Friday, April 30, 2010

Time Reveals the Power of Influence

Time magazine has released the results of its 2010 Time 100 Poll. Some 200 nominations were made and people were asked to cast their votes online.

Mir-Hossein Mousavi, Iran's opposition leader, was in top spot with 1,492,879 votes, followed by blogger, writer and racecar driver Han Han with 873,220. Guess his fans must be pretty pleased with the outcome.

Interestingly, the next Chinese on the list is human rights activist Liu Xiaobo who is currently jailed for 11 years for "inciting subversion of state power." He's just below singer Susan Boyle, but three spots up from talk-show host Conan O'Brien.

US President Barack Obama is No. 21, and his wife Michelle is No. 37. She is just in front of satirist Stephen Colbert.

Then it isn't until No. 50 do we see Chongqing Party chief Bo Xilai, and then at a lowly No. 138 is Vice Premier Wang Qishan. Interestingly, Wang beat out US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner at No. 143.


Random Attacks Send Frightening Message

A series of copycat killings, where men have attacked elementary-school children with knives and a hammer are creating fear among parents and people around the country.

Over a month ago on March 23, Zheng Minsheng, 42, attacked children in the school yard with a knife in the southeastern city of Nanping, killing eight students. Initial reports said he was mentally ill, but some media said he was not mentally unstable.

Legal expert He Weifang, a former Peking University law professor and civil rights advocate, said Zheng's trial was over unusually swiftly. 

Coincidentally he was executed on Wednesday, the same day as an attack in Leizhou, Guangdong, where 33-year-old Chen Kanging broke into a primary school and wounded 15 children and a teacher with a knife. Apparently Chen was a former teacher (not at that school) who had been on sick leave since 2006 for mental problems.

Then yesterday in Taixing, Jiangsu Province, an unemployed man called Xu Yuyuan, 47, stormed a classroom and with a 20-cm long knife, wounded 29 children and a teacher. Two teachers and a security guard failed to stop him. So far no motive has been given.

Apparently Xu had been an insurance salesman until he was fired in 2001 and has not had a job since.

And then today, 45-year old farmer Wang Yonglai wielding a hammer broke down the gates of a school with his motorcycle in Weifang, Shandong Province. He tried to attack children using the hammer and struck the teacher who tried to block him. He then grabbed two children and doused himself with gasoline and tried to light himself on fire. Two teachers managed to rescue the children before he set himself alight and died.

While the Chinese media and authorities are quick to blame these incidents on mental illness, it also shows the desperation of people who feel they have no hope with the ever-increasing gap between the rich and the poor, the lack of social services and social injustice.

Nevertheless, there is also the serious problem of mental illness in China, how it is mostly left untreated due to the stigma attached to having psychological issues.

In a Telegraph article from April last year, Huang Yueqin, director of the National Center for Mental Health estimates there are over 100 million Chinese with mental illness.

The report says only recently has the Chinese government recognized the scale of the problem.

"The government did not pay attention to the public's mental health over the past 50 years, and did not invest much in treatment or care," Huang says.

"However, the current five-year plan (for 2007-2012) has included mental illness treatment as a major field of research, which is a big step forward," she said.

While Beijing will build six new mental health clinics to treat 150,000 people in the city, where as there are currently only 6,900 psychiatric beds, there needs to be more qualified people to treat the patients.

Huang says because psychiatry was outlawed during the Cultural Revolution, from the late 1960s, Maoist thought attributed any mental illness to an incorrect appreciation of the class struggle. Apparently many mentally-ill patients were taken from hospitals and sent to labour camps because of their "counterrevolutionary" behaviour.

As a result, currently the entire country has only 4,000 qualified psychiatrists and 15,000 doctors working in psychiatric hospitals. "There is no psychiatry, psychology or psychotherapy students in medical school," explains Huang. "You need to qualify as a doctor first, and then subscribe to a course in mental treatment."

While she claims there is no link between mental illness and the growing wealth disparity, one has to wonder why there is such a spate of attacks that are happening one after another.

Each of the individual attackers' motives may be different, but it seems all are taking extreme measures -- attacking and killing innocent people -- in order to draw attention to their plight.

They are trying to say something, which is beyond our comprehension.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Haibao Versus Gumby

Just days before the 2010 Shanghai Expo is set to start, an uproar has erupted about how many things are plagiarized, causing embarassment for the organizers.

First off is that Haibao, the blue official mascot, who seems to have a resemblance to Gumby, the green clay character who has a series of adventures with his friends in toyland.

An NPR reporter by the name of Louisa Lim gained instant fame after she accused the organizers at a recent press conference for plagiarizing Gumby.

The designer of Haibao, Wu Yongjian had said that the creature is inspired by the Chinese character for person or people called ren (人)with a cowlick on top. For some foreigners, though, one look at Haibao immediately reminded them of Gumby.

Then there's the China pavilion.

It's this giant red temple-like structure whose roof is an inverted pyramid and stands on four pillars that seems to tower everything else nearby. Called 'The Crown of the East", it seems very ... square and rigid, red and imposing. Sound familiar?

However, critics claim its design is very similar to the Japan pavilion designed by Tadao Ando that was presented at the 1992 Expo in Seville, Spain.

Ni Yang, a deputy chief designer who is also the deputy dean of the Architectural Design Institute at South China University told the Guangzhou-based New Express newspaper  was interviewed by a media outlet from Guangdong denied the accusation.

"There are several differences between his and my work," Ni said, referring to Ando's design. "His work was for the purpose of decoration, but mine is a building. The style of the pavilion is widely used in architecture design, so that is not the creation of Tadao Ando."

Another architect, Cui Tong, who is chief designer at the Institute of Architecture Design and Research at the China Academy of Sciences said the design of the pavilion is inspired by a traditional Chinese style, suggesting that the plagiarism accusations are being pointed in the wrong direction.

And finally... the theme song for the Expo, "Right Here Waiting for you 2010" which was sung by a number of artists, including martial arts whiz/actor/singer Jackie Chan, was found to be practically identical to a Japanese song called "Stay the Way You Are" sung by Mayo Okamoto released in 1997.

On this count organizers went beet red as the song was immediately pulled off the airwaves last week citing copyright concerns and has not been heard of since.

While it's great that Shanghai is hosting this Exposition, one would assume the organizers would try to put a bit more effort into striving for originality.

After all, isn't that what the Expo is about?

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Picture of the Day: Creative License Plates

Just before and during the Beijing Olympics, draconian measures were taken to ease traffic congestion.

It was very simple -- license plates ending in odd numbers were allowed on the roads on one day, even the next, which kept 50 percent of the cars off the streets.

It was also extremely easy for police to crack down on offenders.

While car owners complained about the restrictions, they loved having no traffic when it was their time to drive, and hated commuting in public transit otherwise. It also significantly helped clear the air.

There were calls to keep some kind of driving restriction in place after the Games, so the municipal government came up with a strange regulation so that at any given time 20 percent of cars are off the roads. That means drivers can't use their cars one day during the weekday. The rules are as follows:

Monday 1 & 6
Tuesday 2 & 7
Wednesday 3 & 8
Thursday 4 & 9
Friday 5 & 0

So for example on Monday, license plates ending with either a "1" or a "6" are not allowed on the roads.

