Saturday, October 29, 2005

Photography and Beijing

Well i'm well into my spell of time here, and the number of photos i've taken aren't as great in number or quality as I would like. Film is also hard to come by - if we're talking anythiing that is half decent.The processing, as you've heard me mention before no doubt, is dubious. That's a big problem in China, there is no consistency in quality of many things - film processing included!

On thursday, I trekked across the city and back today determined to find a place that develops B&W. Having been to a kodak place that told me it did B&W to find that they actually couldn't, I was not too pleased. However, i half expected this, as it's China. Fortunately, the people phoned around and found me a place that does it! Another subway ride later, and havinf forked out 38 yuan, I now possess a ticket that tells me I will have a new set of prints on tuesday. Oh yes....the fun. What odds will you offer me that something goes wrong in the processing? :o

Encouraged by finding a developer, today I went off to find B&W film of a decent quality (i.e. not 100ASA chinese stuff). Tipped off by a post on, I hiked a fair distance from a subway stop to a reputable photo shop. And good they were - except for the fact that they didn't have any 35mm B&W - only Medium Format stuff! However, as before, they found me a place that did sell it, and after another small slog, I found an amazing photo shop with more film than I could shake a stick at. Fuji, Kodak and Ilford all present in all their most popular films - including, thank god, HP5 400! It was on special offer to boot (much cheaper than enland too), so now I have a couple of rolls chilling in my fridge, ready for the day when inspiration strikes me :D Now we just have to wait for Tuesday and my 1st roll to come back from the developers'.

Thursday, October 27, 2005


Since i can't access my own blog here, I haven't been able to read any messages left on the site - if there are any. I'm going to try and re-route the messages to my email somehow!

Monday, October 24, 2005

The Great Cabbage Incident

Hello everyone. Pete has reluctantly allowed me to publish my thoughts under his URL. I assisted him with a couple of previous entries, but I felt that my creativity (read: compulsion to discuss minutiae) was stifled along with my atrocious American spelling: theater, color, honor, neighbor.

Pete has yet to share with you what we will now call The Wu Mart Cabbage Massacre (known as The Wu Mart Cabbage Incident within the PRC). Wu Mart is our not-so-friendly neighborhood supermarket. One morning Pete and I went there before class to get some breakfast, and we found swarms of elderly Chinese waiting for the store to open its doors. These Chinese pensioners had probably been awake since 4 am, and I imagine they were just so disillusioned that a supermarket would open as scandalously late as 8 in the morning. They were all so eager. It was as if Kenny G* himself were about to descend from heaven to grace the produce section at Wu Mart with dulcet tones of maddening longevity.

The store finally opened and we watched the pensioners push and shove their way down the escalator. Why? Cabbage was on sale. 7 mao (1p) a head. It was cutthroat competition to get a good head. Cabbage was flying everywhere. Cabbage was being torn out of the hands of old women and unsuspecting workers. Perhaps when Hobbes wrote of the life of man being nasty, brutish, and short he was witnessing a sale on Chinese produce.

*American, Soprano Saxophone soft jazz musician known for his ability to hold very high notes for a very long time. For some reason he is extremely popular in China.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

The Real Beijing

Laure, yesterday, invited us out for tea at a traditional Chinese teahouse. We arrived at Tiananmen West only slightly late due to subway inefficiency (which should take up an entire post by itself). We found our choice of two tea houses outside the west gate of the Forbidden City: one plastered with TEA and COFFEE signs, with four bored waitresses attending eagerly at the door; the other, seemingly closed. We went for the obvious choice, which was in fact open.

We sat down in our own secluded booth, screened from our neighbours (had there been any) by wooden lattice-work. The waitress brought us a tea menu that had been written on a fan. We ordered Longjing Cha - Dragon Well Tea - a famous green tea. After some initial confusion whereupon we were served a plate of deep fried broad beans, we eventually got our platter of pistachios!

