Friday, December 30, 2005

You leave the country unattended for 5 minutes....

...and exciting things start to happen. After the sacking of their editor, fo rbeing a bit liberal, there's been a mass walkout at a Beijing newspaper, the Beijing News (one that I often read). Beijingers protesting? Whatever next?

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Fragrant Harbour

Well here I am installed in HK, and what a city it is too. Compared to Beijing, briefly, this place feels alive and buzzing. I can't get over how vertical the city is - everything goes up from a tiny footprint, and it has to be a tiny footprint too with the minute amount of land available on the side of the mountain. Needless to say, i'm having a fantastic time exploring the city, although my mobile phone has died on me and now will only respond to the on/off button :(

More singing of HK's praises and photos upon my return.

Sam Neen Fai Lok!

Xin Nian Kuai Le!

Monday, December 26, 2005


This Blog ought to be entitled for the next few days as that is where we're off to to celebrate New Year. It's a very exciting prospect, having never been to HK before and I'm greatly looking forward to it.

Hopefully I'll have time to access this when I get there, but if not, happy new year to you all!

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Stocking filler

Guess what I got for Christmas? Well, it's something small, handy and light that every boy who is soon to return to his native land needs. A penknife? No. A dictionary? Not right either. I hope these photos below clarify the matter. Any idea how to get it home? Answers on a postcard...

Friday, December 23, 2005

Twas the night before Christmas

China seems to have got one thing right about the run-up to Christmas, that we in the West have very wrong, and that is the timing of the appearance of Christmas decorations in the shops. Unlike British decoration that seems to appear two weeks after it was put away, the baubles, lights and fake plastic santas don't make a show until about a week and a half before Christmas. However, when they do appear they make up for their absence by sheer number and gaudiness.

The piped christmas music is especially bad. Those of you who have been to China and heard the choice melodies that are thrown at our ears through supermarket speakers may have an idea of what it's like. The general selection is either western carols being murdered, with or without Chinese lyrics and with lots of lalala-ing in the gaps where words won't fit, or a few christmas songs being hammered out on someone's child's Casio keyboard while experimenting with all the novel voices. Sitting in Yoshinoya's the other day (a Japanese fast food chain), we endured a particularly excruciating version of "Joy to the World" on keyboard being blasted through the shop speakers. Recorded by someone with little regard for musical timing, and who seemed to think that the "whistle" voice was just the thing for the tune, it was really, err, unique.

Well I'm off to do some last minute Christmas shopping for a few essentials (wine, wrapping paper etc. etc.). I wish you all a very merry Christmas, free from canned music!


It seems that this new chemical spill has been stopped by the use of a dam. It seems that a large quantity of Cadmium was depostited in the river by a state-owned smelting plant. The plan is to dilute the levels of cadmium until they are safe. Another state owned enterprise in a spillage disaster, hmmm.

On a linguistic point, there seems to be a touch of "the HIV Virus" and "WTO Organisation" to the reports in the west - the slick having happened in the "Bei Jiang River". So, the Bei River River. Interesting name, no?

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Spills and Thrills

Another week, another chemical spillage. This time in the south, near Guang Dong, details in the Chinese media so far are 0, having heard about it over the internet on Radio 4. Also, the usual tricks for accessing foreign news sites don't seem to be work ing so well at the moment. Therefore, you are all probably more clued up on it than I am!

EDIT: Good news, I can access the BBC again, and heres a link.

Thrill-wise, we spent the day in the Forbidden City. Having wanted to photograph it in the snow, and waited patiently for the snow to fall, I finally decided that it wasn't going to happen and that we should go regardless. So, I've taken lots of video and photos of the old relic - which is undergoing restoration bit by bit. It's looking very nice indeed, but I hope they can pick up the pace to have it done by 2008 - repainting the largest palace in the world is no small effort. Anyway - please enjoy the rather garish new paint and some classic FC scenes below.

Monday, December 19, 2005

New winter sports for the 2006 Olympics

The Chinese are getting practise in for the addition of frozen-lake-swimming to the Turin Games next year. Rather them than me.

