Friday, July 9, 2010

My New Blog

I've just set up my new blog about Hong Kong.

It's called The Fragrant Harbour at http://thefragrantharbour.blogspot.com.

Now that I don't have to deal with the Great Firewall anymore, it will be great to actually read your comments!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Xie Xie and Zaijian

Today is my last day in Beijing.

It's my last day living in the Chinese capital after three years, two months and about three weeks.

I came here in April 2007 eager to have a greater understanding of the country and to find out if it really is going to be the next superpower.

When you first arrive, you are impressed by what it has achieved so far and think it has so much potential to be greater.

The people in general are good, honest folk, but their lack of common sense and basic skills can lead to frustration. Just go to any restaurant and flagging down a fuwuyuan or waitstaff is a test in patience, as they'd rather ignore you.

The newly-constructed buildings look shiny and sleek, but after a few years they are still unoccupied, or look run-down due to the low-quality building materials or lack of management.

And then you begin to see the numerous contradictions in the country, like how in the constitution people have the right to petition the central government and many make the journey to Beijing. But once they get to the capital, they are whisked away and thrown into "black jails" where they are illegally held for days, months, weeks before being sent back to their hometowns.

People spend their hard-earned money to buy an apartment, only to have it confiscated later by government officials who have sold the land to developers in return for kickbacks. The developers take over these properties by cutting off the gas, water, electricity, and then even sending thugs to beat up the so-called owners of the place.

While the country's GDP was at double digits for several years until last year at 8 percent, and holds some $2 trillion in US Treasury bills, these mind-boggling numbers do little justice in explaining the real situation in China.

The income gap between the rich and the poor is staggering to see in person. The Liu family living on the border between Beijing and Hebei Province at the Simatai section of the Great Wall live the simple farmer lifestyle, waking up with the sun, tilling the dry patch-work fields and eating mostly vegetable dishes before going to bed early.

Meanwhile the uber rich have no qualms ordering everything expensive on the menu, force each other to drink baijiu and smoke up a storm before leaving behind several dishes barely touched. They also think they own the road, especially when they drive SUVs.

How the wealthy gain their riches is an interesting mystery, while how the majority of the population scrape by on a few thousand RMB a month is another.

There's no question that people's lives have improved significantly in the past 30 years, but at what cost? Rivers and lakes are so polluted that "cancer villages" are springing up near these water sources. Climate change has also resulted in dried up river and lake beds that decades earlier were teeming with fish.

It seems like Beijing has a strong consumer culture -- people buying up all kinds of things from clothing to cars, everyone carrying at least one shopping bag. There is so much noise pollution, hypnotically telling people to buy more stuff, or on-going public service announcements that are so vague they hardly mean anything.

But this is the way the government wants things to be run -- it doesn't want its people to know too much or to think they deserve more. It continues its mantra that China is a big country and so managing it is a big task.

However, when you look at it, the Communist Party of China has had over 60 years of experience in governing the vast country and the world's largest population. One would have thought that by now it would know how to administer the place in an efficient and effective manner.

But the only way the CPC knows how to do this is mostly by force.

This was seen in how Tibet and the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region were governed and these two areas in particular continue to see repression. Instead of trying to understand and integrate cultural differences in policy, the Chinese government believes economic development will create harmony.

Ah a harmonious society. Practically everyone I know here mocks President Hu Jintao's slogan. How can there be harmony when there is such a discrepancy between the rich and the poor, environmental degradation, a persistent consumer culture and lack of respect of people's rights?

It's really all about the Party. It's not about improving the welfare of the people or creating a better environment. It's about preserving the Party's power. At any cost.

Which is why it was reported today that best-selling author Yu Jie was taken by police for questioning on Monday. They threatened to imprison him if he continued with his plans to publish a book criticizing Premier Wen Jiabao.

They warned him that Wen was no ordinary citizen and that the book, China's Best Actor: Wen Jiabao would harm state security and national interests, which could lead to a prison sentence similar to rights activist Liu Xiaobo.

"People cannot tell the truth," a friend remarked to me the other day over lunch. "If you do, you get into trouble."

But some believe it is important to forgo all personal consequences and try to tell the truth for the sake of the greater society.

Tan Zuoren was jailed for five years for trying to help those who lost their children in the Sichuan earthquake almost two years ago; and Liu for 11 years for helping to write the Charter 08, calling for multi-party elections among many things.

And there is also Gao Zhisheng, the human rights lawyer who was detained by police, illegally I may add, and then released, and now detained again and no one knows where he is.

The government is terrified of these people -- scared of them for saying that the emperor has no clothes on.

But it is true. How can there be any civil society in China when basic human rights are ignored, and actually trampled on? How can China ever become a great power when it cannot stand dissent or criticism?

Meanwhile we in the west cannot compare China to ourselves -- it must find its own way in establishing a just society, and looking back at its past can give it some inspiration.

So on this note I bid zaijian.

Thank you Beijing for teaching me a lot of things about China I didn't know. The country is still a work in progress and hopefully the Party leaders will make the right choices for the people.

After all, it is the People's Republic of China.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Moving On

These last several days have been hectic for me. On Tuesday I moved out of my apartment in Dongzhimen and spent the entire afternoon and early evening cleaning it.

Apparently it was so clean that my landlord was pleased he didn't have to re-clean it and gladly handed back my one-month deposit.

I really enjoyed the one-bedroom place, with its convenient location right by the subway station and bus stop, as well as other amenities nearby (including the hairdresser and favourite restaurants, not to mention a concert hall too).

Downstairs is the gym I belong to (anyone want to carry on the remaining time on my membership?) where I pounded the treadmill and raced in the pool, blowing away the local competition.

I know many of the buses at the Dongzhimen bus stop and where they can take me, and best of all, practically every other taxi driver knows my apartment building so there's no need to give directions.

In the last few days I have been living in my friend's place and for another few days before starting a new adventure -- in Hong Kong.

I've just got a new job there and will be starting there in about a week.

In addition to all this packing and moving, I've been trying to see a few friends here and there and do a few last things (last massage at Bodhi, last meals at favourite restaurants).

It's a strange feeling knowing its my last few days in Beijing, but as my job will entail travel around Asia, there is a good chance I will be back in the Chinese capital for business soon.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Hoping for Calm in Urumqi

Today is the eve before the first anniversary of the Urumqi riots in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.

And the government is taking no chances in compromising security.

The police have installed 40,000 security cameras in the capital Urumqi, much like the ones in Shenzhen to track people's movements from the moment they walk out of their homes. They have been installed in buses, bus stops, streets, lanes, schools, kindergartens, supermarkets, shopping malls and other places.

An extra 5,000 police officers were recruited this year and anti-riot exercises took place in the hopes of deterring trouble. A Uighur told AFP that on Thursday all their big knives were confiscated and they were told not to go out on Monday, the day of the anniversary.

Nothing will make people in China forget what happened last year, when according to the government, nearly 200 people were killed and 1,700 were injured in the worst ethnic violence in decades.

While the government blames the violence on "separatists" led by Rebiya Kadeer, it is really Beijing's policy in oppressing the Uighur minority group, while giving preferences to Han Chinese who move to the area that caused the unrest. The resentment boiled into frustration and anger that was taken out on the streets and on many innocent people.

However, the government has done little to adjust its policy in realising its blatant discrimination and instead focused on economic development, thinking money will make Uighurs happier.

Long-time Party chief Wang Lequan was removed in April and replaced with Zhang Chunxian, a senior official who has a good track record in terms of building GDP figures.

We will have to wait and see what happens tomorrow and with the world watching, the government will hope it will be a quiet anniversary.

But within Urumqi and elsewhere in Xinjiang, the resentment continues to simmer.

Those who have the resources are trying to send their children out of the region in the hopes that they will have better lives abroad.

For them it is their last resort in keeping their Uighur culture alive and giving the next generation a chance to flourish far from Chinese repression.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Picture of the Day: Cloud Formations

Yesterday at around 6:30pm this is what the sky looked like on the east side of town. The clouds were uniformly scattered across the sky as if a giant rock had been thrown into the sky and the clouds were the ripples.

Friday, July 2, 2010

A Taste of Morocco

Yesterday two friends and I had dinner at Argana, a Moroccan restaurant whose chef was behind Moro, which I had tried about a year ago.

Argana is located in Xingfucun Zhong Lu, off of the bus stop from the Worker's Gymnasium, across from a Western grocery store called April Gourmet. Interestingly enough, over a year ago I had seen an apartment in the building right next to the restaurant, but didn't like it.

