Dancing In The Dark

Um, I’ve been busy again, and another month’s slipped out of sight into the Beijing haze. Apart from the stifling sauna / oven heat (depending on the time of day), which forces me to buy 600ml bottles of ice cold Nanjing Pi Jiu (that’s beer to you) and sit in my pants under the air con, I’ve been planning my wedding. Yes, I’m married already (see earlier Stamp Collecting blog entry), but that was just paper. Then we did a photo shoot in June. We are spreading it out, see, to seriously increase our Facebook congratulations tally; or in the words of Blackwatertown, to compete with Betty and Dickie Taylor on the number of weddings front (only to ourselves, mind, not several other progressively younger people). But anyway, the wedding’s this month, and things are getting hectic. Various international and north Chinese clan will land in Beijing these next two weeks, and it’s our job to shuttle them into their hotels, brief them on how not to cross the road, and make sure they see the most Beijing has to offer. As well as finding a way to look smart AND not sweat on the wedding day, I have had to source some appalling quality Queen, Michael Jackson and ABBA karaoke DVDs, in the hope that some of my guests might contribute some vocals to the night’s festivities. The crate of imported Spanish Cava should help things along.

Anyway, those are my excuses.

But, I remain the only Fuxingman in Fuxingmen, and here is the latest news (and it might actually end up shorter than the preamble):

As soon as the snow disappeared in April, something happened. Every night at dusk, strange little men all over Beijing started appearing in parks, next to their home made sound systems: bicycles, with huge cupboards bodged onto the back, even huge-er speakers poking out at random angles, like something out of Yellow Submarine. Some have deluxe bicycle trailers, allowing for a sleeker, more sophisticated rig. Most of these guys are old. They presumably have conventions where they get together to compare bodge quality, after they spend the winter building the things in their sheds. No it’s not the refugees from Major’s criminal justice act nineteen ninety whatever it was. They didn’t all run away to China. But they have come to party.

These rude boys fire up their systems when it gets dark, sending a bizarre mixture of Latin, Techno and Europop into the summer night’s sky. And the Wild Rumpus Starts.  Suddenly all the local old folks appear. Or rather they don’t because you can’t see them. It’s dark. But they’re there. Dancing the cha cha, or the tango, or whatever mix of ballroom dancing they feel like. If you stare hard enough into the pitch blackness, you can just about make them out. Filling the whole park, twirling and trotting around. All perms, comb-overs and wide waists, two-ing and fro-ing delicately. But dare you go in…? It seems too exclusive.

It’s the old folks again you see. I’ve blogged about this before too. They’re everywhere. Tai Chi-ing in the morning, playing ping pong in the afternoon, and dancing… in the dark… in the evening. They rule, they’re the boss. They take no shit.

So my obvious question is, who knows what’s going on in there, when the sun goes down? Every time I walk past (there’s a small park right by us, pitch black, booming happy-house music), my depraved English mind wanders. A twirl here, a grope there, a fondle… and onto a new partner. I wonder. Could it all be happening in our very own local park, right beneath our balconies? Maybe this is the long sought after secret behind millennia of Chinese social stability.

And the youngsters can only gaze into the darkness, waiting for their time to come…..

Getting serious for a moment, WHY HAVE WE LOST THIS? Brits I mean. This is where the whole of the local community gets a chance to meet each other and TALK. It’s free (although I’m sure they bung Mr Sound System a few Kwai for his trouble). There is no booze. Inner city or not, you see this all around China. An urban space is there to be USED, and has been designed as such. Not JUST to walk through, sit quietly in, or look at. I’m sure there was a time when people in England met in squares for a dance every night. But because the music changed, somehow it all got confused. There are no complaints here that they’re not dancing to traditional Chinese folk music. They are dancing to banging thumping loud modern dance music, albeit a slightly strange brew. And they like it like that.

Why, at the merest hint of loud music, or social gathering, do we clamp down on it, taking the lone voice of complaint as a higher priority to the enjoyment of the many? Or let bureaucracy dictate that any outdoor event with amplifiers must be sanctioned, insured, risk assessed to the max, and be inoffensive to anyone (impossible).
When it’s an accordion and a man with a beard with his finger in his ear on a village green, it’s apparently OK. Or a raving Christian with a megaphone on a street corner, or even Sunday church bells – why that’s not an offensive noise at all is it?

Britain is too watered down, diluted and stuck in reverse gear. China bubbles. But for how long?

Here is a picture of the old folks dancing

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Oral Assault

It’s been a week of heightened senses.
The July August soup-a-bowl is here, when the hot wet air stubbornly sits in the hole in the mountains that is Beijing, and doesn’t move for two months. The fresh breezes and clear skies of June are gone. It’s a free sauna. Men stand around like proud peacocks, t shirts rolled up, displaying varying stages of midrift expansion; the sun disappears completely till Sept; and westerners like me forget their “I’m not going to use my eco-murdering air con this year, I can handle it” sentiment within seconds of walking into the house, ignoring all good advice, to stand, semi naked, like Michael Jackson performing Earth Song, and have a good old dry off under the icy blast. This is the first time I’ve been in Beijing since the Olympics, and it’s brought it all back to me. Nowhere else have I experienced such extremes and variations in weather. There’s a pervading dank smell everywhere, which I can’t put my finger on, but it keeps making me want to clean the bathroom.