This icy pool is Hou Hai, which is swum in all year round it seems. I don't know which season i'd rather not swim in it in. When the water isn't icy enough to preserve you for future generations to find, it's covered in scum and bits of rubbish. Usually a pleasant deep green soupy colour and consistency, it is at the moment even more difficult to swim through - hence the chap pushing ice out of the swimming area in this pic. I worry for his health.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

From a Korean point of view

I thought i'd share with you China through the eyes of one of my Korean classmates, who also has some interesting stories to tell. Like most of us foreign students her life isn't 100% sweetness and light here...

One incident she found extremely frustrating happened while buying fruit. After choosing her fruit, she asked how much it would be, to which the vendor replied with a figure that well over the odds.
"Why so much?"
"Because you are Korean, and these fruit come from Korea, you should pay the Korean price for them." "But we're in China, not Korea." "Still that's the price. Do you want them?" Feeling the xenophobic attitude oozing out of the man she replied "If you don't want to sell them to me, why did you even bother offering?".

This incident was compounded further by the mindless comment of out conversation teacher when told about it. "why don't you put more make up on when going to buy fruit then?". Subsequently told that this was an excercise in buying fruit, not a night out on the town, she still didn't seem to see a problem.

So, it's not just westerners who are the brunt of the xenophobia, even people from other Asian countries are regarded as walking purses and opportunity for extracting as much money as possible. Even in the most basic daily activities this is what we have to face when intereacting with some people. Sometimes it makes me glad i'm going home soon.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Hospital Fire

A Hospital Fire broke out killing many in the NE of China near Chang Chun. It's not been said when this happened, but I assume it was yesterday or before as this rank statement that was released then came out:

"Also on Thursday, China's Ministry of Public Security reported that from January to November there had been 222,000 accidental fires in China, resulting in more than 2,000 deaths, Xinhua said."

A pretty tragic figure, but with a country so large, it's hard to enforce universal safety standards.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Not a one line bulletin.

I've been light on the updates this week, slacking off with one liners and not much input. So here's a text heavy entry.

Christmas is coming! Huzzah! I don't know if you've ever tried to celebrate Christmas abroad and yet do so in an fashion akin to your home country, but it's not always easy to find somehting suitable. Having talked to a friend who is teaching English in Japan and found that she will be reduced to a chicken based ready meal - that being the nearest thing to turkey - I don't feel too bad about being in Beijing. So what shall we do to pass the festive season?

I could follow what I did last time, I thought, and spend the weekend at the Ice festival in Harbin, and have Christmas dinner - including turkey - at the Holiday Inn there. However, something came along and put paid to that in the form of a petrochemical plant explosion. Ok, let's think again...

There's goose on offer at the chain of German restaurants here, for a price of course. And what about going to a hotel here for a Chirstmas dinner? Well, there are two small issues here. Number one is that each dinner costs in the region of £70, or 900 odd Yuan au moins, soaring up to over 1500 Yuan for all-you-can-drink-champagne (they really know how to target expat markets). Secondly, all these festivities seem to be planned for December the 24th. Now, I don't know if the hotels all bought the same calendars (made in China...) this year, upon which might have been the mistake that December the 24th was in fact Christmas Day , or if they cannot be bothered to work at the weekend and so made Christmas a day early, but I think someone ought to tell them.

So far our plans for an alternative christmas include ice-skating, Japanese delicacies courtesy of Beard Papa, Italian food and an afternoon of chocolate.

Sounds good so far.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Popular Discontent

This is well worth a read. This protest open letter is a rare occurance, and exposes those complaining to the potential wrath of the state. It would be interesting to see what happens next, especially as this letter calls for democracy in China - and if minds are cast back to 1989 we all remember how the state reacted to pleas then. However, that was a long time ago, and this letter will be a test to see how far the state has opened up and changed since that time.

Monday, December 12, 2005

The Machine Starts

Things seem to be taking off here in terms of finding people responsible for the coal mine accident. It's a start, but what's next in terms of improving mine safety?

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Incident Update

Well it seems someone's in trouble for their actions at that riot. The police officer in charge has been detained. Police misconduct is the given reason for the deaths. Progress, I hope. However, I do still wonder where the order to fire came from?

Saturday, December 10, 2005

The speed of news

Bad news travels fast, they say, but not so here in China. Especially regarding anything bad like, say, a chemical pollution spill, or the shooting of protestors. As I mentioned yesterday, there has been an incident in the south, near Guang Dong city.
this happened on tuesday, and no-one knew until it was leaked yesterday. Therefore the speed of bad news is about 5 days ;) That's an improvement on old times though.