In any case, with the summer heat baking us all day, the somewhat cool breeze in the evening was perfect for al fresco dining.

We got a table right in front of a giant flat-screen TV for the quarter-final World Cup match of the Netherlands against Brazil (Brazil lost in a shock defeat, 2-1).

The menu is conveniently in front of you as a place mat, and we started off with the tapas platter, which was a delicious start. The rectangular plate featured roasted slices of fennel, mushrooms, roasted peppers, salad, slightly curried squid, and prawns.

And as an added bonus we got some bread to mop up the excess sauce and olive oil on the platter.

Then we had a beetroot salad with fried quail eggs and new potatoes that was underwhelming, but as it was hot out, it was a refreshing summer dish.

For our mains we shared the vegetarian tagine, of braised pumpkin, courgette, tomatoes, onions, and carrots in a tomato-based sauce heavily spiced with pepper that was fantastic. Another was the slow-cooked rabbit leg, the meat very tender.

A strange dessert is pigeon pie, minced meat in layers of pastry with rosewater and icing sugar dressed with finely sliced almonds. The small cake cut into quarters was plenty for each of us.

We also got some free entertainment courtesy of a magician named Rock, a young Chinese guy with faltering English but had quick hands. He transformed ordinary pieces of paper into 10RMB notes (we asked if he could change them into 100RMB notes), and could pick out the cards we had chosen from the deck of cards.

However, the service was very inconsistent, with some waiters understanding English, and others not knowing English or Chinese. Obviously some training is in order as these incompetent staff would try to hide or ignore diners flagging for their attention.

Nevertheless, the manager of Argana, a rotund boisterous fellow did his best to make his guests feel welcome, many of whom are regulars who came out to watch the exciting football match.

Argana
55 Xingfucun Middle Road
Chaoyang
8448 8250

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Picture of the Day: Hitching a Ride

Many Beijingers have small dogs that they either have on a leash or carry in their arms.

Some like to transport them in their bicycle baskets too.

But this little pooch seems to have a cool ride from his master, who seems to need the exercise more than Fido does...

Monday, June 28, 2010

Military Bans Blogging

Recently revised regulations from the People's Liberation Army (PLA) state that Chinese soldiers are banned from blogging on fears that they may inadvertently leak military secrets.

The revised PLA Internal Administration Regulations which came into effect about two weeks ago says soldiers are prohibited from setting up websites, homepages or blogging on the Internet.

"It means soldiers cannot open blogs on the Internet, no matter if he or she does it in the capacity of a soldier or not," Wan Long, the political commissar of a regiment in the Guangzhou Military Area Command was quoted by the PLA Daily as saying.

"The Internet is complicated and we should guard against online traps," he said.

The revised regulations also ban soldiers from issuing "lonely hearts" and job hunting advertisements in the mass media.

"If information of military officers and their unit aroused attention of people with ulterior motives, it'll pose a threat to the confidentiality of the armed forces," Yang Jigui, commander of the Xigaze military sub-command in Tibet Autonomous Region was quoted as saying.

The ban on blogging is completely understandable; many companies and organizations forbid employees from talking about their work online.

But the rule about not being allowed to look for mates online is a tricky one.

Many men go into the military because they can't get a good job, and after getting in, they become more eligible because Chinese women have a high admiration for soldiers.

However, what are the chances of finding a mate if they can't even let single women know they are looking?

Sounds like lonely hearts in the military have gotten a lot lonelier.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Cutting Off Access to the Wall

It was surprising to find that almost two weeks ago the Miyun government shut down the Simatai section of the Great Wall until further notice.

On top of that, the authorities have told the villagers in the area to move out. While it is a suggestion rather than an order, there was no mention of compensation in the open letter issued June 16.

The letter didn't explain the reason for the closure or the length of time involved, only that there would be some reconstruction in the area.

It added that the government started cooperating with China CYTS Tours Holding Co. Ltd. last month and that investments would be made to develop tourism resources in the near future.

The closure has undoubtedly resulted in a serious impact on local businesses in the area, farmers who had opened up small restaurants and even lodgings for visitors. This could impact the Liu family who I met in early May, as the son has a bed & breakfast as well as a restaurant.

"Only two tables in my restaurant were filled today at lunch. Last year, there was a queue that went out of the door," said the owner of a roadside restaurant next to the Simatai scenic area.

"Some restaurants with worse locations are facing an even dire situation with a complete lack of customers since the closure," he said.

Rumours are abound among villagers in the area, speculating what the changes may be, including the possibility Simatai could become more like the Badaling section; the touristy area not only has a rebuilt wall, but also a sad collection of hungry bears waiting for visitors to throw food at them and a bizarre slide.

This ad hoc management of the area without consulting the residents or businesses is a good example of how the government manages things. While enterprising people may have put in tens of thousands of renminbi into restaurants and bed & breakfasts, there is little care or respect for them and their welfare.

These people are only trying to better their economic situation and then when the government sees they are making profits -- not wads of cash, but a better living than toiling in the fields, the authorities want to shut everyone else down in order to monopolize on the burgeoning businesses.

The Great Wall doesn't need more crass touristy sites. When visitors see the wall, they want to see as much of the real thing as possible, not bears or fake trees. That's why they come to Simatai.

Hopefully these local government officials will be reined in soon, but it looks like they have the upper hand when it comes to making their GDP performances look good than encourage more local businesses to flourish.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Picture of the Day: Remembering Michael

Today (well today in North America) is the first anniversary of Michael Jackson's sudden death a year ago.

Outside a mall in Sanlitun called 3.3 there was an organized memorial for people to participate. A decent-sized crowd gathered, some even wearing black T-shirts made especially for this sombre occasion.

On the giant screen was a video showing Jackson performing in concert, while two posters were put up inviting the public to remember Michael.

"King of Pop," the posters read. "You are not alone."

It's that last statement, and the title of one of Jackson's songs released in 1995 that seemed to resonate with many young Chinese people here. Perhaps in some way they are searching for their meaning of life through him.

You Are Not Alone

Another day has gone
I'm still all alone
How could this be
You're not here with me
You never said goodbye
Someone tell me why
Did you have to go
And leave my world so cold

Everyday I sit and ask myself
How did love slip away
Something whispers in my ear and says
That you are not alone
For I am here with you
Though you're far away
I am here to stay

But you are not alone
For I am here with you
Though we're far apart
You're always in my heart
But you are not alone

'Lone, 'lone
Why, 'lone

Just the other night
I thought I heard you cry
Asking me to come
And hold you in my arms
I can hear your prayers
Your burdens I will bear
But first I need your hand
Then forever can begin

Everyday I sit and ask myself
How did love slip away
Something whispers in my ear and says
That you are not alone
For I am here with you
Though you're far away
I am here to stay

For you are not alone
For I am here with you
Though we're far apart
You're always in my heart
For you are not alone

Whisper three words and I'll come runnin'
And girl you know that I'll be there
I'll be there

You are not alone
For I am here with you
Though you're far away
I am here to stay
For you are not alone
For I am here with you
Though we're far apart
You're always in my heart

For you are not alone
For I am here with you
Though you're far away
I am here to stay

For you are not alone
For I am here with you
Though we're far apart
You're always in my heart

For you are not alone...


Friday, June 25, 2010

Legally Demanding Submission

The Chinese government trusts no one.

Today a Tibetan man was sent to jail for 15 years, who in 2006 was praised by CCTV as "philanthropist of the year" for giving items from his art collection to state-owned museums. Karma Samdrup, 42, was convicted of robbing tombs and dealing in looted relics.

His lawyer, Pu Zhiqiang said the evidence was faked and the court did not provide a proper translator. Samdrup's wife claims he was beaten during his six-month custody and had lost a lot of weight.

"Tibetans do not touch coffins or corpses, they advocate sky burials, water burials, but not earth burials," Pu explained. "Also, robbing graves is taboo for them," he told the AFP.

The charges apparently date back to 1998 but there was no reason given why the police was pursuing them now.

Many believe the trial was to punish Samdrup for defending his two brothers who had publicly berated a local police chief who hunted endangered species on a Tibetan reserve.

Samdrup is the most high-profile Tibetan to be jailed in the past two years, and it sends a chill among Tibetans who had thought those who towed the party line were safe.

Apparently more than 50 Tibetan intellectuals who are not political activists have also been detained.

Even though Samdrup had a high-profile lawyer from Beijing, that wasn't enough to give him a fair chance.