In said bathroom at the weekend, this writer gurgled a load of disinfectant he thought was mouthwash. Lack of English label aside, I blame the wife, who happened to be waving the disinfectant bottle around when she told me she couldn’t find any Listerine at the shops. It took me about ten seconds to realise my mistake, and only after I’d spotted pictures of gleaming sinks and toilets on the back of the bottle (stars used to portray levels of gleam). The effect was amazing – I could taste it for days afterwards, and my tongue went completely numb for 24 hours.
It came in very handy the next day though, when I went to see Doctor Wong for some route canal treatment. Excellent dentist that he is, the Chinese have a policy of avoiding anaesthetic injections if they can help it. They probe around, they tap, they start drilling, telling you to tell them if it hurts. The idea being that the tooth is buggered, and maybe the nerve’s gone too…. and aren’t we really a bunch of wusses. All OK actually at first. I convinced myself I could be Marathon man, spurred on by my wife, who proudly outlined how she’d had a whole crown done without any injections or pain killers. As soon the drill started grinding into my tooth I knew I was doomed to fail. I spasmed my body just enough to make Larry Olivier aware that I’d felt a twinge. Give me the biggest injection you’ve got, and make it snappy, I don’t want to feel a thing. I made it very clear.

Later that same day, bottom lip curling down to the left, I was squeezed into a corner of Paddy O Shea’s, along with more English people than I ever knew lived in Beijing, and a smattering of Germans. Football’s coming home pinged out from the speakers, and it was more fanatical than being in a pub on home turf. And very very hot. All emotions (including astonishment) were wildly overplayed, in the knowledge that this small Irish island was the only true corner of England (eh?) in the city. Taxis slowed down to look, people stared in at the truly bizarre spectacle of hundreds of (rather mature I must say) expats who should know better, crammed into a bar singing and shouting and misbehaving in increasing desperation. One young inebriated German, painted of face, decided he would spend the last 20 minutes standing by the big screen. Facing the crowd, and draped in a flag, he kept performing something very close to a certain salute that one just doesn’t do. One put out English woman eventually lost the plot with him, and it looked for a moment like there would be trouble at ‘mill. The bar manager (Paddy?) put his hand on the lad’s shoulder and lead him away from view, obviously gauging the tide of growing resentment, fueled by sorrow.

Friday will be BBQ on my friend’s rooftop. It’s for Canada Day, and he is Canadian of Greek descent. An excellent combination for a BBQ I reckon. I’m looking forward to some excellent smells, to go with the Beijing soup.

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Dyed Dogs

The Chinese love nowt more than their dogs. The small ones are everywhere, being walked, or often carried, or doted on by several old folks down the park (large dogs over a certain size are banned in Beijing, so you have none of that “Pitbull eats baby” crap that you get in the UK). Anyway, because I’m lazy, here’s a bizarre story from today ripped directly from AP, that can be filed under the “can you imagine the uproar back home if…” category. Or maybe it belongs in the “for fuck’s sake” category. I must say, I have not seen any dyed dogs out and about, but then maybe they were in camouflage, disguised as a lamp post or something. By the way, got to love the writer’s name…..
*
Dog-tired of your pet’s look? Try a doggie dye job

By CHI-CHI ZHANG (AP) – 7 hours ago

BEIJING — Walking into Ruowen Pet Spa is like entering a doggie Halloween costume contest. There’s turtle-dog, zebra-dog, Spider-Man-dog, tiger-dog and even panda-dog.

Raphael the toy poodle runs around in his playpen like any other dog — except his snow white coat has been dyed neon green and is partially shaved with a protruding shell on top to resemble a turtle. He seems oblivious to his unique look but enjoys the attention of onlookers.

Raphael, named after a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles character, is one of half a dozen dyed dogs on display at the spa in downtown Beijing, which caters to wealthy Chinese who are fueling a booming pet craze in China.

“If you can dream it, we can make it come true,” said Sun Ruowen, who owns the spa and has worked in the pet industry for 10 years.

Sun charges anywhere from $7 to dye one ear to $300 for permanent dyeing and trimming of larger dogs — with most dye jobs lasting six months before the hair grows out.

Once banned by the Communist Party as bourgeois, pet ownership is booming in China, spawning a slew of cat and dog pampering businesses — where pets are treated to pedicures, rose petal bubble baths and massages.

This year, the Year of the Tiger in China, has brought an interest in the dyeing trend — with tigers being the most-sought-after look. From golden retrievers to Pekingese, pets are not just being dyed basic colors but are being transformed to look like other animals, says Sun.

“Dyeing pets is popular in many developed countries like Japan and Korea, but China is quickly catching on,” said Sun, who recently participated in the first national pet dyeing competition in Beijing. She attributes the phenomenon to a “head-turning effect.”

“People already love to show off their pets and draw attention, so a panda-dog walking down the street is bound to turn heads.”

Dog owners say the attention their canines receive has improved their mental well-being. Kung Fu, a 10-month-old Old English sheepdog, can barely make it down the street without swarms gathering to admire his thick coat dyed to look like a panda, says owner Queenie Yang.

“Kung Fu loves the attention, and his self confidence has shot up since lots of pretty girls come up to pet him,” said Yang, a 31-year-old housewife from Beijing.

Yang’s husband decided to dye Kung Fu’s hair after seeing an advertisement from the spa and since Kung Fu’s features were already similar to that of a panda.

From the back, the 80-pound dog, with his black button tail and tan fur, could be mistaken for a panda — with fur around his eyes that have been dyed black to a create a droopy and almost comical expression.

He sits impatiently on a metal table in Ruowen’s spa, waiting for another bleach job of his gray hair, which is now a tan color. His front and hind leg sections have been dyed black, hair trimmed short and patches of hair on his head dyed black and fastened with elastics to look like panda ears.

One veterinarian warned that owners should be careful of damaging a dog’s mental and physical well-being before considering dyeing their pets.

“Owners should seek pet spas that use natural coloring which won’t damage the dog’s hair or irritate the skin,” said Tian Haiyan, who works at the Beijing Guanshang Animal hospital. “Mentally, some dogs that aren’t used to being in the spotlight so may react negatively to the sudden attention.”

