Thursday, May 31, 2007

Hell on the roads

As I have mentioned before, China's incidence of death from traffic accidents (relative to the number of vehicles on the road) is more than 5 times the worldwide average. Yes, 5 times worse than a figure that includes all the other crazy developing nations with no sense of road safety at all! And that's only if you believe the Chinese government's official figures, which are probably massively under-reported.

The mass incompetence I witness on Beijing's roads every day is truly terrifying.

One of my students - a lawyer working with a foreign firm - has just confided in me that she has "very poor driving skill" (yeah, you and the other 100 million maniacs on the roads here, honey), that she failed her driving test, and used her guanxi - 'connections' - with the police to get the computer record of her test result adjusted so that she could still be issued with a licence.

Did she consider re-taking the test, I asked. She gawped at me incredulously. "I have very poor driving skill," she reiterated. "This was much easier."

I have heard that the practical element of the driving exam in China has been toughened up lately (I think 5 years or so ago there was no practical test at all); but I think it still only includes starting, stopping, changing gear a few times, and reversing (that's reversing in a straight line, not reversing into a parking space) - no emergency stop, no 3-point turn, no overtaking. I have also often heard that it is only a very token obstacle to the aspirant driver, since it is quite easy to get 'ringers' to take the test on your behalf, or to sway the examiner's judgement with a small cash donation. Hell, there are numerous agencies here that advertise they can obtain local driving licences for us foreigners without the inconvenience of us having to take the test!!

But altering the test results after the event - that is a new one on me. China is always full of surprises!

Some more topical satire from 'Cow Theory' economics

The penultimate instalment....

You have two cows. You sell one, and force the other to produce the milk of four cows. Later, you hire a consultant to analyse why the cow has dropped dead.

You have two cows. You sell three of them to your publicly listed company, using letters of credit opened by your brother-in-law at the bank, then execute a debt/equity swap with an associated general offer so that you get all four cows back, with a tax exemption for five cows.

The milk rights of the six cows are transferred via an intermediary to a Cayman Island Company secretly owned by the majority shareholder who sells the rights to all seven cows back to your listed company.

The annual report says the company owns eight cows, with an option on one more.

You sell one cow to buy a new president of the United States, leaving you with nine cows.

No balance sheet provided with the release.

The public then buys your bull.

You have two cows. You shred them.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

End of the month morbidity

Don't you sometimes get that restless feeling that, well, it's been far too long since I wrote something about suicide? I do.

It's also been a while since I posted any poetry on here. And I find myself a little short of inspiration at the moment; and the back catalogue is starting to run short; and the 'morbid' ones tend to be my best. So..... this is what you get.

This effort was inspired partly (as always) by my obsessive infatuation of a year or so ago with The Poet, and partly by a near-drowning experience I had as a small child (which was actually extremely peaceful, almost ecstatic) - and also perhaps partly by being reminded of this by the remarkably composed and tranquil suicide-by-drowning of Virginia Woolf portrayed in the film version of 'The Hours'.

Drowning in you

You are the water - cold yet inviting;
The impenetrable surface,
The sparkling reflections,
The flowing to the sea...
You are all these.

You are the stones in my pockets,
The ache in my lungs,
The dimming of my sight,
The bright circle of the world receding.

You are the stillness,
The calming silence,
The brief euphoria before the End.

You are the End.

The death of the 'taikonaut'

One of the most frustrating aspects of the voice recording work I often do here to earn extra pocket money is that, although we are usually encouraged to make corrections to the (often numerous) blunders, omissions, and 'Chinglish' inelegancies in the scripts we are given to read, we know with a numbing certainty that - 95% of the time at least - our efforts on this are completely disregarded.

However, occasionally, just occasionally, we take encouragement from a signal success. One of the strangest of these is the death of the word 'taikonaut'.

When China achieved its first successful manned space missions with the Shenzhou V and Shenzhou VI capsules, the country was understandably proud of the achievement, and the returning spacemen were feted as national heroes. Someone in the Propaganda Ministry (I assume) thought that patriotic pride would be further boosted by creating a novel and distinctively Chinese word to designate these brave explorers; if the Americans could call their spacemen 'astronauts', while the Russians had 'cosmonauts', then why shouldn't China have 'taikonauts' (from the Chinese expression for 'Outer Space', tai kong)? Well, sorry, because nobody else is going to take any notice of you. 'Taikonaut' wasn't exactly Chinglish, but it was a silly piece of national vanity that never had much chance of insinuating itself into worldwide English usage.

