Monday, November 30, 2009

Overcapacity is Not Harmonious

China and the European Union are meeting these two days, and it is hoped that with the newly-elected president of the EU, Van Rompuy, the EU will finally have one voice and figure out its China policy.

Nevertheless, the meeting of the 12th China-EU Summit in Nanjing has had a bit of a rocky start with the EU Chamber of Commerce in Beijing releasing a report late last week claiming that China's industrial overcapacity is sparking trade tensions and raising the risk of bad loans.

According to the study by the chamber and Roland Berger Strategy Consultants, China's 4 trillion yuan ($586 billion) stimulus package is worsening capacity, especially in steel, aluminum, cement, chemical, refining and wind-power equipment industries.

Basically, in order for China to maintain its economic momentum this past year, it has propped up the above-mentioned industries with subsidies, keeping business as usual even though orders overseas are way down. And because domestic demand for these goods are not high enough, many of these things are dumped in other countries at extremely low prices. Which is why we are seeing so many tariffs being slapped on Chinese-made goods.

"The Chinese stimulus package has poured credit into increasingly questionable projects," the report said, without specifying them. "The global impact can already be felt in the form of growing trade tensions."

It also says that China is the main "victim" of its own overcapacity. The chamber said lower profits means companies lack money to invest in research and development, to create value-added goods. Businesses are also forced to cut costs, leading to slower wage growth and thus less consumption.

"This is a major obstacle on the government's path to become both an innovative and sustainable economy," the report said.

It recommends the Chinese government cut overcapacity by lowering subsidies, raising interest rates to curb easy credit, and investing more in the social security net so people feel more free to spend. It also says costs for utilities like electricity and water should be raised so there will be less wastage and impact on the environment.

However, China will not take any of these recommendations, at least not right away. Currently it is painting itself as a victim of all these tariffs and its people cannot understand why China has good relations with say the United States when they are slapping tariffs on all kinds of Chinese-made goods.

What China should have done a year ago was seriously restructure its economy, especially state-run enterprises, cutting the excess fat, as they are not even as close as productive as privately-run companies, consolidate companies -- do you really need some 40 car manufacturers? And it needs to seriously invest in innovation. We're not talking about making the tiniest computer or developing more games on cell phones, but things that are not yet on the market.

Instead the country is dragging its feet, preferring to just continue on the same path it has always been on and hope that the rest of the economies around the world pick up again so it can continue being the world's factory.

Speaking of which, the Ministry of Commerce has produced a 30-second commercial I saw once today on CNN where the government is trying to promote that China manufactures all kinds of goods, from gadgets to clothing to airplanes. As if we didn't know that already.

It is the perfect illustration of how behind the government is in realizing what is going on outside the country and trying to get a step ahead instead of just trying to keep up.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Making the Case for Two

A professor from a university in Tianjin says the government should revise its family planning policy, and allow couples to have more than one child.

Yuan Xin, a professor with the Population and Development Institute of Nankai University says by adjusting the one-child policy, there will be less of a gender imbalance and more younger people to look after a fast-growing aging population.

Currently, the average gender ratio in China is about 117 to 120 boys for every 100 girls. The world average is about 107 boys for every 100 girls. That means in 20 years there will be 30 million men who will never be able to marry or have children.

In the last few years there have been tweaks to the family planning policy. For example minorities are allowed to have as many children as they wish, which explains why Tibet has a normal gender birth ratio. For Han Chinese, if the first child is born disabled, couples are allowed to try again. In the rural areas, if the first child is a girl, they may try again for a boy. And in the last few years, couples, both of whom are the only child in their family can have two children.

China's family planning policy began in the 1970s and the government claims it stopped 400 million births which it proudly says helped slow down the consumption of the world's resources.

But by the same token, the country has been criticized for its cultural preference for males and now it doesn't have a big enough working population to finance the aging one.

Yuan has suggested family planning be loosened in the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015) which is in the next two years. However, by around that time, almost every young married couple will be eligible to have two children because those born in the late 1980s and onwards definitely come from one-child families.

So what's the problem?

While parents and the government are trying desperately to push young people to get married and have children, how can couples afford to have babies if they can't even afford an apartment? Property prices are so high now that everyone's savings have to be scraped together to buy a small home. Some young women refuse to marry their supposed beloved if they can't afford an apartment.

The government should be doing more to control property prices (ie cut down on the unscrupulous practices of property developers) so that people are more confident about entering the real estate market and from there they can plan their lives.

If they don't even feel secure about buying a home, how can they even afford to have a child?

As for the 30 million single men... unless the government and society is more open to accepting interracial marriages, they're going to remain bachelors...

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Christmas German Style

Today was the annual Christmas bazaar at the German embassy a few (big) blocks from where I live. I read in a magazine that it is a very popular event and the article advised people to bundle up as they'd have to wait outside for a while to get in!

It started at 11am so I started off just before 10:40am, got on a bus for two stops. But when my bus approached the bus stop, across Dongzhimen Wai Daijie 10 minutes later, there was a massive line snaking down the block where the German embassy was and overflowing onto the next one!

So I stood at the back of the line where the European Union embassy was, and many people lined up behind me. Most of the people were German, as I heard many speaking German, or with Chinese people who could speak German, along with some Canadians and Americans.

After 11am the line slowly started moving and we inched forward every 30 seconds or so -- but literally inching. By the time I arrived at the entrance, it was 11:50am -- an hour waiting to get in.

Everyone had to show their passport and then get a quick sweep of a wand by security guards, open our bags and then were basically allowed in.

There were little booths set up in the courtyard, many selling things like gingerbread cookies and houses, stollen, sausages, pretzels, apple cider, beer, champagne, and a huge selection of cakes and pastries. People could eat hotdogs, bratwurst with potato salad, or roast pig.

But not all were edible -- there were also Christmas cards for sale, advent calendars (OK those involve chocolate), Christmas candles decorated with fir and pine, small wreaths, and jewelry.

Some people played O Tannenbaum on the trumpet, and later a choir in red complete with Santa Claus sang a few Christmas carols in German.

It was a really festive atmosphere, everyone keeping warm drinking cider, children decorating gingerbread cookies, or waving their long balloon swords around.

What was perhaps most interesting was a different kind of lost in translation, as most of the signs or descriptions of products were in German than Chinese and even then it was hard to decipher what exactly they were.

Nevertheless, it was the perfect event for families with kids and people catching up with friends. Isn't that what Christmas is about, anyway?

Friday, November 27, 2009

Fact of the Day: Best Investment of the Year

What is the best-performing asset this year?

Gold? Steel? Copper? Oil?

It's something of a more pungent edible bulbous nature -- garlic.

In some parts of China, garlic prices almost quadrupled to as high as 9 yuan ($1.32) per kilogram since March.

Some think it's because farmers lost money last year with too much garlic on the market, so they decided to scale back by planting less.

Others think that because of the A(H1N1) influenza virus spreading, many believe that eating garlic helps keep people healthy, so an extraordinary amount of garlic is being consumed.

The BBC quoted garlic seller and eater Jiang Haiqu as saying, "Every dish needs garlic and it's a good disinfectant. People who eat it live longer than others."

Guo Dongliang, a garlic seller also said that with the rise of oil prices, transportation costs also contributed to higher prices of garlic.

Some even think there are people hording the white bulbs to intentionally raise prices.