On weekends it's a free for all, which means traffic can get really bad in the evenings.

So today on my way to the office I spied a car that had a license plate with "1" as the last digit, but if you look more closely, there is a faint outline of what looks like glue to make the shape of a "4".

Someone is trying to get away with driving their car everyday... have the authorities caught on to this yet?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Municipal Magnificence

The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) says in a new report that Beijing is the top Chinese city for its living environment, and that it is well on its way to becoming a "world city."

Somehow the Chinese capital trumped Shanghai and Hong Kong for its "living environment."

The report defines "living environment" as shopping, recreational, and educational facilities, as well as environment.

While Beijing lost to Hong Kong in terms of shopping (shouldn't Shanghai be second, not Beijing?), the Chinese capital also lost to Macau in terms of recreational facilities. So recreation means gambling?

Beijing also got top marks for its transportation which surely raises eyebrows, as Hong Kong and Shanghai seem to have better public transit systems. On Saturday around 6pm, I was stuck in a traffic jam with cars inching along on Dongzhimenwai Dajie to get home. How is that good transport? I put it down to all 4 million cars on the road at the same time, as there are no vehicle restrictions on weekends.

It should be of no surprise that Beijing didn't do well in the "green" category.

And finally in terms of "city competitiveness", Hong Kong was first, followed by Shenzhen, Shanghai, Beijing, Taipei, Guangzhou, Tianjin, Kaohsiung, Dalian and Qingdao.

With the criteria listed above, how could Beijing have come out on top overall?

It either edged the other cities out just by a point of two, or the report results were rigged.

You be the judge.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Finally Shuffled Out

Over the weekend, the New York Times reported that Wang Lequan, the Party Secretary in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region had been replaced with his counterpart from Hunan Province, Zhang Chunxian. Wang, 65, was appointed as deputy secretary of the political and legislative affairs committee of the Chinese Communist Party's central committee.

Wang had governed Xinjiang for 15 years, and with Hu's support, ruled with an iron fist that culimated in the riots in Urumqi on July 5 last year. He was known as the "stability secretary" as he claimed stability was the top priority... at all costs. So it's interesting to find him replaced just months before the first anniversary of the riots.

However, his exceptionally long tenure also resulted in cronyism by Wang and his cohorts.

Tom Cliff from the Australian National University's Contemporary China Centre writes that during that time Wang replaced cadres from his home province of Shandong in top positions of prefecture-level governments throughout Xinjiang.

One example which now has the status of legend among the Han community tells how he forced farmers near Korla to purchase greenhouse construction materials from his brother Wang Leyi's company rather than obtaining them locally. The materials were shipped out from Shandong and ended up costing twice as much as the local equivalent. He then ordered his cronies in the prefectural government to legislate that each greenhouse must be a minimum acreage which was 6-10 times greater than what the farmers could afford to finance a bank loan for, and for the Bank of China to grant the loans with no questions asked.

Consequently, the farmers all went bust, the bank lost out and the price of winter vegetables in the nearby city of Korla was pushed even higher. For the people of Korla, this was a tangible example of official corruption, greed and incompetence directly affecting their own standard of living, as well as their own inability to do anything about it.

According to Cliff, there was hardly any media attention about this partly because of the Shandong clique, but also because exposing it could threaten stability.

Meanwhile, Han Chinese living in Xinjiang feel they are dealing with the greatest inconveniences and restrictions on freedom than anywhere else in the country, and yet the authorities cannot guarantee their safety on the street.

Although Wang has been replaced, Zhang is not necessarily an expert in dealing with ethnic unrest. He has, however, been successful at economic development, which gives a hint of what's to come -- a resentment of a different kind.

Seems like the Chinese government is hardly interested in tackling the fundamental issue at hand, which is allowing Uyghurs to practice their cultural traditions without government interference.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

10 Years of Music

The China Philharmonic Orchestra is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year and is marking the occasion with three concerts, the first of which was tonight at the Poly Theater.

And Lang Lang was invited to perform, which resulted in sold-out tickets, and a practically full house complete with video cameras recording the event for CCTV.

I managed to get a great seat -- four rows from the stage, on the left side.

Audiences can be notorious about sitting in seats that aren't theirs and as I sat there waiting for the concert to start, a girl accused me of sitting in the wrong seat and so I moved out, only to realize I was sitting in the right place all along and pointed this out to her. She didn't even apologize for the misplaced accusation, but I wasn't about to let that bother me too much.

Conductor Yu Long has returned for the concert too, as he is now based in Shanghai. He looked the same, with the slick back hair, rotund figure filling out a tuxedo with tails.

The program began with Tchaikovsky's Polonaise, a rousing and energetic performance with plenty of percussion and playfulness.

Then the grand piano was rolled out and so did Lang Lang, resplendent in a shiny charcoal suit with a dark shirt that had a shiny detail on the front. He continues to have a spiky hairdo and appearing gracious in front of the adoring audience.

Before he began, the composer of Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 23 came out. The bald man in his 50s surnamed Chen was dressed in what looked like a leather Chinese jacket and pants. He quickly explained that he was the composer of the Olympics song You and Me to which he received warm applause.

He then said that he had spent some 30 years in France, and 20 in China and while he was thrilled the young Lang Lang was playing his piece that debuted in New York's Carnegie Hall in February, he wasn't sure if the pianist was ready to bare his soul for music. However, he was pleasantly surprised that the artist has matured and understands his work.

And as it was the 10th anniversary, he expressed his honour at his work being chosen for this event and hoped that the audience would enjoy it.

This was the first time I saw Lang relying on the music to perform, but it didn't hinder him in any way. It started off sounding Japanesey, similar to the soundtrack to Lost in Translation, with light background sound that was very reflective and restrained that eventually crescendoed into a dramatic climax and then like a wave eventually receded into the distance. It was like soundtrack music that was very contemporary and yet with strong Asian touches.

When the performance was over, Yu and Lang called the composer to come back onto the stage and finally after several rounds of applause, Lang returned to the piano and gave an encore of Bach's Precipitato from Sonata No. 7 in B flat Major. I'm actually quite familiar with this piece, as it is one that Canadian pianist Glenn Gould had recorded. Lang broke loose, playing it with his signature dramatic flourishes which of course scored him even more points from the appreciative crowd.

After a 15-minutes intermission, the last piece, again Tchaikovsky's Francesca da Rimini, Op. 32 was performed. It required a full orchestra again, complete with percussion and was also full of energy and towards the end, the entire orchestra was silent save for a violinist, viola player and cellist, which gradually added the rest of the orchestra for an exciting finish.

There was lots of kudos for Yu, who has pretty much made the China Philharmonic what it is today. Not only his musical knowledge, but also his passion have led the orchestra to perform some interesting pieces and even taking the group to Rome to perform for the Pope.

Lang is obviously the next generation's musical leader and hopefully he will also inspire others to develop China's music scene and especially nurture its own musicians and composers to give a voice to the country today.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Testing Patience for Food

China is trying to build up its tertiary industry, mostly related to the service sector. And from what I can see in the hospitality industry here, much needs to be done.