For a while, though, it was ubiquitous in all the local English-language media over here. And in the scripts we got given to read in the recording booth!

One of my regular recording partners, a bluff Yorkshire lass called Cath, who is notorious for correcting rather more than the rest of us, developed a violent antipathy to the word. It was for her something far, far more than a pet peeve: she would pour withering scorn on it every time she encountered the word, and always insisted on replacing it with 'astronaut'.

And you know what? SHE'S WON. Just lately, we've been getting a rash of articles and dialogues about the Shenzhou missions again..... and China's space heroes are now being called simply 'astronauts'. I don't read China Daily and so on often enough to have clocked if they've given up on 'taikonaut' too, but I rather suspect that they have. I wonder if a high-level decision was taken to abandon the word, or if it simply succumbed to the ruthless Darwinism of daily usage in a vibrant language.

There is probably a very interesting story behind its demise, but I, alas, am not the man to tell it. I feel, though, that our Cath should get some credit for the extirpation of this unnecessary word.

Monday, May 28, 2007

On a related note...

A favourite China joke:

A successful entrepreneur is driving through the countryside when his car breaks down. There is no mobile phone network out there, so he has no choice but to walk to the next town to get help. However, it is a pleasant summer's evening, and the town is not too far away.

Before long, he is joined by a peasant farmer on his way home from the fields. They walk along together and strike up a conversation.

After a few minutes, they come upon a pile of dried dung in the middle of the road. The peasant is going to pick it up and put it in his knapsack, to take it home for fuel.... but the entrepreneur suddenly has a wicked idea. "Tell you what," he says. "I'll give you 1,000,000 RMB if you eat it, right here and now." The peasant thinks about it for a moment, and then says, "You're on."

The peasant scoffs it down without too much difficulty (this is perhaps not the first time he's had to eat shit), and collects his million. [OK, this is where 'realism' goes completely AWOL in this story; since the largest denomination note is 100 RMB, this would be a suitcase full! And there are no personal cheques in China. Let it go - it's just a story.]

It's not long before the peasant is seething with resentment at allowing himself to be humiliated by the rich city dude like that. And he honestly doesn't have much idea what to do with all that money. So, when the two of them happen upon another pile of dung a bit further down the road, the peasant impulsively says, "You eat that, and I'll give you the million back." The entrepreneur had been starting to regret throwing away such a large sum of money so easily; and he hadn't got as much pleasure out of humiliating the peasant as he had expected. And the 'loss of face' issue was coming into play too: he couldn't possibly be seen to have less mental toughness than a humble peasant. "All right, you're on!" he roars defiantly - and gets down on his knees to gobble up the farm-animal poop.

Of course, now that they are both back where they started, they soon start to feel pretty ashamed and embarrassed at their stupidity, and when they reach the town, they decide they'd better go and seek out the local party secretary to confess their foolishness, to make a 'self-criticism'. [Yes, this still happens; not just a Cultural Revolution thing.]

The party secretary listens to the whole story in silence, only nodding his head sombrely from time to time. When they've finished telling the tale, they ask him, "What should we do now, chief? How can we make amends for our folly?"

"Folly!" exclaims the party secretary. "What folly? Congratulations, lads! You've just raised the nation's GDP by 2,000,000 RMB!!"

And there, in a nutshell, is China's "economic miracle".

More Cow Theory

You have 2 cows. The State takes both, shoots one, milks the other, and then throws the milk away.

Now, that sounds like China.

However, (as you probably already know) the 'China' one is actually this:

You have two cows. You have 300 people milking them. You claim that you have full employment, and high bovine productivity. You arrest the newsman who reported the real situation.

Then again, this sounds like China - on occasions!

You have two giraffes. The government requires you to give them harmonica lessons.

A cinematic bon mot

'Technique' is nothing more than failed 'style'.

Stephen Dorff (as terrorist-filmmaker 'Cecil B. DeMented' in John Waters' film of that name)

I watched this film again just last week. It's not my favourite John Waters, by a long shot; but its impassioned celebration of 'real cinema' in preference to Hollywood pap is rather uplifting.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Putting on the Ritz!

