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.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Shanghai Past and Present

Last night I went to the Bookworm to listen to well-known photojournalist Heung Shing Liu (HS Liu), who went to China in 1976 where his first assignment was to cover the death of Chairman Mao.

Liu had an interesting upbringing -- he was born in Hong Kong in 1951 to mainland Chinese parents, but after three years his parents had no faith in the education system there and took him back to China in Fujian Province.

He returned to Hong Kong for secondary school and later emigrated to the United States. He studied political science and journalism at New York City's Hunter College. It was in his last year there that he was introduced to photography in a course taught by Life photographer Gjon Mili.

After graduation he became Mili's apprentice and then joined Time where he went to China for five years, then later was based in Los Angeles, New Delhi, Seoul and Moscow.

These days Liu has become more of an editor than photographer.

Two years ago he came out with a large tome of photographs called China: Portrait of a Country. The book visually chronicles the People's Republic since 1949.

And then after the Olympics came and gone, Liu was asked by the Shanghai Corporate Pavilion organizers (actually the Shanghai State Assets Bureau) to produce a book for the Expo, called Shanghai: A History of Photographs.

He along with Karen Smith went through tons and tons of images, going through archives, libraries, company archives including Shanghai newspapers. Liu noted that most newspapers lost most of their old photos due to the Cultural Revolution except for the Jie Fang Daily, which was a Communist paper.

Travel was a big part of Liu's mission, as he even went to London, to the headquarters of Jardine Matheson and spotted the engraving capturing the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, which led to the opening of five treaty ports in China after the Opium War (Canton, now Guangzhou; Amoy, now Xiamen; Ningbo, Foochow, now Fuzhou, and Shanghai).

And that is how Liu and Smith decided to start their pictorial history of Shanghai, as the west played a big role in the development of the then walled city and small port. At the time there were only 60,000 people there, but as Shanghai grew, more people from outlying areas migrated to the city.

Smith also points out that if you research the history of Shanghai, a lot of it is in English and that it's usually the victors who write the history, thus perpetuating a lot of myths about Shanghai.

Opium trade was outlawed in 1917 so big trading companies like Jardine had to switch to cotton and silk. What was interesting is that Smith showed a picture of an early 20th century image of a silk factory that employed Chinese girls who weren't thrilled with their work. This was then contrasted with a photo of a factory girl of today who has the same disinterested look on her face.

Later Liu showed a picture of a Chinese model dressed in a Christian Dior white blouse and black skirt, looking confident, towering over ordinary people in frumpy clothing who cannot help but stare at her, like the face of the future.

Then in the next image shows the same model stuck in between a bed and a wall of stuff piled up, including luggage and boxes. This was the place she shared with her parents and there was hardly any room to move let alone sit.

When Liu first went to Shanghai in 1976, everything was shut down by 8pm. He remembers the taste of the water, how disgusting it was, and having to bathe in the same water that left a smell on your skin. But he also remembers finding a restaurant that made fantastic ox-tail soup, and having to bring Grand Marnier for souffles.

He observes that Beijing has the Chinese imperialist culture that dares to think big, as evident from much of the architecture. However, Shanghainese, for Liu, are maritime sailors who emigrated to different countries. They don't think big, but are very detail oriented.

Liu adds that for a long time, Shanghai was held back from developing, as Deng Xiaoping wanted to see how his experiment in Shenzhen was doing. It wasn't until the mid-1990s was Shanghai allowed to develop economically. And again it was held back until the successful execution of the Beijing Olympics before putting all-out efforts on the Shanghai Expo.

While some of these measures may have been politically motivated, it seems Shanghai can't be restrained much longer, a major municipality that calls its own shots and continues to have that interesting allure as the most westernized city in China.

Note: The first two photographs were taken by Liu.

 




Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Friends Central

When I first came to China, many young Chinese asked me if I watched the show Friends. I had to confess that I didn't watch it regularly, much to their dismay, as they download the episodes and watch them online or buy the DVD set of all the seasons.

And so it should be of no surprise that a cafe inspired by the hit TV show has opened in Chaowai SOHO.

On the sixth floor of a nondescript office building is "Friends Cafe", but the outside looks almost the same as Central Perk, the coffee house in the comedy series that starred Courtenay Cox, Jennifer Aniston, and David Schwimmer. It has the wooden panelling on the outside in forest green, complete with a bike rack, supposedly for Phoebe's bike. There's even a stool with a guitar next to it for impromptu performances.

And inside this Central Perk looks very similar to the original, though smaller due to space constraints. There's a bar filled with bottles, and a small prep kitchen to the side, while customers sit in sofas or bar stools. There's even the famous giant orange couch facing a giant-screen TV showing... Friends episodes with Chinese and English subtitles.

So we sat, on the orange couch... watching Friends. It was quite surreal.

The owner, surnamed Du, a young 30-something Chinese, recently opened Friends Cafe in April and already word has spread quickly about the place. He was very keen to point out that realizing his dream of opening up a place like this was not necessarily going to make him money, which is why he uses the next door space as a mini grocery store to keep things afloat.

Du said that when he started watching Friends, he immediately loved the show and doesn't have a particular favourite character. For him, this venture was a labour of love, making sure the colour used in the interior and the fabric and the couches all looked as close as possible to the coffee house in the show.

And so he gets a kick when people come in, thrilled to find the place very similar to their favourite show, bringing back memories of episodes and how they used to watch the show to learn English and American pop culture.

On the table are some blank notebooks where customers can write comments. Many of them say the are happy to be in the cafe, or talk about what true friendship is. There were even people from Greece, France and Spain who wrote in the books.

The cafe offers mostly drinks, including coffee, cappuccino, milk tea, fruit teas, juice and smoothies at moderate prices.

Friends Cafe seems like a novelty place and its location may not bring in regulars so it remains to be seen if the cafe will catch on.

But for now it's interesting to note that perhaps finally, Friends fans have a place to gather... with friends.

Friends Cafe
Building A, 6/F
Chaowai SOHO
6B Chaowai Dajie
Chaoyang

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A True Friend of China Part 2

Professor Jerome Cohen had so much to say that his comments had to be continued in this blog post.

When asked about the recent spate of attacks in kindergartens and primary schools in China, Cohen said that people who kill or maim many children are not normal people. "They have reached a level of frustration where they feel a sense of unfairness and injustice," he explained.

While 17 percent of the Chinese population have some kind of mental illness, many of them are involved in crime. Premier Wen Jiabao spoke publicly about the kindergarten killings saying there needs to be more mechanisms set up to resolve disputes, as the petitioning system is not allowed so people feel like they have no where to plead their case.

Cohen cites the case of Yang Jia, the young man who walked into the Zhabei District police station in Shanghai last year and killed six policemen. It turns out he had had a long festering grievance with the police who had accused him of stealing a bicycle. The frustration may have been too much for him and resulted in him eventually developing mental issues before resorting to violence. Despite his heinous crime, many people flocked to the courthouse to attend Yang's trial to support him, though he was convicted of murder and executed.

In this case, Cohen explains that Yang should have been acquitted of all charges due to his mental condition and sent to a mental institution. "But instead, his mother was locked up in a mental institution so that she couldn't testify on the evolution of his mental health," he says.

As for the second disappearance of human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, Cohen is very disappointed at how this incident is still unresolved while the authorities make a "ridiculous succession of excuses."

Cohen admires Gao for taking on the system, as do many young lawyers who look up to him. But now with his disappearance yet again, it sends a chilling message to lawyers, especially those interested in human rights or even criminal law that they should not mess with the system. For Cohen, this is a black mark on China's reputation, and the situation with Gao is a "sad commentary of the Chinese system."

