks for several hours to practice marching into the stadium and cheering. When my Chinese colleagues returned, I remarked that the organizers probably got the idea to do that after the National Day parade, but one explained that during sports day in school, they all had to march in too.

They also have snazzy old school blue tracksuit jackets with a white trim that they have to wear. The jackets don't even say our company name on them -- those would have been too expensive to make, so our division decided to just buy some factory seconds.

But probably the best part is that according to a good source, the staff have to salute the overall head of the company when marching in.

Is it these leaders who are keen to boost their insecure egos by having hundreds of staff march in and compete in a sports day, or is it their subordinates who think this is the best way to suck up to the leader to win some brownie points?

Either way it's an event that's become the biggest farce for our company.

So much for building employee morale.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Jackson Lives On

A documentary tribute to Michael Jackson called This Is It was released at midnight last night. The film was released in 2,400 theatres in China. In Beijing, a Jackson impersonator entertained fans, while 1,100 lucky people got tickets to the premiere.

So far reviews are mostly positive, as the footage shows the King of Pop rehearsing for his series concerts he would have held in London.

Director Kenny Ortega decided to give fans one last look at the artist in the weeks and days leading to Jackson's sudden death on June 25 at age 50.

In an interview with the New York Times, Ortega wanted to show Jackson was physically prepared and mentally focused on his work.

"Was he slight? Yes. Was he frail? At times," Ortega said. "But we had a very strong and excited, happy and determined Michael. He wanted to do this more than anything he's ever wanted to do, and he was involved in every aspect of this project. He was there, he was invested, and he wanted to do this. That's the truth. It really is."

However, even four months later, people still can't believe Jackson really is gone.

At work, a few colleagues have messages next to their MSN names, saying they were looking forward to seeing This Is It, the last chance to see their idol. With a limited release of only two weeks, it's certain each screening of the film will be sold out, especially in China, where every other young person born in the 1980s loves Jackson.

But not to worry, those who can't catch the movie in the theatre can watch it on fake DVDs available probably now. But don't get them right away -- wait a few weeks when there will be better copies... well, that's what people say...

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Iron Rice Bowl Dreams

Many people in China are trying to get an "iron rice bowl" job, or a position in the civil service. Most are applying because they don't like their current job or have no clear career goals and think a government job will have promotion opportunities.

But it's a good job -- if you can get it.

According to the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, 1.35 million people have passed the qualification evaluation and 1 million of them are expected to take the exam. But there are only 15,000 positions available from more than 130 central government departments and subordinate agencies this year.

One job vacancy at the European Office of the International Department of the Ministry of Science and Technology attracted 4,080 applicants. Perhaps that position involves travel to Europe? Louis Vuitton bags, anyone?

However, jobs at railway public security and weather departments were less attractive -- 30 job vacancies were still open by the deadline last Saturday. Perhaps the weather job is too stressful with the government demanding the weather be good on specific days...

So it depends what kind of job you're looking for.

At the same time though, some candidates are just trying their luck and not bothering to cram for the exam.

One 26-year-old woman from Jiangsu Province is taking the exam for the fifth time, but doesn't want to prepare for it. "The odds of passing the test are higher than the lottery," she said. "But I would like to take a chance anyway. Maybe I can win it with my relaxed and positive mind," she said, adding that several of her friends had passed without studying.

Nevertheless, there are those who quickly discover that a government job may not be all it's cracked up to be.

A woman named Nikki Feng said she was not given the free apartment promised with the job and she had to compromise her health when her bosses insisted that she accompany them to meetings that involved heavy drinking.

Perhaps only alcoholics need apply for that job...

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Building Continues

Now it looks like the burned out tower next to the CCTV headquarters will be refurbished.

A report today says while the timetable for reconstruction and renovation of the tower is still pending, workers are being hired to revive the controversial "ghost tower."

Apparently white scaffolding has been placed along the south side of the Television Cultural Center (TVCC) which originally housed the Mandarin Oriental hotel and some CCTV facilities that was burned out in February.

So far 20 CCTV staff who were responsible for the fire have been arrested. The head of CCTV, Zhao Huayong was "relieved of his post" in May.

About 20 construction workers have arrived at the site and more than 1,000 workers will be employed by the China Construction Engineering Corporation, which originally built the two towers.

The article says reconstruction will entail knocking down the exterior walls and rebuilding them again. An official from the Information Office of Beijing Municipality said the main structure of the building had not been seriously affected.

However, ripping out the exterior and replacing it sounds dodgy rather than straight forward. The chances of leaks and below average construction comes to mind. And how are they going to get rid of the smokey smell? But more importantly, when a building has been through a fire, its structural quality has been compromised -- has there been any feasibility study to prove that the building is safe enough to use?

Also, it is not clear who will be paying for the repair work. The original cost of the two buildings was 5 billion RMB. One thinks millions more will be needed, as reconstruction is harder than constructing a building from scratch.

The story did not mention if Office of Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), the architect firm would be involved in the reconstruction. It probably wants to have nothing to do with the project anymore.
Only after the renovation, which will probably take just under two years, will the CCTV staff FINALLY move into the CCTV tower.

Talk about a major broadcast delay.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Top Cantonese Fare

I've finally found good Cantonese food in Beijing. Lei Garden Restaurant has several branches in Hong Kong, as well as Macau, Singapore and Guangzhou.

There are two locations in Beijing and the one on Jinbao Street is very convenient to get to, just around the corner from The Regent hotel.

Located on the third floor of Jinbao Tower, Lei Garden has an elegant setting, and immediately transports diners to Hong Kong, with Cantonese spoken at almost every table, while the majority of wait staff speak Mandarin.

When I made a reservation for dinner on Saturday night, I was asked if I wanted to preorder the long-simmering soup for 118RMB. Surprised by the question, I agreed and was not disappointed.

Apparently it's one of the best-selling dishes on the menu and the slightly dark soup was full of flavour, and we were each given two bowls to drink.

We also ordered barbecue pork that was tender, sweet and lean, while we also ate a small plate of roasted pork, the crunchy, golden brown skin with a layer of fat and then some tender meat.

There was also tofu, reconstituted with a mixture of vegetables and meats before being lightly fried which was a dream, and a plate of vermicelli stirfried with golden chives and bean sprouts. The soup-based pea shoots were also delicious and light, and the Chinese sausage rice was the ideal combination of flavour from the fatty sausages with a touch of soy, and dried bits of rice for texture.

The salt-baked chicken was already sold out, so we also ordered spareribs that were lightly deep-fried in a batter, which tasted great, but a bit too much fat content.