Ah, there's some great stuff on YouTube!! Mel Brooks's 'Young Frankenstein' is one of my favourite film comedies - and, alas, one of the titles that I've never managed to find in all my many hours of haunting pirate DVD stores here in Beijing.

But at least I can enjoy this wonderfully silly scene, where young Dr Frederick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) first introduces his creation (Peter Boyle) to the public.

I think I actually cried with laughter the first time I saw this, as a kid.

The Sunday poem

Another favourite piece of Bukowski - but very bleak. I've always been haunted by that line "stale lives propped against each other, and no place to go". I sometimes wonder if the fear of staleness setting in in a relationship hasn't been one of the factors inhibiting me from trying to embark on one very often. I hope not, but it might be so.

the screw-game

one of the terrible things is
being in bed
night after night
with a woman you no longer
want to screw.

they get old, they don't look very good
any more - they even tend to
snore, lose

so, in bed, you turn sometimes,
your foot touches hers -
god, awful! -
and the night is out there
beyond the curtains
sealing you together
in the

and in the morning you go to the
bathroom, pass in the hall, talk,
say odd things: eggs fry, motors

but sitting across
you have 2 strangers
jamming toast into mouths
burning the sullen head and gut with

in 10 million places in America
it is the same -
stale lives propped against each
and no place to

you get in the car
and you drive to work
and there are more strangers there, most of them
wives and husbands of somebody
else, and besides the guillotine of work, they
flirt and joke and pinch, sometimes tend to
work off a quick screw somewhere -
they can't do it at home -
and then
the drive back home
waiting for Christmas or Labor Day or
Sunday or

Charles Bukowski (1920-1994)

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Economics 101 - Cow Theory

My friend Ann in Scotland recently e-mailed me this - something of an old chestnut, but with a few new twists.

The basic model is this. There are some additions I'll post over the coming days.

You have 2 cows. You give one to your neighbour.

You have 2 cows. The State takes both and gives you some milk.

You have 2 cows. The State takes both and sells you some milk.

You have 2 cows. The State takes both and shoots you.

You have two cows. You sell one and buy a bull. Your herd multiplies, and the economy grows. You sell them and retire on the income.

Any other favourites you'd like to add?

More bad karma

Yesterday started badly. The pop-up mechanism in my toaster broke. I left it unattended for all of about a minute - in which time, it managed to completely incinerate two slices of brown bread and fill the entire apartment with acrid smoke. They were my last two slices of bread, so my plans for breakfast had to be downgraded to coffee and yoghurt.

Then I walked a couple of miles to my nearest decent phone store, to be there on the dot of opening time at 8.30am. The staff were all there at 8.30, but were disinclined to open up at the advertised time. They insisted on keeping me waiting outside the doors for another 5 minutes, for no discernible reason other than that they could (I have commented before on the apparent lack of a service ethic in this country). When I did finally get inside, I managed to instil some hurry-up in the clerks and was in-and-out inside 20 minutes - quite an achievement, considering how tortoise-slow most Chinese sales staff are. The only major hiccup was their perverse refusal to actually show me the phone and let me try if before taking my money off me. I've never had this problem before. Usually handling the phone and playing with the buttons, making sure it accepts your SIM card, is a standard part of the process. I can't imagine why they were being so obtuse about it this time; I had to ring a Chinese friend to get some assistance in getting my point across.

Then there were no cabs to be had. For nearly 15 minutes. I crossed to the other side of the Ringroad, by a subway station exit, but things weren't much better there. Lots of cabs, but all of them taken. When I did finally manage to flag one down, it pulled in 50 yards up the street, and before I could catch up with it, a Chinese girl appeared out of nowhere and stole it. Galling? Ever so slightly!