While some critics say the new trend is inhumane as the dogs are sometimes forced to undergo hours of unnecessary dyeing, Sun says her products are all natural and it’s nothing more than an innocent dress-up session.

“It’s a confidence booster for dogs and owners,” said Sun. “We’re here to offer them new ways to pamper and dress up their pets.”

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Reality TV takes hold….

…complete with planted contestants. Second highlighted bit is hilarious.

What would SARFT make of Jerry Springer? (Click to view bigger)

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Asteroids

I’ve started riding a bike a lot in Beijing. The roads and cycle lanes are massive, everything is flat, and yes, I wear a helmet (yellow), shades (to stop the dust) and have flashing lights on at night. All this marks me out as some kind of weirdo “laowai’ (foreigner) bike freak – I have so far only seen one other guy adorned in such garb – and he looked like he was practicing for London 2012, as he zoomed past me through Tiananmen Square, tiny spandex arse high in the air, leaving a cloud of dust and a few overturned cabbage carts in his wake.

Once you’re on a straight line, such as the enormous Changan Avenue, with bicycle lanes that dwarf the M25, you’re fine. But, dare to turn left, or simply cross a busy intersection, and it gets much more thrilling. I strongly recommend a trip to the plastic surgeon to get another four pairs of eyes installed at various points around your head before taking this on. I am currently mid-inquiry into such an operation, as the surgeon weighs up the best positions for my new eye sockets, and we haggle over the cost of multiple colours- I’m holding out for 3 for the price of 2 – and night vision (very pricey).

“Things” come at you from literally every angle. It’s just like playing a sped up version of the old arcade game ‘Asteroids’. It’s very exciting to watch, and even more exciting to be a part of. A common technique to perfect is the last minute front wheel swerve, or wobble: You’re progressing smoothly across a large junction. Then at exactly the same moment, you spot the 3 wheel motorized rickshaw coming directly towards you at speed,  in the opposite direction, crazed horn a beeping manically like a strangled sheep in its death throes; and there to the left, standing unsteadily on his bike pedals, his loose wheel squeaking and leaning out to one side, is the man swerving around  with a mountain of plastic bottles so high on his trailer that he can neither stop, nor get going, complete with random unidentified stick pointing out 2 metres at a 45 degree angle. You’ve sussed them, planned your course, you’re OK. But wait. To your right, twirling like a dervish, a permed grandma steps off the kerb, clapping her hands and singing an ancient melody, doing her morning Tai Chi, as she strides like the old China hand she is, blindly and confidently into the furious maelstrom. Keep going, staring each of them in the eye for as long as possible (here’s where you need at least two extra pair of eyes), and (important) maintain your direction and speed. Only at the last minute, when you can feel the warmth of each other’s garlic breath, carried on the waft of air from granny’s clapping hands,  you and the other two bikes do the Time Honoured Simultaneous Front Wheel Shimmy. Grandma drops her shoulder, takes a nimble and strategic step, and you shut your eyes……

Via the 19th rule of Confucious, somehow, you all re-emerge having past each other unscathed, and proceed onwards in your original direction.

The exhilaration of writing the last paragraph has made me want to go and ride my bike. And I think I will attach a camera on the front and take a movie, to post at a later date.

A few weeks back, one of the larger asteroids in my path was Hilary Clinton’s mega cavalcade, with quite possibly twenty vehicles in it, as she sped to wherever she was speeding to try and persuade the Chinese to let go of their grip on the Yuan. The road was closed to all traffic except bicycles (why? I could have easily smuggled a rocket launcher in my rucksack). I gurned into the blackness of each of the tinted windows as they went past, wondering which car she was in. Did she see the grinning Westerner on his funny little fold up, his big white Nike trainers and his massive yellow helmet? I half expected a window to open, a waving hand to emerge, and the former first lady to lean out, shouting “hey, dude, where can I find the best pizza restaurant?” But then a few mini asteroids came my way (random man standing in the road for no apparent reason, limping dog and low hanging tree branch), and I was jolted back to the reality of trying to stay alive.

The cavalcade suddenly did one huge U turn (presumably having decided on the required pizza restaurant), and disappeared into a black hole, leaving all us mini asteroids trying not to be sucked along in its wake.

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Zoetrope

I’ve decided – I’m going to make my own Victorian Zoetrope. I’ll put it where the telly is, and I’ll also build a very accurate motor linked wirelessly to my iPhone. It will start spinning every four years in June, and run for about a month. Anyone who looks at it will ne’er look away, nor be able to put down their beer, nor even notice their wife, until it stops spinning – for it will also be a magick Zoetrope. Not only will it hold a man’s gaze, haplessly trapping him in his seat, as if in leg irons,  perplexed as to why he can’t avert his eyes and get on with something more wholesome;  it will also have the power to make the very face grimace hellishly, the body unwittingly contort, and writhe into hideous and ungodly positions, as if under the wicked curse of Lucifer himself.

There will be a dozen different animations:

1. The Over-Hit Long Ball (followed by team mate’s applause / thumbs up);

2. The Desperate Lunge;

3. The Outpaced Defender, red of face;

4. The Head Tennis, followed by Back To The Goalie;

5. The Tumbling Lumbering Centre Forward, falling like an oak, arm raised in plea;

6. The Early Goal (with boyish shiny faces of glee and promise);

7. The Cross Into The Empty Box, with-no-head-there-to-meet;

7. The Lack Of Control, a.k.a. The Perpetual Motion Bouncing Ball;

8. The Goalkeeping Blunder;

9. The Penalty Shootout (with obligatory two or three cannon shots over the bar, to salute the Queen);

10. The Manager’s Scowl, arms outstretched, turning back and forth between bench and pitch, like a great actor of the stage;

11. The Post Match Excuse, with much scratching of nose and ear;

12. The Go Get Another Beer (this is going to be great / this is terrible).

Addendum:

I have in fact now realised that I’ve been tricked, and somebody already built this Zoetrope long ago. They’ve been spinning it to me for most of my life, occasionally substituting some of the faces, but nothing more.

