Tag Archives: Beijing

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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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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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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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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