And when I did finally get one, the driver was painfully unwilling to take instruction on the best route. The 3rd and 4th Ringroads are prone to complete gridlock around that time in the morning just lately, but this driver seemed determined to try to get on them anyway. I thought I had convinced her to give up on the 3rd, and try Beitucheng Lu, midway between the 3rd and 4th..... but then, she sailed past the Beitucheng junction and tried to get on the even more log-jammed 4th! I dissuaded her, with difficulty, and instructed her to carry on going north to Tsinghua Donglu - this is actually about a mile further north from my destination, but it's a much clearer road than Chengfu Lu - which has an atrocious bottleneck at the Wudaokou light-rail station (compounded by a level-crossing over the railway line, and a string of unnecessary traffic lights along the south side of the Beijing Language & Culture University campus). My driver, of course, swung into Chengfu Lu, and we took about 10 minutes to cover the next half a mile. There was still a way out. I was not yet late for my recording appointment at the Peking University Press. Very nearly, but not quite yet. The turning into Wangzhuang Lu, the road running up the west side of the BLCU campus was a couple of hundred yards ahead. In China, you can turn right on a red light. And taxis can use the bus/cycle lanes; well, they're probably not supposed to, but they do. The bus lane was pretty empty; and two or three other taxis had swept past us along it, before swinging right into Wangzhuang Lu. The Wangzhuang Lu stratagem would, admittedly, have been a subtantial detour; but it would have circumvented the Wudaokou bottleneck, which was threatening to take us at least another 10 or 15 minutes to get past. I begged, I screamed, I pleaded, I gesticulated for all I was worth; my lady cabbie was just not having it.

So, I abandoned her; jogged half a mile to the other side of Wudaokou station; got another cab (eventually); and ran up the six tall flights of stairs at the University Press offices..... and thus arrived, wheezing and sweaty, barely 15 minutes late.

Not a great start to the day.

However, it was impossible to stay in a grump for long. Indeed, the blues that have been dogging me for the past couple of weeks were swept away by the spectacular weather. Friday was one of the most perfect days I have ever seen in Beijing: brilliant blue skies, hot sunshine, refreshing breezes, zero humidity.

It's impossible to feel down on such a day.

I'm not looking forward to trying to purchase a new toaster, though.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Melancholy haiku

Brooding heart retreats,
In hollow, far from sunlight.
The darkness within.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

How did that happen?

The question has inevitably been asked - how on earth did I manage to do that to my phone?

Listen. It was like this.

I finally got back from a very long and wet day on Tuesday around 6.30pm. I was a bit of drowned rat, having been forced to walk the last mile-and-a-half home through the continuing downpour because of the non-availability of taxis.

I changed, made myself a nice hot mug of tea (English style, with milk), and began the ritual of checking the day's text messages on my phone. (Welcome to China: mobile-to-mobile calls, though probably still quite cheap by the standards of the developed world, are irksomely expensive in relation to the general level of prices we have become used to here [and you get charged for incoming calls too]; there is no voicemail; but text messages cost less than 1 cent each - so we communicate with each other almost entirely by SMS.)

Checking messages is a bit of a laborious process. It's a very old phone, with a tiny memory, which I have pretty much maxed out by storing 15 or 20 favourite funny or sentimental messages from the past year-and-a-bit I've been using it. Also, it automatically saves all outgoing messages (moderately useful on occasions, but more often just a pain in the arse), which adds to the memory overload. Thus, if I 'reply' to an incoming message, I immediately have to go back into the 'Inbox' to delete the message I've just replied to, and then into the 'Sent' folder to delete the reply I've just sent - otherwise, I soon run out of memory to receive or send any new messages. Like I said, a pain-in-the-arse. And my phone has to be switched off for most of the day (in classes, in the recording booth), so by the early evening I often have quite a backlog of messages to deal with.

So, there I am, on the sofa, wrangling messages, phone in left hand, mug of tea in right hand.... and, well, I suppose the phone's already a bit damp from all the rain that's fallen on me that day, and it gets kinda wriggly, slippery, and suddenly pops up out of my hand - like a bar of soap! - and somersaults through the air and plops into the tea 6 inches away.

There you have it. That's how I drowned my phone. Now, please, stop bugging me about it. It could have been any of us.

A couple of days ago I was being cautiously optimistic about my phone regaining full functionality; I thought that after a few more days the last traces of corruptive moisture inside would evaporate, and it would stop misbehaving. Well, maybe I should still give it a while longer; maybe that evaporation hasn't been able to happen yet because it's been so damned HUMID for the past couple of days. But things aren't looking good. The button response is all over the place; it's maddeningly glitchy; sometimes it crashes completely, and requires a switch off/switch on again to reset it; it's extremely fiddly to navigate through the menus; I can - just about - read my incoming messages, make and receive calls; but it's become completely impossible to send text messages.