Gao's case led to Cohen's concern about the oppression of lawyers which is impacting the number of them who are keen on going into criminal law. For those lawyers interested in having a stable, lucrative career usually go into corporate law, but even then businessmen can get tangled in criminal cases which can involve human rights and corruption.

What is interesting to Cohen is that the few who do take on criminal law are either motivated by religion; earnestly believe in human rights ideology called fazhi (治) or rule of law; while others hope by doing their bit they can change the Chinese legal system into a more western and democratic one.

As for the petitioning system, Cohen says people use it for a variety of things that do not necessarily fall into the legal category. Nevertheless, he thinks it is crucial to have some kind of informal outlet that is properly administered for non-legal situations and cases. While Cohen says the government has done a lot more ideologically in terms of "socialist human rights" in heightening the legal awareness of the public, at the same time it has done much to frustrate people when they actually try to go through the system.

In looking at his over 50 years in dealing with China in some capacity, Cohen has seen great strides but also setbacks. As a zhengyou, or "true friend of China", he hopes to help the country better administer the rule of law. And one cannot help but admire his optimism and dedication in this on-going and long-term goal.

Monday, May 24, 2010

A True Friend of China Part 1

Jerome Cohen is a noted law professor at New York University School of Law and an expert in Chinese law. Now 80, he has worked in cases involving China for 50 years, starting first in 1959 when he learned Chinese thanks to a Rockefeller Foundation four-year grant. As he could not enter China at the time, the closest he got to the mainland was Hong Kong where he interviewed Chinese refugee claimants trying to escape from the Great Leap Forward.

Then in 1972 he was able to come to China for the first time and had a four-hour dinner with Zhou Enlai. "He did a lot of research on people he talked to otherwise it would be a boring dinner," recalled Cohen in a gravelly voice. "He thought I had written so many books on Chinese law that I knew more about Chinese law than the Chinese."

It is probably this relationship with the then premier that has made Cohen a zhenghou (诤友) to China, or someone who is a good friend who tells the truth.

That's because he writes a biweekly column in Hong Kong's South China Morning Post criticizing China's dealings with specific legal cases, hardly holding back in pointing out what is blatantly done wrong and what is written in the constitution or in the law (or not yet addressed in the law).

He will also chastise Taiwan in these columns, and what's interesting is that the current President Ma Ying-jeou is a former student of Cohen, along with former vice-president Annette Lu.

Cohen believes that China is making attempts at legal reforms, such as in the state secrets act and criminal system as well as capital punishment; however he says there are "conflicting currents", as the Communist Party still has a strong grip on legal institutions in the country.

Nevertheless, he takes the long-term view. "In 1972 it was hard to find law professors in China," he says. "They were healthier than people like me because they had been working in the fields [due to the persecutions during the Cultural Revolution]. So they were intimidated by [ideological] campaigns and wouldn't say anything."

However today, Cohen points out there are some 630 legal schools and departments, many of them staffed with law reformers who want to try to change the system, albeit gradually.

He says as outsiders, we hardly know much about how the Chinese legal system works. While there are internal studies, Cohen says, they are not released for wider consumption or study.

Then he compared two state secret cases, the Stern Hu one involving Rio Tinto, and then Xue Feng. We know that in the Stern Hu case, he was originally charged with stealing state secrets, but due to media and diplomatic pressure, the charges were reduced to commercial secrets; in the end Hu was convicted of accepting bribes and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

However, the Xue Feng case is little known, and one that Cohen is working on. Xue is a Chinese-born American citizen who was also charged with stealing state secrets where he was trying to get more information on oil databases for his employer. He was locked up in the fall of 2007, finally had his trial last July, but until today there is still no verdict. Cohen points out the last legal basis for an extension was on March 18. "Don't worry we did it legally," is the reassurance the defense team has received.

Cohen says once someone is charged with something related to violating state secrets, it can be hard to get lawyer and hard for the lawyer to get access to the client.

Nevertheless, Cohen points out that foreign nationals are allowed to have monthly consular visits, and in Xue's case, Ambassador Jon Huntsman has personally visited Xue twice, and his deputy five times. US President Barack Obama has even personally brought up Xue's case with President Hu Jintao during his trip to China in November.

Despite having consular access, the ironic thing is that these diplomats are not allowed to discuss the case with the defendant. "These visits are monitored by a translator who will report back if anything remotely related to the case is brought up," explains Cohen. "This denies the significance of the consular visit."

Why Hu's case was pretty much swiftly over and done with while Xue is still languishing in jail without a verdict is due to media exposure. Whether Hu wanted it or not, the reports about his detainment and then subsequent trial were closely followed by foreign media, which probably helped him, as there was more public scrutiny of the case and China's legal system.

But in Xue's situation, while he wanted to go to the media, his wife did not want to publicize the fact that her husband was in jail, fearing there would be repercussions affecting their parents and children. As a result, Cohen says, for a long time there was no pressure. But now because there are more media reports about the case, things are moving ahead, though at a snail's pace.

A fundamental problem about these kinds of cases is that there is no clear definition of what a state secret is and the defense lawyer has to accept the charge.

An area seeing some kinds of reforms, says Cohen, is capital punishment. China is now reviewing more death sentences at the supreme court level, and this has resulted in hundreds more judges added to look over these cases; he points out that these judges may not necessarily have the proper training or knowledge in dealing with these situations. Nevertheless, he hopes that with changes in capital punishment, this may also lead to other legal reforms further down the system.

While the government is trying to improve trial procedures, Cohen suggests that the Chinese judicial system should separate the judgment and punishment, as in many countries. That way the lawyer can argue that his client is innocent, but then if found guilty, can plea for a shorter sentence.

Despite what Cohen is seeing on the ground in terms of law reformers trying to change the system and the government doing its bit albeit slowly, the law professor adds that no one in the standing Politburo is interested in legal rights.

He points out that senior government official Zhou Yongkang has made a frank recognition that the serious unrest seen in cases in China need institutional responses from the police and courts; though Cohen adds there was no mention of defense lawyers. Cohen is pessimistic about any changes until 2012, when President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao step down.

Li Keqiang, expected to replace Wen, is the first graduate of Peking University's law school, but Cohen says his record shows little regard for the legal system. Another rising star, Bo Xilai has intimidated defense lawyers with the corruption cases in Chongqing, giving people little confidence in the legal system.

"Somewhere someday a feisty leader will have the foresight to reform the system," Cohen hopes.

He says the Chinese government wants to be recognized on the world stage with its soft power, but it can't do this unless it has the administration of justice handled properly. This has resulted in such people as Lai Changxing from being extradited back to China from Canada, for fears that he will not be treated properly in the legal system.

Cohen adds China is entitled to its own way of development, but with the current situation now where the government has a strong hand in the judicial system, it is impossible for it to be autonomous, as well as other systems. He says the government is doing studies on how a more independent legal system would work in China, but the Party would have to reach a decision -- and if it decides to have a more autonomous legal system that would mean the Party's power would shrink. And the way things are going now with rule by consensus, the government is becoming more conservative, and trying to get its grips on all avenues for power.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

An Aristocratic Dining Experience

When I take Bus 107 westwards, I always pass by this restaurant called Nei Fu Dishes and it prompted enough curiosity to finally check it out with a friend.

It's actually called Wuyutai Nei Fu Dishes (吴裕泰内府菜) and it is only a few stops away from Dongzhimen Wai Dajie, practically walking distance from where I live.