"I felt like this was not a real trial, but that they just went through the motions to reach a predetermined verdict," his wife Zhenga Cuomao said.

During the trial Samdrup told the judge how there were days he was not given food or water, and that he was soaked in cold water in the dead of winter. "He never signed the confession because he knows he is innocent," Zhenga added.

This continual persecution of people on trumped-up charges just shows how desperate the government is in keeping its grip on power. It demands absolute obedience from its people, while it manipulates the legal system to its own ends. How can anyone continue to have faith in an institution like that?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Picture of the Day: The Wolves are Here

I took a visiting relative to the 798 Art District today. And as we wandered around, we stumbled upon this exciting outdoor art.

It was a giant pack of wolves surrounding a man standing on a stone with a spear ready to defend himself.

It's a sculpture by artist Liu Ruowang and it's appropriately titled, "Lang Lai Le!" or "The wolves are here!"

Each of the fearsome animals looks different, but quite Chinese from the swirls of fur on their backs.

Of all the art we saw today, this one definitely provokes the imagination.


Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Making Amends for Higher Gains

President Hu Jintao is on his way to Canada for a state visit before the G20 summit in Toronto.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper got a scolding from Premier Wen Jiabao in December for not coming to China earlier.

It was like a principal lecturing his student in front of the entire class and while the dressing down was completely embarrassing, Harper took it like a classy politician.

However, since then ties between the two countries finally got warmer. That's because the Conservatives had been criticizing China for human rights issues so the latter gave Canada the cold shoulder.

But as most countries cannot ignore or be shut out from China too long, Harper finally gave in and now things are smoothing over.

And it is appropriate now (or is it coincidence?) that this year is the 40th anniversary of China and Canada establishing diplomatic ties.

Hopefully on this trip Harper and Hu will sign the deal where China will grant Canada Approved Destination Status to make it easier for Chinese to visit Canada on tourist visas instead of business ones.

Hu's visit comes just before the recent announcement of China finally raising the value of the renminbi, but by how much and when are still up in the air. The Chinese currency rose to its highest level in five years by 0.4 percent on Monday, but then dropped its gains by about half at 0.23 percent the next day.

Some analysts see it as China still carefully monitoring the renminbi and keeping everyone guessing as to when and how much it will rise.

One thing is for sure -- China will not let its currency jump dramatically, not as high as other countries may want to see it go. It doesn't want its own exports to be too expensive or for its import/export firms to have even smaller margins. The recent strikes have also resulted in higher pay for workers, which also cuts into company profits, and making them less competitive.

The rise of the renminbi is just going to be a slow-going process, one that requires patience. Lots of it.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Dreams of Marrying Money

Chinese women have the upper hand when it comes to finding Mr Right, or do they?

A popular dating show on TV called If You Are The One, broadcast by Jiangsu Satellite TV, reveals what women want -- which is to show them the money.

In the program, 24 single women judge a bachelor by asking him questions and watching a short video of him. If they don't think he's suitable, they turn off their lights. If there are any lights still on after three rounds of screening, then he gets to date one of the women.

And it's those who have a well-paying job, a house and car that get the most lights, while those with hardly any assets make a quick exit.

The show gained notoriety when one of the female guests, Ma Nuo, told an unemployed suitor that she would prefer to cry in a BMW than smile on a bicycle.

Another guest, Zhu Zhenfang, said her sole requirement for a boyfriend was that he had to earn at least 200,000RMB ($29,420) a month. Where is she going to get a man like that unless a) he is a tycoon or b) a corrupt official.

Bridal demands over 30 years ago weren't that outrageous.

In the 1970s, for groom to marry his wife, he had to provide a bicycle, watch and a sewing machine. This progressed to a TV set, washing machine and a fridge in the 1980s. Now bachelors are only eligible if they have a house and a car.

But buying a house in China is not that easy these days, especially in big cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

The skyrocketing property prices make it practically impossible for a young man to buy a place unless all his relatives scrape together their hard-earned savings to buy a small apartment. And after that he and his yet-to-be-born son would be paying off the mortgage, only to have the government reclaim it after 70 years. After all, the government owns all the land, not the people.

A friend told me about her friend in Guangzhou who has a rich girlfriend. He managed to get a good job, and in order to woo her, he bought two apartments, borrowing from friends and relatives. He hopes housing prices will continue to rise so that he can make a profit, but there are dark clouds looming over the possibility of the property market bubble bursting soon.

And that would put him in an even worse position than being a "house slave".

That's why others prefer to rent in order to have more freedom to travel or purchase whatever they want.

But even this carefree movement can't stop what's called the "bride's-mother economy".

Gu Yunchang, deputy director of the China Real Estate Research Association explains. "The couple is going to get married, but the man has not yet decided to buy a house. The fiancee's mother will ask the man for a 'discussion', after which the man will try his best to raise money, through ways ranging from selling stocks to pawning items."

It is this rigid demand, Gu says, that keeps the property market going, and more men becoming "house slaves".

Weddings in China are a big gold mine, as the China News Service reports a whopping 400 billion RMB ($58.8 billion), or 2.5 percent of the country's gross domestic product are spent on wedding-related items. Bear in mind that this could include the car and the house, not just the banquet, flowers and pictures.

Many men who know they hardly have a chance at the dating game are still hoping to find a non-materialistic girlfriend, usually women still living in the rural areas.

But single women like Zhu are still holding out. She said on If You Are The One, "I am genuine. I firmly believe that a rich man will marry me."

Perhaps materialistic women like Zhu will give up their marital dreams and instead pursue the chance to be a rich man's ernai, or mistress in order to get their hands on that house, car and 200,000RMB a month.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Flawless Airport Expansion

Yesterday when I arrived at Hong Kong International Airport, I was surprised to find it had added more gates.

When it opened in 1998 it had 80 gates, but this time I found it has 30 more in a new mini terminal that can only be accessed by a shuttle bus in an open space near the tarmac. What was confusing was that they were labelled Gates 501-530. Why did they use these numbers? I looked on the airport's website, but didn't find the answer.

Nevertheless, some of the low-cost airlines like Hong Kong Express Airways and China Southern fly out from here.

When I got to the shuttle bus, I asked an airport staff if there was anything to eat in this terminal. She warned only small snacks and coffee were available so I imagined the worst -- like a typical mainland Chinese airport with tasteless buns or overly sweet ones and coffee that came out of a vending machine.

So I was surprised to find it was very new and modern, complete with Starbucks and a small selection of duty-free shops and a bookstore.

I grabbed a sandwich and fruit salad from Starbucks and the staff was even kind enough to put them on a tray and place it on a table for me while I managed my hand luggage.

And on top of that, this Starbucks had a few computer terminals for people to surf the net (provided they bought something) and free wireless Internet connection courtesy of the Airport Authority.

Everywhere else I'd been had their Internet connection controlled by PCCW, which meant having to shell out or not feeling connected.

The new mini terminal was a good experience overall, not penalizing passengers for choosing cheap flights. This is not the case in Beijing's Capital Airport in Terminal 1 and 2, where if you do get a cheap plane ticket, chances are you have to run to the gate furthest away or even worse, take a shuttle bus that takes you to the Siberian regions of the airport.

No wonder Hong Kong International Airport was named the World's Best Airport serving over 40 million passengers a year for the fourth consecutive year in May by the Airports Council International.

When accepting the award, Airport Authority CEO Stanley Hui Hon-Chung dedicated it to the 60,000-strong airport staff.

"We couldn't have achieved this without the concerted effort of all the staff in the airport community who provide passengers with the best possible service," he said. "It is gratifying to see that our overall score in the Airport Service Quality survey has been constantly on the rise over the past few years."

I know why this airport has been getting top grades for the past four years -- every time I get to this airport, I know that things will be as stress-free as possible aside from airline operations. And who wouldn't want that?

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Picture of the Day: Blue Skies

It's not often in Hong Kong to get really blue skies compared to Beijing, which, with the right conditions, a strong wind the night before, or heavy rains, a "blue sky day" actually appears.

Earlier in the week Hong Kong was overcast for most of the day and on Wednesday evening it rained, and on Thursday and Friday threatened to unleash some wet days.

However, the city got beautiful clear skies yesterday and seemed too good to be true!

But by the same token it was very hot and humid...

Here's a picture from Pokfulam, the south side of Hong Kong Island.