I fear I will finally have to decommission the old girl and buy her replacement.

It's a poignant moment. I have been using this phone full-time myself for only the last 13 or 14 months, but I've had it now for over 38 months. A remarkable achievement in a country where the average lifespan of a mobile phone is said to be less than 6 months! I used to keep it as a 'spare', to lend to visiting friends: I bought it originally for my friend Lizzie, for her notorious visit here in April '04 (yes, one day there will probably be a whole slew of posts over on the Barstool about that epic 7 days); then my American girlfriend, The Buddhist, used it for about 6 months; I've also lent it (unwisely?) to my accident-prone best buddy, The Chairman, for a few weeks (during which it suffered more 'wear and tear' than in the whole of the rest of its history...... until the other day).

I fret that I won't now be able to find anything comparably BASIC. I don't want symphonic ringtones, I don't want to store my MP3 library, I don't want to take pictures, I don't want to check my e-mail, I don't want to watch video clips, I don't want to play '80s arcade games, I don't want to be able to record my bowel movements to use as a ringtone...... I just want a call function and a message function. My current phone doesn't even have a colour screen! I love it.

One day, Retro/Primitive phones will be in vogue; but not yet, I fear, not yet. I dread to think what kind of all-singing, all-dancing, I-speak-your-weight monstrosity I may have to accept as a replacement....

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Smelly City

It's a good job the IOC isn't in town this week.

After 24 hours or so of continuous rain over Tuesday and Wednesday, most of Beijing was today covered in a fine slick of malodorous sludge which had... erm... risen up out of the sewers as a result of the deluge.

The streets stank. The drains stank. Even my tapwater stank this morning. Ugh!

Not exactly a glorious advertisement for the city that is to host The Summer Olympics next year.


As regular readers might have noticed, I have been suffering rather from this condition for the past couple of weeks.

And so has the blog (for rather longer)!

So, in an absurd piece of superstitious japery, I will see if I can dispel the listlessness in my life by adding some LISTINESS to dear old Froogville today.

(Admission: This is a recycle of a comment I left on Leah's blog a few months back [I can't remember where]. I am far too listless to come up with an original list for you!)

Four jobs I've had:

1. Barman - at the 'Rose & Crown' pub, Oxford (many years ago, and not for very long!)
2. Waiter (and occasional microwaver of pre-cooked, salmonella-laced fare) at a very dodgy pizza restaurant whose name I now forget (similar era to 1. above)
3. Photographic model (you get some strange opportunities in this country where I now live!!)
4. Film actor (well, not quite: I was once offered a role as an evil, moustache-twirling Victorian colonialist, but turned it down.... the part just wasn't right for me at the time)

Four places I've lived:

1. Oxford
2. Sydney (only for a month, but it counts)
3. Toronto (best hot dogs in the world!)
4. Beijing

Four favourite foods:

1. pistachio ice cream
2. mango kulfi
3. baked beans on toast (English childhood 'comfort food')
4. crusty bread (surely an essential in anyone's list?)

Supplement - four favourite foods in China:

1. nang bao rou
2. jiaozi (or baozi)
3. rou jia mo
4. hu pi jian jiao

Four films I could watch over and over (Actually, these are just four favourites; on reflection, I think they're probably a bit too rich and serious – though all darkly funny - for frequent repeat viewing, but.... this'll do for now):

1. Dark Star
2. Harold & Maude
3. The Hairdresser's Husband
4. Being John Malkovich

Four TV shows I enjoy:

(Hmmm, I just don't watch TV any more. When visiting friends in the States last summer the answers would have been South Park, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and Vh1's Top 20 Countdown; but now..... only the dire local channel CCTV-9..... sad, sad, sad....)

1. Documentary
2. Culture Express
3. Dialogue
4. BizChina

Four places I've travelled (avoiding the obvious):

1. Jamaica
2. Greece
3. Fiji
4. North Korea

Four places I'd like to visit:

1. Cuba (preferably while Fidel is still around, although – more realistically – this looks like being another 'collect the set of embalmed former dictators' visit [not many people can claim to have ticked Kim-Il Sung!])
2. Qinghai/Tibet
3. South America, and especially Brazil (although Buenos Aires also appeals, for the tango...), and especially a town in the Matto Grosso called Araçatuba (my mother's birthplace)
4. Petra ("the rose-red city, half as old as time")

Four websites I go to daily (almost hourly!):

1. Yahoo Mail
2. Blogger
3. Wikipedia (mostly via proxy)
4. Google (and, when I'm feeling fancy, GoogleScholar)

It's ALIVE, it's ALIVE....