Here's what the BEEB has to say on the matter.

So, the Chinese news agency Xin Hua - official mouthpiece of the government - claims that these peasants, whoo were protesting about the compulsory purchase of their land to build a windfarm, was unfair as they recieved no compensation. They then held demonstrations, and apparently threw petrol explosives at the police, who had to return fire "in alarm". Alarm seems to me not to be a good excuse to open fire!

As a result, Xinhua claims that 3 villagers died, eyewitnesses say nearer to 20 did, this out of a total of some 300 protestors (xinhua) or 1000 protestors (eyewitnesses).

These village based uprisings are getting more and more common in China - last year there was a notorious stand off between a village and police forces that lasted several days until the army was called in. But if you look at Chinese history and literature, peasant uprisings are common. The classic novel "Bandits of the Marsh", although not strictly about peasants, is about a group of maltreated officials and other characters who stand up against the government and fight them off till granted pardon for the crimes they did not commit. Similarly, the 19th century was full of uprisings and dissent, and the collapse of Dynasties was nearly always preceeded by popular uprising. I'm not making any predictions here, but the Hukou system which I have mentioned before, is really alienating the peasant population - and they are getting more and more demonstrative about it. The near future is going to be extremely interesting here.


We were treated to cake from the Grand Hyatt patisserie by Laure today, feast your eyes on these:

And they were as delicious as they look. Who said life in beijing had to be a hardship?!

Things you won't find in the media here No.2,349 Seems an unpleasant business.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Facing Consistency

As I might have moaned about before, consistency is a large problem here in Beijing. You can go to a restaurant twice, order the same dish and end up with two completely different tasting meals. Or, as we often experience, use the coffee machine at the Cafe in the Xin Song Dormitory and end up without coffee/milk/chocolate powder or a combination of the three, despite the fact that the machine is full of all of them! Fortunately the boss of the cafe both understands foreigners and gives us credit that we might know when something is amiss. This cannot be said for his lackeys. Once, we ordered a latte from the machine and ended up with a cup of hot milk.
"I don't think this coffee is quite right, it's not strong enough"
"There's nothing wrong, it's just that you haven't become accustomed to Chinese style coffee." says lackey No.2 "You see, you are used to Western style food, but here we only do Chinese style." "Oh really?!" This kind of reaction was a face saving measure, as we had questioned the quality of his product, he felt obliged to defend it - and himself too as he had sold the product.
"What's the matter?" Interjected his boss
"There's something wrong with the coffee, but your shop assistant claims that there's something wrong with our tastebuds."
"Well that's just his opinion, let's have a look." Being a rational man, the boss opened up the machine and found that the coffee hopper's outlet pipe had been shut off and had not deposited any coffee in the mix at all, and so made us a new cup. Said boss to lackey no.2 "Look it was closed. There was no coffee at all." "Oh." Says lackey, and turns to us "Man Zou" (trans: walk slowly - but here means take care and is the farewell given to anyone leaving a restaurant) with a very patronising tone. He could not admit that he had made a mistake in front of his boss or foreigners, as he felt that he would have lost too much face.

Saving and gaining face really penetrates society to such a minute level here. Pride and face are incredibly important, and interfere with even the most minute transactions as you have witnessed here. Just imagine how it is with something serious.

The coffee machine wasn't dispensing milk this morning, but what should we have expected?


Yet again there's been another mine disaster in China - the third in two weeks. I can't actually remember the total number of mine related accidents that have happened in the time I've been here but the number is not that few. After each event there's a big plug in the media on how the government is reacting by introducing, as I remember from last time, safety handbooks for each miner or something else similar. Whatever measures have been taken, it seems that many mines did not gain any benefit from them as we can see with this tendancy towards accidents. We can but hope that something will be done on a greater scale and with more enforcement this time. But in a country as large as China and with so many mines, it's going to be difficult.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Did he jump? The plot thickens...