But whatever the theory may be, China produces three-quarters of the world's garlic. So you may eventually have to pay small fortune for a pungent (and healthy) flavour.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Memories Can Betray the Truth

Last night I went to hear author Wang Gang (王刚) talk about his book English, which was released in English in April. It was originally published in Chinese in 2004.

Wang is considered an acclaimed author, born and raised in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

Dressed in a sweater and a long scarf elegantly draped around his neck, Wang apologized to the audience if he sounded sleepy as he had met up with a friend from Xinjiang the night before and they drank heavily so he was hung over. But he spoke poetically in a low voice in Chinese that was immediately translated into English.

His father went to Xinjiang in 1949, met his wife there and Wang was born in 1960. He learned how to play classical music on the flute and started writing stories. "I've lived 22 years in Beijing, but Xinjiang is my home," he says. "I don't dream about Beijing streets, but of my hometown of Urumqi."

However, when he was six years old, the Cultural Revolution began and for him and many of that generation, that decade has marked them in a different way from the generation before him. And his memories of that turbulent and violent period were recorded in the semi-autobiographical novel English.

He points out that those from the older generation write about the Cultural Revolution differently than him and his peers. "They describe it as the bad guys bullying the good people, which is basically them," he said, referring to the older generation. "They felt they were the victims. I on the other hand was six years old. I still felt guilt in my heart. They think to confess is not their business. But I think a child should confess."

When the Cultural Revolution began, Wang's parents were put in jail and he and his older brother wandered the streets as the schools were closed. They didn't have food so they would steal it. Sometimes they were caught and beaten up for it.

He says that the Cultural Revolution in Xinjiang and Beijing were the same -- except in Xinjiang there are Uygurs and 12 other minorities where everyone suffered together.

"I saw people beating up my dad and a Uygur who was a leader," Wang recalls. "Violence may happen to anyone. Everyone beat everyone. Then they all say they are victims. And then they ask, 'Why did it happen?'"

Wang says it was hard for him to remember what happened. "It took me eight years to write the novel [English], waiting for the details in my memory to surface," he said.

"Outside our window at home we could see the Ba Yi Middle School. Everyday I saw children older than me, about 14 or 15-years-old, beating their teachers. One female teacher was beaten to death. They left her body there and her husband came to collect it," he said.

"Not far from our house is the Urumqi River. And I saw a coffin on the bank of the river. It seemed huge in my memory. And I always saw someone kneeling next to the coffin. I never knew who was inside the coffin," he recalled.

Wang shrugs and says they just grew up like that at the time. "I can't helping thinking we were the freaks born during the Cultural Revolution," he said with a smile.

When he was told the Cultural Revolution was over, he wasn't even sure it was over. He said there was about five years of violence, which then calmed down. When he was 11, he learned to play the flute, playing pieces by Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Chopin. He said he was lucky that Mao's wife, Jiang Qing like instruments like this, as it gave an opportunity for poor kids to learn an instrument.

"For some writers, it is important to write about violence," he said. "I want to write like Mozart with tears in my eyes."

An audience member asked him about his reaction to the July 5 riots in Urumqi. In a roundabout way, Wang said he was very shocked, because when he was a child he played and fought with Uygurs, went to their homes to eat their food and knew some of their folk songs. He said he had many Uygur friends, even a next-door neighbour who was the vice mayor of Urumqi. They taught him about all the different trees, how to pick edible mushrooms and made him feel Urumqi was the brightest town in China because of the oil lamps Uygurs lit at night.

However, after the riots erupted, he called his Han Chinese and Uygur friends and heard different versions of what happened. He thought this contrasted with the Cultural Revolution, where everyone suffered together and after the tumultuous decade they lived peacefully together.

"Another friend called the other day from Xinjiang to say that Han Chinese don't eat at Uygur restaurants anymore and Uygurs won't go to Han Chinese residential areas," Wang reported.

He recalled two years ago going to Urumqi where he went to a bar and invited the people there for a round of drinks. Vodka was brought out and more drinking and dancing, together with Uygurs. In the end Uygur college students visiting from Beijing took him home. "Were they the same ones? I'm especially afraid of seeing blood, because of the Cultural Revolution," he said. "I don't want to face bloodshed again."

He sympathizes with many Uygurs who are so poor and work hard, only earning 1,000 RMB ($146.42) a year. "Who would have a peaceful life with 1,000 yuan a year?" he asked. While he hopes to see more of a middle class emerging in Xinjiang, he admits that perhaps material goods will not make them happy, as those in Beijing with what seem like good lives are not happy.

Han Chinese and Uygurs complain to him, he says, but points out the Uygur minority are the weaker group of people.

However, when asked if Wang could speak the Uygur language, he answered in this way:

"After July 5, some journalists interviewed me. They asked, 'If you treat Uygur people as your friends, why can't you speak their language? Why do they speak Chinese?' I was ashamed. It's unfair," he said.

So even while Wang, who was born in Xinjiang, grew up with and knows many Uygurs, believes the Han Chinese and Uygurs on the whole got along with each other. He still does not fundamentally understand the plight of Uygurs who want the freedom to practice their religion and culture and not be subjected to Chinese rule.

An audience member pointed out that Wang has a romanticized view of Xinjiang, and it seems he only wants to remember it that way, than see the brutal reality.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Nominal Reinvention

Chinese mainlanders used to be easily spotted in Hong Kong for their fashion sense, or lack of, but now they are trying to reinvent themselves in the former British enclave even further.

The South China Morning Post in Hong Kong recently reported that more mainlanders who live there are legally changing the spelling of their names to avoid discrimination.

A lawyer said his firm was seeing more mainland Chinese wanting to change the romanized spelling of their name to look more like Hong Kong residents.

For example, some Putonghua-speaking mainland clients would ask to have "Zhu" changed to "Chu", and "Zeng" to "Tsang".

"Some names in Putonghua pronunciation start with X or Z and many new migrants from the mainland want to change the spelling of their names in order to sound like a Hong Kong citizen who grew up in the city," the lawyer, Raymond Tang told the newspaper.

"Some whose names are only two characters also want to change them to three, as names with two characters are more common on the mainland," he was quoted as saying.

Statistics from the Immigration Department showed there was a monthly average of 105 name-change applications in the first nine months of this year, higher than in the previous four years.

Transforming a two-character Chinese name to three is almost like creating a new persona. And unless these mainlanders are from Guangdong and can speak perfect Cantonese, it's hard to see how these people can claim to have Cantonese-spelling names.

Perhaps later on they will also follow the Hong Kong trend of having English names.

Many years ago in Hong Kong I met a girl called Roach. I've also heard of Neon, Apple, Cinderella... Creamy and even Hitler!

Wonder what kinds of names mainlanders will come up with...

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A Master of Two Literary Worlds

Yang Xianyi (��益), a well-known translator of Chinese and English literary works died this morning. He was 94.

Born in Tianjin of a wealthy family where his father was head of the Bank of China there, Yang was educated at home by a tutor in the Chinese classics before he attended a missionary school in one of the city's foreign concessions. It was then that Yang fell in love with English literature, reading everything from Joseph Addison to Oscar Wilde, and even attempted to translate John Milton into Chinese verse.