Laure remarked about how she felt that she was experiencing the real China, which got us talking. What is the real China? The China that tourists expect waned long ago, or more likely never existed. There may not be a single authentic teahouse left in all of Beijing, a city once famed for its teahouses, where they fulfilled a social function similar to that of a pub. The teahouses you can find today are either over-the-top stark and modern destinations for the nouveaux riches, or twee antiquified places that exist to siphon money from tourists' pockets.

What are we looking for in the real Beijing? Imperial palaces (complete with emperors); whimsical gardens; kungfu experts demonstrating their talents on the street; teahouses filled with businessmen and mah-jong players; pedlars hawking their wares from bamboo shoulder-poles; city walls and gates; temples shrouded in incense smoke; thriving hutong communities; millions of bicycles at rush hour; men in Mao jackets (which are here called Sun Yat-sen jackets) - none of these exist. So why do we keep looking for them?

Saturday, October 22, 2005


Authoritarian regimes and freedom of expression in art don't seem to be happy bedfellows, you would think. However, tucked away on an abandoned industrial plant still smothered in fading "Long Live Chairman Mao!" slogans, in NE Beijing, lies 798 Gongchang (factory), an unexpected artistic community that appears to be doing very well for itself.

Sitting between industrial ruins and abandoned dormitories are many small independent artists' studios, design companies, film studios, and even an art college (a student of which decided to film us for the entire time we were in his school). The creations on display are drawn from many different artistic fields: pottery and clay sculpture; photography; contemporary painting; clothing; furniture and furnishings. One installation consisted of an entire room filled with artifacts hoarded by the artists' mother over the course of her lifetime - the centrepiece of which was the wooden skeleton of the house in which she had kept it.

I was pleased to find a good deal of photography on display, the majority of which was good indeed. One series of photographs in particular, by Cang Xin, left me very amused, featuring him standing next to a series of "brides" in their underwear while he was wearing their wedding dresses.
Here's one for example, though the image is quite poor in quality (sorry). Predictably, there were many photos of the Great Wall and scenic/not so scenic parts of the country. Gritty industrial landscapes sat next to formal protraits of buddhist monks and images of the XinJiang deserts.

Some of the art would not have pleased the late Chairman; comical statues of Mao, giant Mao shirts, Mao shaped punch-bowls were all present. In fact, the whole place seemed uncensored. As the media here are so tightly governed by the state, it was quite refreshing to see this. However, the freedom of expression here also explains why this place is hidden away in the middle of the industrial estate: the state knows exactly where they are and can pay a visit whenever they want.

Traditional Chinese arts were quite well represented at 798, including traditional clothing with a modern twist, embroidered silk paintings, calligraphy and even laquerware. The laquerware was particularly good, and all handmade. There are boxes, trays, vases, bowls and tableware all fashioned from tree sap built up over a wooden mould in layers of red and black. So of the designs carved into the laquerware were strikingly modern - both geometric and organic patterns- and very pleasing to the eye, and sat well with the more traditionally engraved wares beside them.

Between the studios were several small but well designed (well they would be!) bars and restaurants. Even though it is a chilly autumn day they were not short of customers.

It was great to see such a thriving and well patronised art scene here, and they're especially brave to produce some of the work they do in the face of the power they seek to attack with it.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

The state of healthcare

Today i decided to go out and get some medicine as my illness that started on monday had not got any better. Having consulted with my personal physician, I was recommended an antibiotic to buy. So off I headed to a big pharmacy in Wangfujin, where I had bought medicine in the past.

In 2001, when mum and dad came to visit me, we went to this same drug store and found many interesting things on sale - including intravenous chemotherapy drugs - over the counter. At that time we purchased antibiotic courses for very little money or effort!

The shop assistant was very helpful and proffered an eng-chi medical dictionary to check the exact drug name, and we even got as far as to establish the exact dosage and price before the shop assistant realised that, these days, a prescription is needed! (shock horror - drug control?!) This could have been the start of a very long day and lots of hassle. However, all was not lost, as a senior assistant came over and said, in broken english, that she had "a doctor over here". Slightly worried that she had mistranslated, she showed me a grey plastic box, which fortunately turned out to be a videophone. There then followed a 3 minute chat with a Chinese doctor (in Chinese) about my condition, followed by her approval of the drug chosen. The script was faxed over to the pharmacy, I signed it, paid and took my pills. All this (1 week's course of Ciproxin and a consultation) for less than the cost of a single bus ticket from Headington to Oxford (12 Yuan - less than £1).