Continuing Hong Kong's Can-Do Spirit

When I bumped into an ex-colleague in Beijing about a month ago, he was telling me that people in Hong Kong were more friendly. And I have to say in the last few days I've been in the city, I've noticed that too.

You still do get the odd person who isn't afraid of showing their frustrations with someone or being curt, but on the whole, many in the service industry are more willing to help customers than put on airs.

Some still trip up when they encounter Mandarin-speaking clients; at Nha Trang, a popular Vietnamese restaurant on Wellington Street, a server wasn't able to communicate at all with a Taiwanese woman. But this was quickly rectified when she brought over a colleague to talk to her about her take-out order.

People here understand more than ever that it's customers who pay their salaries and so they must bend over backwards to serve them whatever they want. In a way it does go back to the old days where Hong Kong people did whatever it took to get the job done.

And wandering around the western side of Hong Kong Island, I'm seeing more small shops, boutiques, cafes and bars popping up in what used to be the most unlikely places. Originally they spread from Lan Kwai Fong to the areas around the escalator. But now these small-scale entrepreneurial ventures are even further west into Kennedy Town, with Japanese restaurants practically sprouting on ever other street, in what used to be areas only locals lived or worked in.

Just today walking down Aberdeen Street from Caine Road, I saw many new shops with English names along side streets, places I didn't even know about. There were small art galleries, cafes and boutiques. Perhaps part of the fun is stumbling into these places, a small gem you find in your neighbourhood.

It's just good to know the entrepreneurial spirit is still alive on a small scale and they continue to venture into territory that exists in harmony with its local residents.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Attempting to Quell Discontent

Premier Wen Jiabao is calling for better living conditions for migrant workers, saying officials should treat them like their own children. China owes them its wealth, he added.

"Rural migrant workers are the main army of the contemporary Chinese industrial workforce," he said earlier this week. "Our wealth and our tall buildings are all distillations of your hard work and sweat," he told a group of migrant workers in Beijing.

However he stopped short of saying the wages of some 200 million migrant workers should be raised after the spate of suicides at Foxconn and the strikes at Honda.

Wen pledged to improve public facilities in the countryside, such as schools and hospitals, saying migrant workers would have less to worry about in their hometowns. But what kinds of improvements is he talking about? Schools and hospitals in rural areas need better-qualified teachers and doctors as well as better equipment. If he's talking about a new paint job, then that's hardly sincere.

He also stopped short of announcing a further relaxing the hukou household registration system. From time to time, cities like Shanghai and Guangzhou and the central government claim they are making it easier for migrant workers to get an urban hukou. But the reality is that the requirements are so demanding that it is practically impossible for the majority of migrant workers to get this hukou in order to enjoy social benefits in the city, like education for their children or healthcare.

So while the premier is trying to show that he is supportive of the workers, he hasn't made any concrete measures to really improve their welfare. "Grandpa Wen" appears sympathetic in the hopes of quelling discontent, but until the central government really takes significant steps to improve things for this giant section of the population, the disillusionment of creating a "harmonious society" continues.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Button-Pushing Feedback

This morning I went to Beijing Capital International Airport to head to Hong Kong. 

At passport control, there were many people in line and to pass the time, I checked out the TV screen above us which showed a polite customer service message from the Beijing General Station of Entry and Exit Frontier Inspection of the People's Republic of China. 

It basically said that in order to better serve people, it had to know where it was going wrong in the process in order to improve. Which is why they put these customer service feedback buttons at each officer's station. And after the passport control process was completed, each passenger should either press "very satisfied", "satisfied", "check too long" or "not satisfied" to evaluate the officer that served them.

Most of the officers seemed to be working very quickly, so the line moved quite fast, and presumably good feedback. 

Us passengers just want these routine checks to be as efficient and painless as possible; and to their credit, the Chinese have made it so.

However, these buttons really give an indication if anything is wrong with the process? How can people elaborate if they have a complaint by only having the choice of pressing one button?

Accumulating these kinds of statistics make it easy to assess a person's work performance, but do they really give a true picture of what problems if any they are having?

If I pressed "not satisfied" would that mean a black mark next to my name and I would get hassles when I tried to get back into the country? Best to be nice...

It's just another opportunity for China to statistically prove that it's serving X many customers each day. But who knows if they really are well served... or not?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Fen Dilemma

China issues dollars and coins, and in the coin department there are 50-jiao, which is half of 1RMB, and then 10-jiao or basically 10 cents.

Then it divides further into fen, or cents, and these coins are really feather-weight. There are 5-fen, 2-fen and 1-fen coins.

Two friends of mine collect their spare change in a jar as they hate carrying coins. One time I counted most of the money in there and it amounted to over 20RMB ($2.92). They still didn't take it to the bank for some bills. So I've been helping them bit by bit get rid of these coins -- hey it's free change!

When I pay my water bill, the management office of my building accepts these fen, and allows me to get rid of these coins.

But when it comes to supermarkets, they aren't interested in these cent coins and would rather round up or down to the nearest jiao.

So when I went to get fruits at a neighbourhood grocery store the other day, I thought the shopkeeper would accept fen.

However, she was annoyed when I gave her one jiao and 1 five-fen, two 2-fen, and 1-fen coins to make 20 cents. "I don't accept these!" she exclaimed. But when I told her that was all I had, she grudgingly accepted the exact change.

If even small shopkeepers won't accept these fen coins in Beijing? Who will?

Perhaps before I leave, I will make the rounds to the various beggars around town and give them my fen; after all, money is money.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Picture of the Day: Curious Occupation

The new Qianmen Street tries to evoke the past, with its 600-year history of retail shops selling everything from roast duck to silk, cotton shoes and watches.

A few of the stores try to present their extensive history with bronze statues in front.

And one of them caught the eye of this young boy, who curiously inspected two men forging metal in front of a shop selling scissors.

Perhaps he wondered what exactly they were doing, or why they were wearing queues, which hark back to the Qing Dynasty until 1911.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

M is for Marvellous View, Mediocre Food

Over 20 years ago Michelle Garnaut opened M at the Fringe in Hong Kong, one of the first few independent restaurants in the city that was not attached to a hotel. It quickly became a favourite with its no-nonsense dishes, quirky decor and personable service.

Then over 10 years ago she started M on the Bund, a stylish homage to Shanghai's art deco look, also bringing a similar menu to dinners in the Chinese financial capital. This place, which inhabits a former bank, has also become popular mostly due to its fantastic view of the Bund and Pudong on the other side.

And now over a year ago, Garnaut has taken over Beijing with Capital M. It's located at the beginning of Qianmen Street, which I can now report has practically filled up its empty store-front spaces and looks more lively, with more flowers planted in giant urns and Starbucks and H&M next to domestic shops like Quanjude and silk stores and tea houses.

Thanks to some signage that pointed how to get into the building, my friend and I went up to the third floor to be greeted with some dramatic decor again harking back to the 1930s. Most of the tables inside were empty, as all the diners wanted to take advantage of the wonderful views outside. We were seated on the patio area which was laid-back and breezy, and not a single mosquito bite either, considering these pesky pests love my blood.

However, despite being seated and many wait staff milling around, it took some time before they even seemed to take notice of us and offer water and menus. Did they think we were just going to sit around and become part of the furniture?

Finally water was poured into our art deco glasses and we were able to peruse some menus. The dishes were all handwritten and interestingly enough had no Chinese characters to help some local customers understand the menu. It's already decided what kind of clientele would be here, and many last night fit the bill -- young professional 30-somethings from abroad or those who have travelled overseas frequently and had a good command of English.

Not long after we started to dig into the bread basket, our appetizers arrived. I had M's Gravlax, cured salmon with dill and Aquavit, a Scandinavian spirit, served with a sweet mustard sauce and very thin toast.

The salmon was fresh indeed along with the dill; the plate was also dressed with edible yellow flowers. I didn't care too much for the brown sauce, preferring to eat the salmon straight with a squeeze of lemon.

Meanwhile my friend had the Lebanese Meze platter, complete with artfully sculpted dollops of hummus, muchammara (hot pepper dip), labneh (soft cheese from yogurt), falafel, and dolma with fattoush and pita bread. Perhaps he shouldn't have chosen a dish he could have eaten elsewhere for a fraction of the price, as he seemed underwhelmed by it.

As we ate the skies gradually got darker, and the buildings by Tiananmen Square began to light up. It was an interesting contrast to look at Communist architecture from the 1950s while dining on Western food.