Restaurants that don't have any foreign management or direction have no concept of what good service is.

And when I look at service, it's not just the wait staff, but the entire dining experience from the moment you walk through the door to the time you leave.

In general many restaurants have decent wait staff who greet patrons when they come in, seat them as quickly as possible and give them menus. Sometimes as you start to read the menus they are standing right by you waiting to take your order which is a bit too eager, but the right idea.

However, the next step is the kitchen. There is no coordination in the kitchen in terms of getting dishes out on time or in sequence. Sometimes a main course will arrive before the appetizers or cold dishes do. Most of the time if there is more than one person eating, one person gets their dish first and almost finishes eating it before the second or third person gets their order. How can that be? Isn't there any concept that if people are eating together at a table they should be receiving their orders at around the same time?

There's a restaurant just across from my office called "Relax" in green letters. However, despite the cavernous setting with high ceilings, exposed brick and pipes, and trendy background music, this place is hardly stress-free.

They have a number of dishes on the menu, and for those wanting a set lunch on a budget, there is a selection of about four or five dishes for 28RMB ($4.09) and for 2RMB more, you can have coffee, tea or a soft drink.

Over a week ago I went there and ordered the barbecue pork dish with a few vegetables, rice, a bowl of soup and a small vegetable appetizer. I did get the soup (lukewarm) and the appetizer but then waited and waited... over 20 minutes for the barbecue pork. I asked the waitress to check up on my order and it wasn't until then did she tell me that they were still roasting the pork so would I like to eat something else instead?

Why is there no communication between the kitchen and the waitstaff? And why isn't the barbecue pork already prepared before the lunch time rush?

So I changed my order to chicken instead and that took another 10 minutes... even though the chicken was served cold. Why does it have to take so long?

I gave the restaurant another shot today and tried to order the barbecue pork again. I told the waitress that last time it wasn't available, but she told me it was.

After having my soup (this time hot) and appetizer, I waited, and waited... another 20 minutes went by and I asked her to check my order. She decided to complete other tasks before telling me the kitchen was almost finished roasting the pork and it would take another five to six minutes.

I checked my watch. Ten minutes later I hounded her again and she said one minute more.

She was lucky it arrived 30 seconds later or I would have walked out.

The wait staff and kitchen need to be trained to understand that people want their food quickly, especially during lunchtime. That's mostly because of time, but also because people's blood sugar levels are low and they easily get irritable.

It's all fine and great for restaurants to have the staff all stand in front of the restaurant in the mornings or before dinner service and chant slogans or do exercises, but what about giving them training on what makes good service? Good food is only part of it, the other is service.

Perhaps when China starts instituting tips in restaurants will we start seeing good service. Until then, it's "服务员!!! Fuwuyuan!!!"

Friday, April 23, 2010

Crackdown on Monks and Porn

The Associated Press have reported that the Tibetan monks who were the first responders to the quake-hit victims in Yushu have been told to leave.

This was relayed from a phone call, saying they had better leave otherwise there would be "trouble".

They were the ones who first arrived, pulled out survivors, pitched tents and gave food and water to people. And as I blogged on Wednesday, they were noticeably absent from the proceedings to mark the one-week anniversary of the earthquake on China Central Television's special programming.

But now something even more bizarre is happening.

Qinghai officials are now promising to have a province-wide crackdown on pornography to make sure harmful literature does not hamper relief efforts.


A notice issued from Qinghai's anti-pornography and illegal publications office ordered officials to "fully understand the significance of maintaining an orderly publication market in the quake relief effort" and to step up on cracking down on pornographic and illegal publications, China National Radio reported Wednesday.

The office also said officials should watch out for "lawbreakers who use illegal publications to disturb people's hearts and disrupt the relief effort". The officials are also supposed to crack down on any rumours that may be spread through the Internet and cellphones.

How could anyone near the quake-hit area be concerned with porn at this time? Most people would be more anxious about saving lives and focusing on reconstruction than some dirty pictures.

Perhaps they really want to try to prevent any dissent or complaints from being circulated online and via text messages.

Why not focus on relief efforts? Actions speak louder than words.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Picture of the Day: Spring Flowers

There are signs that spring has arrived in Beijing, but you wouldn't know it from the weather.

This past week has been pretty depressing with overcast skies and light showers.... or was that precipitation meant for southwest China to alleviate the drought there? Maybe the scientists who are shooting those rockets with silver iodide to force clouds to rain are hitting them in the wrong place...

Nevertheless, the cherry blossoms are out, fluffing up the skinny branches with bright pink candy-floss like flowers, and magnolias are coming out too.

Now if only the weather would cooperate and bring the sunshine back! This time last year we were already wearing T-shirts and jean jackets...

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A Show of Remembrance

At the crack of dawn this morning, Tiananmen Square held a special flag-raising ceremony to mark the one-week anniversary of the Yushu earthquake. Hundreds of people turned out, reminiscent of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

Today was designated as a day of mourning and China Central Television (CCTV) showed images of officials dressed in black with white flowers on their left chests bowed in silence for three minutes.

"我们在一起" or "We are together" was the slogan of this morning's program, the anchors dressed in black suits and there were constant images of soldiers conducting relief work, but curiously, no shots of the Tibetan monks who were actually the first on the scene to try to help quake victims.

There were also shots of people watching last night's CCTV fund-raising show that had a backdrop of hands clasped together coming out of the rubble. The program included children from the quake-hit area in Beijing and still in dirty clothes putting on a brave face in front of senior officials who clapped. These officials then went up one by one each holding a big brown envelope and dropping them into a box, supposedly for donations.

And there were comments from overseas Chinese in various parts of the world, from Thailand and the United States to the UK and France, all showing their support for earthquake relief.

Just like Sichuan almost two years ago, the Chinese government was anxious to show it cared about the victims with these formal and ritualistic actions.

But unlike Sichuan where most of the people are Han, in Yushu, 97 percent of the population are Tibetan.

The Dalai Lama had requested permission to go to the quake-hit area to comfort the victims in their own language and culture.

However he was politely denied by the Chinese government, despite it saying it fully respected local religious beliefs and customs, and was offering counseling.

Hundreds of Tibetan students have been recruited as translators as many of the survivors do not speak Putonghua.

Do these people really feel they are a part of China? The government is eager to conduct its propaganda exercises through its quake relief efforts. Will it work? The government has to make sure it meets the needs of the people and show that it is culturally sensitive. It would win big political points by allowing the Dalai Lama into the area, but this will probably never happen and the people probably know not to request his presence either.

The government plans to rebuild Yushu into an eco-tourism town, which seems strange considering there was no tourism there in the first place. Is this an opportunity to cash in on grief?


Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Profiles of Outliers

I just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers: The Story of Success where he talks about how people become successful. It's not just because someone is particularly smart -- but actually a series of factors that makes them fortunate, such as the time in which they are born, their ethnicity, the geographic location, or a series of opportunities they grab which lead to the next one.

For example, many Jews became successful lawyers in the 1960s because before then, law was mostly an old boy's club where lawsuits were a last resort and most disputes were settled in a gentlemanly way. That left the Jewish lawyers to do the "dirty work", gaining experience at fighting in the courtroom.