Once you step inside, you immediately sense it's aiming to be considered a high-class establishment, with a group of young women in nicely-designed costumes who politely welcome you. The interior decor gives a grand impression, with European-style chandeliers, long tables with tall chairs, and booth areas decorated with curtains where we were seated.

Front and centre is a large raised stage, framed with a wooden carving all around the top and bottom; however, from where we were sitting, all we could see was a thick black granite pillar that obstructed our view. A guzheng, or zither that looked rather dusty was lying on the table off to the side, which prompted the possibility of entertainment while dining.

Meanwhile, we were handed a massive menu that was a good attempt at trying to compete with Da Dong. The long rectangular tome featured large pictures, though the photographs were not nearly as well styled as Da Dong's; but the prices were competitive and some dishes came in small, medium and large sizes.

The restaurant specializes in tea-flavoured dishes, possibly due to its link with the chain of Wuyutai teashops all over the city? This was not confirmed, but a strong hunch, as there was a small tea shop at the entrance.

After we ordered, the entertainment soon began despite having only a handful of tables occupied, with a man dressed to the nines in a Peking Opera costume and singing renowned performer Mei Lanfang's favourite songs complete with the hand gestures he standardized.

A woman dressed in a red qipao complete with black pumps was the emcee and came on stage to explain what each part of the costume was and its significance. While it was a good education, it didn't seem like much of the audience were interested.

Nevertheless, our food soon arrived, a cold appetizer of baby octopus marinated in a sauce of vinegar and chillis that was slightly spicy and crunchy. This soon followed with pea shoots stir-fried with garlic, and one of the restaurant's signature dishes, jinzhong cha jiuxiang furou, a variation of the dongpo rou dish, or braised pork belly. While the meat was honestly not melt-in-your-mouth, the flavour was still delicious and went well with the buckwheat steamed bread we put it in like mini sandwiches.

We also ordered pork ribs that were roasted and covered in a number of ingredients including red and green chillis, peanuts, preserved vegetables and black beans. The server duly removed the bones making it easier to eat, though it was quite a spicy adventure and we couldn't finish but took home later.

This was complemented with a bowl of Family Wu buckwheat noodles called wujia kuqiao mian, served in a deceptively spicy sauce topped with peanuts. At first it didn't seem that spicy, but then your tongue slowly became numb from the Sichuan peppercorns in the broth. Nevertheless, the noodles were delicious and hearty.

Meanwhile, the entertainment continued on stage, with a woman lying on her back and balancing and spinning a number of objects on her feet, like a ceramic planter, a circular rug and a table. Although she wore a halter-top outfit, a modern take on the usual qipao, and Cirque du Soleil-esque music, it wasn't quite enough to take these acrobatic tricks to another level.

Diners didn't seem to notice the man throwing giant ceramic planters in the air and then balancing them on his head either; it's just kind of sad these people are performing quite amateur stunts that don't get much respect these days. The man who performed the changing faces or bian lian routine also seemed new at the job, constantly turning his back to the audience to adjust his costume and hardly changing his face throughout his act until towards the end.

As the last performer, the emcee herself performed a few operatic numbers that were lively, and it seemed like she lived for the stage.

In the end we were pleased with the food, though a bit too spicy, but wished we didn't have to be subjected to the entertainment...

Wuyutai Neifu Dishes 吴裕泰内府菜
144 Dongzhimen Nei Dajie
Dongcheng District
6401 2228


Saturday, May 22, 2010

Sleepwear as Outerwear Finally Explained

After night falls, it's not unusual to see the odd person -- young or old -- wearing pajamas down the street here.

I used see it periodically in fashion-conscious Hong Kong, where a woman in cotton flannels with cartoon characters on them would pop into the neighbourhood 7-11 for something. But most people in the cosmopolitan city wouldn't be caught dead in their jammies.

However in Beijing and Shanghai, this is can be a common sight, and for westerners living here it's a strange observation.

Why do these people do it? Why do they prefer to stroll down the street (sometimes even in their curlers) wearing their sleepwear for all to see?

Finally there is an answer.

Earlier this week, Gao Yubing wrote an article for the New York Times, explaining the phenomenon.

First Gao complains about how Shanghai residents have been warned not to wear their pajamas in public, and there are even volunteer "pajama police" making sure people are properly dressed and if they are caught in their nighties, they will be asked to go home and change.

However, not many people outside of China understand the significance of pajamas.

Pajamas -- not the sexy sleepwear you find at Victoria's secret, but loose-fitting, non-revealing PJs made of cotton or polyester -- have been popular in Shanghai since the late 1970s, when Deng Xiaoping, then China's leader, sought to modernize the economy and society by "opening up" to the outside world. The Chinese adopted Western pajamas without fully understanding their context. Most of us had never had any dedicated sleepwear other than old T-shirts and pants. And we thought pajamas were a symbol of wealth and coolness.

Although they were a kind of status symbol, Gao does explain that as the Chinese are pragmatic people, they don't want to have to change back into their other clothes just to get a snack or something down the street.

Besides, adds Gao, as a retiree told a reporter, "Pajamas are also a type of clothes. It's comfortable and it's not big deal since everyone wears them outside."

It's so refreshing to see Chinese people being so no-nonsense about sleepwear when westerners think it is intimate apparel only found between the covers...

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Price of Innocence

There was a bizarre story a few weeks ago when a man who was supposedly murdered turned up alive in Zhaolou village in Henan Province on April 30. This resulted in the man who was accused of murdering him, Zhao Zuohai, 57, being set free after spending 11 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit.

In 1997, Zhao was involved in a fight with another villager, Zhao Zhenshang, who later disappeared fearing retaliation. Two years later a headless body was found and was believed to be that of Zhao Zhenshang. Zhao Zuohai was arrested and confessed to the murder.

After he was convicted, Zhao was sentenced to life in prison and then his wife remarried; two of his four children were adopted, and the other two left home to be migrant workers.

However, after he was released, Zhao said the police forced him into giving a "confession", beat him up during interrogations and tortured him in order to stay awake for 30 days.

For the miscarriage of justice, Zhao received 650,000RMB ($95,206) in compensation and an official apology. He also received another 16,000RMB ($2,343) from various legal bodies directly or indirectly involved in the case

Meanwhile two of the police officers who allegedly tortured Zhao have been detained and a third is at large.

And now the chief judge who ruled on the case has been put on leave pending an investigation.

Chief Judge Hu Ye was suspended from duty at the Higher People's Court of Henan Province, and three other judges involved in Zhao's wrongful conviction have also reportedly been suspended from duty at the Intermediate People's Court in Shangqiu City.

But are all this enough justice? Enough for taking away the productive life of a farmer who wasted his life in prison and in the meantime lost his wife and family?

If you calculate 650,000RMB into 11 years, Zhao only gets 162RMB ($23.72) per day.

Surely his life is worth much more than that, considering all the mental anguish he's gone through, losing his wife and family in the process.

Since the government plays an active role in handing down convictions, perhaps it could also think again about how much it owes Zhao for being labeled a murderer when he was in fact, an innocent man.

Who's to blame now?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Many Faces of Chopin

I just got back from the Mei Lan Fang Grand Theater at Chegongzhuang subway station on the west side of town, where there was a concert called "Different Faces of Chopin".

There are celebrations around the world this year to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the composer's birth. Beijing has already held several concerts, but this one was definitely heads and shoulders above the others in terms of creativity.

I'd read about it in the Time Out magazine and wasn't able to get tickets online so I just showed up at the venue a few minutes beforehand. There were many scalpers on hand wanting to get rid of tickets.