Miracle of miracles!

My mobile phone has returned, Lazarus-like, from the dead.

I do wonder, though, if, like Karel Čapek's Lazarus, it will be utterly fucking useless from now on. (One of Čapek's short stories portrayed the post-resurrection Lazarus as having such a fear of dying again that he had become a hopelessly dysfunctional hypochondriac.)

I suppose I can credit my prompt action for its surprising salvation. I fished it out of my mug of tea in approximately half a second, immediately shook the surplus liquid off it, removed the battery and SIM card, dried the terminals with tissue.... and blew gently over the keyboard, in the hope that my warm breath might speed the evaporation of any tea that had found its way into the inner workings (the "kiss of life" indeed). Then, racking my brains as to what else I could do to enhance its chances of survival, I placed it in front of a fan for a couple of hours (although I worried that, in the near-100% humidity that prevailed last night, this probably wasn't doing a lot of good). Later, I hit on the idea of laying the body and the battery on the cover of my laptop (while switched on) to provide some gentle heating. I even managed to rummage out an old sachet of desiccant (probably long since past any usefulness) from one of my camera bags.

Things didn't look promising when I checked on its state of health first thing this morning; but the battery was completely dead. After an hour or so on charge, the screen was active again - but the SIM card was not being recognised. A good shake and a quick removal & reinsertion sorted that out, and it appeared to be fully functional again. Gosh, I even got a text message from last night. The buttons are still alarmingly 'squelchy' though, so it is still mightily difficult to use. I am hoping that each hour it spends in the familiar warmth of my pocket will improve its performance a little more.

A lucky escape. A timely warning. I have been meaning to get a new phone for..... oh, a little over a year now, but it's always such a hassle here (expect a sequence of 'China rant'-type posts on this soon!). I really must get down to it this weekend.

A Four & Two Noughts

An old joke.....

"How can you tell when your wife's dead?"

"The sex is about the same - but the dirty dishes start stacking up."

(I first encountered this joke in 1994, at an open-air concert in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. The very cool, black leader of a local jazz-funk outfit called Zero [at least, I thought that was their name, but I can't find any trace of them online] told it during a lull brought about by a temporary equipment failure. There was a beat or two of shocked silence from the thoroughly PC audience; but then they thought to themselves, "Hey, he's black, he's ultra-cool, he's a musician, he's a local boy - we love him. And it is a pretty funny joke." There was a collective exhalation - the sound of inhibitions being gratefully abandoned - and then..... one of the longest, heartiest laughs I can recall hearing.)

I thought of this today because....well....

"How can you tell when your life's in a rut?"

"The despair is about the same - but the blog posts start stacking up."

400 today??!!

You call it being prolific; I call it being incontinent. Must..... cut..... down......

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

As flies to wanton boys....

What is it about mobile telephones?

Why do they have this overwhelming instinct to seek out fluids??

We've all heard stories, haven't we, of people dropping them down the loo? (I had a girl once cite such an accident as an excuse for having ducked out of a date with me. Who knows, it may have been true.) My great Bar School drinking buddy, the Mooting Partner, once knocked hers right across a bar counter in Hampstead so that it fell into the slop tray under a beer tap on the other side (the barman had just that second taken the cover off, preparatory to emptying the slops). We were all so paralysed with mirth that we didn't retrieve it from its sour-beer dunking for several seconds. I doubt if it was ever restored to usefulness.

I just dropped my phone into a cup of tea. Yes, not beer, tea. Oh, the irony!

Dead, dead, dead, dead, dead.

There is no good time for this to happen. But when I have an interview for a new job tomorrow, am waiting for word on two others imminently, have recently added several potentially important numbers to the memory (and which, of course, I have not yet got around to making any other record of!), and am in the throes of attempting to renew passport, visa, and the lease on my apartment over the next week or two.... and have so much work on this week that I will have absolutely no chance to try to buy a replacement until the weekend..... well, this is something considerably more than merely inconvenient.