His interest in Greek led him to study abroad in London, where he went to Merton College in Oxford. There he studied two years of classics followed by English literature. There he met his future wife, Gladys Tayler, the daughter of missionaries in China, at the Oxford China Society.

The couple returned to China in 1940 and got married in Chongqing and worked as teachers and translators. After the Japanese were defeated, they moved to Nanjing. And even though they were offered seats on a plane to Taiwan when Chiang Kai-shek was defeated in 1949, they didn't even think about leaving the mainland.

In 1952 the couple joined the Foreign Languages Press in Beijing, in charge of translating all the most important works of Chinese literature into English. While they were faithful to the original work, they managed to translate them into readable English. In the end they translated more than 60 titles, including Homer's The Odyssey, George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, The Dream of the Red Chamber, and selected works of Lu Xun.

However, they were persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, labeled as anti-Communist "foreign spies" for their connections with diplomats in the 1940s and were jailed for four years. But that was not all -- their son became mentally disturbed after being sent to a factory during the Cultural Revolution and later committed suicide.

But after Mao's death and the Gang of Four were jailed, the Chinese authorities apologized to the Yangs for their "unwarranted arrest" 10 years earlier. Yang became chief editor of Chinese Literature magazine and published more translations.

In the 1980s their apartment became an informal salon for Chinese writers and western journalists. However, after June 4, Yang became critical of the government, describing to the BBC that the government had become worse than past Chinese warlords or Japanese invaders.

His wife died in 1999. During his retirement, Yang penned the following couplet to sum up his life:


"The bright youngster may not become a genius: muddle-headed in middle age, he is shameless -- or toothless -- when old"

Over the years countless numbers of students have read the Yangs' translations, and thanks to them they have helped broaden China's view of the world through literature.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Just Another Statistic

So far 104 miners are dead after a gas explosion in a state-owned  coal mine in northeast China's Heilongjiang Province in the early hours of Saturday morning.

Some of the rescued miners recall hearing a giant bang and then a strong gas that knocked them out. The lucky ones who came to tried to escape right away.

Bad management has been blamed for the accident, though many thought the Xinxing Coal Mine would be one of the safer ones, with an 84-year history and run by the government.

But what does that mean, bad management?

Does it mean senior managers didn't give their staff the best equipment available, or they didn't have enough experience to know a gas explosion could occur in those conditions? Does it mean there shouldn't have been 528 people working underground at 2:30am?

Also, when was the mine last inspected? If it was given a good evaluation recently, it shows the government isn't doing enough either in terms of setting stricter standards, or isn't making sure its prescribed measures are implemented.

While President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao expressed concern over the accident, Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang was sent to the site to oversee rescue efforts, but really, what can a senior government official do except encourage the rescue teams and console the families?

Probably what is even more distressing is how the general public are resigned to the fact that these coal mining accidents happen so often.

The government claims China reported 286 fewer mining-related accidents and 591 fewer deaths compared with the same period last year, a drop of 25 percent. And last year's coal mine deaths were 46.7 percent fewer than in 2004, according to figures released by the State Administration of Work Safety.

However, no one should die from a work-related accident.

And these miners, who are paid to dig out coal to fuel 75 percent of China's power deserve more than being just a statistic. They lost their lives trying to provide for their families with their meagre wages. There has been no word yet on how much compensation families of the victims will receive.

While the government is shutting down smaller mines, there needs to be more stringent standards. Lessons learned from previous accidents, or best practices must be shared and applied to other mines, and inspected regularly. With President Hu pushing for "scientific development", mining safety should be one of his priorities, since technological innovation and research can help save more lives, let along make coal extraction more precise or efficient.

Or is the government sending a signal that some lives are worth more than others?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

A Blue Dining Experience

Last night my friend and I tried out the Blu Lobster restaurant at the Shangri-La Hotel in Haidian.

It used to be headed by Chef Brian McKenna, and my dinner there two years ago was totally memorable with his molecular culinary creations.

But over a year ago Chef Jordi Villegas Serra took over the kitchen and has gotten many great reviews.

So we decided to give it a try, this time with a visiting two-star Michelin chef, Nicolas Le Bec from Lyon, France presenting an a la carte menu.

The restaurant still looks stunning, with the winding chandelier looking like a cascade of small crystals suspended from the ceiling in white and blue. All the wait staff are smart in their black suits, but the white gloves make things a bit clumsy. Nevertheless, they are very professional and attentive.

Unlike last time where I ended up paying an exorbitant amount for designer water, we asked for plain water instead. However, they didn't have pitchers of water and were constantly refilling our glasses with bottled mineral water.

The menu looked interesting, as the maitre d' explained in his French accent that he had tried some of the dishes for this one night only dinner and they were, in his words, "out of this world".

After we ordered, it took a while for us to get some bread and a selection of butter, olive oil, tomato tapenade and salt. Unfortunately that was the theme of the dinner -- waiting.

Our amuse bouche was egg cooked with porcini mushrooms served inside an eggshell. How they managed to get that all in the small hole was quite a delicate procedure.

We finally got our appetizers and as we were starving, we ordered three. One was pureed aubergine and artichokes wrapped in a leaf and steamed that was smooth and creamy. It was accompanied with two small potatoes and shallots and paper-thin slices of baked eggplant. Next was a thick piece of cured salmon, topped with a dollop of creme fraiche and leafy greens. The salmon was very meaty and refreshing. Finally the foie gras was a giant piece pan fried quickly on a bed of thinly sliced apples in a sauce of Chinese vinegar reduced with sugar that was a nice change from the usual balsamic vinegar reduction.

Our appetites whetted, we looked forward to our main courses, but we waited almost 45 minutes. The waitress came by twice, once to say our food was coming "soon", and then that there were too many dishes to cook this evening, a weak excuse. Meanwhile, there was only so much bread we could eat. Nevertheless, we were entertained watching an older French couple sitting near us who were either jetlagged or tired as they started dozing off, the man with his head back and mouth slightly open, the woman with her head cocked to the left. The wait staff didn't know how to deal with the situation as they'd never had people falling asleep in their restaurant before. All they could do was politely wake them up when their dishes arrived.

Still waiting, my friend went to the restroom, and when he returned, we knew why the wait was so long. On his way, he passed by the kitchen, where the cooks were all lined up, including the maitre d', and they were being shouted at in French by this guest chef. I know some chefs have terrible tempers in their persistent strive for perfection, but there are some hungry diners waiting to be fed. And as a guest chef serving this menu for one night it doesn't really make sense to punish staff who aren't even your own.

Finally our mains arrived and it was a disappointment. We had two slices of roasted wagyu beef that seemed quite ordinary with a thick sauce topped with four spinach leaves. While the meat was tender, there wasn't much flavour. The mashed potatoes that accompanied the dish were far superior, but who can get mashed potatoes wrong? Then the seared scallops were fresh, but only four of them in a creamy sauce that was slightly tart garnished with two black truffle slices.

My friend was still hungry so he ordered one more appetizer, chicken liver, but not before asking if we would have to wait much longer. Luckily it was a short wait and was sinfully delicious, lightly panfried again with a selection of mushrooms.

Then for dessert, I tried the Grand Marnier lemon souffle, that arrived half risen and for a dramatic effect, the waiter served flaming Grand Marnier into the souffle. It was OK, as I've had better souffles before. The dark chocolate mousse was actually two small cakes with molten chocolate inside. The menu said there would be Sichuan peppercorn ice cream served with it, but instead we got ordinary chocolate ice cream which was disappointing.