"You don't want to go?" I asked one as I bought his ticket off him for face value.

"Oh I have some other things to attend to," he said, constantly looking around to make sure no one was watching our transaction, though it was very obvious.

The theater is a large glass modern structure, but inside it has fancy chandeliers and a bright red wall featuring wood inlaid with gold of scenes from Peking Opera. The staff are courteous and showed me straight to my seat on the mezzanine level, a giant comfy red leather chair in the front row of a box area.

The event began with speeches from the Chinese and Polish ministers of Culture, with their speeches translated into English and Chinese.

Then on three screens there were projections of Chopin's portrait, with his music on top as a pianist played one of the Polish composer's pieces.

He was then joined by the vocal group Camerata Silesia, 22 members who sing Chopin's works in a capella. Again the screens behind them featured traditional drawings or paintings, and even photographs with modern graphics drawn or moving on top to create a visual as well as audio concert.

They were very lively and sang very well, though not singing words per se, but making it very accessible to everyone.

After performing a number of songs, they left the stage and then the Andrzej Jagodzinski Jazz Trio came on. Jagodzinski was at the piano, along with a bass player and a guy on the drums. They also did their own jazz take on Chopin, performing about four pieces; at times their music didn't seem classical at all, and made Chopin very modern.

The trio exited the stage at the same time the Polish Ensemble came on and performed mostly folk music to demonstrate Chopin's rustic roots, especially in his mazurkas. At some points, two dancers in traditional costume danced on the stage to add to the visual feast.

It was at this period in the program that the graphics started getting slightly childish, with line drawings of a face, a fish, a flower, a sun, a person, and a house superimposed on pictures of delicate lace. I wondered what the Chinese audience thought of this, if they had the impression it wasn't a very polished artistic presentation...

Nevertheless, in the end, all the performers came on stage and performed one last piece together which got a warm round of applause. However, I can't understand why the middle-aged couple sitting right behind me had to talk all the way through the concert. If you need to talk about something, go outside! There were also numerous camera flashes going off too...

Regardless, it was a memorable concert not just for the multimedia presentation, but also the interesting interpretations of Chopin's pieces. By giving his music a modern twist, Chopin becomes more relevant today and in the future.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Someone's to Blame

Yesterday I wrote about the China Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) saying over 2.2 million Chinese youths die from respiratory diseases and such due to indoor air pollution.

However, the CDC released an announcement soon after the media wrote about it, saying that a false report was released about this in a press conference that was not presented by the CDC, and the center has not released any kind of data about indoor pollution.

So where did this "report" come from, that was originally reported by the China News Service?

It turns out the number was released by an air filter manufacturer, according to He Jiukun, an official from the environment department of the CDC.

Song Guangsheng, director of the National Indoor Environment Test Center, also dismissed the number.

"Statistics from the World Health Organization show that the annual deaths from indoor air pollution is about 2.6 million globally," he said.

"No institutes in China have done such research yet. Even the 110,000 death figure we commonly acknowledge was a result based on research by the WHO."

So China hasn't even conducted research on possible deaths from indoor air pollution... maybe because it doesn't even know that this problem could exist or that it doesn't want to measure it for fear of the repercussions it could have on the real estate/furniture sector?

In the meantime it's a relief to know the numbers aren't 2.2 million... for now...

Monday, May 17, 2010

Fact of the Day: 2 Million Die from Indoor Pollution

A strange and shocking statistic has popped up today, saying that more than two million young Chinese die from indoor pollution, more than half of them are under the age of five.

The China Center for Disease Control and Prevention released the statistic in a study, and said that indoor pollution levels can be five to 10 times higher than the country's outdoor air.

The indoor pollution causes respiratory diseases that kill 2.2 million young people each year, and about a million of them are under five years old.

Apparently the study cites formaldehyde, benzene, ammonia and radon as the indoor pollutants. Formaldehyde can be found in new furniture in China, which is slowly released into the air over several years. The chemical can be found in things like particle board, plywood, and furniture coverings and cushions using materials like PVC.

Long-term exposure to these indoor pollutants can result in a number of health problems, from respiratory diseases, mental impairment and even cancer. Young children, fetuses in utero and the elderly are most at risk.

Is anything safe in China anymore?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Say What You Mean

Vice President Xi Jinping, who is expected to lead China from 2012, is breathing some fresh air into the Chinese Communist Party -- by urging government officials to get rid of "empty words" and political jargon in speeches and documents, according to the Xinhua News Agency.

When many government officials make speeches, it's more about length than substance; they seem to be filled with platitudes and not much else.

Earlier this week, Xi urged over 900 officials and students at the Central Committee's Party School to study party theory and also learn from ancient Chinese literature to simplify their writing.

He said that the content of the speeches or documents should have "substance" and that "unhealthy writing" could lead to inefficiency.

That's because a lot of time is spent trying to figure out what things like the "theory of the three represents" and "scientific outlook on development" means and how they relates to their own situation or applies to a certain issue.

The "three represents" is a saying from Jiang Zemin, about open party membership, while the latter is from President Hu Jintao, promoting sustainable economic development that doesn't have much to do with science.

Perhaps this is Xi's way of trying to show that he is concerned about being more in touch with the masses again, and make it easier for the public to understand what the government is saying.

If officials really do follow up on his suggestion, this could lead to a revolution of sorts in terms of government transparency -- for once governments at all levels will have to really say what they mean.

And this could mean officials giving record-setting short speeches! Perhaps this also means no more TV shots of party members falling asleep either. Drat.


Saturday, May 15, 2010

People Watching at the Third Ring Road

Crossing the Third Ring Road on the east side of Beijing can be a drag. There is a long wait at the intersection -- at least five minutes -- and at times the bus driver will simply shut off the ignition it's that long. Being stuck there during rush hour can be an eternity.

So there are people who take advantage of the situation. Men and women, young and middle-aged, will walk along the idling cars and stick pamphlets or flyers in the car windows or door handles, creating more trash on the streets. Some men carry giant maps of China rolled up on their shoulders trying to sell them along with odd artifacts. Who sits on the road waiting for the light to turn green and then thinks, "Oh! I need a map of China! And there's a guy I can buy it from!"

Last night I saw an old man begging. He seemed to have come from the rural areas, wearing simple cotton clothing and going car to car, bowing and asking for money; but he didn't seem to be getting much luck.

My friend told me he had seen a Buddhist monk and nun doing the rounds as well, asking for donations and in return getting a card with a blessing printed on it. Who knows if they are legit or not...

Strange things happen at these intersections. You can see a lot because there's always a wait...

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Strange Bureaucratic Rules

Changing money here into US dollars can be a frustrating experience for those uninitiated in the world of Chinese bureaucracy.

It turns out that a person can only exchange a maximum of $500 a day, but perhaps those with guanxi can increase that daily limit to a significantly higher number.

But for us plebians, this is the amount.

The other day I took my 3,420RMB ($500) to the Bank of China. I had to fill out a simple form that included my address and telephone number. Then the teller looked at my passport, entered a few of my details into the computer and a few signatures later, got my five Benjamins.

Yesterday I got to the Bank of China too late and it had just closed, but next door China Merchants Bank was still open. I happen to have an account there and thought the process may be even easier.

However, I was completely wrong.

The teller, granted she was being very meticulous, pointed out that in my computer file showed that my passport number was different and wondered why. I had no answer for her and she corrected it, adding more details about my passport into the electronic file.

She kept asking me if I wanted $500 and I said yes, wondering why so many confirmations.

Then she asked me what the American money was for.