Dessert was an innovative touch -- double-boiled ginger milk with beaten eggwhites placed on top and baked.

I also came here for dim sum today and sampled a few dishes, including the steamed shrimp dumplings with crunchy shrimp with bamboo shoots, xiaolong bao, though they weren't quite as good as the ones at Din Tai Fung, two steamed dumplings that had practically transparent skins, and steamed rice rolls that were delicate and delicious.

Service is very good on the whole -- each of the staff somehow motivated to serve their customers well. A well managed operation that deserves kudos also for the delectable food.

Now I know where to go for my Cantonese fix...

Lei Garden Restaurant
3/F Jinbao Tower
No. 89 Jinbao Street
Dongcheng District
8522 1212

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Man Who Stayed Behind

It's an understatement to say American Sidney Rittenberg has lived an amazing life.

He personally got to know Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai in the 1940s, and observed first hand how the Communists organized themselves and their public and military campaign to beat the Kuomintang (KMT).

But he was also thrown in Chinese jail in solitary confinement twice for a total of 16 years, first falsely accused of being a spy, and then later for his radical political activities. 

When World War II broke out a young Rittenberg joined the army and was sent to learn Chinese; then he was sent to China in 1944. He stayed behind after the war and worked with the UN famine relief program. And that's how he met Mao and the CPC.

He said that the Mao he met in 1946 was a different one after he saw him again in 1963.

"In Yan'an, he was the best listener I'd ever met," recalls Rittenberg. "I was an unknown American and yet he asked me questions about America and he listened as though i was the world's leading authority. In contrast to Mao in the later years after the PRC in which he came through as someone who held court. He was not as good a listener."

Rittenberg explained that before coming to power, the CPC worked hard to win over the hearts and minds of people in the rural areas and intellectuals in the cities. In the rural areas they were very polite to the villagers, helping them with whatever needed to be done. This was a striking contrast to other armies, who, when they came through, were usually underpaid and underfed and exploited villagers for food and shelter.

When the Communists came to power in 1949, it was written into the constitution that the people were obligated to follow the party. Now those people who had worked hard to win over their constituents were now the masters of the country.

What Rittenberg finds ironic is that no one preached more about arrogance and abuse of power more than Mao. Rittenberg compares Mao to the preacher Billy Graham, who, for the most part, was unchanged in his habits and philosophy all his life.

A sympathizer, Rittenberg stresses that the land reforms the CPC did were sincere -- they had to do that in order to win their way to power.

However, he strongly believes that if the United States had not shut the door on China in the early 1950s, China today may have become more democratic and capitalistic than it is today. Rittenberg explains that John Leighton Stuart had wanted to establish some kind of relations with Zhou Enlai, but was denied and told by Roosevelt's Asian advisers to pack up the embassy in Nanjing and come home.

According to Rittenberg, Mao was anxious to reach out to the US for reconstruction loans and recognition; he also wanted a counterpoint to the then Soviet Union -- he didn't want to completely depend on the USSR. However, Roosevelt's administration didn't extend an invitation to Mao and so he was left with no choice but to follow Stalin's model.

If the US had been more open to Mao's call for help, Rittenberg says, then perhaps the Korean War and the Vietnam War could have been averted.

He goes on to say that in terms of regimes, Rittenberg doesn't know of any other that has made the kinds of achievements that China has. It inherited a country with semi-starved people where he saw corpses on the streets of Shanghai daily, people shot and killed for no reason and no questions asked, to now a life expectancy that has more than doubled. He says at that time it was around 31-32 years, but now it's around 72-73.

China has also joined the world, and the regime has reinvented itself to stay in power and deal with an open market economy.

While former President Jiang Zemin had the "trickle-down" theory, that wealth would eventually spread to other areas, the Hu-Wen administration is seeing that this is not necessarily working and is emphasizing economic policies that raise living standards and purchasing power of the people.

The people may grumble about the government -- and Rittenberg cites taxi drivers as the most opinionated -- on the whole most ordinary people don't love it, but they support it. In turn the country has given them much to be proud of, as evidenced by the recent National Day parade. However, the government has no ideals or morals for young people to aspire to.

When asked about China having a multi-party system, Rittenberg disagrees on the basis that alternate political groups need time to grow up, but more importantly, what would their platform be? He says it would most probably have to be anti-foreign, as the government seems to have all its bases covered in one way or another.

Also, Rittenberg witnessed first hand the downsides of the Cultural Revolution, mainly that it quickly led to despotism.

"Most people understand that majority rules, but they don't realize that you also have to protect the rights of the minority," he says. "You have to give a chance for them to speak."

But today he cites local Communist leaders are now going to be chosen through direct elections and include consultations from non-party members on possible candidates. This is the government's way of educating people on democracy, he says.

Rittenberg explained Mao's dominance began in the Yan'an years. In the first five years of the Long March, they used guerrilla tactics, but then changed to pitched battles, a strategy some brought back from the Soviets. However, those failed miserably and they brought back Mao as the head of the Military Commission, going back to guerrilla tactics.

It was after Lin Biao became the Minister of Defense in 1959 that he began the cult of Mao, collecting sayings and publishing them in a small red book. At first, according to Rittenberg, the book of quotations were only circulated in the army, and then distributed widely on the eve of the Cultural Revolution.

But nowadays, Rittenberg says the central government rules by consensus, which explains the dull speeches officials make these days he says with a laugh. While it shows the leadership is united, everyone is reading from the same script. He says this can also be a concern because the leadership isn't really listening to its own people which is not good. They are also ruling by consensus because there is no dominant leader.

He also could not understand why the government was having such a hard time dealing with its minorities. He said at the Melbourne Film Festival no one knew who Rebiya Kadeer was, but after the riots broke out, and people found out there was a movie about her, the movie goers wanted to see it. She shot into instant fame because of the Chinese government.

Rittenberg claims last year after the Tibet riots, he even asked senior officials why they did this, practically shooting themselves in the foot. One explained that they had to have mianzi or "face". The same goes with the Dalai Lama. He said who is the world going to believe, a revered monk, or the Chinese foreign ministry? He figures if China can have a success warming relationship with Taiwan, why not with the Dalai Lama who is only asking for cultural autonomy? He shakes his head.

As for the next leadership, Rittenberg predicts it will be more of the same, consensus building, probably with Xi Jinping at the head. Rittenberg knew Xi's father to be humble and did not let power get to his head. He doesn't know the younger Xi much, but expects Xi to pretty much follow in Hu's footsteps.

Rittenberg continues to travel to China frequently, consulting companies who want to enter the Middle Kingdom using his excellent pedigree and of course experience.