While one of the wait staff apologized profusely for having us wait so long for the main course, we were more disappointed by the two-star Michelin chef. We'll just have to come back again only when Chef Jordi is in the kitchen.

Blu Lobster
Shangri-La Beijing
29 Zizhuyuan Lu
Haidian District
6841 2211 ext. 6727

Saturday, November 21, 2009

There's Always a Reason

As a footnote to my frustrating experience going through security at the National Center for the Performing Arts (NCPA) or the egg, I recounted my story to a Chinese colleague, expecting to get some sympathy.

Instead she just remarked that because US President Barack Obama was in town, the staff there probably had even more stringent security measures.

I said that I have been through security there before, but it was never that extreme. However, she just chalked it up to Obama's visit.

While I understand the St Regis Hotel was under tight security as he stayed there, and places like Tiananmen Square and the Great Hall of the People were cleared out, as well as the Forbidden City and the Great Wall where he visited, could there not have been some kind of notice at the egg saying please be patient because we have extra security measures happening today?

She didn't say anything about the drink situation, where there were was a massive line at the refreshment counter. Must be us laowais complaining about nothing...

Friday, November 20, 2009

Presidential Comments of the Great Wall

What do you say when you are standing at the Great Wall?

Breathtaking, amazing, impressive... cool.

Unfortunately it's hard to be poetic or find something profound to say when thousands of other tourists are milling about, or in the case of US presidents, hordes of reporters and cameras are watching their every move. But Eliot Weinberger of the London Review has managed to dig up and compile the presidential comments in one of his recent blog posts:

Richard Nixon, visiting the Great Wall of China in 1972, said: "I think you would have to conclude that this is a great wall."

Ronald Reagan, visiting the Wall in 1984, said: "What can you say except it's awe-inspiring? It is one of the great wonders of the world." Asked if he would like to build his own Great Wall, Reagan drew a circle in the air and said: "Around the White House."

Bill Clinton, visiting the Wall in 1998, said: "So if we had a couple of hours, we could walk 10 kilometres, and we'd hit the steepest incline, and we'd all be in very good shape when we finished. Or we'd be finished. It was a good workout. It was great."

George W. Bush, visiting the Wall in 2002, signed the guest book and said: "Let's go home." He made no other comments.

Barack Obama, visiting the Wall on Wednesday, said: "It's majestic. It's magical. It reminds you of the sweep of history, and that our time here on Earth is not that long, so we better make the best of it." During Obama's visit, the Starbucks and KFC at the base of the Wall were closed.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Quote of the Day: US Ambassador Jon Huntsman

When Barack Obama was elected president, us here in Beijing wondered who would be the next ambassador to China.

Even when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came for a visit in February, there still was no official word.

However, the announcement finally came on May 16 that Republican Utah Governor and potential presidential candidate for 2012 Jon Huntsman Jr would come to Beijing.

He is well suited for the job, as he speaks Mandarin that he learned in his time in Taiwan in the late 80s, and has even adopted a girl from China.

And during Obama's first trip to China, Huntsman was there to advise the president on how to navigate the sometimes murky waters of the Chinese leadership which is for the most part opaque.

In a recent press report, Huntsman praised Obama for his ability to engage the Chinese, saying how the administration was trying to "connect with the Chinese bureaucracy in ways that actually allow us to get traction... There was a good level of connection with all of the counterparts."

Then Huntsman observed that China is changing so fast: "If you were here 10 years ago and you're coming back for the first time, you don't know China," he said. "If you were here two years ago and back again, you still don't kow China. It is changing so quickly and it is so dynamic that you've got to stay connected constantly to get a sense of what this means in terms of the future of China."

Which leads us to the Quote of the Day.

Huntsman admitted after three months of being here he wasn't much of an expert, and didn't think others were either.

"I've come to the conclusion that 'China expert' is kind of an oxymoron. And those who consider themselves to be China experts are kind of morons," he said.

Does that mean he is dissing off the many people who have studied China for decades, written books, dissertations and given lectures and are quoted in the media because of their expertise are morons?

Or was that an off-the-cuff remark that was meant to be off the record?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Condensed Beijing Tour Obama-style

US President Barack Obama has come and gone.

He had a whirlwind of meetings and lavish banquets in Beijing, but managed to squeeze in some sightseeing and family time.

On Monday night in Beijing he got a chance to meet with his half-brother Mark Okoth Obama Ndesandjo who lives in Shenzhen.

Just before Obama's trip to Asia, Ndesandjo released a novel that is semi-autobiographical, and announced that he would also be writing an autobiography.

Obama got a chance to meet his half-brother for all of five minutes, including a big hug to his half-sister-in-law, a Chinese woman Ndesandjo recently married and is a big Obama fan.

Then yesterday the president spent exactly 30 minutes at the Forbidden City, according ot the Wall Street Journal. Dressed in a worn brown leather bomber jacket, he was whisked into the practically empty grounds of the former imperial palace led by the Forbidden City's museum director Zheng Xinmiao.

They whipped through the Imperial Garden, the Gate of Heavenly Purity, the Hall of Union and Peace, the Hall of the Imperial Palace and finally the Courtyard of Loyal Obedience.

Then 30 minutes after the tour began, Obama arrived at the Gate of Continuing Harmony, wrote a very long message in the VIP visitor's book and thanked Zheng "for a wonderful tour of this magnificent place."

The media joked that today he would run across the Badaling section of the Great Wall -- again in 30 minutes.

But we know Obama can do it because he's pretty fit. Hope those pesky souvenir sellers didn't slow him down.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


Last night I went to see Yo-Yo Ma perform at the National Center for the Performing Arts (NCPA), better known as the egg.

It was a good thing I left work early otherwise I would not have made it on time after all the hassles I went through.

While there is a direct exit (Exit C) from Tiananmen West station to the NCPA, that didn't make life easier with the intense security checks that are even stricter than the ones at the airport.

No other performance venue that I've been to in Beijing is as stringent as the one at the NCPA.

Forget about bringing water bottles and cameras -- the X-ray machines immediately picks it up and the staff make you go to the check-in counter. But wait -- you have to screen your things AGAIN before being able to line up at the coat check-in.

After you get your coat-check tag, you have to go through the first security check point AGAIN, which means being screened three times. Is that really necessary? We're going to a classical music concert, not a National Rifle Association meeting.

Then after that stressful process was over, audience members had to rush to the end of the hall and go up one floor to the concert hall before finding their seat. In the end I managed to have five minutes to spare, but not without arriving flustered and frustrated. But thankfully the concert put me to ease.

Ma was accompanied by pianist Kathryn Scott. He was dressed in a sharp suit and snazzy shiny black shoes, Scott in a sleeveless black dress.

They played a pleasant and varied program that they eased into with Schubert's Sonata in A minor for Arpeggione and Piano, D.821.

Things got more lively with Shostakovich's Sonata in D Minor, Op. 40. But a really memorable piece was the sexy Piazzola Le Grand Tango, both of them moving their shoulders to the music as if they imagined dancing in their seats.

An intermission of 15 minutes was barely enough time for most to get to the washroom or even get a drink. There was a massive line at the refreshment counter which shows management's lack of foresight in helping people get drinks especially when people can't bring their own. They're willing to pay for a drink, so why not service them? There were so many staff at security, but not enough to sell drinks. Go figure.