After a short wait our mains arrived. M's Crispy Suckling Pig is a signature dish my friend had to try. Three giant squares were presented on the plate, with a small scoop of stewed broad beans and zucchini gratin. The skin was very crispy, but not enough meat underneath to make it a satisfying dish.

I ordered the Slow-baked Salt-encased Leg of Lamb on a bed of green beans, with a whole roasted garlic, and rosemary roasted potatoes. It also came with some gravy, which was a touch too salty, but the lamb needed it because parts of it were too dry.

A nice touch was the finely mashed potatoes at the bottom of the dish, along with the roasted garlic whose cloves were so soft, they spread easily on bread.

The portions were just about right to leave enough room to try some dessert.

But here my choice could have been better. I had "It takes two to Mango", which was a pastry cup filled with thick cream whipped with mango sauce which wasn't very interesting. The plate was also decorated with cubes of mango jelly and the mango garnished with a sliver of mint.

My friend's dessert was better with the Croccanta Cioccolata, a Sicilian chocolate terrine with a scoop of marscapone ice cream that was rich and had a nice flavour with finely chopped nuts and candied fruits.

It was a bit of hit and miss with the menu, and the whopping 920RMB ($134.64) for two made us feel like we were paying more for the privilege of sitting outside and admiring the view than for the food.

Perhaps Capital M is more for those who want to be seen than for those who want to eat. No doubt the view is fantastic, eating above the fray of plebians below. But for those who want some serious nosh should look elsewhere than this otherwise beautiful restaurant.

Capital M
3/F, No. 2 Qianmen Pedestrian Street
Beijing
6702 2727

Friday, June 11, 2010

Sparking a Revolutionary Change in Labour

Terry Gou, the owner of Foxconn, the factory that has seen a spate of suicides recently, is calling for the end of the factory town model.

On Tuesday he told shareholders of the parent group Hon Hai that the model has to be scrapped even though Apple's Steve Jobs declared the factory that manufactures his products was quite 'nice'.

"We look at everything at these companies, and I can tell you a few things that we know," Jobs said. "Foxconn is not a sweatshop. It is a factory, but, my gosh, they have restaurants and movie theatres and hospitals and swimming pools. For a factory, it is pretty nice."

Maybe they are "nice", but the are for the most part unused because the employees are too busy working to scrape a living.

However, Gou has apparently found it hard to sleep after 10 suicides of his employees since the beginning of this year.

Perhaps despite the advantages of having workers live and work in the compound to be able to run a military precision-like production line, he realizes that employees are unable to separate work and leisure, and unable to integrate into city life, a lifestyle they crave.

Most of these young workers who are under 25 are children of migrant workers, who don't know how to farm and would prefer to live in the city than in the rural areas. But being shut within the factory compound prevents them from having any kind of life.

It's not entirely Gou's fault; almost all factories here are like this, compounds where workers live and work because when China started opening up in the early 1980s, there was no infrastructure in place for migrant workers in terms of housing, social services or entertainment.

It's time, Gou said, for local governments to taken on this responsibility. "If a worker in Taiwan commits suicide because of emotional problems, his employer won't be held responsible, but we are taken to task in China because they are living and sleeping in our dormitories," he said.

Liu Erduo, who studies labour issues at Renmin University, says it's a good idea for local governments to take on more social responsibility of migrant workers so that companies can focus on business.

However, local governments may not want to do this -- they themselves are too busy making money and don't want to have to spend it on social services and infrastructure, which would impact their GDP performance (and thus their chances for promotion).

Gou's announcement and the recent spate of suicides and strikes show that workers have had enough and they want more than just a sliver of the pie.

After all, they deserve it. It's time they get paid fairly for the work they do.

The buck stops here. Now.

 

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Cringe List Gets Longer

After over three years in Beijing you think you've seen it all -- kids urinating in the street in plain view; young lovers having a verbal and physical fight in the street; people screaming as they are being dragged away by police and an audience watching on. I even had the opportunity to watch a man pull over on the exit ramp of the freeway and urinate on the slanted road during rush hour.

Spitting on the street still irks me, along with recklessly blowing cigarette smoke into my face. Another is cutting fingernails on the bus or even in the office.

It's usually women who do this, carrying a nail clipper everywhere they go. Do they really have to do their personal grooming while in transit? Can't it wait until they get home?

But today I saw something that takes the cake in the nail clipping department.

At dinnertime I headed to a Hong Kong diner for a bite to eat. As I waited for my food to arrive, I saw a couple walk in, the man probably in his early 40s with a woman in her late 30s.

He strangely took off his shoes and sat cross-legged in the booth. 

They ordered their food and then he proceeded to trim his nails in the restaurant.

While the eatery has signs on the tables saying "No Smoking", there are no regulations about clipping fingernails... or toe nails for that matter.

As wait staff, what do you say? "Excuse me sir, can you please not trim your nails here?"

Probably being a typical Chinese man he would get all worked up and retort, "Why not? I'm a customer here, I can do whatever I want!"

Thank goodness when their food arrived, he stopped this personal grooming routine.

The sound of clipping nails really doesn't enhance the dining atmosphere...

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Life of a Masseuse

After walking around the Summer Palace and buying lots of stuff at Yaxiu Market at Sanlitun, my friend was in a dire need of a massage.

We went to my usual spot, Bodhi, but it was already busy at 9pm and we'd have to wait an hour.

So we decided to check out a massage place near where I live, which on the outside looks a bit sketchy despite listing its prices at the door.

Also, all the female staff seem to wear the same orange form-fitting jumpsuit paired with heels. Doesn't that send mixed messages about the place?

In any event we soaked our feet in the hot medicinal concoction and one of the women massaging us who wasn't wearing the orange outfit told us she was from northern Guangdong Province. She had tried to set up a business here selling beauty products, but after she signed the lease she found out she was cheated out of 200,000RMB ($29,267) and hinted this was why she was doing this job.

She told us she already learned how to massage clients when she worked at the White Swan Hotel in Guangzhou, where it opened her eyes to the shady world of the massage industry in China. She worked at the hotel as a manager, but someone wanted to hire her as a "mamma-san"; she declined even though she wouldn't have to do anything except manage the girls.

One time, she said, a rich client wanted two girls to go with him and when they got back to his place there were over 10 people there. The two girls cried, both under 20 years old. They didn't know what they were getting themselves into.

Another time a rich client from Hong Kong looked at my masseuse and wanted her to be his mistress. He already had three girls and wanted a boy and thought this woman would bear him a son. He tried to get her friend to trick her, by saying she had a job for her in Hong Kong managing a store. She wised-up and declined.

She said even though we are in the 21st century, women in China are still treated with no respect. Her parents didn't encourage her to study too hard and thus was ineligible for the gaokao or college entrance exams. They expect her to save her wages to give them and that hard-earned money is passed onto the sons in the family for them to play with girls or go out and have fun.

That's not all -- after women are married, they have no place, as they live with their new family and have to look after their in-laws.

Then she said the other day a man in his 70s came in to get a massage. While she massaged his legs, he kept asking her to massage him higher and higher up his leg... it got to the point where it was obvious he wanted an extra service not listed on the menu at the door.

She tried to diffuse the situation by saying he should get his wife to massage him there, but he said she had passed away already. Then she suggested he get a prostitute instead, but he kept trying to get her to massage him there and she refused.

Which is why, she said, she was going to get out of the business altogether and head to Shanghai to start a cha can ting or a Hong Kong-style diner.

After listening to her long string of stories for two hours, we wish her luck in her new endeavour and she finds the happiness she deserves.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Imagining Imperial Life

I took my friend to the Forbidden City this afternoon and on the whole not much has changed.

There are still the crowds that hang around within the two gates before having to pay the 60RMB ($8.78) admission to go through the rest of the giant compound.

And individuals will approach you, asking if you want to have a private tour, but it's best to just wander on your own.

The previous times I've been there, I usually power through it without wandering much to the sides of the palace grounds. However, that's where there are a few gems if you take the time to look room by room.

Some house beautiful jade carvings from the Three States period, or even Qin Dynasty, colourful cloisonne vases, or clocks clearly influenced by the Europeans in the 17th century. There was a wooden head carved with the beautiful and graceful face of the Bodhisattva, and a chest of drawers in wood with an intricate carving made to hold calligraphy scrolls for the Emperor Qianlong who liked to write calligraphy.

These were only a fraction of the beautiful items that were used by emperors, concubines, officials and staff. What happened to the rest of them?