By the 1970s, corporate lawsuits became more common, and after so many years of experience, these Jewish lawyers became in high demand and now have become some of the wealthiest through their hard work. The other common point is that they were all children of immigrant parents who worked in the garment industry.

There is also the theory of 10,000 hours. If someone practices piano, or plays hockey or plays in a band (like the Beatles) for 10,000 hours, that plus talent will make them successful. It was found that even those with mediocre talent could not advance despite practicing as many hours as someone who was gifted.

Then there is the rice paddy theory, that Asians, particularly those in south China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan, are particularly adept at numbers and are successful because they grow rice.

Growing rice is no easy feat -- it requires paddies that are completely level and the rice planted at the right time, with just the right amount of water. It is also back-breaking and manual work tending to these seedlings, as too many weeds could deprive a rice seedling of its nutrients and space to grow.

And if rice farmers are industrious enough, they can harvest bigger crops and more during the year. When winter comes, rice farmers don't hibernate like the farmers in Europe in the 19th century, but instead use the time to make bamboo baskets or hats, repair dikes or repair the home. Some made tofu or caught snakes and sold them as a delicacy.

Also, the counting system in the above-mentioned countries and cities is much easier to learn than in Western ones. In Chinese, each number is one syllable, whereas in English, there can be more than one like "seven". Then when counting above 10, it's much easier in Chinese with "11" being "10-one". As a result, that makes addition and subtraction much easier to manage.

At the end of the chapter, Gladwell says working in a rice paddy is 10 to 20 times more labour-intensive than working on an equivalent-sized corn or wheat field, with some estimates at the annual workload of wet rice farmers in Asia at 3,000 hours a year.

So it is believed that this culture of working hard year-round has been passed on in the DNA of Asians to today. In the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) tests, Asian students perform very well. And the ones from Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan are on top. What do they have in common? A culture of rice paddies.

Gladwell does wonder whether those in Northern China which is predominantly wheat-growing if they would do just as well as southerners, but so far there is no data yet to suggest what the results would be. Another question would be how if any impact the communist government system had any effect on Chinese productivity and learning habits.

Any guesses?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Monetarily Changing the Neighbourhood

I just read the other day that Nanluoguxiang 南罗鼓巷, one of my favourite places to check out periodically is becoming a ghost town after greedy landlords decided to jack up rents -- in a bid to become obscenely rich.

Only last month I was there to meet up with a friend visiting from Shanghai, and already the place had changed again, now featuring a number of tacky boutiques selling just about anything in the hopes a customer will buy something. That's not how business works.

We met up in a restaurant called Fish Nation, which offers fish and chips so I was shocked to read that the place had shut down recently. That's because the landlord for Fish Nation was demanding a 400 percent rent increase from 150,000RMB to 600,000RMB ($21,961 to $87,844). While business is good there, particularly on weekends, the restaurant owners in no way can pay such a high rent.

A similar thing happened to the Indian restaurant Birch Masala which I had visited over a year and a half ago. They decided to move to Ritan Park to escape the escalating rent.

Where do landlords get the idea they can charge exorbitant rents?

When I first visited the hutong, it was a wonderful mix of Chinese and western, of traditional life with enterprising boutiques. Progressively every few months, the place kept changing, with more storefronts added, no matter how small, selling hot dogs and yogurt, Mao matchboxes and tie-dye clothing.

The place had a wonderful bohemian feel to it, as the cheap rents allowed young people to start arts and crafts businesses or small eateries without too much risk.

But now, some say many of the landlords are becoming too greedy.

Dominic Johnson-Hill, owner of Plastered T-shirts, wrote on his blog, "its much like the landlords are committing suicide going for the highest possible price only to ruin the street's feel and then the rents go down again [sic]."

So maybe Nanluoguxiang is in flux again, and this is only temporary. But it's disheartening when greedy landlords can only dream of dollar signs in their eyes.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Cheap Hutong Eats

A friend and his girlfriend went to check out some eateries mentioned in a Chinese magazine and after their taste test, they recommended two in particular.

One was a restaurant that specialized in oysters and clams cooked in the half shell with toppings, while the other was a nearby dessert place tucked in an alley.

The two eateries are in Dongsisitiao, a short taxi ride from Dongsishitiao.

My friend and I walked into the Dongsisitiao hutong and on our right we found 酷 hao (2) ku (4), which sounds like "how cool", but literally means "oysters cool".

The restaurant with red Chinese doors is pretty much no-nonsense, with three rooms, a spacious main dining area and then two smoking areas in the back.

At first we were seated in one of the smoking areas and the smoke was so intense that we had to give up the table despite a lineup of eager diners behind us. Nevertheless, about 20 minutes later we finally got a table, around 7:30pm and had already decided what we'd get since I had been studying the menu, trying to make out what it said as it was all in Chinese.

The oysters and clams come in orders of a dozen and you can choose from four different toppings... garlic, chili peppers, pepper and vegetarian. We were forewarned that vegetarian wasn't good so I ordered oysters half a dozen with garlic, the other half with peppers, along with a dozen clams with garlic.

We also ordered some appetizers, like seaweed, a nice mix of crushed garlic, a dash of chili peppers and salt; soft tofu simply dressed with sesame oil and green onions served cold; roughly chopped cucumbers with vinegar and garlic; and a dish featuring shan yao (
山药), or Chinese yam, a white fiberous yam dressed with a sweet osmanthus sauce that was nice and light. This last dish seemed to be a favourite at every other table.

Luckily we didn't have to wait long for the appetizers as we got hungry watching other customers eat. Another great thing about this place is that a big bottle of Yanjing beer was only 5RMB ($0.73).

Not long after the cold dishes arrived did the clams come in a stainless steel tray, the juices in the shell still bubbling away. These giant clams were plump and completely covered in chopped garlic. Seems like someone had the unenviable task of chopping garlic all day everyday... Nevertheless, these clams were delicious, big, meaty and not too overwhelmed by the garlic.

Then our oysters arrived in very thick shells. The oysters were a good size and while eating them some had the tingly feeling in the mouth thanks to the zinc content. While cooking them with garlic wouldn't be my first choice, it was still an interesting taste.

We had also been told to stay away from the roasted chicken wings, and since there wasn't much else on the menu to try, we ordered another round of clams which we somehow managed to finish.

Each dozen of clams and oysters were 48RMB ($7) each, and the appetizers ranging from 8RMB to 12RMB, the bill came to 187RMB ($27.40) for two.

Then we came out of Dongsisitiao hutong, crossed the street and wandered south in search of a very narrow alley where the dessert place was.

Thanks to its bright signage on the main street we soon found it and it was a cute destination, complete with drawings on the wall and subway maps of various cities, like Rome, Tokyo, Hong Kong, London, Cairo and Paris.

There are savoury dishes here too like Cantonese steamed rolls with different fillings, but we tried the strawberry and coconut sago which were mediocre. The place's specialty is
(双皮奶) shuangpi nai, or double-boiled milk that becomes a custard. We ordered the one with red bean on top and it was served cold, but hot would have been better. The texture of the custard was good, not sweet, and went well with the red bean. Our bill came to 26RMB ($3.80) and after all that eating and restaurant hopping we were definitely full and waddled out of the area, satiated and hope to come back again for more.