Afterwards, Ma and Scott performed Gismondi/Carneiro's Bodao de prata and Quatro Canto, and finally Frank's Sonata in A Major for violin and piano.

Scott and Ma play very well together; Scott is technically great and a good accompanist who knows everyone's there to see Ma, but she holds her own. Ma, 55, is a very relaxed performer. Unlike Lang Lang, who is like a spring held back and unleases fantastic energy, Ma is an old hand who doesn't feel the need to impress anyone except invite the audience to enjoy the music he's making.

At the end of the performance, the audience shouted in appreciation, which is quite unusual in China, as most are conservative. But here they were energetic and happy. Ma was too, doing two encores with Scott.

With US President Barack Obama in town, I was kind of hoping he'd crash the concert, but it didn't happen.

Nevertheless, we were all thrilled to watch Ma perform, except perhaps the Chinese man about the same age as Ma sitting in front of me who decided playing with his cellphone was more interesting than listening to exquisite music...

Monday, November 16, 2009

Up Close and Personal

It almost looked like it wouldn't happen, but it did.

Up until Friday after two weeks of negotiations, US officials weren't sure if a town-hall meeting with university students in Shanghai would happen.

But probably to the relief of both sides, it did. However, it was not broadcast live on domestic television, like every other US president and world leader's town-hall meetings; instead it was only available on Xinhua's website and the White House website.

Earlier this afternoon US President Barack Obama delivered a speech at the Museum of Science and Technology, reassuring young Chinese people that the United States does not want to contain China.

"We know more is to be gained when great powers cooperate rather than collide," he said.

While he called for more bilateral efforts especially on climate change, he also touched on more pointed issues, saying the US would push for more freedom of expression, including no censorship of the Internet, political participation, respect for ethnic minorities, and empowering women.

He added that up to 100,000 American students would be sent to China to study every year.

But after his speech was the highlight of the event -- hearing questions from the audience.

After all the vetting of the students and their questions, they ended up lobbing softball queries that were naive at best -- how does he keep fit; who pays for Mrs. Obama's dresses; does Obama like kung pao chicken; can he use chopsticks and if he has a Facebook account.

Another asked him how they could follow his path towards winning the Nobel Peace Prize to which Obama replied, "I don't think there's a curriculum of study that leads to the Nobel Peace Prize."

Nevertheless, there were some other questions of a more serious tone, like the US selling arms to Taiwan and cross-straits relations.

CNN's senior Washington correspondent Ed Henry reported that a young woman he spoke to was so nervous about asking Obama a question that she wrote it down in English on an index card and was practicing it over and over again in the chance that she might be picked. Although in the end she wasn't, she was still thrilled to see the US president and hear him speak. Many tried to ask their questions in English, in a way to communicate directly with Obama, but also to prove their English skills, which at times stuttered with nervousness.

It turns out that the 500 or so students were chosen by the government, many were members of the Communist Youth League, which is affiliated with President Hu Jintao.

Nevertheless, those listening in or watching the proceedings on the Internet were thrilled that a foreign leader had addressed the importance of freedom of expression and freedom of information.

"I should be honest, as president of the United States, there are times where I wish information didn't flow so freely because then I wouldn't have to listen to people criticizing me all the time," he said. But, he added, "because in the United States, information is free, and I have a lot of critics in the United States who can say all kinds of things about me, I actually think that that makes our democracy stronger and it makes me a better leader because it forces me to hear opinions that I don't want to hear."

Are senior Chinese leaders listening?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

What's in a Name

There's some confusion now on how US President Barack Obama's name should be written in Chinese.

Most Chinese press have used 奥巴马 (ao4 ba1 ma3) for months since the Democratic race last year.

But the US Government is trying to standardize his name in Chinese and is issuing press releases using
欧巴马 (ou1 ba1 ma3).

Could it be because
奥 can mean "concealing", or "hard to understand", where as 欧 is short for "Europe", not that Obama has anything to do with Europe.

It may take a while for people to change their habits...

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Recession-defying City

China is sending out mixed messages about its economy in the context of the global financial crisis.

There were reports that exports were down over 25 percent in the first quarter, but now with Christmas orders coming in, factories can't get enough workers; most of them are staying in their hometowns and won't budge unless they are guaranteed work for a long period of time.

There are many articles saying that China is the number one buyer of cars in the world now, surpassing the United States with over 1 million car purchases in part thanks to subsidies.

However, if there are so many first time buyers or drivers replacing existing cars, why is oil consumption drastically down? Are these new cars that fuel efficient?

Also, domestic airlines recently boasted about millions of yuan in profits, but most of that came from subsidies from the government. Nevertheless if they are making money, why are ticket prices so low right now at 80 to 90 percent off the original price?

No one can really explain how these observations as a whole make sense.

Most people in Beijing are not consuming much, due to their low salaries thanks to the government forcing the yuan to depreciate against the US dollar to prop up exports.

However, last night I went to Ikea to pick up a few things and at 9pm on a Saturday night, the place was very busy. There weren't just people window shopping or staying indoors to keep warm. There were many loading up shopping carts and those ubiquitous giant yellow shopping bags with blue handles with all kinds of things, from bedsheets to crockery, fake bear skin rugs to stuffed animals.

If anything, Ikea is totally recession proof in Beijing.

McDonald's is too. Yesterday afternoon I spent a few hours there and there were almost non-stop waves of people coming in for coffee, burgers, fries and even ice cream in the chilly weather.

What's interesting is that the American fast-food giant has had to compete with other chains, both domestic and foreign, like KFC here, leading to McDonald's having to cut its prices on set meal combos.

Another store defying the recession crunch is Uniqlo, a Japanese clothing retailer that has more foot traffic than other trendy brands like Nike, adidas and Puma combined. Uniqlo sells basics that are of a decent quality at great prices so customers don't mind buying an extra one, or three. Every other person who comes out of the Village in Sanlitun is carrying a Uniqlo shopping bag.

So when people ask me how the financial crisis has hit Beijing, it's hard to say. While millions of fresh graduates are still looking for jobs, or stuck doing menial ones from wait staff to pedicures, there are people spending their dough.

Or are they benefiting from the 4 trillion yuan stimulus package announced last November and using money that should be earmarked for infrastructure projects and buying cars, Happy Meals and jeans instead?

Friday, November 13, 2009

Anxious Hosts

China is anxiously preparing for US President Barack Obama's upcoming visit this weekend, but final details are still being ironed out.

The Foreign Ministry said yesterday that they expect Obama to understand China's opposition to Tibet independence, because as a black man, he would applaud Abraham Lincoln's abolishment of slavery.

After Obama took office, he noted that he would not have been able to take the highest position in the land if it were not for Lincoln's efforts, Qin Gang, the foreign ministry spokesman pointed out yesterday.

"He is a black president, and he understands the slavery abolition movement and Lincoln's major significance for that movement," said Qin. "Lincoln played an incomparable role in protecting the national unity and territorial integrity of the United States."

It's interesting how the Chinese government is trying to equate its governance over Tibet with Lincoln doing away with slavery, but in some people's eyes it has the opposite effect. China's rule over Tibet in some eyes IS like slavery -- which brings the argument that Tibetans should be freed.