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Bigots, Real Bigots, Blunders, Ballots and Beer

I was going to call this “the view from abroad”, but then I wondered how many blogs have opened with that sorry old line in recent weeks. So I spent about 5 seconds on that slightly rubbish effort.

Here in the (newly relaunched) CCTV newsroom in Beijing, they have been going big on Nick Clegg. Young fresh-faced strong-of-jaw honest Clegg. Ever since the first TV debate, I have been asked many times “from where did this clean cut polished performer spring forth?” Even though there is a lack of really in-depth analysis of the UK election as a whole (not surprising really, we’re in China), little coverage of the voting process, the political system, and not much about the policies (are there any policies?), they are pretty keen to focus on the personalities, and to pick on on the media worthy ups and unfortunate lows of the campaign. And there seems to be more far attention given to this election than many others around the EU. Perhaps because we’ve had the US-style TV debates, perhaps because of the possibility of a hung parliament. Perhaps our politics are more entertaining and (still a bit) raw… perhaps everyone just loves queer old blighty.

I still find it interesting that media here doesn’t shy away whatsoever from reporting democracy in action in foreign lands (and also street protests in foreign lands). People accept it as just normal stuff that goes on abroad. Maybe they think we’re all insane. It doesn’t necessarily seem to put certain ideas into people’s heads…..but I’m sure it doesn’t need to. But then I wonder if it is really fully understood, by some here anyway. It sometimes very hard to get a real viewpoint. I was recently informed in no uncertain terms that China had bought full democracy to Tibet. In fact this was also stated by the government as fact in a rather prominent speech recently, and was therefore true. When I questioned the use of the words “full” and “democracy”, citing their definitions in the Oxford English dictionary as my sources,  I was told it was China’s version of democracy, but that it was democracy nonetheless. A bit like how I was also told that the endless repetitive reporting of various presidential handshakes was “the Chinese way” of journalism…………………… and some more dots I think …………………………………..

I think I am being unfair in fact, and there is a huge amount of real and intelligent political understanding here. There is also a very sad and passive acceptance of the reality of the situation. The problems and practicalities of day to day existence, and the total lack of power that most people hold are topics too weighty for this little, slightly wayward blog entry.

Back to the point!

And so Nick Griffin has made his inevitable debut on Chinese state TV, discussing his rather particular take on the hot issues concerning Barking, East London. Perplexed bafflement followed, and the most telling comment was “there’s something very nasty about that man’s face.”

We’ve had a whole 2 minute report on the monster raving Loony Party’s pub manifesto launch, complete with pedal boats up the Thames, air con units facing outwards, and painted politicians faces. I had to explain their philosophy and very raison d’etre not only to my Chinese colleagues, but also my American, Canadian and Australian colleagues too. We’ve had the last Prime Minister’s questions, which I have to say made me feel very homesick. We’ve had Blunderbus Brown’s Bigot Bother, with the full audio repeated many  times last week, followed by contrite apology. And so on….. it’s all been there, bar the in depth Jeremy Paxman stuff, as I say.

It’s all very balanced, and each party has to get the same amount of coverage within a report, as with any good state Broadcasting Institution.

I almost spat out my cabbage (not a euphemism) when I heard today’s clip from Mr Brown. What has happened to this guy? “Let justice roll like water, and righteousness flow like a mighty stream” he thundered, as he waved his arms about like a neurotic John McCririck. This is really a sorry sight, this is someone who is clever, a bit too clever, but not good in front of a camera, being forced to play a media game (which his ‘good friend’ and predecessor helped to create), while at the same time being clearly mentally exhausted. Desperate. It looked like King Kong trying to grab the planes as he falls off the Empire State building.  It honestly sounded like a defiant suicide note, and I’ll say again, seemed very very sad.

On a lighter note, just time for a quick hotpot update from a previous blog. Xidan eat-all-you-like-and-more-crucially-drink-all-you-like-for Y40 was visited by three Englishmen and one non drinking Chinese. Despite the place having an apparent 90 minute time limit, we managed to be the last customers not only in the restaurant, but also in the entire shopping centre, having spent 2 and a half hours eating and guzzling and talking loudly. But my fears of the “open tap” policy on draft beer (you go up and help yourself) being altered in the wake of our visit were unfounded. Everyone smiled. Ah, the Brits are here, how lovely. I somehow think we were not the first enthusiastic foreigners to discover the place. Of course we weren’t. We were positively encouraged to go up for more, making me wonder if they throw it away at the end of the night anyway. Everyone waved us a pleasant goodbye as we shuffled off into the night (I think).

There was a recent article somewhere about why expats in Beijing end up drinking so much (ominous). Well Xidan Hotpot and others of its ilk clearly shares some of the blame.

Meanwhile, in breaking news, the same three Englishmen have persuaded the American owner of a bar called The Brick to open on Friday morning at 7am, serve a fry up, and stick BBC World on the telly for the election coverage.