"Why me, God, why ME?" wails an unjustly put-upon Job.

Thunder rolls like laughter around the heavens, and far, far off we fancy we can hear The Invisible Sky Father guffawing to himself, "Because thou art an easy target!"

Running the Wall

When long-distance runners talk about "hitting the wall", they mean reaching the moment when your body's stored energy reserves are exhausted and your legs just don't want to move any more. It is possible to find the strength and courage to keep going beyond this point, but it is very difficult: it is as though there is a solid barrier blocking your path, "a brick wall". Usually this point comes after you've been running for about 25-30km. This is why a Marathon race is so hard: it lasts just over 42km – you have to get beyond "the wall".

The race I took part in a year ago this week is even tougher: after 35km you hit The Wall – the Great Wall of China! The Great Wall Marathon is run each May in beautiful countryside to the north of Tianjin, and incorporates a section actually running along the Huangyaguan Great Wall. It's only a very short section, barely 2km, but it is very, very hilly, and includes thousands of steps. And you have to do it twice, once near the start of the race, and then again - in the opposite direction - just before the end: a cruel and unusual punishment indeed, and clear evidence of a sadistic bent in the race organisers. This is probably the most difficult regular-distance Marathon in the world.

In fact, the Wall section is not the worst of it. That's so steep that you really have to walk for most of it, rather than trying to run; and if you've done lots of stair-climbing in your training, it's actually not too bad. However, most of the rest of the course is hilly too. Extremely hilly. I had been misled about this by friends who'd run the event in previous years. They had all, I'm quite sure, assured me that apart from drainingly steep climb up the ridge to the beginning of the Wall section right at the start, it was all pretty much on the flat. Whether they said this out of mischief, malice, or mere forgetfulness, I cannot say. But that was dangerous MISINFORMATION (How I came to rue not having taken the time to read the course description the night before! It was rather too dauntingly detailed, ran to a number of pages - and I was just too darned tired to be bothered with it.). This course hardly has any flat stretches on it. And the first half of it is predominantly uphill. Even the best runners usually take a good hour or so longer to complete this monster than they would an ordinary marathon.

There is one continuous climb of nearly 10km – by far the longest hill I've ever attempted to run. Two-thirds of the way up, the race organisers had put out a sign that was meant to encourage us poor runners. It said: "If a hill has a name of its own, you can figure it's probably a pretty tough hill. This hill has no name." Most of us runners had plenty of suggestions for a name - but they don't bear repeating in polite company.

I was doing pretty well on this section, passing a lot of other runners (although, I confess, getting impatient for it to end); but then, near the top of the horrible, nameless hill, my left knee started to hurt – a lot. The injury was so painful that I was reduced to walking (or brief, agonising spells of shuffle-jogging, at best) for the second half of the race. That was hugely frustrating and disappointing for me, after all the hours of practice I'd put in over most of the preceding year to get ready for this event (damn, that was probably about the best shape I've ever been in in my life).

However, it was still a marvellous day out. The weather was gorgeous, as it usually is at this time of year: sunny, but not too hot. And the support from the local villagers and the volunteer helpers was fantastic. I'll definitely be back one day (next year?) to finish the course properly. To get the better of that hill. And to give it a name.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Runner's Blues

I was to have been running the Great Wall Marathon last Saturday; but a couple of weeks ago I regretfully decided that I'd better pull out. I knew I just wasn't in shape for it this year (not for the full distance anyway; and, since these days I often run the half-distance or rather more in training, I no longer find Half Marathons a very interesting challenge).

Too much work (at the wrong times!), a succession of niggling injuries, and my unscheduled trip home in January have all cut into my usual running regime rather badly this year. And then I got a bitch of a cold last month, which hung around for the best part of three weeks, just at the time that my training for this event should have been peaking. Bugger, bugger, bugger.

I rather fear my new hobby/habit - this dratted blogging - has been getting in the way of regular runs too. I'm up at 6am or 7am most mornings, but lately I'm tending to noodle around on the Internet for an hour or so and write a couple of posts, rather than getting out on to the early morning streets and racking up 10 or 15 miles before it gets too hot. Something's got to give.