And the insistence on emphasizing Obama's skin colour is really passe.

It only shows the Chinese side's desperate attempt at trying to persuade Obama to recognize Tibet is a part of China.

Another issue that may fall through is one of the first things on Obama's Shanghai visit -- to meet with some young people.

The US had hoped for a town hall-style meeting in where up to 1,000 people would attend, mostly young people, who would ask him questions, unscripted and that would be broadcasted live on television or streamed on web portals.

However, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told journalists, "We're still working out some of the details that are related to that event... Obviously the president would appreciate the opportunity to reach the broadest possible audience. That's always a priority of his."

Talks have been going on for almost two weeks and still have not been finalized. Perhaps the Chinese side was much too anxious about the unscripted part and wanted to vet the audience members as well as their questions well in advance, as they tend to do.

Are they worried about people pressing him on how the US will restructure its financial system? Arms sales to Taiwan? North Korea's nuclear weapons? Climate change?

Maybe the Chinese authorities want to do everything they can to ensure Obama's trip to China is a success. Apparently the foreign ministry is even insisting on screening all Chinese state media stories about his upcoming visit before they are published. They are even stopping stores from selling those T-shirts with Obama looking like a Red Guard.

What could go wrong? Almost all young people in China are Obama fans and everyone is hopeful the visit will give the US president a better understanding of the country and its people.

Or are they afraid all this enthusiastic fawning will overshadow President Hu's popularity?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

For the Record

When I was younger I heard that the Cultural Revolution was a dark period in China's modern history, but it was only when I read Life and Death in Shanghai did I understand how traumatic and devastating that tumultuous decade was.

Earlier this month the author, Nien Cheng, passed away in Washington. She was 94.

In her obituaries, Cheng was born into a rich landowning family in Beijing and she later studied at the London School of Economics in 1935. There she met her future husband Kang-chi Cheng.

They returned to China in the 1940s and supporting the Nationalists, he joined the ministry of foreign affairs, where at one point they were posted to Australia to set up an embassy there.

Their fortunes changed in 1949 when the Communists came to power and in 1957, Kang-chi died of cancer while working for Shell in China.

Cheng then also took a job with Shell as a political advisor and lived a well-to-do life with her daughter Meiping in Shanghai. But her life was thrown upside down in 1967 when a group of Red Guards ransacked her home, put her under house arrest and tried to destroy her psychologically through endless interrogations. As she details in her book, she would retort her captors back with sayings of Chairman Mao and find ways to survive mentally and physically.

There were many pages in which she described how malnourished she was, only allowed to eat very watery rice porridge, and in the winter, she did not eat a good portion of it so that she could use the porridge as glue to tape paper to the window frames to keep the cold air out the best she could.

After being in solitary confinement for almost six years, Cheng was released in 1973 and almost told immediately that her actress daughter Meiping had committed suicide in 1967. However, not believing this, Cheng found out later and confirmed that her daughter was killed by the Red Guards.

Cheng managed to leave China for Ottawa, Canada in 1980 and three years later moved to Washington. She then wrote her book which immediately gained acclaim for its honest brutal personal account of the Cultural Revolution. It was the first of a flood of books with the similar theme of terror and victimization.

Even today people cannot speak freely about the Cultural Revolution. Some benefited from it, others destroyed by it. People were punishing and even killing others based on ideology rather than law, insanity overruling rationality.

However, China must confront this past. Like South Africa and now Rwanda, there must be a truth and reconciliation process in China. The truth must come out about what happened. While it was Mao and later his wife Jiang Qing, part of the Gang of Four who orchestrated the Cultural Revolution, tens of thousands of young overzealous Red Guards led destructive campaigns destroying people's property, livelihoods and lives.

This is an open secret as the older generation all lived through this chaos and yet they are not allowed to talk about it. Meanwhile their children and grandchildren know nothing of how evil their fellow citizens can be.

While a truth and reconciliation process will probably never happen given that China is too busy propping up its economy and the rest of the world, its people need to be allowed to re-examine the past, understand why and how it occurred and try to reconcile with what happened. However, they would probably immediately point fingers at the government thus questioning its mandate to rule the country.

Which is why there is no public healing process. And there probably will never be one.

That is why Cheng was compelled to write Life and Death in Shanghai. While she made a new life for herself in North America, the scars and horrors of the Cultural Revolution remained with her until she died.

"In Washington, I live a full and busy life," she told Time Magazine in 2007. "Only sometimes I feel a haunting sadness. At dusk, when the day is fading away and my physical energy is at a low ebb, I may find myself depressed and nostalgic. But next morning I invariably wake up with renewed optimism to welcome the day as another God-given opportunity for enlightenment and experience. My only regret is that Meiping is not here with me."

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Celebrating the Singleton Life

November 11 is Remembrance Day or Veteran's Day in most of the western world. Wearing red poppies on their left breasts, people stand for a minute of silence at 11 minutes past 11 in the morning to remember those who died for peace.

But in China, today is hardly solemn. It's Singles' Day, which some find is a drag to celebrate, while others look at it as an opportunity to hang out with friends, and companies see it as a chance to earn extra dollars.

In Chinese the day is known as 光棍节 (guanggun jie), and some dance clubs are going to put on a special event tonight. Match-making companies are setting up blind-date parties, and stores are selling chocolates and cards to mark today.

Singles' Day apparently started in the early 1990s by university students. "The day was very popular when I was at college. It was said some of my alumni invented the day as a way to banish loneliness," Song Bufu, a 2001 graduate of Nanjing University said. After, the university's graduates worked in different places, spreading the word across the country, he said.

However, some young people are not giving into their parents' constant nagging to find their significant other, and instead staunchly believe they are happier single.

"Single is simple; double is trouble," said Zhang Haiyan, a 28-year-old single female Beijinger. "Being single means more independence, freedom and unrestricted planning of my own life."

While there is pressure on young women to get married to have children, men are also in a bind because there are less women to choose from due to the massive gender imbalance. According to the State Population and Family Planning Commission's 2007 report, an estimated 30 million men will have problems finding a wife by 2020.

There is also the added problem of young people becoming more mobile and their changing social values, according to Wang Yuesheng, director of the Population and Social Development Office at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Many well-educated women are trying to move up socially and that pool of men is even smaller. They expect their boyfriends to be able to afford an apartment in the city as a precondition to getting hitched. While most western countries consider buying a house a burden for two to handle these days, Chinese women still expect the man to find her shelter -- and one in a good location and decent decor at that too.

Nevertheless, some men and women are willing to do just about whatever it takes to find their soul mate, including putting themselves on the meat market -- almost literally.

In Beijing's Xicheng district is an 爱情超市 (aiqingchaoshi), or Dating Supermarket, where the pictures and brief introductions of men and women are put in picture frames and are placed on the shelves that prospective people can pick out and put in their basket. Then the consultant will contact the other party and arrange for a date for a fee of 100 RMB ($14.60).

Then the consultant calls back three days after the intended date to see if they hit it off or not.

This Dating Supermarket started last month and so far has had 500 candidates willing to put themselves on the shelf, resulting in 30 couples who have apparently fallen in love.

A few months ago there were commercials on the bus for Pocky Sticks, with amateurish clips of people professing their love for the Japanese pretzel stick covered in a variety of flavours. The ad mentioned something about celebrating Pocky Day on November 11, but since then I haven't seen anything.