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Talking of Hotpot…

The Beijing (and Chinese) property market is bubbling wildly. It’s hard to see anything other than some kind of calamitous cooking disaster. We have been looking at places and were thinking of buying (we’re talking a cupboard here, 40 – 60m2). But we’ve been scared off. Prices have nearly doubled in two years. When I arrived in November last year, there was a new block across the road in Tongzhou (10 miles out from the centre) with prices at 13 – 15000Y per m2 (about £1200 – £1400). Now it’s at 26000Y, four months later. When you consider a middle income salary here is around 3000 – 5000Y per month, it seems unsustainable. There is also a lot of speculation – a lot of these new flats remain empty, with people never moving in, or even decorating (sometimes you buy a new flat, you get a shell – you have to put in all the fittings, tiling, secondary plumbing, floors yourself). They just sell the empty, unused flats on later when the price has gone up. Mostly done on credit. The rent to value ratio is incredibly low, you can’t make anywhere near your mortgage payments back by renting out. Its all driven by the rising market, profit potential and credit, plus the fear, if not mass panic,  that if you wait too long, house prices will run away and it will be too late. Its a frenzy!

The government grow ever richer from the sale of land, while peasants are bought off to clear out so their houses can be knocked down. Developers bypass rules to build quickly. Cities expand. Maximum lease time is 70 years.

Its got to end in tears.

But then they said that about London ten years ago.

The government has recently brought in measures to reign in the property market…. slightly. If there’s no crash, then Beijing and Shanghai will end up the most expensive places on Earth, for sure.

We are going to save our money, not buy.

Renting is a pain though.

(Click on the article to see it bigger)

China Daily, 25th March 2010

And if anyone can read Chinese, here is a funny poem about property prices:
沁园春《房》
——毛有房
神州大地,
万人蜗居,亿人盼房。
望北京上海,高楼大厦。
售楼中心,房奴滔滔。
祖孙三代,倾尽所有,欲与房价试比高。
须钞票,
清储蓄贷款,分外心焦。
楼价如此虚高,
逼无数白领竞折腰。
昔秦皇汉武,闻所未闻;
唐宗宋祖,紧捏钱包。
一代天骄,成吉思汗,只好蜗居蒙古包。
俱往矣,
数天价楼盘,还看今朝…….

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Spoiling It For The Locals

UNLIMITED DRAFT BEER ON TAP. Imagine your local eat-all-you-like buffet announcing such a thing on the menu. How the queues would stretch down the high street. In the UK, the very existence of such a place would be a scientific impossibility, a rip in the fabric of the time-space continuum. The beer would be gone in literally minutes.
Tucked underground at Xidan (Sheedan), Beijing’s popular shopping area, is a vast restaurant space with room for at least a couple of hundred people, sitting at long tables, and surrounded on all four sides by piles of really good food and the aforementioned (not bad) lager on tap. It’s like being in some sort of Roald Dahl book. Or the Yellow Submarine. Or that scene from Magical Mystery Tour, where the aunty is fed buckets of spaghetti (if you made it that far through the movie).
Anyway….you pay your 40 kwai (slang for Yuan)  – about £4 – and sit down. Your get an individual hotpot (traditionally you share one in the middle of the table). Then you go get your raw vegetables, tofu, meat, seafood (all fresh) and several beers. Hotpot is a Northern Chinese / Mongolian thing, a continuously cooking pot of soup, flavoured in various ways. You put your vegetables , tofu and meat in bit by bit, and eat it as it cooks, dipping it in a peanut, garlic and coriander sauce. It’s very sociable, you can’t scoff your food quickly and bugger off. Bloody hell, it’s good. By the time you’ve eaten, you’re hungry again, a sure sign that you have indeed entered a new dimension. It feels like you could sit there eating forever, enjoying the surroundings of this strange new universe, with the occasional visit to the loo.

Hang on.. I think I might have talked about hotpot already……

There is a drinking culture here, but it’s nothing like back home. There are very few pubs and bars, they are all concentrated in one or two nightlife areas. No one makes a point of attending these buffet restaurants with the sole intent of guzzling the bar. Maybe I’m pointing out the obvious (again). You just couldn’t run this kind of thing in England.

Anyway, me and a bunch of (mostly Western) friends are going to go there quite soon. I hope our behaviour doesn’t make them change their ‘unlimited beer’ policy. Maybe they’ll just ban foreigners instead.

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Bella Tianjini and Gobbli Ballz

Hai He River, Tianjin

We went to Tianjin at the weekend. What a lovely beautiful place that is. About 150km from Beijing, it takes 30 minutes on the high speed train.

Shopping in Tianjin

A river runs through it, and it’s very European, very Italianate in style. Much of it is modern and designed to look old.

But some buildings are originals, remnants of colonial times. We kept trying to work out if a place was genuine old or pretend old. It was hard to tell.

It reminded me that not all Chinese cities are the same, far from it, I’d seen as much in 2008 when I went to Xian and Shanghai. Someone has been very clever in designing Tianjin. Beijing’s random, money driven skyline is about the worst of the lot. Why do I live here…?

Tianjin’s famous food is called Goubuli Baozi, which when spoken sounds like Gobbly Balls. Steamed bread dumpling, stuffed with meat and veg. Here’s a pic:

Goubuli Baozi

No Gobbly Balls for us though. We went to an Italian restaurant and ate Lasagne and Risotto.

Tianjin Eye

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Ominous Front Page Headline From Metro Beijing:

Metro Beijing, China Daily, April 13th

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Three cuttings from one edition of the China Daily (English Language edition).

Bizarre front page corner picture – No backup story, no explanation as to why:

China Daily, 24th March 2010

Can you imagine the uproar if……………………..

China Daily, 24th March 2010

And in a country where most people earn £100 – 200 a month or less, this astounding interview on page two is brazenly rubbing people’s noses in it.

China Daily, 24th March 2010

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Lost Connections

Wheelie Bin Men In Western Road

One of the things I’ve done while I’ve been out here is built a website to show most of my late father’s paintings and poems. He lived in Newton Abbot, in Devon. Formerly, he was a music teacher, and a slightly frustrated arty film maker and play-write. He died last year.