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Toxic Spills and Cover-ups

Apparently there's to be more openness CLICK about the spill and its after-effects. Well that has to be a good thing! However, interenational transparency and national coverage aren't the same thing. It's still pretty quiet on that front.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Fit the 31st: In which our protagonist becomes a human icicle

When the day starts with this on your window, it is not difficult to guess how the rest of the day's weather is going to pan out. Today I hiked off in search of books - Lonely Planet Japan and a history book for Mark - to Xidan, a big new shopping development. Having half frozen on the way to the subway, I was, for once, glad of the heat stale air of the train carriges! Unfortunately there was no luck in the book trawl, so I headed off back to the underground and walked home via a market. On the way back I stumbled across the remains of the old earthen wall of Yuan (mongol) Dynasty beijing - which now sits between two lanes of heavy traffic. It's an earthen wall and still in fairly good nick for something made of mud and 700 years old I reckon!. The earth wall itself lies behind this stone and concrete marker, which demonstrates how tall and broad the wall was in its day. After successive generations of Beijinger's feet trampin up and down its sides, its a touch shorter now...

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Mandarin and learning

One common theme that seems to crop up here among foreign students is that the majority of people feel that they are not learning enough Chinese. Could it be that they are all insensitive to their own progress? Having taught english as a foreign language and seen how students react to their progress, there's always a few who feel they are not making sufficiently quick or deep headway with the language, no matter how much they learn. Maybe this can be part of the answer, but with such a large number of people feeling this way, it cannot be the norm.

I believe it is because of the way that Beijing Normal University teaches that the students feel so bad. The classes don't inspire students to learn, and the topics and content seem activly to discourage interest! There is no effort made to connect with the students in the books, or in the classes itself. The exception to this is newspaper reading, where the students collect articles from newspapers themselves and present them in class. Because the topic of the lesson is chosen by the students there's a much greater connection, and everyone seems to enjoy it more (I certainly do!). However, even this class is held back by the fact that there is a text that has to be studied for the exam at the end. I say studied, I mean memorised for regurgiation in said exam.

I discussed the teaching with my Bao Kan (newspaper reading) teacher, as she is the most open minded and approachable of all our teachers. She said that in the summer, when Princeton sends its students to BNU that they use western teaching methods, and maybe that would suit me more (as I had said that the majority of classes weren't getting me motivated).
"Why not use the western methods all the time?", said I.
"Because the students here are mostly oriental, and are accustomed to the oriental method of rote learning", she replied. "But they are bored too!" "I know...but if we used western methods everyone would be too tired. I think you learn a lot more using western methods"
So at least someone realises that the classes aren't being taught in the best way they could be; as I've said the Bao Kan classes are the best, and even when we have to use the book, the teacher focuses on what we need to learn for the exam and does it as quickly as possible.

This is another BIG problem with the teaching - it's all focused on the exam and how to pass it, not necessarily how to improve our Chinese. So the endless homework excercises are just preparation for more of the same (and actually quite literally the same [not much effort goes into testing here...]) in the exam.

Things really need to change, but the problem is that because all th schools are equally bad, and there are not sufficient places to teach all the foreigners who wish to learn the language, that no one bothers to try and make advances. So we are still stuck with this feudalistic teaching method - funnily enough one of the few 'feudal' things that the communists did not oust during the various post 1949 revolutions!

There is no doubt that it is now winter

No snow arrived as wer had been promised :( What did arrive was fierce NW winds and subzero temperatures - have a look at the forecast to see what I mean. The wind is bitingly cold and whips straight through your layers - so it's jsut like being back in Durham...

When will the snow arrive? I don't know, but there is ice on the ground all day now, so it is just a matter of clouds or the absence thereof.

The media was very quiet this week - it was difficult to get any articles for newspaper reading class it was so dull. The reason for this being, in my opinion, that some one was pulling a string marked "gag" and the big stories about the petrochem disasters and earthquakes all went silent.

Here's an apt(ish) Chinese poem on the season by Bai Juyi (from a long time ago...):
(EDIT: I mistranslated the first line...mind was elsewhere!)


I'm surprised the blanket and pillow are already so cold,
and see the door and window are bright.
It was late at night when I realised the snow was heavy,
occasionally hearing the sound of bamboos shaking off their snow.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Dong Yue Miao

Needing a photographic expedition, I set out to the Dong Yue Temple on Chaoyangwai street. This place is a representation of all the courts of heaven, according to the Daoist tradition. Having been before and found it in a sorry state of repair in 2001, I was pleased to see it looking much rejuvenated. It was incredibly quiet, so I managed to get a lot of good photos, some of which are here below!

All 3 images copyright 2005 Peter Ayres