Maybe Pocky has found its love and neglected to tell us?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Snowed Down

Last night when I was falling asleep at around midnight, I heard large boom sounds that seemed to be coming from outside.

It turns out it was thunder and lightning as it started snowing in the Chinese capital. Has anyone heard of thunder and lightning just before a snowfall?

This morning the city was covered in several centimetres of snow. Already at 7am there were staff on the roof of a nearby office building sweeping snow off the roof. Many people who are in charge of parking or street cleaning had the unenviable task of shoveling or sweeping the snow away.

Traffic slowed down immensely as drivers went at a slow speed through the slush and mini lakes. Some drivers hardly bothered to clear their front and back windshields, making me wonder if they realized how much of a hazard they were on the roads.

There's an airport bus that goes by my apartment complex and today there was a large group of people with their bags and suitcases waiting for a long time for the bus. When it finally arrived, they surrounded the bus like refugees trying to flee. Why were there so many people going to the airport today?

Or were they trying to escape the cold temperatures and snow for the next few days?

By evening, workers were still outside the Village at Sanlitun shoveling the snow into carts to dump elsewhere, and on my way home, I passed by a snowman standing next to a boutique bringing some levity to the otherwise depressing start to winter.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Watching Her Next Move

After months of speculation, Hu Shuli, the editor-in-chief of Caijing magazine has called it quits.

A former reporter and editor of Worker's Daily, Hu is highly respected in journalism circles for her no-nonsense tough personality, but feared by everyone else as her magazine conducted investigative reports on corruption and shady business deals, often resulting in changes in government policy or arrests of officials or tycoons.
Her magazine has been able to do what many state media cannot do -- take risks and give objective reports that are valued for their journalistic integrity.

It is this journalism freedom that Hu tried to guard fiercely, but unfortunately things came to a head at the end of September.

She was reportedly butting heads with Caijing's owner, the Stock Exchange Executive Council (SEEC) trying to secure more editorial freedom, for example, by making sure her journalists were paid well enough that they would not be tempted into accepting hongbao or bribes. She also apparently didn't want advertising to interfere too much in editorial decisions.

Things didn't seem to be working out and in early October, the magazine's general manager Daphne Wu Chuanhui and nearly 70 staff -- more than two-thirds of the business department resigned en masse. There were rumours that Wu would be helping Hu set up a new magazine.

Hu was left behind to continue her fight with the SEEC in the hopes of salvaging the situation, but it looks like she has lost the battle for now.

There were more reports that Hu had accepted a position at the School of Communication and Design at Zhongshan University in Guangzhou.

However, it is more likely that Hu is going to start a new magazine called Caixin, as her managing editor Wang Shuo also quit today.

While it would be fantastic for eager journalism students to attend a class taught by Hu, just watching her latest moves is a lesson in itself in steely determination and proof she has the energy to fight another day.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Mixed Messages

The subway has a number of animated public service announcements to instruct people on how to use the subway, or that they should line up for the bus, if a dog bites them, they should get a rabies shot, and if the elevator is jammed, try to relax and mechanic staff will get you out... eventually.

A series of cartoons features a round green frog who gets involved in a number of situations. He's been trampled on while trying to get into a subway carriage, or trying to stop someone from stealing money, or been thrown out of a car from driving his car too fast in a road race.

But more recently the rotund frog has gotten himself in some scatological situations.

The latest installments have the frog boarding the bus and seeing a cute pink and equally round female frog in the driver's seat, he tries to pick her up, even giving her his name card.

But she rejects him and forces him to sit at the back. The next scene shows a dog doing a No. 2 right at the bus stop and then the bus arrives, the backdoor opens and the frog steps in the doggy doo.

Shocked, he tries to rub it off on a nearby pole, but then fido has conveniently dropped another one near by that the frog steps into again, slips and you can imagine how disgusting it is. I don't even know what the moral of the story is -- is it for dog owners to pick up after their pooches, or for commuters to watch whey they step?

The other episode is where the green frog waits for the elevator. When the doors open, the elevator is already quite full. He steps in and then a blue crab comes in right behind him. However, the elevator sounds the alarm that it is over the weight limit -- the maximum is 1,300 kilograms. But the crab has decided he is staying put, and rattling his nasty pincers at the frog, the poor green guy is forced out of the elevator.

He patiently waits for the next one, which again is almost full. He decides that like the crab, he will not budge even though the elevator is over the weight limit. However, this time other people are angry with him and try to force him out verbally. That doesn't work so they start trying to shove him out. After quite a scuffle, he's pushed almost halfway out  and then all of a sudden the elevator says the total weight in the elevator is now 1,299 kilograms.

The doors then close with the frog inside.

How did that happen? Did he lose 1 kilogram from the melee?

On the floor he left behind is a fresh piece of dung that apparently weighed 1 kilo.

So is the message here that if the elevator you're in is over the weight limit, you should take a crap to lessen the load, literally?

Are these cartoons supposed to be entertaining or informative? Sometimes you have to wonder what they are trying to tell the public these days...

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Commuting to Change

Yesterday I took the new subway Line 4 to Haidian, the northwest side of town. The subway has been open since September 28 and it's managed by Hong Kong's Mass Transit Railway (MTR) Corporation.

I took subway Line 2 from Dongzhimen to Xizhimen and then transferring to Line 4 was easy -- just walking down the stairs to the next platform. However, transferring the other way is a drag -- you have to walk in a roundabout way just to get upstairs.

What's interesting is that as Line 4 is managed by the MTR, the company does not allow people to eat or drink on the subway. Most commuters in Beijing are not used to this new rule, which is already a given in Hong Kong. The train carriages are almost the same, except that they seem about a foot wider than the other lines and do not have hanging handles for people to hold onto.

What people in Beijing are not used to at all is the beep beep sound to announce that the doors will close. This again is typical in all Hong Kong MTR stations, but here many people find it alarming and have even complained about it to the subway authorities and in letters to the editor in newspapers. However, some older Beijing subway lines have an old school alarm bell ring which I find more disturbing. Each to their own.

In a commute to Haidian that usually takes almost an hour with a combination of subway and bus, taking Line 2 and then Line 4 only took just over 30 minutes. The Renmin University stop is very close to the university, which will probably result in more students living off campus. It's also close to a new mall called Modern Plaza.

While the outside of the mall isn't much to look at, inside it holds many impressive brand names like Tumi, Hermes (watches), Cerruti and Swarovski. On the top floor is a new branch of Din Tai Fung, which, as always, serves excellent xiaolongbao and other delicious dishes. Last night a few friends and I also had a dish made of seasonal hairy crab meat and roe placed over finely cubed tofu, and kiwi over shaved ice for dessert.

It was surprising to see this kind of a high-class mall in the university district, but my friend explained that the area is also a residential one, full of professionals who are either academics or in the hi-tech industry, as it's near Zhongguancun or the Silicon Valley of Beijing.

The city is developing so rapidly -- with subway lines come more lines and easier commutes, Beijing is becoming more accessible and efficient. If only they could do away with the security checks then the ride would be even more convenient...

Friday, November 6, 2009

Extreme Foot Fetish

A female colleague of mine from Australia who has lived in Beijing for about four years, still cannot understand why Chinese people take off their shoes when they go into their home. Even though I try to explain that Chinese people, or even Japanese and Koreans for that matter, want to keep their homes clean by taking off their shoes at the door, she doesn't agree.