Why did I have to tell her? She explained that she had to write down the reason for the foreign currency exchange.

I later told a Chinese friend about this and she just explained it was because China Merchants Bank doesn't usually service foreigners so the teller was asking more questions, whereas Bank of China is more specifically geared towards foreigners, which is used to doing more foreign exchange.

She gave the analogy that all Chinese banks have a slice of pie and are not allowed to take someone else's slice, or compete for customers. For example, Agricultural Bank of China is focused on farmers and rural areas, China Merchants Bank for entrepreneurs, Bank of Communications for telecom clients, and so on.

This explains why there are so many banks in business in China, and this analogy extends to all kinds of state-owned enterprises, like steel, cars, aviation, power, telecommunications and media.

Most of these state-owned enterprises are bloated businesses, wasting a lot of money on personnel they don't really need, or not concerned about being more efficient because there is no need to compete.

And with that comes the top-heavy bureaucracy.

My friend reminded me that in order to quit her job from a state-owned newspaper, she had to get 20 signatures. Yes, 20. And many of these senior people, most past retirement age and held honorary positions, only periodically came to the office.

Why someone needs 20 signatures to quit is ridiculous.

The only explanation is TIC -- this is China.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Need to Understand Why

Another random school attack happened today in a private kindergarten in Linchang Village, Shaanxi Province, where seven children and two adults were killed by a man wielding a kitchen cleaver. After committing his bloody crime, Wu Huanming, 48, went home and killed himself. His motive is unclear.

This is the fifth attack on school children in the past three months, with at least 15 killed and dozens injured. These violent and deadly acts are increasing parents' fears and anger that not enough is being done to protect their children.

While security is supposedly being stepped up in schools, particularly at school gates, by having more adults manning the area, that is not directly addressing the issue at hand.

Dahe Bao, a prominent newspaper in Henan Province published a strong editorial on its website, blaming the misbehaviour of officials for causing these attacks.

"After being treated unfairly or being bullied by the authorities, and unable to take revenge on those government departments that are safeguarded by state security forces, killers have to let out their hatred and anger on weaker people, and campuses have become the first choice," said the editorial, with the byline of Shi Chuan.

The paper also criticized the government's attempts to censor news of the recent school attacks, possibly in a bid to downplay any perception of dysfunction in Chinese society. There were unconfirmed reports that the propaganda office forbid domestic media from continuing further coverage of the previous attacks, or exploring why these attacks were occurring.

"Any effort that attempts to maintain social stability by silencing public media is outrageously wrong," it said. "It is undeniable that the media's coverage on these incidents of bloodshed may 'inspire' potential killers, but it will educate more people by raising awareness of self-protection and spur the authorities, and this is the role that media should play in the society."

The government seems to be wanting to sweep these incidents under the carpet and not asking why this is happening and try to prevent these horrific attacks from happening again.

Whenever accidents occur such as the ones in mines or a spate of attacks like these, China does not conduct any thorough investigations or public inquiries to understand why these things happen and what recommendations should be made to avoid the same thing from occurring.

At the same time, the government is further squeezing the existence of civil society groups, like non-governmental organizations or NGOs from doing their work in China.

On Monday AIDS activist Wan Yanhai fled to the United States with his family because he could not handle the pressure government bureaus were putting on him. Tax authorities visited him to make sure his books were correct, and even the fire department came to inspect the offices, in any way to find fault with Wan's operations.

Wan, a former health official, began his work by exposing the outbreak of AIDS in Henan Province in the 1990s because poor people were selling their blood and were infected with dirty needles. He has been advocating for greater AIDS awareness and prevention since.

Then in recent years house churches are being shut down because they are not specifically government approved. The authorities pressure landlords into not renting spaces to these religious groups, who then resort to conducting services in parks and are publicly disrupted by the police.

By clamping down on a civil society, people have fewer places to turn to for help, resources or fulfill spiritual needs. It seems that all the government wants people to do is consume, consume, consume and live in a material world.

Many people are buying into that, particularly young people. But sooner or later they will be wanting more -- more than just the latest designer bag or expensive food. They may ask what is the meaning of life? What are we doing here? And they may be at a loss to understand or accept the situation. Then what?

Whether the government likes it or not, it needs to allow civil society to grow and fill in the holes the authorities don't have services for. Otherwise there may be more random senseless attacks like the one today.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Final Close of the Fiery Chapter

On February 9, 2009 we all watched in shock when the new building next to the CCTV tower was on fire. People gathered near it and on the bridge going over it, filming and photographing the raging inferno.

Later a video someone took from a nearby building showed that it was indeed the massive fireworks that started the fire on the roof. That building, which was completely gutted, was supposed to house the Mandarin Oriental hotel which was set to open within weeks.

Many people lost their jobs with the hotel because of the fire.

It was very clear from the beginning that some executives from CCTV had wanted to organize a fireworks party to mark the end of the Spring Festival, and some how managed to get Grade A fireworks that were used in the Beijing Olympics and hired some people to set them off.

However, who was to blame? Was it the person who pushed the button? Was it the person who organized the party? Was it the people who prevented police from stopping them from what they were doing because it was illegal to set off such powerful fireworks in a high-density area?

Surely it wouldn't be too difficult to figure out who was responsible and then prosecute them.

But it took until over a year later to finally punish who was responsible for a building that should be a complete write-off, but instead the government is trying to salvage it despite concerns for structural safety.

On Monday, the Beijing No. 2 Intermediate People's Court sentenced 20 people for between three to seven years.

Most of the blame fell on Xu Wei, CCTV's former construction chief who pleaded guilty to ordering the illegal fireworks display and got seven years in prison for it.

The 19 others were handed sentences ranging from three to six-and-a-half years for getting industrial-grade fireworks and setting them off without the property safety permits. These people included staff from CCTV and two construction companies responsible for fire prevention and security during the fireworks display.

The government was probably hoping the length of time it took to prosecute people would allow the whole fiasco to fade. But the ugly reminder of the burned-out structure is still here, which had cost 5 billion RMB ($731 million) to build.

How they are going to salvage the building is still a mystery, as even the architects from OMA said it should be torn down.

But the government will forge ahead in trying to renovate the building, perhaps later realize it's not safe and then finally tear it down. Many buildings in China are built and then torn down in order to boost GDP figures. Maybe that's what's happening here to keep unemployment figures down?

Monday, May 10, 2010

A Xinjiang Favourite

To sample some of the best regional cuisine in Beijing, you have to go to the provincial liaison offices that are spread all over the city. These compounds have not only offices where these bureaucrats try to curry favour with Beijing, but also hotels and restaurants.

The other day a Uyghur friend took me to a Xinjiang restaurant in the district office for Bazhou (州), which is in the middle of the giant region near the desert.

Located in Haidian District, near the universities, the restaurant can be hard to find as it's off a major street and down a series of alleys. However, the nearest landmark is the old Beijing TV tower or laobeijing dianshi ta (北京电视塔), which apparently many taxi drivers know.

An impressive arch greets visitors to the compound, with two giant soldiers on horseback and Uyghur script on the left column, Chinese on the right.

The restaurant is in a building and once you enter and turn right, it's down the corridor to a home-style kind of restaurant, complete with checkered tablecloths.

This particular place is famous for its yogurt and we got a bowl each. For freshly-made yogurt, it had a wonderfully smooth texture and just a small spoonful of sugar was needed to sweeten it.

We also ordered liang pi, thick yellow noodles made from rice in a spicy chilli sauce, topped with finely sliced cucumber. This was a favourite dish and we later on ordered another.