Hao Ku
No. 82 Dongsisitiao
Dongsibeijie Dong
6400 1172

Friday, April 16, 2010

Quake Exposes Vulnerability

Rescue efforts are still continuing in Yushu County, Qinghai Province where the 7.1-magnitude earthquake hit on Wednesday morning before 8am.

So far at least 617 are dead, and some 10,000 injured, and over 100,000 homeless.

Chinese state media are showing constant images of trucks and planes carrying rescue workers, sniffer dogs, tents, first aid and food to quake survivors, where temperatures overnight are below zero.

The earthquake happened just before school started, and there are reports that 11 schools have collapsed, killing 66 students so far. It eerily echoes what happened almost two years ago in Sichuan, where we still don't know the exact number of students who died there and who was responsible for constructing the shoddily-built schools.

Apparently a 2009 report surveyed schools in Qinghai and found most of them were built before 2001, which means they do not meet current government earthquake resistance standards.

What's also interesting is that soon after the earthquake hit in Yushu, the Tibetan monks there immediately came out to help the community. They were actually the first responders to the quake and tried to help people even though many of their monasteries were hit badly.

Yushu is not one of the areas that saw riots in 2008; it is very much a Tibetan town with 97 percent of people there being Tibetan. However, the government's 2006 policy of pushing Tibetan nomads to give up their nomadic lifestyle and herds and live in permanent structures with no obvious forms of income may bring up bitterness again with the collapsed buildings everywhere.

The Chinese government is keen to show Tibetans that they are handling this situation well. President Hu Jintao cut short his visit to Latin America, while Premier Wen Jiabao postponed his trip to southeast Asia to visit the quake-hit area. He promised the government would rebuild Yushu.

While the slogan, "Fight the earthquake. Stage a rescue effort and rebuild our home," seems heroic, the reality is that relief efforts will be difficult in this place which doesn't have much good infrastructure. Basic medicine and medical supplies are scarce. Some of the injured have been sent to Xian hospitals.

And the food people are getting? Instant noodles. While convenient, they are hardly nutritional. Or is a certain company benefiting from guanxi?

There are lots of pictures of people going through the rubble with their bare hands, or poking at the giant mound of debris with a stick. The heavy machinery should have arrived by now and hopefully more people will be found alive.

However, rescuers are also having to contend with freezing temperatures and concerns of the thin air because Yushu is 3,700 metres above sea level. Rescue workers haven't had time to acclimatize to the atmosphere and aren't able to deal with the lack of oxygen very well, neither can the sniffer dogs.

It's too bad these natural disasters quickly expose the vulnerability of China. The country is so eager and proud to show off its wealth and modern infrastructure, particularly in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. But the images of collapsed buildings and desperation only reveal how far China still has to go.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Word of the Day: Mammary Men

Men like to assess women by their mammary assets, or their bottoms, and have a preference for one or the other.

But there is another kind of man called 奶嘴男 nai(3) zui(3) nan(2) which means "nipple man".

These men -- or boys -- are like Peter Pan, unwilling to grow up, and even after they marry they look at their wives as an extension of their mothers.

And while we're on the subject of men needing maternal comfort, there's a group of people called "school lingerers", people who have already graduated but still hang out or even continue to live on university and college campuses.

Yang Ming, an advertising design graduate at Dezhou University, Shandong Province, graduated last July. But three months later despite getting a job, she decided to move back to her campus to live with a former classmate who is studying for the National Entrance Exam for Graduate Students.

Apparently the university opens up 100 dorms for graduates who want to study for this exam.

"My salary is enough to pay the rent on a place near my company. But I feel people in the community are not easy to communicate with, and so sophisticated compared with simple students in the university," Yang said.

Despite the longer commute to work, she says she prefers it, at least until her roommate finishes the exam.

Another former student from Hebei University, Chen Hongying, rents a place near her alma mater to take advantage of the school's facilities, particularly the canteen for breakfast and lunch.

"I feel so comfortable and secure walking on the campus I am familiar with," she said. "My two former classmates have been admitted to grad school, and I usually eat with them in the cafeteria. If I stayed at home, I could not imagine what my neighbours would think of me. Maybe they would wonder why I have graduated but am still at home," Chen added.

According to the China News Service, the number of school lingerers in Beijing, Guangzhou and Zhengzhou is in the tens of thousands.

Tang Haibo, vice director of the psychological health center at Central South University in Changsha, Hunan Province says the phenomenon of school lingerers reflects these young people's inability to adapt to new environments.

"After stepping out, the change makes them recall the quiet life on campus and they want to escape from society. They show they are dependent on universities and seek to continue living in an ivory tower," he said.

"But if they indulge in this sense of security the campus provides for them, they will become a frog in a wall, never catching the opportunity to adapt to society."

Apart from living away from home, life in a university campus is very similar to high school, as many professors will care for the students like children. Things are very inexpensive and practically everything is provided for, even though they may not be of a high standard.

For most fresh graduates in China, the transition to real life is a big shock to them, because unlike most kids in North America, they have had exposure to work through summer jobs or part-time jobs.

Reality can be cruel, but it's a rite of passage everyone must go through. Even for nipple men.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

High-Speed Overload

China is already showing signs of overcapacity -- as evidenced by the number of investigations countries are making on allegations of the Middle Kingdom dumping products around the world for cheap due to government subsidies.

And now overcapacity is rearing its ugly head back home.

The country is currently building a number of high-speed railway networks, not only as a kind of economic stimulus to create jobs, but also to create more domestic consumption.

However, many people who ride the rails are complaining because of the high ticket prices that are many times what the slower trains cost, despite cutting times down in some cases significantly.

Nevertheless, when it came to the Beijing-Fuzhou route, with Fuzhou being in Fujian Province, the route was not economically feasible and shut down as of yesterday -- after only two months of operations.

The trip, which also made stops at Hangzhou, Taizhou, Wenzhou and Tianjin, took 16 hours, which was only three hours less than the slower train.

Also the price for the most expensive ticket was 1,185RMB ($173) for a lower berth in a soft seat carriage and 1,055RMB ($154) for an upper berth, compared with about 600RMB ($87) for the same seat on the slower train.

It turns out the high-speed train couldn't compete with the existing air route, which is 1,610RMB ($235) and the flight definitely takes less than 16 hours. That's because airlines realized they would have to slash prices in order to compete with the train. But with no more competition, does this mean higher air fares again?

Some people wondered why the train was shut down permanently and didn't try to compete more effectively with airline tickets in terms of prices. Others felt closing the newly-built rail line was a complete waste of resources.

What is outrageous is that there doesn't seem to have been any feasibility study conducted to see if such a line was needed, and instead the government, probably provincial, went ahead and built it just to boost GDP growth.

Imagine all that steel, technology, and not to mention migrant workers' physical labour to build the rail line, only to have it shut down in two months?

This is a sign of overcapacity in the most extreme sense.

But it may not be the last.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Powerful Lining their Pockets

China's largest pension fund called the Social Security Fund is going aggressively for better returns and is now planning to invest overseas and in private equities.

The fund currently has 776.5 billion RMB ($113.74 billion) and is expected to have 2 trillion RMB by 2015.