Her reasoning is that, especially if she is dressed up, shoes compete her outfit, and going into someone's home and taking off her shoes only to wear slippers will ruin the whole effect.

I get that it is dirty outside and people don't want to have their friends traipsing in a myriad of germs when they visit. So buy a doormat. I don't want to walk around and dirty my socks on people's floors. I also don't want to wear a pair of old slippers unlikely to complement my clothes in any way that someone else has been wearing, full of germs from wherever their socks or smelly feet have been and then transferring rogue bacteria from the unknown previous slipper wearer onto my socks or feet and then back into my shoes and eventually into my home. UUggghhh. It's disgusting.
We had a lively discussion about this pressing style issue online, which led to her real reason for wanting to wear shoes in the house -- her vanity.

You just cannot feel sexy sliding around in socks or slippers. You can't put your hand on your hip and laugh out loud wearing socks. Dancing salsa, samba, or to old 80s tunes in socks, quite simply, sucks.
I spend a significant amount of time and money shopping for shoe, matching an outfit and completing a look, removing one's shoes is like taking off a shirt and putting on pajamas.

While she must have an extensive (and sexy) shoe collection, I cannot help but think that after all her time in China she doesn't accept this cultural difference?

My argument was that shoes are dirty. Period. The roads are dirty, covered in all kinds of crap. But she seemed to think that wiping them on a doormat was good enough.

And what about letting your feet rest from being suffocated in shoes?

In the end she agreed to disagree. I don't think I want to visit her place anytime soon. And I don't think she'd like to be subjected to wearing slippers at my place either.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Getting the Jab

This morning my colleagues and I went to get our A(H1N1) flu shot at the company's medical clinic. A coworker offered to take me there as she herself wasn't quite sure where it was.

After she parked the car, we walked around and asked for directions... and asked again... it turned out we made a giant loop in the company compound to find the "hospital" was a non-descript building from the outside.

Earlier we'd been given forms to fill out, asking us if we had a number of ailments and also if we'd had a flu shot before. A bunch of us lined up waiting outside in the cold for about 15 minutes. One young guy thought we were getting the flu shot up our nose which I immediately dismissed and told him it would be in the arm. Where the heck did he get that idea from?

We were then allowed to enter a small room on the ground floor to process these forms. As I ticked that I had had the flu shot before, the nurse asked me when and if I was allergic to it. If I was allergic, would I still get a flu shot? Then she signed her name and told me to go up to the third floor for the shot.

When we got there, our names were then written down next to numbers and then we were shuffled into a room with two sliding doors, one for guys and one for girls... or so it seemed that way.

Each sub-room had one nurse giving the injections, the other preparing the syringes so that they were already lined up on the tray ready to go. The nurse quickly swabbed a large area on my arm, pricked it with the syringe and then it was over. She gave me another cotton bud to press on my arm and we then moved to the observation room with all the other injectees.

We were told to sit in the room for 30 minutes in case there were any adverse reactions. Some people tried to leave early, but another nurse warned that if anything happened to them, the clinic wouldn't be able to help them, so they sat back down and waited their time. There was another sign that said people who have had the flu injections shouldn't take a shower for 24 hours, which was absolutely ludicrous and made no sense. Again I told my colleagues to ignore it. So much for scientific development.

All the hospital doors and the walls from the bottom to about four feet were painted in pistachio green, while the rest of the wall was white. I don't understand why they choose this colour scheme, unless there was some hospital executive who had a craving for pistachio ice cream, or that shade was sold for a discount.

Most people sat around and chatted or texted friends on their cellphones. Luckily the 30-minute wait wasn't too painful and we left when time was up.

While my arm was a bit sore, others freaked out when they started coughing and thought they were having reactions to the injection.

It just goes to show that even Chinese people with university education don't really know much about their health and medicine...

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Politeness Factor

A friend visiting Beijing  remarked to me how Beijingers can be rude at times.

She said that when the security guards at her serviced apartment open the door, most people don't say a word of thanks when they walk through.

"If someone holds the door for you, it is common courtesy to say 'thank you'," she said, wondering why it was so difficult for people to be grateful for a simple task.

The same goes for restaurants, where it is not unusual to hear diners shouting, "Fuwuyuan!" or "Server!" for their attention instead of putting their hand up or waiting for the next wait staff to come by.

However, here in China, or Beijing at least, it's expected that a security guard opens the door for you, or that a fuwuyuan bring the dishes that you ordered; they do not feel it is necessary to thank them, and to some extent these service-oriented people are not expected to be treated well either.

How did the culture become like that, that there is no need to thank people even though it's their job?

In the west we are used to being polite to others, and believe this is a sign of respect for others.

When I thank people here for completing the smallest task, from opening a door to giving me something, they are taken aback and say, "Bu rong xie" or "No need to thank me".

Does this mean Chinese people don't respect others? I'm not sure, but they seem to reserve politeness to people they want to impress or value.

This mind-set has to change if China wants to be a harmonious society...

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Smoking Exchange

I just had dinner tonight with a friend who flew into Beijing via Shanghai yesterday.

He told me that he had three-and-a-half hours to kill at Shangai Pudong International Airport before flying to Beijing so he decided to go to the airport's smoking room and smoke a cigar.

A young 20-something woman who was responsible for cleaning the smoking room asked him if he had rolled the "cigarette" himself, as she'd never seen a cigar before.

He explained to her it was a cigar and while it was rolled by hand, he didn't do it himself.

From there they struck up a conversation.

He asked her how her job was, working in the airport.

"Hai bu cuo", or it's not bad.

Then he asked her how much she made.

"Yi qian kuai qian", or 1,000 RMB ($146.43) a month.

At this point I said she probably didn't have much education which explained the low wage.

Then she started lecturing him on how he shouldn't be smoking, and he told me she didn't sound like she wasn't uneducated in this area.

He retorted to her that while he did know the dangers of smoking, he'd already been doing it for decades already.

Then she told him that her husband used to smoke four packs of cigarettes a day... until he developed cancer.

Perhaps she works in the airport's smoking room in the hopes of persuading other smokers to quit?

Sounds like a woman on a mission.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Picture of the Day: First Snowfall

A few days ago the weather forecast said snow on Sunday.

How could that be? Yesterday was the perfect autumn day -- crisp, clear and sunny. However towards evening it was windy and cold, but it didn't look overcast.

But this morning Beijing woke up to the white stuff -- lots of it.

It kept coming down, at times heavy and wet, other times floating lightly from the sky.

Luckily I'd already dragged out my long winter coat from the closet and bundled up with boots and headed out. In no time my umbrella and coat were covered in snow.

Sanlitun was relatively quiet in the late morning, staff trying to push the snow off the ground; as soon as they cleared it, the snow covered that part again. It would be a continuous job until late afternoon.

Uniqlo did a brisk business as many flocked to the Japanese clothing store to buy long underwear as tomorrow will also be chilly. Others went to Starbucks to warm up with coffee.

Many also took pictures of the the snow and with the snow, or threw snowballs at each other, like a grandfather and grandson did as I walked home.

It's evening and some of the snow is still around... but apparently towards the end of the week it will be 21 degrees by Friday...