The areas in the Forbidden City that have the majority of visitors seem to have the most renovations in terms of fresh coats of paint that are at the point of gaudiness; how does a new paint job make a palace from the 1400s look old? Nevertheless, the further you wander from the main path, the more you see the original albeit worn down paint depicting various scenes on the outside hallway ceilings.

It's also annoying that most of the items like furniture and other interior decoration have been emptied out of the main rooms; as my friend remarked, it was like seeing the shell of the building and made it difficult to imagine what palace life was like.

The one or two rooms you could look inside were difficult to see into because the windows were smudged with finger prints and the items inside were covered in a thick layer of dust. Would it hurt to clean the windows regularly and dust off the artifacts?

However, the upkeep is better than what it used to be when I first came to Beijing in 1985, when things were pretty much left out in the open to be exposed to the natural elements.

While there seems to be more museum staff on hand, many of them are young people probably hired to boost employment numbers, but they seem to be more preoccupied with playing on their cellphones than telling people not to take flash pictures.

At 4:30pm, a major announcement was blared from the loudspeakers saying that the Forbidden City would close in 30 minutes. We were already towards the end of it, but we wandered in the various small rooms that probably housed concubines. One of them showed pictures of the life of Pu Yi, the last emperor, including his baby and wedding pictures. We wanted to linger a bit longer, but a woman shooed us out wanting to lock up this room even though there was still 15 minutes to closing.

Seems like the staff here are eager to get out of work at 5pm...


Monday, June 7, 2010

The Truth Behind the News

We may have a number of preconceptions about Chinese state media, and some of them were confirmed when details of a lecture given by a senior Xinhua News Agency official at Tianjin Foreign Studies University last month were leaked by a journalism student who was there.

Xia Lin's presentation, entitled, "Understanding Journalistic Protocols for Covering Breaking News", uncovered what really happened behind the scenes.

For example, in 2003, Yang Yiwei was China's first astronaut in space. But there were some flaws in the capsule's design so that when he entered the earth's atmosphere, the G-forces he endured were so extreme on his body that he later reported that his organs felt like they were being torn apart.

Xia said the experience caused Yang's lip to split open so that when workers opened the capsule, they were shocked to see his face covered in blood. However, they were undaunted and just quickly wiped his face and closed the capsule again for the cameras to roll so that China's newest hero could emerge appearing unscathed but pale.

Then when it came to reporting last July's riots in Urumqi, Xinjiang, Xia explained that Xinhua covered up the extent of the violence in the region. He said the reporters saw lots of evidence of Uyghurs killing Han Chinese but didn't play this up too much in their reports for fear it would cause further unrest in the rest of the country. He said that Uyghurs had set fire to a bus, killing everyone on board, and they also raped women and decapitated children.

"Under those circumstances, it would have exacerbated ethnic conflicts if more photos were released," he said.

He added that the reporters also did some intelligence gathering that never makes the front pages of newspapers. They snuck into hospitals and took pictures of the victims who were mostly Han Chinese. It was these secretive reports that President Hu Jintao read and apparently decided then to cut short his visit to Italy for the G8 summit to return home to take control of the situation.

These confidential reports are not uncommon; those Xinhua reporters chosen for their political background and work track record will routinely write two reports, one for mass consumption, and another for senior leaders, that give a more accurate picture of the situation. This can range from the unhygienic state of restaurants along Guijie in Beijing to the aforementioned Urumqi riots.

An adjunct professor at University of California, Berkeley Xiao Qiang, who regularly reports on Chinese media and how stories are reported there, says Xia's lecture is "basically telling these students that journalism in China is a big show, it's fabricated, but in the end it's all justified for the higher purpose of stability," he said.

However, soon after they were put up, the postings of Xia's lecture were quickly deleted, for fear of further exposing the truth.

But more importantly, has anything happened to Xia?

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Picture of the Day: Toying with Nostalgia

At Panjiayuan, the antique flea market, there are stalls upon stalls selling all kinds of things, from paintings and silk scarves, jade bracelets and embroidery, chopsticks and silk pouches, leather-bound boxes and Chairman Mao statues.

But there's one that catches a lot of attention because of the memories it invokes -- toys.

They're in the shape of robots, jack-in-the-box, a menagerie of animals, rockets and houses.

These toys made of tin are from the 1960s to as late as the 1990s, and with a twist of the key they come alive in a variety of ways.

Little drummer boys in red uniforms and blue beefeater hats march slowly banging their drums, while a cat runs on a wheel, then rolls on its side before getting back up again and continuing on its way. Two men play a fierce game of table tennis, and a small fish swims in front before the big fish catches up behind him and swallows him whole.

Many people come by this stall and are nostalgic about their childhoods, and some want to buy back their youth.

However it will cost you -- while some are only 30RMB ($4.39), some are priced upwards to 120RMB ($17.57) -- probably 10 times the original price.

What is old is new again...

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Lots of Room for Improvement

When Brian McKenna was the chef at Blu Lobster, the western fine-dining restaurant at the Shangri-La in Beijing a few years ago, I was wowed by the molecular gastronomic feast he presented. Dishes were deconstructed, refreshing liquids presented in test tubes. It made dining an unforgettable experience.

So when he left to set up his own restaurant, there was a lot of expectation and anticipation for something great. It was supposed to have opened in time for the Olympics, but that came and went, and then it was supposed to open in April but that month came and went.

Finally it was expected to open in mid-May so I tried to make a reservation for the end of the month. However I was told over the phone that the restaurant was "full". How about the week after? Full. I couldn't get a reservation until two weeks later, which was today. A friend of mine told me this was strange as she had gotten word that the place wasn't open until last week.

What was going on? Was it eventually going to open?

ROOMBeijing was definitely open tonight, and it's located on the third floor of the Yintai Centre in Guomao, a slick shopping center and office space that's filled with brand-name boutiques like Hermes, Giorgio Armani and Ermenegildo Zegna, but have no customers.

The dining area is a strange mix of sophistication and off-beat art. The white tables are brightened up by comfortable chairs of various colours, and then there is modern art everywhere, including a giant mural of orchids, some of which stick out in 3D. Behind and above where we sat were the creations of a Korean artist, who had sculptures of dogs and a baby boy in a dog suit complete with a penis. We were told by one of the wait staff that the child was modeled after McKenna himself... probably a hint of his enfant terrible inner child?

To the side was an open galley kitchen, and and above that tons of wine bottles stuffed in rectangular holes. That seemed like the only sophisticated part of the restaurant.

Then we were handed the menu, which was actually a set menu at 300RMB ($43.92) per person. We were told that the restaurant still hadn't officially opened yet, so we were stuck with a parade of courses that were served "family style", a concept that was apparently the first in Beijing for a western restaurant. Right.

Even before we finished perusing the menu the starters were given to us, a bowl of delicious olives marinated in olive oil and lemon, babaganoush, bread sticks, seasoned cashews and banana chips.

Then we were served a mixed salad complete with chopped tomatoes, watermelon, pineapple and beets, topped with a poached egg. We also had a small plate of salmon marinated with beets which was not particularly interesting in terms of flavours.

However, we were then presented a whole roasted chicken which would be sliced up for us in the kitchen, and it was delicious, though it reminded us of Cantonese soy chicken. Nevertheless, the accompanying fries generously sprinkled with paprika were good, and a small salad. It also came with glutinous rice that was cooked in the same sauce as the chicken. That also sounds like another Cantonese dish...

Then the lamb chops came -- only two, for three people -- with a small pot of Irish lamb stew with thinly sliced pieces of lamb with carrots and potatoes. The lamb chop portion was soon rectified, when another one came naked on a plate. The lamb chops were nice and juicy, though not much flavour, in retrospect.

During this time service was pretty good, constantly filling our glasses with water... only after I had insisted on "ordinary water" and not the bottled kind which was 50RMB ($7.32) for a small bottle, and it wasn't even Evian either.

After our dishes were cleared, we were treated to a bizarre dessert of "spaghetti" made of white chocolate with a raspberry sorbet garnished with various berries like blackberry and blueberry. However, the "spaghetti" was very difficult to not only put on our plates but eat as well, and it didn't taste like white chocolate either. It was a sad attempt at being innovative.

We were also presented with a "fruit tree", a silver tree with branches sticking out that were decorated with cubes of fruit like strawberries, watermelon, pineapple, apple, dragon fruit and cantaloupe. We could dip them into sauces of strawberry, mango and vanilla mixed with sugar. However, it was difficult to get the fruit with forks; you had to use your hands which was not quite hygienic.