Here is the site: http://theworldofdavidstuttard.com

Scene Outside A Cinema

I forwarded the link to a few local papers in South Devon, and a couple ran articles. I also got some good responses from the art world, in particular Charles Thompson, co-founder of the Stuckists, and Mark D, a Stuckist artist and collector. What’s been amazing is how many people have since got in touch, including long lost relatives (who didn’t know he’d died), his college friends, some of my old school teachers and school friends, neighbours and acquaintances, including someone who used to babysit me, and many of the people my dad painted in the pictures. Cliche it may be – doesn’t the internet keep getting better? It becomes more and more historically liberating and revolutionary as the years go by. Philistines , away with ye!

Its a real shame my Dad never really mastered computers, despite trying.

It took a long time to photograph and crop the pictures last summer, before I left the UK. Building the website, complete with comments forum, was relatively easy, even for a  novice like me. The reason – Apple’s iWeb software has been a revelation, along with the invaluable help of this amazing website: http://iwebfaq.org
Thankyou Cedric

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Bikes, Trikes and Progress

Commuters

Welcome to China, where not wearing seat-belts, smoking in restaurants and overcrowded gigs, and cycling (sometimes motorbiking) without lights or helmets is essential behaviour. How recently were these things the norm in the UK (OK maybe not the bike lights), and how quickly we got used to the changes. These are just a few nit-picking negatives of daily life here; there are positives to go with them. Modernisation (read Westernisation) is not always good – sorry to state the obvious. In this country where food is so diverse, healthy, creative and culturally important, it’s awful to see increasing numbers of McDonalds and KFCs, and the spotty faces peering out from within.
Anyway, slight digression….  I’ve gone on about this loads already – how I often get this deja-vu feeling of Britain maybe 20 or 30 years ago – good and bad aspects. Everything is slightly less regulated, anarchic and real, meaning life and one’s senses often feel more colourful and enhanced, less sterilised. It’s more risky but more exciting in other words. In a lot of situations, society here balances on a common sense of….common sense. It generally works. Public arguing is rare, despite the overcrowded roads, pavements, buses and underground. People get on with it and each other. Despite China’s ‘big government’, regulations and small laws are maybe less to the fore in people’s minds, and less affecting on a small-scale basis, with reason and logic driving a lot of daily life. I know what I’m trying to say….

The other thing to understand is the incredible pace of change  – it’s impossible for any country to move things forward (or backwards?) completely in one generation. But that is what is being attempted. The obvious (and maybe easy) things are long established – urban development, transport,  skyscrapers, the internet, mobiles etc etc etc. What takes longer is changing the way things work, people’s every-day habits and daily lives. Spitting! A refined skill, nay, an art form I will blog about another time.

Whatever your opinion, it is impressive how the government(s – there area in fact lots of governments here) – is managing to walk the fine line between pushing modernity (again, whatever that means) too quickly, and allowing people to continue in some form of structured life that they’re used to, with little of the machinations that we get in the west when new thinking aimed at moving things on a bit, is put forward. China is bringing in social and economic change over a period of 20 or so years that took us nearer to 200. Obviously they have hindsight, and our mistakes to learn from, but that doesn’t make it a doddle.

The famous Silk Street (multi level market selling cheap fake fashion and electronics goods to tourists) has had it’s warnings; now it looks like it might be closed down. Copyright and trading laws are fast being adapted and adopted. Health and safety laws are similarly expanding rapidly. Local corruption is starting to be acknowledged and tackled…. its a big problem.

The great smoking ban, I keep being assured, will never happen here. But I was told that by a Frenchman a few years ago. It will come I am sure, and with little complaint in the end.

Lately in the media, there have been a lot of nice stories about personal environmental awareness and good eco-practise. This is no coincidence. This is an agenda, and it probably means changes and rules are a coming (maybe as a result of a few promises made at Copenhagen). As I said in an early blog, Chinese people are very energy efficient and thrifty already, with a lot of re-use and recycling going on. But this is out of necessity, rather than a fear of global warming. Now, there does seem to be some form of ‘educational’ campaign starting to get underway.

All this rapid change of course creates sharp juxtapositions. So while you have the office blocks, neon, and giant video screens, you have weather beaten guys cycling past with their wooden tricycles carrying goods or people; or horribly disfigured beggars on the underground. Or the millions of ‘migrant’ workers clambering off trains, with their belongings in cloth sacks over their shoulders.

And despite the huge number of cyclists, tricyclists, motorcyclists, motor tricyclists, (often driving the wrong way down the road or on the pavement), the huge numbers of pedestrians, the insane car driving, and despite the provision of luxuriously wide cycle roads (not just lanes) beside all major roads, I still have not seen one lit bike light, or cyclist wearing a helmet. This month, I’m buying a bike. I may need someone to ship me over a helmet and some lights if I cant find any.

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PP Live

One of the benefits of living in China is being able to watch all English Premiership football live online, using an application called PP Live. The upshot is that I’ve seen more Arsenal games this season than any other. Lucky me! I’ll just say one thing – I’ve watched football most of my life. Arsenal are an enigma, like no other side. They remain the best, most exciting,  and most frustrating side to watch.