He's had a heck of a life full of stories that one will find hard to forget.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Continuously Denied

I'm not one of those people who updates their status every hour on Facebook, or plays games on there, pokes people or posts albums full of pictures.

Instead I use the social networking site to keep in touch with friends and family, find out what people are doing and in turn let them know I'm doing OK.

However, the National Day celebrations have come and gone, November is fast approaching, and we still don't have access to websites like Twitter and Facebook.

My colleague said to me earlier this week that since the July 5 riots broke out in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, this has been the longest period the Chinese government has blocked specific websites.

Many of us thought that after the celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China that we would surely get our freedom back to posting our status on these social networking sites. But the government has thought otherwise, which sends a disturbing and disappointing signal.

While having access to social networking sites may seem frivolous, it is the concept of getting back access to something that was blocked earlier. We've been good boys and girls, right? What have we done to deserve this continuing punishment?

President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have their own Facebook pages, albeit created by their fans... don't they want people to know what they're up to?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Picture of the Day: All Lit Up

For Tiananmen Square, the National Day festivities aren't quite over yet.

The giant screens that showed the parade are still parked on the northeast and northwest sides of the square, as well as the 56 red and gold columns from which fireworks shot out.

And the rostrum has Mao's new portrait hanging there, but the nearby potted plants seem to brighten up the area and the moving fountains that look more like lawn sprinklers adding a bit of pizazz to the otherwise conservative place.

After attending the Gary Graffman recital, I walked over to Tiananmen and as always there was a crowd of people wanting to get their pictures taken. The area is lit up so much that you don't need to use flash.

I think the place looks better lit up at night... makes it look grander and more mysterious.

Just like China.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Piano Master

A year or two ago when pianist Gary Graffman came to Beijing, I missed his concert and regretted it. Which is why when he returned again this year for the 12th Beijing International Music Festival, I made sure I got a ticket.

He performed tonight at the Forbidden City Concert Hall, one of my favourite venues, partly because it's located in a park setting, and partly because the space is small and intimate.

Now 81, Graffman gave a wonderful recital, his left hand flawlessly and gracefully caressing the keys, so comfortable with the piano and knowing what he wanted to say with the music.

He has played with his left hand for the past three decades after he sprained the ring finger of his right hand in 1979. Thinking he could rework passages to avoid using his injured finger, this only exacerbated the situation, injuring his right hand altogether.

However, Graffman was famous well before being known as a left-handed pianist.

Born in New York of Russian immigrants, Graffman's father was a violinist and expected his son to follow suit. But the younger Graffman was drawn to the piano and began playing it at the age of three. He entered the Curtis School of Music at seven and 13 years later at the age of 20 became a world-famous pianist. In 1948 he won the prestigious Leventritt Award and studied under Vladimir Horowitz. Even though Horowitz taught Graffman piano, the student had his own ideas of how the music should sound.

In 1980 Graffman joined the Curtis School of Music and shortly after published his memoir, I Really Should Be Practicing.

Today he teaches superstar Lang Lang and upcoming star Yujia Wang.

This probably explains the pretty good turn out, coming to see Lang Lang's teacher. On the whole, the audience was respectful, hardly a cellphone went off, but a few tried to take pictures who were quickly told off by staff. One woman who looked like she was taking a picture on her cellphone claimed she was texting her friend. When the attendant told her not to, she refused to listen to him and he turned back to see she looking at her phone again. She reiterated that she wasn't taking a picture and he had to ask her again not to use her mobile. What's so important that she has to text now, unless she finds the concert boring?

Graffman dressed simply in a suit and tie, complete with a tie clip and his dark thick-rimmed glasses. Though he used his left hand to carry his music to the piano, he would use his right hand to hold onto the edge of the piano periodically or place it in his lap. The right hand also made a great page turner.

If you closed your eyes, you would not think he was playing with only one hand -- through clever composition and the use of the pedal, it sounded like someone playing with both hands.

At the end of the concert Graffman played an encore -- a reworked short adaptation of Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. He had recorded the piece with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein in 1964.

It was a wonderful experience to watch the piano master in action, subtly revealing his passion for the music and drawing his audience along for the journey. But even more so, his performance show the triumph over adversity. Graffman is an example that setbacks should not stop you -- but in fact makes you discover strengths and talents you never knew you had before.

Here's the program:

Alexander Scriabin: Prelude in C-Sharp minor, Op. 9, No. 1
Alexander Scriabin: Nocturne in D-flat Major, Op. 9, No. 2
Alexander Scriabin/Reise: Etude in C-Sharp minor, Op. 2, No. 1
Carl Reinecke: Sonata in C Minor, Op. 179
Johann Sebastian Bach/Johannes Brahms: Chaconne from Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004

Max Reger: Four Special Studies
Leon Kirchner: For the Left Hand
John Corigliano: "For the Left Hand Alone" from Etude Fantasy
Felix Blumenfeld: Etude in A-flat Major, Op. 36
Leopold Godowsky: Selections from Fifty-Three Studies after Chopin's Etudes - Study No. 13 in E-flat minor and Study No. 41 in B minor

Monday, October 19, 2009

Bussing Around

Riding the bus is the perfect place to observe people and their habits.

Most of the people who take "sardine cans on wheels" are average people, ranging from migrant workers moving their giant bundles from one work site to another, to young professionals trying to save money to buy a car.

Of course everyone wants a seat if possible, and nowadays, people are getting better at giving up their seats for seniors. It's not an automatic reaction per se, as the bus attendant asks someone to give up their seat, but it's starting to become a reflex action.

Those who are intent on having their butts firmly planted in their seats feign drowsiness and either pretend to sleep or really do fall asleep. I've had people nod off and even land their head on my shoulder.

Some people have headphones on, others chat away on the phone oblivious to others listening in, or stare intently on the small TV screens even if it's the same advertisement for tea that promises to help you lose weight.

What's annoying at times is when the bus is already pretty packed and some selfish commuters insist on wrapping their arm around the pole or leaning against it so there is practically no way you can hold onto it.

Bus attendants and drivers don't make much money -- 1,000 RMB and 2,000 RMB respectively -- which makes you wonder how much they care about their jobs. Some bus attendants are really knowledgeable about all the bus lines; others robotically call out the next stop, or don't even bother. I've even seen some fall asleep on the job. Luckily the bus drivers don't and are in complete control of their vehicles. They seem to be able to manoeuvre the bus through any situation and a loud honk to get others to move out of the way seems to do the trick too.

