Tag Archives: Tongzhou

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:


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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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Life On Mars

Outdoor snooker tables, mid-winter, Tongzhou

December……More on Tongzhou……we found three huge indoor vegetable markets within five minutes of our estate. You spend under £4 and get bag fulls of veg , eggs(loose) and fresh un-packaged tofu in many a flavour and texture (loose and cut to size in front of you), plus a big beer, some cakes and 2 magnum ice creams. These things never cease to please me.

Modern technology aside, the whole thing here keeps haphazardly calling up random hazy memories of Britain in the 70s. There are all sorts of things popping into my brain that I’d forgotten about. Of course central Beijing has the usual trappings, over designed DJ bars and overpriced coffee houses … restaurants where the emphasis is on image and gimmicks, rather than food.
Tongzhou is grimy, a bit tatty, the pavements are uneven, the overhead cables are a mess. But so many things here and in China as a whole run in a way that we’ve maybe forgotten about in the west – fresh, loose food, money back on bottles (a free beer for every 7 empties you take back), conductors on the buses and trains, cheap cheap subsidised public transport, bins emptied daily, stairs and street cleaning daily, pump attendants at garages, assistants on every aisle at the supermarket or department store (and you can only pay at the dedicated cashiers desk, which is separate from the sales assistant – all very Grace Brothers, and rather funny when the cashier is 5 feet from the vendor), all sorts of ways you can refill and re-use rather than buying again and throwing away… and people seem pretty happy. Markets are there seven days a week – they don’t just crop up on Saturdays and Sundays. They are central to local life.
So far, it’s not all driven by profit maximization and automated phone options. There are too many people willing to work the most menial of jobs. But it cant be far away…. It’s here now,  in the glamorous centres of Beijing, Shanghai and other cities, and it’s spreading outwards rapidly.

There was this strange calling noise from outside the flat one day – turned out it was the knife sharpener man on his bike. The knife sharpener! I’d completely forgotten about him. In fact I’d forgotten the whole concept of sharpening knives. Dormant memories flashed up again out of nowhere.
I might have lived a sheltered existence as a soft southerner in London for a long time, but the last time i remember such a man coming round our street with his little machines, was when I was small, in the 1970s.

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I arrived in Beijing on November 1st 2009 in a blizzard. It was freezing cold with about 5 feet of visibility. Hats off to the pilot, whether he be auto or human. The plane then stayed on the tarmac for ages. Why, I wondered? The Western paranoia and butterflies kicked in straight away, stoked by nytol and beer intake on the ten hour flight, which had helped me get exactly zero hour’s sleep and made my brain feel like a duvet. Were papers being shuffled already,  shifty looking leather coat wearing officers gathering in small offices, passenger lists being perused…

Just sudden unexpected snow of course. And a queue of planes taxi-ing along while armies of workers scoop up the snow in front of them.

The snow has been on and off since. Until mid March, it was well under 0 degrees most days. For three months, we lived in Tongzhou, which is a suburb in South East Beijing, about 30 minutes away from town. It’s developing quickly, buildings going up everywhere, trendy western style hairdressers offering the outrageous shoreditch mullets appearing by the minute. I was literally the only foreigner in the area, judging by the stares. More on staring later.

Kids doing outdoor exercises in the local School

We had a nice warm and spacious flat, with a decadent red sofa. There was an infant school by our block with a booming PA system that played “Doe A Deer…” every day at full volume at about 10 am, while the tiny kids did side step routines in lines like penguins, all wearing huge eskimo coats. This was followed by kids singing karaoke, at the same volume. Meanwhile a rooster would join in, wandering about outside, belting it out with no regard for the local jobless sat at home trying to drink coffee…
One of the strangest and nicest things to see here are the old people outside everywhere, looking seriously fit and healthy, exercising on the outdoor gym facilities that line most pavements and estates,  line dancing in the public squares, doing Tai Chi or some kind of slow motion sword fighting, and playing outdoor ping pong . There’s always a doubles game going, gramps v grannies, all in duffle coats. This remains one of the most striking differences between China and the West. It’s not that there aren’t generation gaps, but old people aren’t scared, or hiding away in front of their TVs. They’re out there and in your face, being loud and sociable and enjoying themselves. Whatever the reasons, young people are totally respectful, there is literally no anti-social behavior or even a hint of aggression of any kind.

I joined a badminton group, all Chinese. They were mostly a seriously amazing standard, i kind of just about held my own, but I’ve never hurt so much. I used to think I was a good badminton player. Badminton and ping pong are big in China (obvious fact for you there).

Yunhe Park, Tongzhou

The local hotpot restaurant by our block was fantastic, we became regulars – dinner and beer for £3 each, who can blame us? Hotpot is popular in China. It comes from the North and Mongolia, and somehow doesn’t seem to have made the same leap across Russia and into Britain the way Chicken Chow Mein has. Maybe it’s the western health and safety thing…you get a lit gas flame or electric hotplate  in the middle of your table, and a big pot, sometimes with more than one compartment, with different flavours of stock. Then you order your vegetables, tofu and meat, which is all delivered raw. You bung it in bit by bit, and eat it while it’s cooking, with some dipping sauces. I could eat this literally every day. Unfortunately you need a bit of free time, it takes a while, but it’s very sociable to eat like this.

Tongzhou was a great place. Clean air, blue skies. Cheap and honest. It had everything right at hand. Hardly any need to go into Beijing.

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