It's not the overseas investments that are interesting, but the private equities.

These are not private equity companies that are overseas, but in China, investing overseas.

And the people behind these private equity companies are mostly taizdang or "princelings", the sons or daughters of senior Communist Party officials who take advantage of state-directed policies.

A fascinating story by the Financial Times talks about these princelings and their rise through private equity firms. In 2009, private equity deals in China were worth $3.6 billion, accounting for one-third of all transactions in the Asia-Pacific region, says data from Thomson Reuters.

There are people like Winston Wen, Premier Wen Jiabao's son who is with New Horizon Capital; George Li, the son of Li Ruihuan, a senior leader in the 1980s until 2003; Wilson Feng, the son-in-law of Wu Bangguo, the country's top legislator; and Li Tong, the daughter of Li Changchun, in charge of propaganda and media.

These people seem to live a strange existence. According to the FT article, princelings live very low-key lives where Internet searches of them are practically blocked. Most live in luxurious gated communities in Beijing and have holiday homes around the world. Their spouses are almost never seen in public, while those who venture out tend to have cars with military or paramilitary license plates that allow them to ignore traffic regulations or be stopped by the police.

And a number of these princelings now own or run private equity firms that are closely affiliated with many state-owned enterprises.

"In the past, the best option for these people with 'background' was to go to the high-paying western investment banks but now the economic strength has shifted," says a person in the private equity industry, asking not to be named due to the sensitivity of the topic. "Now they're saying to the foreigners, 'Hey, I'm in the driving seat, I have the deals -- so you give me your money and I'll invest it myself and take a big cut'."

Which brings us back to the first sentence in this story. When the Social Security Fund invests in private equity companies here, these princelings will further enhance their power and pockets -- with taxpayer money.

It seems that money in China goes around and around -- usually to the privileged few who grab some for themselves before passing the money onto others.

In the end one wonders if the taxpayers themselves will ever benefit as much as the ones who had the money earlier.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Not That Free

Ikea in Beijing has had to switch to paper cups after people took the white porcelain cups, thinking they were free.

The food and drink at the cafeteria upstairs are nothing to rave about, but they help refuel people's appetites to shop.

And patrons who are members of the "Ikea Family" or VIP card are entitled to unlimited cups of coffee and other drinks at self-serve counters.

However, the Swedish retailer had to switch to paper cups as of last week.

"The nice cups were just taken away. We had nothing to do with it, it was simply a management decision," an unidentified member of Ikea's staff told the Legal Mirror.

"We often see customers drinking coffee, then putting the cup in their bags, still full. We go up to them, telling them to stop, and they tell us they thought the cups were free to take," the employee added.

One would have thought that by now, Ikea customers, most of whom are university educated and upwardly mobile wouldn't do such a crass thing as taking the cup with them.

But it looks like this is the case.

Perhaps that explains why the place is so popular -- making several trips there in order to get a full set of coffee cups...


Sunday, April 11, 2010

Trying Their Luck in Beijing

Expatriates in Beijing are a curious lot.

They come from all over the world and are either searching to fulfill their craving for things Chinese or China, looking for a way to fast-track their careers, or to go someplace exotic to brag about back home.

And their jobs run the gamut, from working in embassies or multinational corporations, to local companies, starting their own businesses or juggling several part-time jobs. One Austrian guy I met had just finished working in Shunyi on a Saturday where he's the skating coach for figure skating and hockey, and had been on the ice for 10 hours. He does that a few days a week, and then for the rest of the week does quality control for an import/export firm.

Another is quite fluent in Chinese, talking in rapid-fire Mandarin and is now setting up his own Chinese-language school for expats who want mostly private lessons, while an American woman has set up her own bakery to make delicious cupcakes and is hand delivering them all by herself.

Also along the entrepreneurial spirit is a Hong Kong man who offers nude yoga for men... who are mostly gay.

Many expats I meet have basic Chinese language skills, or hardly any and have constantly used local friends as a crutch to help communicate the most basic requests. These foreigners also tend to hang around western-dominated areas so that they can speak English with ease. It's shocking to discover they have lived here many more years than I and still haven't made much of an effort to learn the language.

Then there are those (mostly guys) who are practically fluent, have local girlfriends and eat practically everything the locals do, riding buses, rather than taxis, thus cutting their expenses to a fraction.

There's also a lot of extra money to be made as "the foreigner". A recent article talked about how non-Chinese are recruited to be present at business meetings even though the entire proceedings are conducted in Chinese. Some companies are able to clinch contracts based on the fact that a foreigner was in the room. What does the foreigner get? A cool 2,000 to 3,000RMB ($293-$440) for a few hours of wearing business attire and not saying anything.

The same goes for exhibitions, where cities, especially ones that are not Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou, try to make their events look international by getting non-Chinese to show up and look around the stalls for a few thousand renminbi. Transportation included.

It's curious having foreigners trotted out when necessary as if they are performing monkeys. But that's the current state of things.

Hopefully eventually companies will know that it's not the foreign face that makes a difference, but the quality of the goods and services rendered.

Nevertheless, there's always something here for foreigners to do which is why they keep coming.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Official Exploits Exposed

Another official has been caught with his pants down -- not in the act, but in his ambition of bedding 800 women, and detailed his many hundred trysts in a diary that his wife found and turned into police.

She also discovered some sex videos he made.

Sounds like a divorce is in the works. And will he get tested for AIDS and STDs?

The 47-year-old department head from Anqing in Anhui Province is only named by the pseudonym Wang Cheng. In 2003 he wrote in his diary that he wanted to bed at least 56 women a year, as well as maintain two mistresses from "respectable families."

As a result he calculated for that year alone he would need 100,000 yuan ($14,600) in bribes, about five times his annual salary.

And as he got promoted, he received more bribes and bedded more women.

Businessmen who tried to curry favor with Wang found out about his love for sex and supplied him with many prostitutes.

Wang admitted he spent hundreds of thousands of yuan on sex, and even buying several apartments that were given to his mistresses as gifts.

In his diaries, he claims to have slept with at least 500 women and the goal was  to have sex with "600 to 800."

But unfortunately his sexual ambitions will be put on hold for now.

It seems that officialdom and sex go hand-in-hand. In fact most Chinese men in positions of power expect women to perform sexual favours in the hopes of promotions or possible monetary gain. And if women want to survive in his male-dominated environment, they those blessed with good looks tend to take this route to quickly enrich themselves.

Most of these men are in their late 40s and older, who think nothing wrong of being married, having a child and yet still having women on the side.

They either see these extra-curricular activities as a status symbol or just a part of doing business.

Hopefully the next generation will end to these unspoken immoral practices. However, if their salaries don't rise much more in the next few years, they too could get caught up in the cycle and corruption and licentiousness will never end in China.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Seeking Solace, Not Solitude

It was sad to find out that Gao Zhisheng has given up his fight to maintain rule of law in China, and instead wants to live a quiet life in the hopes of being reunited with his family in the United States.

The AP reported that in a face-to-face interview, Gao had lost a considerable amount of weight and teared up when thinking of his wife, son and daughter separated from him. "I don't have the capacity to persevere," he said. "On the one hand, it's my past experiences. It's also that these experiences greatly hurt my loved ones. This ultimate choice of mine, after a process of deep and careful thought, is to seek the goal of peace and calm."