Nevertheless, overall bus etiquette is pretty good, though some bus attendants feel they have the privilege of ordering around migrant workers when they bring all their belongings on the bus. Why treat them differently? It's as if someone brought several suitcases on the bus to go to the airport or train station.

Unfortunately the migrant workers have no choice but to accept this treatment. They seem to understand they play the role of country bumpkin and the discrimination comes with the territory. But why not have more respect for these people who build the roads, buildings and homes for us in Beijing?

Of all the people in Beijing, migrant workers deserve a break -- and a decent bus ride would be a good start.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Word of the Day: Kenlao

Young people in China depend on their parents to foot the bill for their weddings. This doesn't just mean the ceremony and lavish banquet, but also the apartment and possibly a car too.

This could end up costing hundreds of thousands to even millions of yuan. What 20-something has that kind of dough in their bank accounts?

So, getting your parents to pay for these marital items is called 啃老 or ken (3) lao (3), which literally means "to chew your parents' food", but now means "spending your parents' money to live your own lives".

In a recent newspaper article, a 27-year-old woman who married earlier this month said that her husband's parents paid the 100,000 RMB (14,652) wedding and her parents bought her a 200,000 RMB car as a dowry.

She even revealed that her mother-in-law took her husband to Hong Kong to get her a wedding ring that cost 8,800 RMB.

Another said she wouldn't marry her boyfriend unless he could get a good apartment between the east Third and Fourth Ring roads, which would cost at least 1 million RMB.

While it's considered a Chinese tradition for parents to pay for all these things, apartments didn't cost this much before, and cars were practically non-existent in their parents' generation. Are these young people asking for too much, or are they being spoiled by their parents? And how do these parents manage to save so much money?

It really does sound like the younger generation is eating up their parents' hard-earned money...

Blowing Fall Away

Yesterday we had fantastic weather -- the sky was a brilliant blue as I took some visitors to the Panjiayuan antique flea market for some last minute shopping.

I wore a long sleeve shirt and a hoodie which was just right for the warm temperatures that hit 21 degrees, and even in the late afternoon it wasn't cold.

However, this morning was a shock. The sky looked overcast and gray, but even worse  -- it was very windy.

Just before lunchtime it was quite windy, but after lunch, it was like battling against Mother Nature trying to walk into the direction of the wind. And the wind gusts didn't die down. All afternoon strong gusts blew all over the capital, blowing leaves all over the highway to the airport, and along side streets, weak branches snapped, unable to withstand the power of the wind. Even now this evening, you can hear the wind howling.

"Autumn is so short here," remarked a Chinese friend. "Pretty soon it will be winter."

I dread the word "winter". It means long johns, big puffy coats, boots, shivering outside and dry skin.

But, here we go again.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

China's Biggest Screen Show

I'm probably the last person in Beijing who hadn't yet checked out The Place, or 世贸天阶 Shi Mao Tian Jie, a few blocks north of Silk Street Market until tonight.

It's a wide open-concept mall, with such names as Zara and Starbucks, Golden Jaguar Restaurant and Adidas that opened at the end of 2007.

The highlight is the giant LED screen that stretches 2,296 feet, or equivalent to the length of a city block (in North America). It is 88 feet wide, 80 feet up in the air suspended by pillars. The massive screen is second only to the Fremont Street Experience in Las Vegas.

When we got there after dinner, a number of text messages were displayed on there, probably paying customers who thought it would be cool to have their marriage proposals for the rest of the world to see -- "I love you, will you marry me?"

Kids were either busy skateboarding or throwing up giant round foil balloons that aren't filled with too much helium so that they could throw them up in the air and then try to catch them in the area. Some were of Pokemon, others were colourful rainbow swirls.

Because the place is such an attraction, companies are taking advantage of marketing their products. Tonight we saw some Volkswagen cars that were painted in fantastic designs, one even looking like a qipao complete with the embroidered frog buttons.

And then every 15 minutes a show comes on the giant screen above. It took a while to figure out what was going on, a volcanic eruption, which made it seem like rocks were falling on our heads.

But then there was some kind of Chinese fairy, complete with a full bosom and bird-like wings who flew around in an idyllic scene and eventually clashed with this violent eruption. At the climax, she felt like she could not sustain much longer and started to cry, her tears creating these gem-like rocks that finally triumphed over evil.

The 10-minute show was quite long to watch, considering there wasn't much of a plot. Also our necks were sore from looking straight up. It's no wonder that most of the people weren't interested in watching anymore, probably because they had seen the same show 15 minutes earlier.

I'd love to come back again in the winter, when the skating rink is set up... and skate around with the LED lights above me. I hope I don't crash into anyone, too mesmerized by the giant screen to be watching where I'm going...

Friday, October 16, 2009

Far from Humble

A friend of mine who visits Beijing periodically raved about My Humble House in Wangfujing and so I kept this in mind when I went there with some visitors the other night.
This fusion restaurant is located west of the Grand Hyatt in the same complex, but can be confusing to find for those who venture there for the first time. There is a giant door that greets visitors and once inside, one can't help but be in awe of the stunning interior -- an atrium-like space with extremely high ceilings, a small square shallow pool near the entrance and dining tables spread around the room. The tables have wine glasses and giant decorative plates for each place setting, as well as a small ceramic square plate that holds a wet towel that's been wrapped into a flat circle.
That's why the name, My Humble House is a total misnomer -- it looks grand and sophisticated, and the same goes for the menu. The dishes are hardly considered home-cooked cuisine, but dishes with poetic names. We sampled many dishes that were not particularly fusion, perhaps because clientele here are looking for more authentic cuisine.

We had braised fatty pork that was quite delicious, cooked with cubes of dried tofu and garlic to soak up the flavourful juices. There was also a tofu dish that had thin slices of seaweed on top that made it look black, like a fish. We had a shrimp curry that was quite watery, but had a nice subtle lemongrass flavour, and a fish that was de-boned, and that part deep-fried, while the fish slices were stir-fried with carrots, celery and wood ear fungus. We also had more tofu cooked with baby napa cabbage. While all these dishes were good, the standard was average, while the presentation was beautiful, especially the fish dish.

For dessert, I tried the lemongrass jelly and sorbet with mixed fruit that came complete with dry ice for a dramatic effect. The jelly was delicious with that delicate lemongrass taste, the sorbet not too sweet, very refreshing with the finely cubed fruit.

Many of the tables were occupied by foreigners, probably impressed by the pretty good service and nice decor. However, the menu needs more variety or flexibility. For example, we wanted to have a dish of just vegetables, but there were none; this makes it difficult for particularly Chinese diners who have already ordered a variety of items on the menu but just want to add one vegetable dish. And the staff did not try to accommodate this request either, which was a bit strange.