It's surprising little things like this that make me wonder if China might actually pull it off. Even if it doesn't - what a handy system; and no need for a GP appointment!

Clean air? Act!

The wind's picked up and the pollution of the past few days has lifted, enabling us to see to the horizon. The temperature has dropped though!

It's funny, but every time the fog lifts, it seems as if there is a new high rise in the cityscape that wasn't there before. Construction undercover perhaps?

As it's such a nice day it will be good to get out and breathe some fresh(ish) air!

Tuesday, October 18, 2005


I seem to be suffering from some nasty bug, picked up - I believe, at a western restaurant on campus. That'll teach me not to stick to Chinese food. (No i's not bird flu....touch wood). Funnily enough there's not been anything in the media here about bird flu in China, though I would be extremely surprised if there weren't some cases. Though they would have us cancel our trips to Greece for holiday.

Happily, I am able to get Radio 4 here over the internet, which is a bonus. I'm just hoping that no one notices we can get it and decides to block off the website!

Another glorious space mission has been completed by the glorious PRC, with the safe return of their glorious astronauts (or Taikonauts as some are branding them [from the Chinese for space Tai Kong, or great emptiness]), with another manned flight planned in 2 years time. I do wonder about the amount of money going into this project that is not going to, say, improve health or education in greatly impoverished areas. The overall economy is apparently going to improve greatly after this though.

On other fronts, i've been told that there will be a cold air mass moving down into Beijing from XinJiang during this week, so things are set to be a lot cooler, with a predicted -3 at night in the offing.

Monday, October 17, 2005


I forgot to say my bike was stolen a while ago, from right infront of our our building to boot!

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Flagrant hills

Ah such a nice morning I though - let's gather a posse and head up into them there Fragrant Hills - it being the time of year for going to the aformentioned park to "look at red leaves" (direct translation). Posse duly gathered, we got onto the bus, little knowing of the arduous journey that lay ahead.

The Fragrant Hills park lies to the North West of Beijing, not too far from the Summer Palace (Yi He Yuan) and Old Summer Palace (Yuan Ming Yuan), and was part of the slew of Imperial pleasure grounds that stretched across the hills in that area. It is definitely a) not far and b) not difficult to get to, though today's journey seemed otherwise.

Whent he bus pulled up at the stop, everyone knew it was going to be one of those journeys. A one-and-a-half length bendy-bus (not a latin verb) that had seen better days was ram-packed full of sweaty commuters and sightseers; nonetheless, after a littel goading and prodding, the conductor managed to make room for all of us inbetween the obese man and the obviously sick and coughing man; but at least we were off. Five minutes down the road, we entered the traffic jam that would not stop until we reached the access road to the gate of the park. Some traffic jam, considering we started many kilometres from the destination.

To cut a long story short, our heroes endured 1.5 hours of standing (except for Melissa who was offered a seat by the obese man after he found he could not fit in it), being coughed over, being crushed by sweaty unwashed masses, children vomiting and the aftereffects thereof and the tedium of the tortoise pace of the traffic.

The jam was so bad becuase of several factors: the 1000 extra cars on the Beijing roads each day; the fact that everyone thought they'd take said cars to the Fragrant Hills for fun today; the narrow and potted roads and finally broken down buses.

In the end, everyone on the bus got out and walked when we were within a mile or so of the front gate. It was a truly sweaty and horrible experience, and a good example of why people should invest in anti-perspirant deodourant companies in China before they come onto the market here.

However, I had a good long chat with Laure about the state of the nation. Not that this cheered either of us up much!

Remarkably, on the way out of the park, I saw that someone had managed to get a Humvee up to the gates. I didn't realise that Humvees were sold here - but if they are and they take off, they alone could be the sole main cause of air pollution in Beijing within a short period of time!