It hit him hard when he returned home for the first time earlier this week and saw the shoes they left behind.

"I completely lost control of my emotions, because to me these are the three dearest people in the world and now, we're like a kite with a broken string," he said.

Gao, 44, didn't want to talk about his detention or where he was held for over a year.

He instead focused on what seemed like his enlightenment and desire to better himself.

"You know that past life of mine was abnormal, and I need to give up that former life," he said. "I hope I can become part of the peaceful life of the big family."

He later added, "You know the main basis for choosing to give up is for the sake of family feelings," he said. "I hope I can reunite with them. My children need me by their side growing up."

It is understandable that after all the harassment, physical and mental torture, and detainment Gao has gone through, that he would much rather lead a quiet life and be with his family.

However, with them in the US, one wonders how he will get there; maybe he will have to agree to a life of exile. And perhaps he is hoping with his new reformed self and good behaviour that this may happen eventually.

For those watching the fight for justice in China on the sidelines, it must be disappointing to hear the once feisty lawyer give up his battle against the government and try to live a normal life again.

Perhaps his statements are meant to serve as a warning to others who think they can challenge the government through the law -- that they will have to endure what he has gone through and that in the end it's not worth it.

Or perhaps it has made them even more determined to fight for justice, even if it means being forcibly separated from the ones you love.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Blogging the Public Voice

A 27-year-old blogger, writer and race car driver named Han Han was nominated to Time Magazine's 100 most influential people in the world this year.

In the online poll he is topping the other Chinese compatriots on the list that includes Vice Premier Wang Qishan, Chongqing Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai, Baidu CEO Robin Li and human rights activist Liu Xiaobo. Other notable figures include US President Barack Obama, US Secretary Hillary Clinton, Olympic skater Kim Yu-na, and two-time Grammy winner Lady Gaga.

Han is an interesting and prolific figure blessed with good looks and a high-flying lifestyle. He apparently dropped out of high school in Shanghai and penned a novel based around his experiences, "sparking a debate about the quality of the country's rigid education system," according to Time magazine.

But he is best known for his blog which can be very critical of the government; this is ironic considering his father was the front-page editor of a local party paper, while his mother worked at the social service bureau helping the needy, fostering Han's support for the underdog.

"I may not deserve such a title of being 'influential.' My efforts to improve the fate of those who devote themselves to the cultural sector of this country, to raise their status, and to lift the level of freedom of China's cultural sector, have yielded little gains. I feel I'm weak," Han told a national paper.

Despite his humbleness, he has struck a chord with his blog, which has more than 300 million hits, the largest following of a personal blog in China.

Almost a year ago when the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology ordered all PC makers to install a software called Green Dam to filter out pornography by July 1 last year, Han criticized it, saying the excuse of protecting children from pornography wasn't a strong enough reason to warrant such an action.

Then last month when the sex diary of Han Feng, the tobacco bureau chief in Laibin, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region was exposed online, the young blogger wrote sarcastically online, calling web users to be merciful to the man, implying that there are many more officials who are more corrupt and evil than him who have yet to be uncovered.

Some critics like Bai Ye, a Chinese literary critic, think Han is too young and not mature enough to represent all young Chinese.

"The media has created an inaccurate impression of Han, who has been hyped as a representative of young Chinese people."

Another, 56-year-old Sun Hong who is a retired editor, says Han's opinions resonate with foreigners because he is aligned with their views. He is also influential to young people because he has a rebellious spirit and has the freedom to pursue whatever he wants.

Han is merely speaking out what many others think but dare not say aloud.

In a New York Times profile, Han dismissed party officials for their lack of intelligence ad relevance to the people.

"Their lives are nothing like ours," he said. "The only thing they have in common with young people is that like us, they too have girlfriends in their 20s, although theirs are on the side."


After his writings became pointed and would affect his parents' jobs, he suggested they retire and he financially look after them. He is also careful not to name names despite his blog being "harmonized", a euphemism for censorship.

Regardless, most of his readers know what he's talking about and are nodding their heads in agreement.

He makes them feel heard and noted.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Nuptial Theatrics

My friend and I were at the Hilton Hotel when we saw some staff setting up wedding decorations for the marble staircase in the lobby.

It turns out they were hanging up long sheets of red organza up to the ceiling to create a dramatic draping effect, complete with red candles lining the staircase.

What was strange was that this intimate ceremony was being presented right in the hotel lobby rather than in a banquet room.

However, the couple didn't seem to mind acting out their milestone event in front of family, friends and strangers.

It turns out the groom was Chinese, though he had a Japanese look, especially with his rock-star hair and the bride was Japanese, with a doll-like face complete with a tiara and long veil.

At first the groom walked down from the top of the stairs to the half-way point carrying a bouquet. And then there was a blast of dry ice creating a smoky effect for the bride to make her entrance. She too walked down the stairs accompanied by a man who didn't seem to look like her father.

Nevertheless, when they both made it to this middle landing, the groom bowed to them and then promptly got down on one knee and offered the bouquet to his bride. She in turn awkwardly shook his hand to get up.

All their choreographed actions were read out in Mandarin and Japanese, with the audience clapping in between. After they exchanged vows in their native languages, a hotel representative appeared with the rings. When they put the rings on, they both held up their hands to show their new marital status which seemed cheesy at best.

They signed their marriage certificate which was then held up to show the audience, and then they finally kissed to the delight of everyone, as it wasn't the shy embarrassing peck on the cheek.

It also seemed like the bride was pregnant... and the couple looked very young.

Hope their marriage isn't just theatrics, but the real deal, as the divorce rate for young people in their 20s in China is about 50 percent.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

An Imperial Visit by Subway

On Saturday we checked out the Summer Palace, as my friend who's visiting has never been, and my last visit was in the summer of 2007.

Instead of having to take a taxi or bus, we took the subway Line 4 there which was very convenient.

In what used to be on the outskirts of the city, the Summer Palace has become included into the city proper thanks to this new subway line, potentially bringing with it many more tourists.

In over half an hour we got to Beigongmen station, the second last stop on Line 4 which took us to the back of the Summer Palace.

This was a bit strange, as you usually start out from the east side, walk along the covered walkway and then proceed to climb up the stairs to the various Buddha shrines and then to the back where there is a sad-looking Suzhou Street, a pathetic attempt to look like there is a bustling atmosphere, but instead there are calligraphy and tea shops, and photography studio with well-worn Qing Dynasty costumes with hardly any customers.

So this time we did it backwards, which was alright for first timers, but strange for someone like myself who had done it the other way a few times before.

Nevertheless, it was easier on the legs going down instead of up.

An introductory plaque explains that the Summer Palace was built in 1750 and then destroyed by the Allied forces in 1860. Restorations began 28 years later and now the Chinese government is trying to upkeep the place.

We encountered a number of children with pants that had slits at the back for easy washroom access; my friend was in awe but also disgust at the same time and tried to photograph each one we saw. There were also a number of pine trees that naturally stripped themselves of their bark in patches that seemed very artistic in colour and shape.