While many will be blown away by the venue and presentation of My Humble House, discerning diners will pick up on the average taste of the food.

My Humble House
W307 Oriental Plaza
1 Dong Chang'an Jie
Dong Cheng District
8518 8811

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Forging New Music

The 7th Beijing Music Festival is underway and tonight we went to check out the New York-based contemporary music group Bang on a Can All-Stars at the Poly Theater.

While it wasn't packed, it was a decent turnout.

The traveling group was made up of six musicians: Ashley Bathgate on cello; Robert Black playing bass; David Cossin on drums and percussion; Mark Stewart playing guitars; Evan Ziporyn on clarinet and Vicky Chow at the piano.

On the sparse stage they came out in casual wear and then promptly began a piece that had a mixture speaking in unintelligible words with at times dischordant tunes, noises and even playing instruments differently. The pianist strummed the strings of the piano and the cellist slapped his hands all over his cello.
And after they were finished did they explain it was piece by Tan Dun called Concert for Six
Then after some explanation, they played four pieces by Conolon Nancarrow who had written piano pieces that were impossible for humans to play -- and this was in the 1930s! The Four Piano Studies were adapted for the six musicians and at times there were melodies in there, but were lost and a new one started again, or one rhythm established, but then changed to another, making it hard for me to follow along.
The last two pieces were by the founders of Bang on a Can, husband and wife composers, Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon. These were inspired by Beatles songs with Believing and I Buried Paul, which takes off where Strawberry Fields ends.
It was hard to tell if the Beijing audience could understand what was going on. In all the concert goers were polite, but did they understand? To be honest, as a classically-trained musician, I could see they were trying to create new sounds and a new way of presenting music, but it was hard for me to appreciate and comprehend what was going on. Granted there were some interesting sounds that they created individually or as a group, but on the whole it was not something I enjoyed listening to.
Nevertheless, it was an eye opener to see what contemporary music is trying to do.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Buying things online in China is not the same as in North America.
Back home you can order something, pay for it online and then a few days later, it arrives at your doorstep.
But here, websites either do not have the technical ability or are not allowed to do monetary transactions online. As a result goods are paid for on delivery in cash, or you have to go in person to finish the transaction, especially when it's via credit card.
I've had to do this many times with plane tickets, where once you reserve them, they must be paid for the same day so that the ticket can be issued; a next day transaction may not guarantee the same price, as the travel websites are at the mercy of the airlines who determine the prices.
The same goes for concert tickets. Yesterday I called about getting tickets for some upcoming concerts, including Lang Lang on December 7 at the National Center for the Performing Arts, better known as the Egg.
It took a long time for the girl who answered my call to locate the tickets on the computer and that I wanted seats on the left hand side of the auditorium so I could see the piano keyboard. Once this was finally done, I asked her to hold them for me so I could pick them up on the weekend, but she said that was not possible; I would have to pay for them right away or go to the ticket centre myself.
She could not explain why and at that point my frustrations were boiling over and there was nothing either one of us could do to resolve the issue. So this morning I schlepped to the ticket office, which was close to me and already at 9:15am there were many customers at the counter.
After I managed to enlist someone to help me, she didn't speak English and called out for someone else from the call centre to help her. After a few translated interactions, I managed to get the tickets I wanted and paid for them. However the girl who spoke no English seemed to have no sense of serving people, preferring to hide behind the counter. Who hired her?
But anyway, does buying stuff online have to be this complicated? The Internet is supposed to make things easier. But instead China insists on making things more difficult for everyone when it comes to monetary transactions. I can understand concerns about using a stolen credit card, but these cases are few and far between.

One of the most profitable websites in China is called Taobao which is an online shopping site, where people can buy from virtual stores. This is so advanced in terms of integrating all kinds of real stores online, and yet the old fashioned method of cash on delivery or COD still drags everything down. This is called progress?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Tastefully Presented

The other day I took some visitors to Da Dong Roast Duck restaurant in Dongsishitiao.

And I was pleasantly surprised to find that part of the second floor was renovated with a brand new look. Walking down the hall, it looked like it had a night club lounge atmosphere with a dramatic black and white decor.

On the walls was a bamboo motif, the back wall looking like traditional Chinese ink paintings, and another wall had a few leaves projected on it. while the black granite floor had "leaves" that were lit up in various colours. At the entrance was a long bar with leaves of a wooden screen painted white. Giant white petals were swirling around the ceiling, and the signature "chop" of Da Dong was projected on the columns in the room.

Meanwhile the rest of the furniture, dining tables and chairs were basically the same.

Apparently it was a recent renovation, and very well done. It was a definite departure from the brightly lit dining areas in the rest of the restaurant, creating a nice atmosphere.

Of course the food was top notch as usual, though service was a bit spotty as it was quite busy for a Sunday evening.

Nevertheless, it's great to see a restaurant constantly trying to innovate and change, making things better and challenging other dining establishments to do the same.

Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant
No. 22 Dongsishitiao
Dongcheng District
5169 0328
5169 0329

Monday, October 12, 2009

Why Not Us

When we heard Saturday late afternoon Beijing time that US President Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize, a colleague and I started conversing on MSN.
She said that China would be annoyed again that a Chinese national had not won, even though Charles K. Kao from Hong Kong won this year for physics in his work on fiber optics.
There's still controversy over the Dalai Lama receiving the peace prize in 1989 -- is he a Chinese or not? 
Nevertheless, so far there have been nine people of Chinese origin who have won Nobel prizes:
杨振宁 Chen-Ning Franklin Yang (US), 1957 physics

李政道 Tsung-Dao Lee (US), 1957 physics

丁肇中 Samuel Chao Chung Ting (US), 1976 physics

崔琦 Daniel Chee Tsui (US), 1998 physics

李远哲 Yuan Tseh Lee (US), 1986 chemistry

朱棣文 Steven Chu (US), 1997 physics

高行健 Xingjian Gao (France), 2000 literature

钱永健 Roger Yonchien Tsien (US), 2008 chemistry

高锟 Charles Kuen Kao (US, UK), 2009 physics

Many of the above were born in China and then immigrated to the United States.  
My colleague went on to say that China makes the excuse that the awarding of Nobel prizes is controlled by western countries. I pointed out that perhaps it was the system and the environment that people live in, but she retorted that China is a developing country, a common excuse to make up for the country's short comings.
However, I rebutted that Muhammad Yunnus of Bangladesh won the peace prize in 2006 along with the Grameen Bank he set up.
At this rate, China won't have any Nobel Laureates if the current system continues. There is no encouragement to think outside the box or to question things, which really, is how innovation happens... and can lead to Nobel prizes.