The highlight was the dapanji, or "big plate chicken". It was a giant platter filled with chopped chicken, potatoes, dried red chillis, green peppers, garlic, and thick noodles to soak up the spicy sauce.

This dish was perfect for chilli heads, and so it was a touch too spicy for me. Nevertheless, the chicken and in particular the potatoes were fantastic, cooked just right.

Dumplings were also a must. These are giant dumplings that require more than one bite to finish. We had minced mutton with onions and spices, and the other was pumpkin, that wasn't too sweet.

As if that wasn't enough, we also ordered the lamb pilaf, featuring roasted lamb stir-fried with thinly sliced carrots and rice. It wasn't too oily which was a pleasant surprise. But by this time I was too full to eat more, having filled up with spicy chicken.

But my friend insisted on finishing with dessert and we had a small serving of walnut cake cut into four pieces that thankfully weren't too sweet.

I practically waddled out of the restaurant after we were finished the dinner, which only cost 187RMB ($27.38) for four.

Hopefully we can find this restaurant again on our own... as long as we can find the TV tower...

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Playing by its Own Rules

On paper, China's laws guarantees people the access to lawyers if they need to be defended in court.

Whether or not your defense lawyer is good, is another story.

However, now the government is being picky about who lawyers can defend after it permanently disbarred two for trying to defend members of the Falun Gong.

The Beijing Bureau of Justice said Tang Jitian, 42, and Liu Wei, 33, had their licenses revoked for "disrupting order in the court and interfering with proper litigation procedure," according to a notice on the bureau's website.

They were accused of walking out of the court proceedings when Liu and Tang say they were filmed illegally in court and protested to the judge, but their protestations were ignored. The bureau says they failed to follow the judge's instructions.

Although Liu has yet to receive an official notice from the bureau, she plans to appeal, but doesn't expect much change.

"I don't think there is much hope. If the government acts illegally, it acts illegally all the way through," she said in an interview with Reuters.

"We will try every avenue. If we don't succeed, we'll have to accept it. But I believe someday, there will be a reversal."

Liu and Tang belong to a loose group of lawyers who are walking a fine line when they take on provoking cases in order to challenge Chinese laws and official decisions.

There were already only a few lawyers willing to represent Falun Gong practitioners, especially after they were outlawed by the government in 1999 when they managed to surreptitiously form a giant protest at Zhongnanhai, the Communist Party's headquarters in downtown Beijing, shocking senior government officials.

The legal system in China does not follow the rule of law -- it isn't decided independently by judges who have seen the evidence and heard the arguments for an against -- but by the government that decides who is guilty and who isn't.

And now it wants to further manipulate the system by barring lawyers from defending people who by law must have access to a lawyer.

How is this in any way legally progressive? For a country that is eager to be accepted on the world stage for its economic might, it sure is insecure when it comes to the law. It seems to have more to hide than defend.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Picture of the Day: Empty Campaign Slogans

These posters in various sizes and colours are all over Chaoyang District, which is on the east side of Beijing.

It shows a cartoon girl called Luo Baby jumping up for joy and exclaiming, "Civilized Chaoyang with Magnificent Me!"

Why does the district government feel compelled to spend taxpayer dollars on these silly posters that make no sense? And why didn't they hire an English proofreader to tell them the  translation doesn't work either?

What qualifies Luo Baby to be magnificent anyway?

Apparently the district website talks about this campaign, but fails to explain the aim of it and how long it will last.

It's just a 21st century version of Chinese propaganda slogans that used to be written on brick walls in Mao's days, but now complete with cartoon figures and vague messages.

There were similar posters up before and during the Olympics about how Beijing was striving to be civilized and harmonious.

And two years later the government still feels compelled to continue shoving the message down our throats. But how can anyone take a cartoon girl seriously, especially when her name is Luo Baby? 

Unless the government is catering to anime fans out there...

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Anxious for World Praise

The 2010 Shanghai Expo opened to great fanfare on the evening of April 30, complete with a massive fireworks display and many state leaders in attendance, the most prominent of whom was French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is desperate to win political points with China now that Sino-French relations are back on track.

During the live broadcast, President Hu Jintao and his wife dressed in a fuchsia suit, stood in front of a massive blazing red background as they greeted state leaders one by one for a photo op. Couldn't someone have told Mrs Hu to wear something more appropriate colour-wise?

There was a lot of news about how more money was spent on the Expo than on the Beijing Olympics -- $45 billion versus $40 billion. While both numbers are mind-boggling, most of the money was spent on infrastructure in both cities and hopefully Shanghai will be an improved city after the six-month event.

However, the biggest challenge now is dealing with the hordes of people on the site.

The first three days were horrific for organizers, with massive lineups. There were reports that people had to wait four hours to get into the UK pavilion, probably because of its unique building, made of flexible rods each containing seeds. The rods move with the breeze like a giant fluff ball from far away. Afterwards the pavilion will be dismantled and the seeds distributed to schools and universities across China to study.

The opening three days were also a headache because they were the May Day holiday, the only three days people have off... until the October National Day holiday, when there will be another crush of people. Then there is also the pride factor of having been one of the first few hundred thousand people to have visited the Expo.

Apparently Chinese state media are not allowed to report on the negative aspects of the Expo, and so the are left to report on how Shanghai residents will benefit from the Expo, rather than those who were forced off their land to make way for this event; how people made friends while waiting in line; what constitutes a mascot; and how passports are the hot items at the exposition.

The New York Times had a field day with its article on Chinglish in Shanghai, how the city is trying to fix the translations on signs to avoid embarrassment. The slide show is all the more amusing. It's a reminder of how Beijing was trying to spruce itself up before the Games two years earlier.

And speaking of the Olympics, the pavilion for Beijing was already panned because the capital couldn't think of any other way to present itself than to revive the five Olympics mascots, Bei Bei, Jing Jing, Huan Huan, Ying Ying and Ni Ni to work their magic again. The theme of the Expo is "Better City, Better Life", about looking forward to the future of cities, rather than back. Besides, there are hardly any traces of Olympic fever in Beijing anymore. Whoever thought of bringing back the Olympics mascots should be sacked.

Then there was criticism in the Chinese media about how the United States didn't put much effort into its pavilion, as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton having to push it through at the last minute, because the US had just missed the deadline on confirming its participation.

She had to drum up sponsors as since 1991 the country's presence in expositions can only rely on corporate and private funding. This again puzzled the Chinese, who believe these pavilions are a matter of national pride and no cost should be spared to present a good image of the country.

Then for most people in developed countries, they have lost interest in expos and with one happening practically every other year it's hard to keep track.

China is so anxious to showcase itself to the world, but the audience doesn't know what to make of it. On the one hand they hear reports of China's rise on the global stage, and yet on the other they hear about the severe measures it takes on curbing human rights and freedoms for the sake of national security, sending chills down their backs.

While it is unfair to measure up China according to western values, how else can you define it relative to what you already know?

Which is why China is so anxious for the Expo to be a success and hope its negative aspects will be forgotten.

Now if they can only figure out how to ease the massive lineups for everything, that will be a great accomplishment in itself.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Last Farmer

The Lius who we stayed with when we hiked up the Great Wall live a simple life.

Liu senior goes to bed around 8pm and wakes up at 4:30am and starts hiking up part of the same route we went to tend to his fields. It's a series of terraced plots only a few metres in width. He grows corn and at the moment, the corn has already been harvested, but he has cleared the plots of the dried up stalks and will probably move them down to be composted. He also raises several plump chickens and roosters, feeding them corn meal twice a day.