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Blue Sky Days

2 posts in one day, aren't you all lucky?

I saw on the news recently that Beijing authorities are worried that the city might not meet its quota of 'blue sky days' this year. That is to say, days when you can see the sky, and not smog. The quota seems to be 150something days a year, if memory serves. However, the pollution this year has been pretty bad, and the number of blue skies I've seen here could be counted on my digits.

It seems to me that the overriding factor in having a blue sky day or not here is nothing to do with the number of cars on the road, or chimneys heating centralised hot water, but the wind. Every time the wind blows, the smog clears - as has happened today. So why on earth is this policy in place if it relies solely on the weather? It could well be just another pointless target for the government to crow about how great China is over when reached.

Speaking of pollution, it seems that this Grorious Nation(tm) has again strapped living beings to an ICBM and shot them into space. All hush hush until the morning of the launch here (which I suspect happened a day earlier...), when we were bombarded with 'live' coverage of the blast-off. Now that they're up there, how will they come down? That's not my department...(insert own Tom Lehrer gag here)

Autumn, what autumn?

The night time temp had plummeted into single figures, but the peak daytime temps still reach over 20. I'm not sure what's going on exactly.

Last night I had an interesting dinner - an old Chinese classmate from SOAS invited me and our fellow SOAS student Laure out for hotpot. At the dinner table were the curator of the new art museum in the Forbidden City, Professor Whitfield (Chinese art) from SOAS, another SOAS art PhD and a Chiense art auctioneer as well as our friend, who is also in antiques. So no guesses as to the nature of dinner table conversation. The hotpot was quite delicious - the best i've had.

I was saddened to hear about the politicking at SOAS, it seems that they too are suffering from hatchetmen. A new librarian was hired, who apparently has no knowledge of East Asian languages, along with a new director. Between them they tried to sack all the specialist librarians, but only managed ot fire two of them (the others getting off because their contracts were from pre 1996 and therefore different in style).

The reaction to this has been 19 senior staff resignations, and the severance of funding from the Japan Foundation and the Korea Foundation, amongst other things. However, they are not yielding.

It sounds like Durham all over again.

Monday, October 10, 2005


It's back up and running again - but for how long? Get on skype to talk to me while you have the opportunity!

Thursday, October 06, 2005

More walls

In a desperate bid to find something of old Beijing, we went, today, to the Ming dynsaty observatory, and the Ming Dynasty wall park in the SE of the old city. So walls galore were found and climed - albeit a sad remnant of the once massive city encompassing feature it once was. Still, it was interesting to get inside the corner tower - the building inside is deceptively large. There are photos and video to get the gist of it which i will put on my mac and send on to you.

Also, on a positive front, I have found Hawthorn berries on sticks again - huzzah! This is a real tasty treat taht i've never found outside of China. The sour haws are covered in sugar which isn't too great for my teeth, but quite the opposite for my pallette.

School starts again on Monday :(

Tuesday, October 04, 2005


This week as I might have mentioned is National Holiday week - so no school. We've been out and about treating ourselves to alittle (western) luxury. I had a 15 Yuan haircut which is not too bad at all, where Melissa managed to find a Tony & Guy's which cut her hair for 108 Yuan (About £8). We also found an expat supermarket near Ritan park which had a good supply of wine, at not too exorbitant prices.

Today we visited Walmart where I found a winter jacket for a very good price (159 yuan - better value than the markets) and also some accoutrements for daily life, such as a knife and some victuals. However, the best part was that there was a bus that dropped us back home for free laid on by the company itself!

So now all i need to survive the winter is a hat...

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Things aren't that simple really

As is oft the case in China, things don't always go smoothly. Things that we take for granted in the west can prove to be real battles of will and effort to complete. As soon as the internet people had left on thursday, teh internet stopped working in my room. Now it's National Day holiday, and there is 7 days of no work. Thus i'm back to square one for a while...

I could restate my beliefs on the face/content argument here but i'm sure you're all sick of it!

Someone needs to teach them about consumerism.