As my coworker says, they are trained to be "study machines", and that's just the perfect recipe for mindless robots who can just follow directions, but not blaze trails.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Party Ain't Over Yet

Today I was hoping to take visitors to Maison Boulud for brunch and then wander Tiananmen Square and then go to the Forbidden City.

However, when we got to Qianmen Station, there were hordes of people getting out and even security checks outside the subway station even though we already had our bags checked through an X-ray machine earlier.

It turns out that the floats from the 60th anniversary parade were standing in the square and today was the last day people could have their pictures taken with them and perhaps relive the moment of pride they felt on October 1 when watching it on TV.

As a result, thousands of people -- perhaps tens of thousands -- swarmed the square, even if it meant fighting the crowds. To them it wasn't a nuisance, but just the reality of the situation and patiently waited to get in. Even though the National Day holiday is over, security was still kind of tight, and if they saw ethnic minorities, they would ask them where they were going and pull them aside...

When we got to the restaurant, we were able to escape the crowds, but this was only temporary, because after lunch, there were even more people in the area.

We tried to get back to the same subway exit that we came out of, which mean joining many other people following a prescribed route set out by the police. However, when we finally reached the area, we were not allowed to go into that particular subway exit, but would have to go all the way around to where we were before and then go another way to another subway exit that had tons of people lining up just to get in.

Then we tried to get a bus, but by the time we got to the bus stop near Qianmen Street, that would mean lining up with tons of other people as well.

In the end we gave up and walked along Qianmen Street, which was also filled with people. The long shopping strip is now fully occupied with stores and the red lanterns hanging created a lively atmosphere. Even the trams were working, running slowly up and down the area.

It was also a good way to walk off our delicious lunch so that we could eat Peking duck at Da Dong later in the evening...

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Membership Has Benefits

Tonight I went to visit the Hong Kong Jockey Clubhouse on Jinbao Street, thanks to a friend who is a member of the one in Hong Kong.

It's a grand place that follows the style of a siheyuan or courtyard house, but on a much larger scale. The exterior has red columns, Chinese tiled roofs and gardens in various areas. Inside is very modern and tastefully decorated with a colour scheme ranging from beige to chocolate brown.

We had dinner in the Chinese restaurant called Beijing Oi Suen, with a Peking duck that rivals that of Da Dong Roast Duck, deep-fried fish in a sweet and sour sauce, an especially inebriated drunken chicken, and thinly sliced lamb stirfried with leeks and beans cooked with long thin sliced strips that were actually mushrooms.

After our meal we wandered around the clubhouse, first taking a look at our friend's hotel room. It's very large at 550 square feet and could be considered even grander than some five-star hotel rooms. That's because the ceilings are high, amenities are top class and even the windows look into the courtyard garden.

The library gives an atmosphere of being in someone's extended living room, with many books on the shelves, sculptures and paintings of horses, a variety of chairs and sofas, and a flat screen TV. The only thing missing is a fireplace and one would feel they were in a living room in North America.

Exercise enthusiasts would also love the gym facilities. There are two gym areas, one with two tables for table tennis and mirrors all around, which probably makes for an interesting playing experience, and then the other with practically brand new equipment for running, elliptical, stair climbing and weight lifting. There's also an indoor swimming pool 25 metres long with a glass ceiling to allow natural light in. Even the changing rooms are deluxe with individual seats in the powder room, a relaxation room, and treatment rooms for massage.

The lobby is also impressive, which features giant chrysanthemums in gold in the ceiling. They are probably wood carvings covered with gold leaf, but nevertheless gorgeous and sophisticated.

All the staff are polite and friendly. Perhaps the doormen like their jobs the best. To help guests grab a taxi, they jump onto their Segways and drive down to the street and lead the taxi back to the entrance. How cool is that?

It's too tempting to ask how much the membership is... I'd have to stay in Beijing forever if I could afford it!

Beijing Hong Kong Jockey Clubhouse
68 Jinbao Street
Dong Cheng District
5911 8888

Friday, October 9, 2009

Picture of the Day: An Artistic Ride

The most efficient way to get around Hong Kong is by subway, or MTR (Mass Transit Railway), and in recent years some stations have been renovated or upgraded to accommodate greater passenger flow, or to correspond to real estate developments above ground, such as new malls, residential areas or a combination of both.
And I am pleasantly surprised to find that art is now being further incorporated into the MTR stations. One of the first few to do it was the connection between the main Central station and the Airport Express and International Finance Centre or IFC. It features a kind of rocket in a colourful yellow background that is almost childlike. It's called Swift and Safe by Gaylord Chan.
Earlier this week I went to give a presentation to a class at Yew Chung Community College in Cheung Sha Wan in Kowloon.
And along the exit route at the Cheung Sha Wan station, I saw some wonderful billboards lit up with whimsical hand drawn designs that were a mix of east and west that were very Hong Kong.
Done by Hong Kong-based artist Mariko Jesse, the series is called Teapots, Bowl, Cups and Some Spoons. Just looking at these pieces of art were not only eye-catching but definitely put a spring in my step. The MTR is on an artistic track which is really cool.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Unforgettable Tastes

Whenever I'm in Hong Kong I need to get my fix of good Cantonese food.
While there are many new restaurants popping up in Beijing, some offering quite delicious dishes, northerners can't get the delicate and sophisticated taste of Cantonese cuisine quite right.
My aunt and uncle treated me to great dim sum at the Metropole Restaurant in Admiralty, where I also bumped into a friend I haven't seen in two years! The giant place gets packed quickly so we got there before noon. We had wonderful steamed shrimp dumplings, steamed chicken buns, steamed squid with a bean sauce, barbecue pork pastries, kale with oyster sauce, and I finished with a giant bowl of tofu dessert with syrup.
I also had a wonderful dinner at the Chinese restaurant Gallop at the Hong Kong Jockey Club in Happy Valley. Our dishes included baked cod fillets, steamed egg with shrimp, tender beef braised with onions and deep-fried squid in a light batter.
One of my last Hong Kong meals was at Mak's Noodle on Wellington Street, just off the Mid-Levels escalator.
I used to eat here periodically after a day at the office. It's quite famous for its wonton noodles served in relatively small bowls and that were quite expensive.
That hasn't changed at all.
The place looks exactly the same as I last saw it, with its laminate tables, hard-backed booth seats and elderly men taking orders and serving. At the window is the cook, spooning broth or cooking noodles.
I had a bowl of braised beef tendon with wonton noodles. In minutes the small bowl arrived, the small wontons peeking from under the mound of egg noodles and beef tendon on top.
The beef tendon was cooked for so long that it almost melted in my mouth. I missed this taste, as northerners don't seem to know how to prepare it, which basically entails letting it simmer for a long period of time. It was also braised in a beef-based sauce, thus having a rich taste.
And the wontons were just the same as before, small bites of crunch shrimp, bamboo shoots and wood ear fungus wrapped up in a skin. The noodles? Al dente as usual.
While I tried to eat slowly, it didn't take long to finish the bowl. The waiter asked me if I wanted another bowl, but that would be breaking the bank.
That small bowl was HK$40 ($5.16) and my uncle jokes you'd have to eat at least four bowls just to be full. Nevertheless, it was great going back to a neighbourhood haunt and discover some things are still the same as when you left them.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Finding a Way