He has lived in this farmhouse all his life, his family having lived here for around six generations, back to the Qing Dynasty. Apart from possessing a mobile phone, installing electricity at home, a freezer and a few modern toys for his grandson, everything else seems old and worn.

As there is no running water, there is a giant vat where they use water to wash their hands, faces and to cook with. I'm not sure where the water comes from, but it was safe enough to drink. Liu senior would use the small plastic red ladle and put some water in the enamel basin and use a bar of soap to wash his hands crusted with dirt, then splash his face and run his wet fingers through his hair. He would then dry himself off with a hand towel hanging on the rack holding the basin.

He has probably never had a proper bath or shower before.

Over dinner we talked about the differences between country and city life. While Liu's wife claimed she preferred more excitement, Beijing was too much for her, with so many people and cars. She said she only came into the capital whenever she needed to do errands there, which sounded rare. Liu senior hasn't been in Beijing in over 10 years.

Liu senior is 60 years old, but tilling the fields has made him look older, but his body is as fit as a 25 year old. His only vice is smoking, which he does quite often, and beers with guests. He can't handle baijiu, or Chinese spirits.

The Lius obviously live a very frugal life and they are representative of the rest of the village here, and perhaps many other rural areas in China, where some are much better off, others worse.

It is this sector of people that the Chinese government is depending on to spend their hard-earned money to increase domestic consumption.

However much the Lius have scrimped and saved, they are not going to be splashing out on refrigerators, microwaves or tractors anytime soon. They have other things to save for, including the dreaded possibility of medical costs, not only for them but also for their family should anyone get sick.

Liu senior likes to think that it's safe to raise a child on a farm, but the reality is that his grandson, although only three years old, will be academically behind his urban peers. In China, parents with children his age in the city are already stressed out in getting accepted into the right kindergarten that will help them onto the path of a good university.

There's no such pressure here on the farm, where there isn't even alarm over the child's dirty hands and clothes.

The Lius live a life completely different from people in the city, and yet they are only a few hours' drive apart from each other.

The differences are so stark after 30 years of reform and opening up, and they will probably become even more pronounced in the future.

Liu senior probably knows he will be the last generation to live on this farm, as his son now has a hostel and restaurant.

Regardless, Liu senior must be pleased with how his family has developed and hopefully they will continue to have some kind of link to the land they have depended on for generations.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Great Wall Adventure Part 3

Since we took so long to get to Jinshanling, we thought we would hike back from Simatai to Jinshanling before going home.

But after the arduous hike in the wee hours to the watchtower and back, I didn't think I would be able to hike another 8K and suggested we get back to Beijing instead.

Our gracious hostess Mrs Liu told us how to get back home -- by catching the 9am bus to Miyun (密云) which would cost 6RMB ($0.87) each, then the 980 bus back to Beijing for about 10RMB each.

Liu senior charges between 200-300RMB ($29.29-$43.94) per person to stay overnight and we gave him a bit more, making him a bit embarrassed by the extra cash. But they really had been hospitable and not to mention energetic guides.

Before we left, I took some pictures of her with her naughty grandson, who was awake and precocious as ever, pulling on her ear. She and her grandson led us down the paved roadway that led to her son's restaurant and hostel, the Dongpo Family Hostel.

It has opened for a few years and business is relatively good, with hikers coming down the wall and eating at the restaurant, or even staying overnight.

When we arrived, a young Chinese couple had just finished breakfast and were about to go on their hike.

We chatted with Liu and his wife for a bit, and she proudly showed us their guest book filled comments from people from all over the world, including the United States, Canada, Greece, France and the UK.

We also added our comments, particularly about "Super Geezer" and then Liu's wife took us back on the road towards the entrance to Simatai. Being handed over from one person to another felt like we were refugees fleeing to safety and they were our trusted contacts.

Walking along the "wall" next to a reservoir was not the same as what we had experienced earlier in the morning.

The path was clear and neat, with signs periodically saying, "Be civilized visitor, set up the ecosystem scenery together!" (sic), or "Appreciate the Great Wall lovely view, do not forget the fire is heartless" (sic).

It was already 8:30am and groups of people were starting their climb up, with hikers of all ages from kids to the elderly. I didn't know how far they were going, but I doubted them would go far.

At the bottom we found the parking lot where we waited for the bus to Miyun.

A young man tried to take advantage of my being an out-of-towner by trying to persuade me to get a ride in his car than wait for the bus, but I held my ground.

Around 8:50am the bus arrived and we got on. It was like one of those travel coaches, though a bit run down inside. A woman collected our money and just after 9am the bus made several stops along the way for over an hour, and I pitied those who had to stand for an hour on the bus.

Then we heard the woman announce it was the stop for the 980 bus and we made our way out. We walked another 50 metres before seeing a giant line of people climbing onto one of two buses that filled up quickly and left.

We got onto the third bus in line around 10:40am and again got a seat. This bus wound its way around Miyun before heading onto the highway. It seemed like Miyun was like a suburb, with pretty uniform streets, things looking relatively orderly, apartments a few years old. The place also had its own public transportation system with small buses that didn't seem to adequately serve its customers.

The bus passed a giant outdoor fruit market, the stalls covered with large umbrellas, and the public health bureau of Miyun, an official-looking building furnished with lions to guard the gate. The middle of the city has the "Great Wall Roundabout", complete with the Chinese characters (长城岛) sculpted from bushes.

Finally we got onto the highway, but our bus had trouble shifting gears and I prayed it wouldn't break down. Thankfully it didn't, and eventually made it to the bus terminus at Dongzhimen Wai at around 12:30pm.

Walking out onto the streets of Beijing and back into my apartment for a shower in 48 hours was a surreal experience. In the early morning we had hiked up a hill, eaten breakfast in a simple farmhouse with no running water, and now we were back in civilization where cars were constantly honking and people everywhere.

As we waited at an intersection to cross the street, a man approached us with a card. "Mutianyu?" he asked, pointing to the card that said Beijing to Mutianyu (慕田峪), another part of the Great Wall.

I said no thanks and we cross the street.

He had no idea where we had just been.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Great Wall Adventure Part 2

Sleeping on a kang is a trying experience for the uninitiated. It's basically a rock hard flat surface on which a bedding is put on top as the mattress. Then each person has their own pillow, not the fluffy, feathery kind, but filled with beans, and a quilt to keep warm.

It was only in the middle of the night did I realize that I should use an extra quilt as another mattress layer and use yet another quilt (there were many in this room) as a softer pillow option. Sleeping on your side on a kang is virtually impossible too so you have to sleep on your back.

And then on top of that, knowing you have to wake up at 4am makes it even harder to fall asleep. We could only sleep very lightly, hearing the sounds of the farm around us, including an early wake-up call from a rooster at 3am.

At 4am on the dot, we got a rap on the window from Liu senior. We quickly got dressed, went to the outhouse for a pee, and then with two flashlights, headed out in the darkness to the highest watchtower on the Great Wall in the area called 望京 (wang 4 jing4 lou 2), or tower with the view of Beijing, because on a clear day you can see the capital very clearly.

However, in the dark I could see there were clouds in the sky covering the moon which made a clear view of the sunrise questionable. But we headed up anyway.

Liu senior led the way, hands behind his back, one hand holding a flashlight to show us the way. He offered to take my two bottles of water, putting them in his coat pockets. "If you need a drink of water, just tell me," he said.

We first crossed the other farmhouses in the area, their dogs barking at us; we ignored them and continued. I asked Liu senior about the paved road we walked on, and he said it was constructed a year ago thanks to the local government.