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Stamp Collecting

March – I caught a sleeper train to Changchun. I was in a room with 5 big fat Chinese men, one of whom snored like crazy. He was in the bunk above me, and The Great Worrier thought it would collapse, he was so fat.
Got to Changchun, and remembered how cold it was. Warmer than January, but still around minus 12. Met the fiance who had gone ahead of me a few days before, and we went to the registry office, expecting to complete everything that day. China is drowning in official paperwork and red stamps. Turns out the red stamp on her “Hukou” (family book that lists your parents, siblings, and crucially what province you ‘belong’ to) was not clear enough. This meant a two hour taxi ride along the bumpy skiddy snowy roads to her home town, to get the bloody thing re-stamped. Her father had to leave his work to come and do that. Then we had a surprise family lunch, and then got the same taxi back to Changchun. Her Dad gave us a small vase that he says is Qing Dynasty (around 300 years old).  All papers in order, we arrived at the office at 3.45pm, to find that they would be closing at 4. We were able to start the process, signing this and that, going from this floor to this floor, and paying some money (28 quid) to the cashier on the 15th floor…. Then we had to go and get a hotel, half the papers done, instead of going back to Beijing. It was a very nice hotel with a big picture of Keith Richards, gypsy pose, blowing smoke into the camera in the lobby (Not seen a picture of him for a while, i wonder how old he looks now, he must be pushing 70?) We stayed in and watched The Manchurian Candidate on cable TV.

The next day we went back first thing, and signed the rest of the papers. There was a room where we had a photo taken, with a nice bunch of flowers. No we didn’t want the deluxe gilded photo album for 500Y thankyou. An old Japanese American was ‘re marrying’ his Chinese Wife, after 30 years of marraige. They had had to divorce, as their American wedding didnt count in China or Japan apparently, and get married again, as they were off to settle in Japan.
Still there were further delays for us. I don’t think I’ve signed my name so many times. They then go off and make a red marraige book for us, with tonnes of stamps in it, like a passport. They like books here. More stamps.
We needed a certified English translation of the document, and were feeling like we wanted more red stamps for our collection. We were asked which “kind” we needed. No idea. We went for the cheapest. That was going to take a further three hours, plus a lunch break for the officer.

Off we went to find the Pizza Hut I had seen by the train station. Excellent pizza. We sat there for over two hours. They had free top ups of fresh coffee.
Buzzed up on caffeine, we went back to get our translation. All done, March 17th, St Patrick’s Day I believe.
Went and got the train tickets (20 minute queue outside, icicle on my nose), 6 hour ride back to Beijing (wife feeling very ill, too much cheese, coffee and cake), argued with a taxi driver at Beijing who wanted to rip us off, made it back to our block 2 minutes before midnight, when the lift man signs off and you have to walk up 18 flights of stairs.

It feels good to be married!

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Dumplings, Shock and Awe, and Jimmy Tarbuck

Chinese New Year

We moved into our new flat in Fuxingmen in February. It’s pronounced Fooshingmun, and ‘men’ means gate, or door.  Metro Line 2 is like London’s circle line, and nearly all of its stops end in ‘men’. Next stop is Fuchengmen. Viz readers should live around line 2. These ‘men’ are the old gates to the city. In the middle you have Tiananmen, which roughly translates as Gate of Heavenly Peacemaking, although its a slightly different meaning to the literal gates around the Viz line. Of course Beijing has grown far beyond this old border now, but the road layout and place names still show the history.

Our new home is on the 18th floor, and we were just in time: Chinese New Year arrived, with shock and awe resembling Baghdad ’03. I’d been here the year before for New Year, and I knew how much the Chinese like to let off fireworks. But I was low down in the Hutongs then – this time I had a great view across the city. The fireworks lasted for two days without a single letup, and then on and off for the rest of the week. The night time sky was orange, and the noise was incredible. Some were going off nightly and daily (why???) right outside our window. The Great Worrier thought the glass was going to give in at any moment.

Chinese Dumplings

Traditional new year food is Chinese Dumplings. Along with Hot-Pot (too good, needs a book written about it) these really should make an appearance in the UK, and kill the image of Chinese food as nothing but greasy noodles, egg fried rice and prawn crackers. I don’t know where that UK Chinese takeaway food comes from. Not had anything remotely like it here yet, that’s for sure.

The Chinese 'Tarby' (Zhao Ben Shan - not really anything like Tarby at all)

The dumplings are not English style dumplings, they are more like large Italian Ravioli I guess, with a multitude of excellent fillings. You stand around a table covered in flour, making them together, talking about the weather or the price of tofu, pinching the sides to seal them up like little cornish pasties. Then they are fried or steamed, and you dip them in soy sauce, chilli and vinegar. Or ketchup and brown sauce if that’s your thing. Then you just keep eating. When you finish eating, you cook some more and eat them. When they are done well, they’re addictive. Tried to buy frozen ones. No good.
When the day’s eating is finally over, like all good family festivals, you sit round the telly for some good wholesome entertainment. In the evening there are huge variety gala shows live on TV, featuring comedy sitcoms performed on stage, with singing, dancing and magicians. Not really my thing, and not just ‘cos I can’t speak Chinese. It all looked a bit dated to me, but the staging is impressive, the numbers of performers make it some operation.  Its very popular. I am assured that it is required viewing, a tradition just like Xmas Wizard of Oz once was. Maybe Saturday night with Jim Tarbybruce and the London Paladium is a more apt comparison, although I’m sure the jokes are better.

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Power And Enlightenment

A couple more things from near the start of the year. There is religion here, many Buddhists (I know that’s not technically a religion), some devout Christians and large Muslim populations concentrated in certain areas.  But religion does not enter government or society thinking as a whole, the way it still does a little in the UK, or a lot in Iran. You go about you life, and it can feel the most modern, rational, light-hearted, open and tolerant of places  (apart from the daily reminders of the Facebook / Youtube / Google redirection thing – but they are kind of abstract). There is a perception of complete freedom on one level, and very admirable levels of equality for men and women. The religious restrictions of places like Saudi Arabia, and even the idea of religion in general, baffle my wife, and a lot of people here.