People in Hong Kong are still pessimistic about the economy and think it will take a good five to 10 years for it to recover. While the Hang Seng Index is gradually climbing upwards, it's mostly thanks to the "hot money" flowing in from China. 

Real estate prices are also rising and apartments are becoming more out of reach of regular people as mainlanders come to Hong Kong, suitcases in hand full of cash and snap up properties.

Meanwhile staff are being squeezed to do more with less (sound familiar?) and some companies are doing yet another round of layoffs. 

That said, there are still opportunities to be found. A friend of mine got a job during a hiring freeze, and another who was made redundant is starting up his own company, which with his good connections, should help him succeed.

This is what I love about Hong Kong -- despite numerous setbacks, there are still opportunities around if you look and are in the right place at the right time. People need to find a way to survive so they do -- one way or another.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Drinking the Wallet Dry

I met a good friend of mine for a drink after he finished work today. He took me to a new bar in Wan Chai which was on the rooftop of an office building. It was a fantastic view, looking down at Wan Chai below, Causeway Bay and beyond to the east, and Central to the West. Peeking between the buildings we could also see Kowloon side. It is pretty much a million-dollar view.

We ordered drinks and had a chat. I finished my non-alcoholic drink quickly and asked for a glass of water. The waiter said they only had bottled water, so would I want still or sparkling?

I didn't want the glass of water anymore and my friend was turned off too, to the point where he threatened he may not patronize this bar again! 

He even told me that at the new Mandarin Oriental in Central, a glass of water there sets you back HK$120 ($15.50). Whatever happened to free regular water?

Last night I had drinks with two friends at the Conrad Hotel. In total we had seven drinks, costing over HK$600! That's worth a meal in itself!

For me coming from Beijing it is mind-boggling spending that much money, but this is the way Hong Kong is. If you want to live here, you gotta be prepared to spend the money. And lots of it.

Monday, October 5, 2009

10 Ways to Know You're in Hong Kong

You know you're in Hong Kong when:

10. People patiently wait for people to get out of the MTR before getting in.

9. Things cost several times more than what they do on the mainland. For example, a bottle of water costs 1 kuai or 1.5 kuai; at a 7-11 in Hong Kong, it's HK$6.

8. Everyone around you is better dressed than you, and mostly head to toe in designer brands.

7. Hong Kong women look like they have perfect complexions thanks to Korean skincare products and makeup.

6. Traffic is heavy, but orderly; no one trying to budge their way into a lane as the roads are too narrow to make such manoeuvres.

5. Most restaurants serve dim sum during the morning, not like Beijing where it's eaten for dinner.

4. You have to tip servers in restaurants.

3. You are still understood if you speak English.

2. Most places are logistically connected with walkways or underpasses, making it so much more convenient for people rushing around to get to where they need to go quickly and efficiently.

1. Excellent service. Service staff inherently know you need. 

I was in the Landmark this afternoon, trying to find my friend's office. I must have looked confused because a man behind me asked if he could help me. I turned around and it was the mall's concierge service. I told him my request and he gave me very clear directions which made my life so much easier.

This is what China needs to learn, but it will take several years before they understand how important good service is.It's not just having smiling girls in revealing outfits, but smart people who really care about others and want to reach out and help them. This is an inherent thing; it can be trained, but it must be something that person instinctively wants to do.

Excellent service is Hong Kong's edge over China. And hopefully the mainland is paying attention.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

In the Name of Brotherhood

Today Premier Wen Jiabao went to North Korea to meet with Kim Jong-Il in the hopes of restarting the six-party talks.

We watched the footage tonight covering Wen's arrival in Pyongyang on television while eating dinner in a restaurant.

Grandpa Wen, in his western suit, met Kim, in his regulation khaki outfit, shook hands, and then the two had an awkward embrace, and then another one, as Wen wrapped his arms around Kim.

Talk about a forced moment.

But Kim meeting Wen at the tarmac was giving big face to China. Lining the streets were thousands of well-wishers, dressed up and waving bunches of fake bright pink and fuchsia flowers.

Nevertheless, Wen is trying to persuade Kim that a non-nuclear Korean peninsula is in everyone's best interests. Korea watchers think that Kim's presence at the airport seems to indicate his willingness to get back to the table in earnest, and China has apparently  promised some economic aid.

Perhaps Kim is hoping this will eventually lead to him having a meeting with Barack Obama... which may be when the real negotiations begin.

We can only hope this plays out with a win-win situation... for everyone's sake.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Fiery Spirit of Hong Kong

Tonight my friend took me to watch something very Hong Kong to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival.

We had an early dinner and then took a taxi to Tai Hang Road which is near Victoria Park in Tin Hau.

The street already had barricades set up on either side and already started to fill up with mostly photographers. We took a place where we could lean against a railing and right at 6pm the police closed off the road.

So while we had a good spot before 6pm, that meant having to wait -- over two and a half hours -- for the show to start.

It's called Tai Hang Fire Dragon and it is a legend from 1880. At that time Tai Hang was a Hakka village and in that year the villagers saw a serpent in what is now Victoria Harbour. They could not find the serpent and soon afterwards, the villagers caught some kind of infection and some died.

One of the villagers had a dream or a vision that told him that he had to make a fire dragon out of incense and burn it for three days during the Mid-Autumn Festival. He did this and the infection disappeared.

Since then the tradition has continued and the long-time residents of Tai Hang organize this fire dragon event every year for three days.

The dragon is made of what is literally called jun ju chou - or "pearl reed" and then they stick incense in it. This year's mystical beast was 280 feet long which required some 100 people to carry it up and down the street.

But before the main event, there was a disorganized parade of little girls dressed up in traditional Chinese outfits carrying pink lotus lanterns with real candles burning in them. They were also accompanied by beauty pageant contestants who were trying to get more exposure. There was also a drumming team performing the traditional lion or dragon dance drumming and get this -- a Scottish bag piper band too. What they were doing there, kilts and all was a bit strange.