But then we broke away from the path and started walking up past terraced plots, then we started hitting a dirt trail covered with rough pebbles that got steeper. Once I thought we would get relief from the incline, Liu senior would change direction and continue up the steep path. "Are you tired?" he asked. I politely replied I was OK and drank some water.

The sky started to get a bit lighter and I worried we wouldn't get up there in time. "How much longer?" I asked. He replied 20 minutes more and pointed up to the brick building towering over us. However, we were now approaching the steepest part of the hike and I started to fatigue, the only one of the three to breathe heavily from the cardio workout. I also began feeling dizzy, and then remembered that we hadn't eaten anything and yet here we had been hiking for over an hour.

Our climb got steeper, now having to use the nearby trees as support, as rocks loosened from the ground and at times made it hard for me to get my footing. By now dawn was coming and we didn't need the flashlights, but I was getting more and more tired and unused to the almost literal climbing we had to do towards the end. My friend had to help me up in the last stretch.

Once we were standing at the top, it was an amazing sight. Far out in the distance was the farmhouse we had come from, and it felt like we were practically on top of the world with no one else around except the three of us. Liu senior warned us to be careful as we wandered around the watchtower (it is closed inside), as it is practically on a cliff. He crouched down at the base of the tower and lit his morning cigarette.

From our view, we could see the wall stretching over the hills like a giant fin on a dragon's back. Imagine being one of those peasants recruited to build the wall, hauling up those giant stone bricks and mortar, or the soldiers who had to hike up there to their stations to be on the lookout for invaders.

The wall here is the real thing, unlike the part fixed up at Badaling or even Mutianyu; here the bricks are rough. Though it looks like some fresh mortar from a few years ago was applied to the brick tower to ensure they stayed in place, it pretty much looks like the original.

"The sun is coming out!" Liu senior exclaimed at around 5:30am, and we watched in the east as the sun struggled to shine through the thick layer of cloud. Nonetheless, it created a dramatic picture of perspective, with the layers of mountains getting progressively lighter in distance like a watercolour.

It was also wonderful seeing the wall during the spring, with cherry and peach blossoms in bloom.

After taking a number of pictures, and soaking in the amazing view, before 6am we made our way back down the same way we went up.

This time we had to keep our balance going down especially the steep part, and definitely relying on the trees as support. At times it meant sitting down and then extending our legs to reach the next part of the ground, or making calculated slides down the dirt path. Liu senior led the way. How he made is way without the need to balance was bewildering. He even carried our empty water bottles for us, while we used whatever was nearby to hold onto for support.

I continued taking pictures around us, and when we got towards the bottom of the hill I looked back at the watchtower, amazed that we had just climbed up so high.

Soon we reached the plots of land and the farmhouses, the chickens and roosters stirring, farmers carrying giant batches of dead cornstalks and dumping them in a pile, a mule waking up, and dogs barking.

When we made it back to the farmhouse, Liu senior's wife was already cooking breakfast for us at 7am. As I ate a meal of tofu sheets with cucumber, stir-fried cabbage with pork fat, peanuts and potato julienne stir-fried with dried chilis and rice, I couldn't help constantly looking up at the watchtower we had gone up to and marveling at the feat we had accomplished.

I really had climbed the Great Wall and was a bona fide Chinese.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Great Wall Adventure Part 1

Yesterday my friend and I made plans to hike the Great Wall from Jinshanling to Simatai to a farmer's house to stay overnight and then hike up early in the morning to the highest watch tower in the area to catch the sunrise before heading back to Beijing.

However, the best-laid plans can go awry.

We started off relatively late, around 12:30pm and tried to catch a bus going to Chengde, a city in Hebei Province that borders Beijing, as Jinshanling is along the way.

Two buses going to Chengde flew past us as they were already full so we rushed over to get the next one.

Turns out there was no rush because most of the people had already gotten on the two previous minibuses and so we sat there for over an hour waiting as a group of guys tried to drum up business. Some prospective customers who were interested in going to Chengde were turned off by the price (85RMB/$12.45). The men kept shouting "Chengde" until they were hoarse and it didn't bring much results until finally we headed off, still trying to get more customers along the way and managed to snag about three more.

Then traffic was very heavy -- we were going in the same direction as where the 2010 Beijing Auto Show is being held until today and car fans were rushing to Shunyi to the International Exhibition Center. As a result we crawled along Jingmi road until we finally got onto the highway. By now it was 3:30pm and this was leaving us less time to hike on the wall.

While we were on the road, one of the guys hustling business in a purple shirt, sat across from us and either kept calling his friend or his friend kept calling him, constantly updating each other on where they were. It got very annoying until all of a sudden our bus was pulled to the side of the road and stopped.

The next thing I saw in the window was the guy in the purple shirt and the driver had run across the highway to a coach that had also stopped on the highway -- not even on the right side -- and they switched positions with the coach driver. It was so bizarre not to mention dangerous.

Finally around 5pm we arrived at the Jinshanling Tourist area and rest stop and we got off; the rest of the passengers were given a 15 minute-break before getting back on the bus. We went to the restrooms and then got more water and asked the woman working at the cashier if there were small vans that would take us to the base of the wall at Jinshanling because our friend had told us that was how he got there.

She said there were none and we asked another clerk working at the tourist desk. There are no vans, he confirmed, unless we wanted to walk another 5km to the spot. "You either need to drive there on your own or ask the bus to drop you off there," he said, uncomfortably dressed in a military-like uniform complete with a sash across his chest that said he was from the tourist information desk. We wondered why there weren't any bus lines that specifically went to this area so that it wasn't so difficult for those without cars (the vast majority) to get there.

Nevertheless, it was a bizarre situation to be in, not really knowing where we are and what to do since it was getting late.

We then called Liu Hanqiang, our contact who helped us arrange our farmhouse stay with his father. He eventually came to pick us up in a small van driven by his friend, as he himself only had a motorcycle.

Sitting in the front were two young girls around four or five years old who chatted and sang non-stop amongst themselves making for amusing entertainment. We drove down an unpaved narrow path that winded around a stream and lots of trees and boulders. Finally there was a crudely-paved road and then we saw the small village in sight on a hill and were let off.

We met Liu's father, a farmer with a weather-worn face. My friend affectionately calls him "Super Geezer" as he has no trouble hiking up the hill -- with his hands behind his back -- and doesn't need a drop of water either.

His wife made us a simple meal of scrambled eggs with tomatoes, crushed cucumbers with garlic and vinegar, dense tofu and cucumber julienne, and stir-friend green peppers with mostly fatty pork. Oh yes and peanuts roasted with peppercorns.

The elder Liu insisted on drinking beer with me and luckily brought out two small glasses. Every time he took a sip he wanted us to clink glasses and after two bottles, he probably drank one and a half of them.

Liu's son, a precocious three-year-old, also joined us, and wasn't too shy once we said hello.

Apart from growing corn, Liu senior raised chickens and they would wander around the yard, as free range as you can get. Apparently their kungpao chicken is the best, but I didn't get to sample any this time around.

Even though it was only 8:30pm, we had to try to get some sleep as Liu senior would wake us up at 4am to take us to the highest watch tower in the area.

We settled in a new "wing" of the home that was added two months ago. There was a long bed called a kang, that is heated in the winter by an outdoor fire, with bedding on top. However, the bed was so hard, and the pillows filled with beans that it was practically impossible to fall asleep.

Oh and did I mention there was no running water and an outhouse for a bathroom?

We were kind of roughing it, but the air was clean and quiet setting. Best of all was the amazing scenery of the Great Wall right in front of the house.