Dry ice emanated from the "pot" and after it dissipated in the air, it continued to gurgle which was a strange noise to have at the table.

We seemed to be the only table that had practically finished our fruit tree; others that were not finished were taken back into the kitchen. Did that mean that we were eating someone else's recycled fruit tree with a few more fruits added?

ROOMBeijing's motto is "Creating food with atmosphere". We saw a strange atmosphere, but not much creativity in the food. After all the hype, expectation and anticipation, the restaurant definitely fell short. It seems like too much effort was put into details other than the food itself.

Dinner for three including a 10 percent service charge was 990RMB ($144.95).

Apparently the full menu of some 40 items will be served soon. Who knows when that will actually happen...

ROOMBeijing
Floor 3, Yintai Centre
2 Jianguomen Wai Dajie
Beijing
8517 2033

Friday, June 4, 2010

A Strange Day at the Square

Today I made my annual pilgrimage to Tiananmen Square to mark June 4.

Last year it was completely blocked off as it was the 20th anniversary so I was curious to see what would happen this year.

After a minor security check of putting our bags through a scanner and a brief wanding, we could go into the square.

And instead of an atmosphere of contemplation and grandeur, it was more like one of celebration and noise.

There were two long rectangular screens that are permanently mounted on granite stands that are carved, each broadcasting the same images provided by CCTV. Some of them were of raindrops collecting in a giant lotus leaf, the Great Wall, a bird's eye view of the China pavilion at the Shanghai Expo, Beijing Capital International Airport, and the National Stadium or the Bird's Nest.

And the people in the square were an odd bunch, mostly huddled in groups with red umbrellas that said something like "Capital Volunteers", harking back to the Beijing Olympics when neighbourhood watch groups hung out in street corners on the look out for anything suspicious.

But here they were, wearing their own "uniforms" of different coloured shirts and all carrying the same red umbrella.

Was this a fabrication to make it look like the square was "busy" and business as usual to foreigners?

If it was, it was a feeble attempt because they didn't seem like they wanted to be there, crouching on the ground or chatting with friends.

The bizarre atmosphere just made it all the more outrageous since a brutal anniversary happened here 21 years ago. It was as if they were trying very hard to negate the past, in the hopes that people would not remember.

But we still do.

We will not forget those people who lived near the square who tried to stop the tanks from entering, and we will not forget the students who were trying to tell the government they had enough of the corruption and wanted justice.

China may want its people to forget with these fancy distractions, but we will not be misguided in what we saw.

We will not forget.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Need for Plan B

Lester Brown is more concerned about the existence of civilization than the planet. The founder and president of Earth Policy Institute based in Washington DC, he previously worked in the United States government in agriculture and also pioneered sustainable development, a buzzword we freely use these days.

And on his trip to Beijing, Brown just released his Plan B 4.0, suggestions on how to keep civilization going. Plan A, Brown says, is business as usual and that is no longer an option even though we are still on this path.

He strongly urges Plan B because he has studied why earlier civilizations collapsed and discovered that most of them did due to food shortages.

And in the 21st century, Brown points out three reasons for imminent food shortages which could lead to the end of civilization:

1. Population growth -- The planet has 80 million more people every year, or about 216,000 people per day.

2. Rising affluence -- People are aiming to be upwardly mobile and with more wealth, they consume more agriculturally-intensive things like livestock which require more grain or soybean meal.

3. Converting grain into fuel (ethanol) -- Only in the last few years are we seeing grain that used to be for consumption now being turned into fuel. Food and energy economies used to be separate but now are inextricably linked on the world market.

Then Brown points to three supply factors that affect food shortages:

1. Spreading water shortages -- We need 4 litres of water a day to live, but crops need 2,000 litres. Half of the world's population are seeing their water tables dropping significantly, such as China and India. When food production is increased, the faster the water is depleted. For example, some 130 million Chinese are facing over pumping of water, so water shortages are imminent.

2. Melting ice sheets -- If they all melted, that would lead to a 7-metre rise in the sea level; even a 1-metre rise would see areas like Bangladesh and the Mekong delta, both rice-growing regions under water, along with 19 others. Brown says there is a projection of a 2-metre rise of the sea level this century.

3. Melting mountains and glaciers -- This is the 19th consecutive year of melting glaciers, with the greatest concern on the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau, as the majority of the rivers in Asia flow from these areas. And as China and India are the world's leaders in rice production, the melting of these glaciers will be their greatest threat to their food security.

Brown notes other factors like soil erosion and loss of arable land, but the three above-mentioned are his top concerns.

What solutions does he have in mind?

He believes it is important to keep the world population under 8 billion, eradicate poverty, and restore natural support systems like forests; but so far we have not reversed any of these.

In any event, he is seeing some bright spots, like China moving quickly in wind power generation, with a plan to build seven wind mega complexes which could yield 130,000 megawatts, or 130 less coal-fired power plants.

He is also heartened to see that in the US there are grassroots campaigns to oppose the building of coal-fired power plants and this has now grown to close existing coal-fire power plants.

There are other measures governments can take such as raising taxes on fossil fuels.

Another point he makes is that we need to redefine "security". After two World Wars and a Cold War, security is still defined in military terms, but really the threat now is water shortages, population growth and glaciers melting.

He also strongly believes developing countries like China should not look to emulate what the West has done for the past two centuries and instead design an economy that is relevant to today. These countries should also design cities for people, not cars; he thinks there is a blind desire to imitate, but believes China has the capability to rethink how it wants to develop.

Hopefully China is listening -- but time is of the essence.

Brown may sound like he is predicting the end of the world, but he believes as more people become aware and educated about what needs to be done, not only will they get involved, but also push their governments to make a more concerted effort to save civilization as we know it.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Fact of the Day: Chinese Cities with Populations Over 1 Million

For many of us in the West, a city with a population of over one million is considered pretty big, as towns may only have a few thousand people.

But in China, what may be considered a town already has over a million people in it. And according to Demographia, there are some 60 of them in the Middle Kingdom, including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Chongqing.

For example it says Beijing has a population of 12.4 million, but most statistics say 17 million. That's because it is calculating the urban area population, and there are still a few million out in the rural areas. Demographia's definition of urban area population is "a continuously built up landmass of urban development", or "the lighted area that can be observed from an airplane at night".

Using these numbers, Chinfographics has come up with an interesting visual presentation of of all these Chinese cities, contrasted with other metropolises like New York (21.3 million), Paris (10.5 million), Sydney (3.7 million) and Amsterdam (1.1 million).

Of course omitting people in rural areas would probably bump up the Chinese numbers significantly and there would most certainly be more than 60 cities.

In any event, 60 or more cities in China with more than one million people is mind-boggling.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Looking for Love

Most of the local Chinese women I know are in their mid to late 20s, and many of them have marriage on their minds.

Some are getting a lot of pressure from their parents to get married, while others put this pressure on themselves, as they don't want to be a shengnu, or a "left-over woman".

After breaking up with her boyfriend last year, one 26 year old I know is determined to find a man this year. However, so far she has gone on a few disastrous blind dates.

On one she met a very skinny tall man who told her during the course of their date that he was scared of his mother. This was because she constantly nagged him while he was growing up, and so during their dinner date, he asked my friend to order whatever she wanted on the menu.

Should a guy reveal his fear of women on a first date?

Then she went on another date, with four other chaperones, two of which were children. They went out for lunch, and then her date took the group to the outskirts of Beijing to go fishing. Fishing? On a first date? With so many other people?

As a result, she wasn't comfortable with him, and she felt that he was trying hard to be her gege, or older brother, than a date.

Many men here either feel insecure and think they need to play this role, or they watch a lot of romantic movies and assume this is what women want.

However, women these days don't want an older male sibling, but a friend.

As young women become more capable of looking after themselves financially, young men feel at a loss as to how to demonstrate their manliness, especially when they don't have a thick wallet or many assets to prove it.

Meanwhile I heard of a 28-year old woman, with a Master's degree, works in a public relations company and speaks good English. She has never had a boyfriend before and is now looking for the love of her life. Her mother in Tianjin is also helping her find this Mr. Right online and asking her network of friends.

The other day she went to get a health check and found out her height was taller than she thought. So she immediately contacted her mother to update her vital statistics, in case a few centimetres would make a big difference in finding a man.

She is desperate to get married, but with her good job and academic background, it may be hard for her to find a guy with equal or better qualifications. Women are discouraged (or they discourage themselves) from pursuing a doctorate degree for fears that appearing too smart will make it almost impossible for them to nab a guy!