Finally just after 8:30pm the dragon finally appeared all lit up. There weren't as many incense sticks on it has I had imagined. However, when the dragon did get close to us, we could feel the heat from it.

They waved its tail like a wave and circled around the head and they set off firecrackers too. At one point the head and the rest of its long skinny body were separated, and later the tail too. Obviously it was hard work to carry the dragon's body as it was quite heavy. So at times we would clap and shout in appreciation.

Pretty soon it was over and thousands of people filed out on an orderly fashion.

It was very interesting to watch and I'm glad I saw a piece of Hong Kong history or legend I never knew about until today.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Message Overload

Now that the 60th anniversary celebrations have died down, I'm now in Hong Kong... where thousands of other mainlanders have come to spend their wads of money for the next week.

However, what's foremost in Hong Kong's mind is the A(H1N1) influenza virus. 

On the plane there was a serious video message about it in English, Cantonese and Mandarin, instructing people of the symptoms they should be looking out for, wash their hands frequently with soap, and that they should sneeze into a tissue and dispose of it immediately or sneeze into their sleeve. There were also suggestions of wearing masks in public and avoiding crowded areas.

We filled out mandatory health forms from the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region asking us for our contact information, what our plane seat number was and which cities we've been in recently. 

When we disembarked from the plane, many Hong Kong airport staff wore masks and were scanning us for any high temperatures.

Hygiene is at a priority here -- the buttons on public elevators are covered with a sheet of plastic and a note that says this covering is changed every two hours. Gong fai, or "public chopsticks" are a common sight in restaurants so that no one's own chopsticks contaminate the dishes in front of them.

At the bank my teller did sneeze into his sleeve. Several people on the streets wore masks; granted it wasn't a majority, but it was definitely noticeable.

It's great to see such a high awareness and people taking as many precautions as possible. But the city now has a kind of anxious atmosphere that isn't quite comfortable, or maybe it's me being overwhelmed by the constant messages.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Finally, the Main Event

The parade to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China has gone off without a hitch. The weather even cooperated with fantastic blue skies and white clouds high in the sky.
On my way to work, many people were out on the streets, doing what I'm not sure as there isn't much to do with many places closed. A few people rode the subway.
As I was leaving the subway station from one of the exits, a group of people were huddled around a flat screen TV in the corridor with munchies in hand to watch the proceedings.
After the national anthem, President Hu Jintao came down from the rostrum at Tiananmen and got into what looked like an old Red Flag limousine but in fact was the latest model that kept the old school look. He stood so he could be seen out of the sunroof complete with four microphones attached to the roof. As he inspected the numerous lines of soldiers, tanks and equipment, he said, "Tongzhimen hao" (Hello comrades)... "Tongzhimen Xinku" (Comrades, you've worked hard) ... to which the soldiers enthusiastically replied.
Shots of the military hardware made a striking contrast to the shiny modern Wangfujing buildings in the background.
Then the car turned around and went back down Chang'an Avenue and across the bridge at Tiananmen where the music continued playing until he got up to the rostrum that included Zhu Rongji, Jiang Zemin, Wen Jiabao, Bo Xilai, Xi Jinping, and Li Keqiang. They wore their requisite dark suits and ties in various shades of red. Hu wore an updated Mao suit in dark grey.
The President's speech was thankfully short and concise, recounting the successes of the last 60 years, how Chairman Mao built the country and that Hong Kong and Macau have returned to the motherland.
Meanwhile, thousands of children held up colourful cards that created a series of slogans, like 人民万岁 or "Long Live the People", 热爱人民 or "Love the people", 社会主义好 "Socialism is good" and so on.... 
After Hu's speech, the military parade began. Chinese commentators believe this is the most interesting part of the parade, and give many statistics about the 14 infantry formations, 30 motorized formations and 12 air force formations... they speak with pride about China's latest weaponry and in the same breath stress that China will not use war to provoke, but only to defend itself. It makes one wonder if China realizes showing all this military hardware isn't really in synch with its ongoing message that it is a peaceful nation...
The soldiers really do march in perfect order and when they about to pass the rostrum they shout out to the VIP guests.
When the female soldiers in military green short skirts and boots started marching, the TV cut to President Hu smiling brightly and clapping... obviously pleased to see some leg. The same thing happened when another unit of women, now dressed in fuchsia outfits with white berets and boots are marching by. Hu can't seem to stop smiling at them.
After that the tanks started rolling in...
The poor military band has to keep playing over and over for two hours.... overhead planes flew by, emitting rainbow colours. We hear them rumbling by our office and my coworkers ran to the window to see if they could spot them in the sky -- not.
Then it was time for the floats... all 60 of them. There's a picture of Mao Zedong at the rostrum, and his voice can be heard, proclaiming the founding of the People's Republic, as people wave giant red handkerchiefs in the air. Another says the People's Republic has stood up.
Floats with the portraits of Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and even Hu Jintao go by. Seems you can be immortalized even before your presidency is over. Or is it an attempt to be seen in the same light as past leaders?
A number of floats go by, like the Shenzhou V complete with an astronaut waving the Chinese flag, one of the Olympics and Paralymics with the song, "You and Me", various cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Macau and Hong Kong. Even Chief Executive Donald Tsang was there, with a camera around his neck playing tourist.
There were other floats from some provinces like Shandong, Guizhou and Yunnan, and even one from the sanitation department! 
They were rounded out by, of course the minorities, or were they Han Chinese in ethnic minority costumes? Hard to tell from far away. 
In the end more than 5,000 children held giant balloons that were mostly red. They released all the balloons (we'll have to see how far they travel) and the kids enthusiastically ran to the three bridges leading to the rostrum waving to the senior leaders who reacted like passive robots.
The event was scripted so much that nothing was taken to chance, not even a slight spontaneous outburst.
While we watched the proceedings, one of my colleagues remarked to me on MSN: "Our country is a bigger North Korea... I have no idea why 1.3 billion people are so happy for this. People don't benefit from this at all."
She had a point. Only invited guests were allowed to witness the event live, while everyone else in Beijing had to be cooped up in their homes, while roads were blocked, buses diverted and subway lines stopped. Even the airport was stopped for three hours during the parade.
In the meantime now that the parade is over (and now constantly replayed on CCTV), what's going to happen to all the floats? Will they be auctioned off or put in some kind of 60th anniversary museum?
That's what inquiring minds want to know.
More commentary on the parade from the Wall Street Journal can be found here.