What you do have here are officials; party members and police chiefs. Just like countries with high levels of religious interference and governance, these guys sometimes have their own whims, likes and dislikes. Sometimes they like to flex their likes and dislikes, and you can be suddenly jolted back into reality.

I was told (I wasn’t there) that a (Western calendar) New Year’s Eve outdoor rock gig in Sanlitun, Beijing, had the plug pulled half way through, after some local bigwig took exception to a female punk singer who dared to lift her skirt up on stage (no precise details I’m afraid). He flexed his municipal muscle, and closed the show on the spot, telling everyone to go home. It was just before midnight. Many people had gone there for a party. Quietly go home everyone did. Can you imagine – Glasgow, London, anywhere – the riots that would have ensued.
On a similar vein, the much anticipated Mr Gay China event had the plug pulled one hour before by the police, with vague reasons of  taste and decency being put forward. The show was the first event of its kind here, and it had gained national and  international attention in the run up. It was virtually underway, with people arriving.

It wouldn’t surprise me if these things are actually done so close to time for effect. Maybe even heightened by bravado stirring inside Mr Municipal Muscle, brought on by the buzz of crowds, and possibly some alcohol intake. Just to show off the power he can actually wield. Why cancel an event weeks before, when you can make a bigger splash doing it on the night?

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Apologies and Tiger Parts

A bit of retrospective blogging again…. Back in January we were still living in Tongzhou, and my first 90 day visit visa was about to expire.  Alongside your visa, once you enter China, you are supposed to register at your local Police station as a foreigner. It’s called a registration of temporary residence. It runs concurrent to the visa, and therefore expires at the same time. So while I was out of China sorting out my second visa, my police registration expired. When I returned, there had been a phone call asking my wife whether I was still here. She was told we should go to get a new one when I arrived back.
You’re supposed to do this within 24 hours of arrival, although a lot of people let it slip. We went a couple of days after I landed – I was sleepy and it was cold! We were told that there was normally a fine for missing the renewal date, but if I wrote an apology to the Tongzhou Police Chief – “here – in this part of the form” – they would let me off.

This I did, in blue pen and best handwriting. I wish I had taken a picture. A number of thoughts went through my head then and since:
Could I have written anything? Such as “piss off, wanker”; or “IN the west, we DON’T allow you coppers to take power trips like THIS.” Certainly not much English was spoken in those parts. And does the Police Chief really sit back with his feet up at the end of a hard day, with his brandy and cigar, reading through the apologies?

At the time, I felt annoyed – “I am truly sorry Sir I will not do it again” were I believe, my very words. I smirked and huffed as I wrote.

Further reflections (and discussions with people here) have slightly, though not totally changed my angle. For a start, as a local police chief, he probably doesn’t earn much. He’s probably not had much access to the luxuries I’ve enjoyed in my life. It’s easy to forget these details when you are surrounded by what looks like a modern Western city (a theme I keep banging on about). This would not happen in the UK. Or would it? Would there be any flexibility? I havn’t had the experience of being a foreigner in the UK, so I’m not sure, but I reckon you might just get the fine slapped on you, threatened with deportation, or maybe even bullied by some bored officials. Whatever, I’m sure it couldn’t be waved off with a discretionary written apology that no one will read. Secondly, this highlights a major difference in culture. If you try to ditch the anger over writing a pointless apology to someone who’s never going to read it, try to think outside the box, you can possibly view this as quite sweet and quaint, quite a pleasant way of doing things. Maybe? The Chinese mostly accept this as a valid process. You make a mistake, or break a minor rule, you say sorry to the man in charge. What’s worse – saying sorry in 20 seconds, or paying a fine to some faceless system? Most importantly (and very important to the Chinese), you havn’t lost any money, or much time.

But the bowing to hierarchy thing, the requirement to show shame, does nonetheless feel alien and uncomfortable to me, especially as someone who’s attended one or two demonstrations in my time. I’ve seen it in other situations too, such as job applications which I’ve helped translate.

The non-religious concept of ‘shame’ here is similar-but-different to the religious concept of ‘sin’ in the west. It makes me sure that Christian values of sin, confession, repentance, and forgiveness were social control factors bolted onto religion, rather than theological teachings. Bla-de blah.

Around the same time as all this, I was in Guomao, one of the main transport hubs in South East Beijing, and home to a skyline of international finance, and many an expat. There are a lot of street sellers, usually tourist stuff and jewellery. It was the run up to Chinese New Year, year of the Tiger. Straight off the bus, I walked past an African man, speaking perfect Chinese, selling genuine bits of real tiger, all laid out on a cloth in front of him. I had the urge to kick up a fuss (again), I really wanted to remonstrate with him. Or maybe take the coward’s way out, and find a policeman, who would have no doubt done nothing about it at all. It is illegal to sell these things here, but it sadly still goes on due to popular demand. The pace and push of modernisation is phenomenal, and this kind of thing will gradually go away, as it becomes seen as old fashioned, superstitious and pointless (it already is by the young generation).
I compromised and stared the guy out with my most scornful of stares. Did he know why I was staring? Probably…. He stared back, while continuing to mutter his sales patter, and I stayed out of his reach – one of the paws he was holding had rather sharp claws.

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Trees A Crowd

Qianmen Street

Hu's He?

Amazing sunny weather in Beijing. Beautiful warm air, after months of cold. It changed really quick, now i find I don’t have enough T shirts.
Hu Jin Tao has been out planting trees, in an attempt to hold back the desert to the west. It was the lead item on one of the news bulletins, while 115 Shangxi miners were eating tree bark and waiting to be rescued after a week underground. Even Hu and his spade had to be moved down the running order when they made it out a day later.

Fuxingmen Beidajie

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