Then there are those who are not particularly pretty and know it, and have decided it doesn't matter if they get married or not. They are focused on their careers and either ignore their parents' pressure to get married, or they aren't concerned.

As one explained to me, she thinks it's too much trouble to find the right guy, and spend the rest of her life with this person. And then having to save up so much money for an apartment...

Nevertheless, this desperation to get married will just exacerbate the problem. For those who have had no relationship experience at all will not understand or know if a particular man suits them or not and because of pressure may marry the wrong person, or find rejection harder to deal with.

Another 28-year-old friend I know contacted me recently, excitedly telling me that she had found Mr. Right. She said that he is currently studying physics at Chinese University in Hong Kong and she would visit him later in June. But when did they meet? Less than a month ago through a mutual friend.

I asked her, are you sure about this? She said, "We are very serious about this," referring to their relationship. While both may have the best intentions, knowing someone for three weeks does not necessarily mean you know this is the right person for you.

That's why Chinese parents really need to lay off the pressure, as they think that at their age they were already married with children. However, in this generation, it is normal for couples to get hitched and have babies later.

They also need to understand that as their children are mostly living outside of their hometowns, that their social circle may be smaller and thus harder to meet new people.

Meanwhile, men want to find women who aren't too demanding, who are willing to fulfill traditional housewife roles and somewhat pretty would help.

One man in his late 30s complained to me that Beijing women or those who live in the capital expect boyfriends to buy them designer clothes and bags, a car and an apartment before they will even consider marriage. It's a pretty tall order to fill, not to mention very materialistic.

As a result, many men on a budget are looking to Vietnam for wives. There are even "wedding tours" for Chinese men to go to Vietnam, pick out a wife, get married there and then eventually bring them back to China once their immigration papers are set.

This giant disconnect between what women want and what men want will only increase. Love is not enough in China anymore. And that's hard to find already.

Monday, May 31, 2010

The Unfortunate Life of a Cog

The recent spate of suicides and suicide attempts at the Foxconn factory in South China have raised serious concerns not only about work-place environments, but also the psychological state of young people.

Foxconn Technology Group is a Taiwan-owned company, the largest final assembling supplier in the global electronics industry. Its workers assemble iPhones and iPads for Apple, and computers for Dell and HP among others.

And because it manufacturers so many of these products, the company runs its production line in a very regimented system. Workers live in dormitories in the compound where they live four to six to a room, mostly with coworkers they don't know. And there can be hundreds of thousands of workers in one factory, almost like a small city, with all these people focused on one thing -- assembling goods day and night.

Their basic salary is so low (800 RMB/$117 a month) that they must work overtime in order to earn more money; but that means working longer hours on a daily basis.

Some critics think it's the strict work environment that makes it unbearable for people to work there, leading to them wanting to end their lives. However, others believe each case is different, with a number of different circumstances they are going through.

Perhaps some of these young people had naive hopes of becoming successful in the big city of Shenzhen; perhaps some felt too much financial pressure to send back more money to their parents; perhaps they had just ended a relationship and were unable to handle the heartbreak.

Most of these workers are in their late teens and early twenties, away from home for the first time and immediately faced with the reality of trying to figure out how to navigate themselves in the real world. Many have been sheltered or lived in rural areas and haven't developed the street smarts and mental toughness needed to survive in the city.

And it is believed the ones who cannot handle the pressure or adjust to life in the big city decide that no life is better than having one.

Statistically, China claims to have 12 suicides per 100,000 people. With Foxconn having about 800,000 employees and so far 10 deaths this year, its suicide rate is less than 1 per 100,000.

The company is at its wits' end trying to end this bad publicity, by inviting the media to tour the factory grounds and installing nets everywhere to save people from suicide attempts by jumping. However, it went overboard when it tried to get employees to promise not to kill themselves so that it wouldn't have to pay extra compensation to loved ones if they did.

Nevertheless, these suicides highlight the plight of young people -- not those who have university degrees and office jobs -- but those with not much education and hope to live a better life than their parents. Which is why they choose to abandon the fields and head to the city, only to find a factory job that treats them like cogs in a machine.

Some of them may not know which is worse, tilling the same fields previous generations have done, or work like a machine in an urban setting where the disparity between the rich and poor is blatant.

It's hard to say what the solutions should be, as it's not necessarily the company's responsibility to help employees adjust to city life. But at the same time, it could perhaps offer more outlets for frustration or creativity, such as sports and arts-related activities in order to make friends. A higher basic wage would also be beneficial, though it would eat into the company's bottom line.

Foxconn has already hired more psychologists and counselors, but are employees really going to share their feelings to these people who will probably report it to the company managers?

By the same token, young people who come to the city have to have a reality check and realize what they are getting themselves into. Factory work is no glamorous job, but it can help people give some kind of financial support or give them the work experience they need to move on.


Sunday, May 30, 2010

Picture of the Day: Artistic Messages

Wandering around the 798 Art District, you don't have to go into galleries to see art -- you can see it outdoors too.

The first of the pieces I spotted was this car parked among real ones.

It's a model of a BMW sports car... with a distinctive Great Wall touch.

Is it supposed to be a foreign car with Chinese characteristics? Or the Chinese invasion of the auto industry?

Next up is an iconic image of Lei Feng, a young man who the Communist Party of China has upheld as a model worker for his selfless devotion for society (whether fabricated or not).

When you look up close, it's actually made up of hundreds of Polaroid photographs of young people, probably an ironic take on Lei Feng, as kids in the 1980s and 1990s have a different view of their lives -- to have fun and for the most part, be selfish, thanks in part to the one-child policy producing "little emperors and empresses".

The next piece I saw was what people outside of China would immediately identify as Jesus on the cross. But the atheist Chinese take on this religious image is of a "Man at Work" or "工作". If you think of it that way, he is working hard to rid humanity of its sins...

And finally, this statue of two workers a la 1950s style holding up a giant wad of 100 RMB bills. The money is even bound together with the long strip of paper that bank tellers use to bind 100 of the 100 RMB bills to equal bricks of 100,000 RMB ($14,638) in cash.

Early in the establishment of new China after 1949, workers were passionate about building a new country, or so the propaganda says. They proudly raised their hammers, scythes, wrenches and whatever other tools they had, united in their goal.

These blue-collar workers are still united in a goal -- but now it's money.

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Colour of Change

The other day I went out to the 798 Art District to check out an exhibition at the UCCA or Ullens Center for Contemporary Art. On Thursdays it's free and it's a good thing I went there when it was free admission because there wasn't much to see.

Each successive time I go to this area, my feelings for the place become more disappointed. Granted it was a weekday, but there were more empty shop and gallery spaces, and constant demolitions of old buildings. The beauty of the place in the beginning was the old munitions factory itself; but now people thought a gentrified neighbourhood would make it even cooler. Not.

Nevertheless, I made my way to the UCCA and at the entrance the gallery, which houses an excellent collection of Chinese art from the 1980s onwards, was in the midst of preparing for the next exhibition. As a result, only the current exhibition was on show, called Feelings are facts by Olafur Eliasson and Ma Yansong.

This is the first collaboration between the Danish-Icelandic artist and Chinese architect. From the brochure it seems that Eliasson likes to experiment with light, colour and natural phenomena like fog and waves to see how they interact with people and influence our perception of our environment.

This led to Feelings are facts, conceived by Eliasson and then executed by Ma.

Visitors enter a low-ceiling room which is filled with smoke made by fog machines. It's a strange experience, going into this kind of an environment that is smoky and can be uncomfortable. At the same time, there are very intense colours in different parts of the room that gradually change different colours. One side is deep fuchsia, another dark blue to purple, lime green to yellow.

You can't see anything in front of you except colour. The effect is to try to bathe the visitors within colour and make them see things differently, or not?

While I understand the concept, it doesn't seem to have translated well in execution, as it's an almost unbearable experience walking in the smoke-filled space for more than five minutes.

And then, that was it. The entire exhibition. One room.

As it was drizzling outside, I didn't have much enthusiasm for wandering in the other galleries; one or two of my usual favourites were also busy getting ready for their next show so there wasn't anything else to see.

It's disappointing to see an area I was fond of three years ago lose its charm so quickly and become a pathetic version of itself.

That's the same with places like Houhai and Nanluoguxiang; once the local government gets involved, "development" makes these spots lose that element which made them so appealing in the first place.

It's a sad commentary on how the government and greedy landlords have no concept of how gentrification is a tourism buster.