Luckily the place wasn't too crowded, the weather was not too hot and the sun was shining.

Nevertheless, my friend remarked on how badly kept the grounds were -- paint peeling off the sides of walls, the heads of buddhas that cover the walls of a shrine were pulled off and not replaced, and chipped or broken tiles not fixed.

While I explained that it was difficult to maintain a place this size, it would not be surprising if it was discovered not all the money budgeted for restoration was properly used.

There weren't many staff policing the palace grounds, only in the Buddhist shrines, with women shrieking at people not to take photographs, of which several violate the rule every few minutes with flashes going off.

On the other hand, there were areas that had definitely been restored with fresh paint, creating a jarring experience. One had to wonder if these buildlings were being properly restored, or these were just quick and thoughtless efforts to make a place look good for VIP guests.

Every few metres there seemed to be a souvenir shop, each selling the same things, from Buddhist bead bracelets in a variety of styles and colours to postcards with pictures taken ages ago, to cloisionne bracelets and trinkets.

However, the views beyond the imperial yellow-tiled roofs looking down onto the East Lake were fabulous -- there were lots of covered paddle boats dotting the lake.

After checking out the Marble Boat, where the Empress Dowager Cixi spent her money on instead of reinforcing her navy, we wandered down a path towards the back of the palace and returned to the subway again without much trouble.

Picture of the Day: Baby Manchu

Spring has finally arrived with warmer temperatures which meant we could finally shed those sleeping-bag down jackets.

Yesterday I took a friend who is visiting to see the Summer Palace and we saw a number of cute kids.

This is one of them, who was quite friendly. After waving to him a few times he would give a big laugh and a smile.

Although he was bundled up, his best accessory was the silk cap complete with a fake queue at the back.

The Chinese government seems to delight in capitalizing on its imperialist history despite the negative connotations...

Friday, April 2, 2010

Hardly a Solution

It was interesting to find that as of April 1, Beijing started imposing higher parking fees, doubling them in the downtown core in a bid to ease traffic congestion.

Some 13 zones have increased fees to 10RMB ($1.50) an hour, and give parking attendants the power to charge 15RMB per hour to those cars parked for extended periods.

The 13 zones will affect some 70,000 car owners who park their vehicles in underground parking lots of office buildings and shopping malls.

While it's refreshing to see the municipal government take action in making car owners think twice about driving, the reality is, if they can afford a car, they can probably pay for parking too.

And that's what Jia Yuanhua, a professor of traffic and transportation at Beijing Jiaotong University says. He explains the new government initiatives are like building dams downstream, which would eventually overflow and break down. He insisted that the government should have a clear set of traffic control policities, isntead of "telling citizens to buy cars on the one hand, then raising parking feels on the other, which makes people not know what to do."

However, some drivers have already come up with some creative solutions, including hiring someone to sit in his car to avoid parking fees.

"Doing so is much cheaper than paying the parking fee, and it keeps my car safe. If I have to waste money, I'll waste it wisely!"

Cheaper to hire someone than to park the car? Something is wrong here...

Hopes Dry Up in Drought

Yesterday morning I was running on the treadmill at the gym watching the television screen above.

The ongoing seven-month drought in Southwest China is a depressing storyline. There are stark images of riverbeds and lakebeds barren and cracked up, even fish caught in the dried-up mud.

People haven't had tap water in months and have to trudge many kilometers to wells that have some water left at the very bottom. Even children have to help out carrying several kilograms of water once or twice a day, walking over hilly terrain.

And there are some who collect muddy water and wait for it to settle before using it to wash their faces and feet before giving it to the livestock to drink.

There was one story where a small CCTV crew followed behind a truck filled will boxes of Wahaha water in Guizhou. It had a red banner with white words saying it was helping with drought relief.

The truck eventually arrives at a school in Guizhou Province and the students clapped when the vehicle stopped in the school yard. The kids formed a line, transferring the boxes one by one onto a pile. I had assumed that each child would get a box. I was wrong -- their names were called out and each child received two 350ml bottles of water. It was unclear in the story if all the bottles of water were handed out, or if the children could get more bottles later.

Nevertheless, there were the shots of smiling happy children clutching their two precious bottles of water.

Another story showed a highschool student who saved extra water in a two-litre bottle and then trudged a long distance into the hills to give the water to an old woman who lived in a remote area. The girl handed the water to the aged woman, who just grabbed it without much thanks and then promptly poured it into her water basin and gave back the empty bottle to the student.

While the girl was doing a good deed, it was strange to see the old woman seeming ungrateful for the liquid relief.

The bigger question is, what is the government doing about the drought? Tens of millions of people are directly affected, and not only do they not have enough water to drink, but can hardly grow any crops to subsist, let alone feed themselves.

The army has come into some areas and set up pipes and wells, but this is only a short-term measure. Is this climate change at its worst, or is it natural resources horribly mismanaged?

The government cannot keep trucking water into these areas. There needs to be rain despite the government's efforts in cloud seeding. This either shows China cannot manipulate the weather, or it refuses to cooperate, after tinkering with it for years.

Meanwhile the controversial North-South water diversion project is meant to pipe water from the Yangzte to the parched northern areas including Beijing and Tianjin.

Construction has already started on the $62 billion project, but some experts say this is going to create greater havoc. Again China is manipulating Mother Nature, who can and will be a force to reckon with. And who will suffer for it later?

Chinese media often say the country is battling the drought, but it seems to be losing rather than winning the fight.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Sad Remembrance

Seven years ago today artist Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing (張國榮) committed suicide after jumping off the top floor of the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Central, Hong Kong.

It was such a shock to hear the news, and probably still is for some to remember such a talented person who was having a tortuous battle with severe depression.

A friend of mine sent me Chinese and English newspapers from Hong Kong covering his death, featuring pages and pages of pictures and stories chronicling his life and people trying to process why Cheung wanted to end his life.

Some wondered if it was because maybe he was diagnosed with AIDS, or terminal cancer, but eventually his partner Tong confirmed he had severe depression and had tried to commit suicide a year earlier in 2002.

There was a huge outpouring of grief from Chinese communities around the world and despite the fear of SARS at the time, there was a massive turnout for Cheung's memorial service, showing the strength of his star power.

A profile of him in Wikipedia notes his sad childhood, as his parents constantly fought and eventually divorced.

He also had a miserable time going to school in England, despite his parents' best intentions for him. It was then that he worked as a bartender at a relative's restaurant and began singing there.

When he returned to Hong Kong he began performing and recording, at first not successfully. But after changing record companies and meeting Anita Mui, Cheung's career started to take off.

He will be remembered not only for his beautiful voice, but also his good looks and acting talent.

Farewell My Concubine not only propelled Cheung to success as an actor, but also helped Chinese movies become more mainstream, as it won the Golden Palm award at the Cannes Film Festival, a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film and an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film and Best Cinematography.

He was also memorable in Wong Kar-wai's 1997 movie, Happy Together. Cheung starred in the movie with Tony Leung Chiu-wai, and they played a gay couple that have a tumultuous relationship as they travel in Argentina.

One will never know or understand what inner demons Cheung was fighting against, but hopefully now he is in peace.

And his legions of fans will never forget him.