I'd really been looking forward to the Great Wall Marathon this year. I was fired up to better my performance of last time, to show what I was really capable of, to "get my revenge" on the course (last year I was going really well over the first 11 miles or so, but then developed a painful injury in my left knee; and - there apparently being no sweeper bus - I had to finish the course shuffling/limping/hopping on one leg). Having to wimp out this time has left me feeling wretchedly frustrated and depressed.

Well, the shortage of running itself in the past month or so has probably left me depressed. I generally hit a weird seasonal mood trough in April/May, and it seems to be particularly bad this year. Running usually helps to energize me, and clear the clouds and cobwebs out of my head; if I'm not able to do any for a while, things get very, very dark. Things are pretty damned dark with me at the moment.

So, I forced myself to go out for a couple of long runs this weekend, to try to get back in the habit..... and it appears I may have been overdoing things rather. Or perhaps I'm just getting old. Both knees and my left ankle are feeling worryingly crumbly, and I'm hobbling again. Bugger, bugger, bugger.

Loo with a view

My neighbourhood is generously supplied with public toilets (because many of the primitive hutong homes in the area are still without bathroom facilities of their own). When I first got here, they were pretty shabby affairs: cracked tiles and crumbling cement, no stalls (very communal!), no flush (the maintenance guys used to come around a few times a week with a hose), a characteristically pungent stench that could convulse your nostrils at a range of 100 yards. However, they have now all been expensively upgraded in preparation for the Olympics.

There's a particularly good one right next to the picturesque Bell Tower just down the road from me - the window from the Gents offers possibly one of the finest loo-views in the world. (And no, I don't routinely take a camera into the loo with me.)

Strange conversation

Another surreal moment from the recording booth. This is probably the most off-the-wall bit of dialogue I've ever had to read.

"Do you think Mr Green can clone a monkey?"

"I expect so. Let's go and ask him!"


Spoiled for choice

The other week, I was rueing the fact that my love life is stalled at the moment because there are so many women I am attracted to that I just can't make up my mind which one to pursue. These reflections prompted the following bon mot.

"One of the secrets of a happy dining experience is a short menu."

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Missing Gun (Xun Qiang)

I thought it was about time I offered a Chinese recommendation in my occasional 'Film reviews' strand.

I do watch as many Chinese films as I can. There's a film club here in Beijing called Cherry Lane Movies, which shows recent Chinese films with English sub-titles on a big screen. I go through spells where I'm off there every week for a month or two; then again, I go through spells of ennui where I just can't summon the motivation to endure the long schlepp over to the other side of town and the two hours of bum-numbing torture on their rock-hard seats. Most of the time, I have to say, it is a bit of a chore. There is a reason why not much mainland Chinese cinema gets any distribution overseas.

However, amid all the plotless, meandering dross, the occasional gem shines all the more brightly.

When asked what is the best Chinese film I have seen since coming to live here, there is an easy answer. 'The Missing Gun' is far and away the most impressive film I've enjoyed in the almost 5 years of my intermittent Cherry Laning - thoroughly original, delightfully quirky, full of energy and invention, gorgeously photographed, superbly directed and edited (early on, it uses a lot of the hyper-kinetic 'music video' type tricks that we saw in 'City of God'), and - unusually, within my experience of Chinese films - sometimes just laugh-out-loud funny.

Ma Shan, a small-town cop, gets wildly drunk at his sister's wedding party and wakes the next morning to discover that he has somehow mislaid his service revolver. Realising that this blunder could jeopardise his previously distinguished career, he races around town in a panic, re-tracing his steps of the previous evening, asking everyone he meets if they have any idea where the gun is, but getting no leads. Things get worse for Ma when a femme fatale, his former love, suddenly shows up in town again, as the mistress of the local big-shot; and before long, she is dead, apparently shot with Ma's gun - so he falls under suspicion himself, and the pressure is intensified to recover the gun before anyone else is killed.

Yes, it's a fairly slender plot, improbable, melodramatic - but this is really just a convenient structural device. The adoption of a well-worn 'Western' genre - the detective story - actually gives the film a coherence and purposefulness, a narrative logic that Chinese cinema often seems to lack. This film is, however, far, far more than just a routine police procedural. Rather, it is primarily a social comedy of small-town life, interwoven with a touching study of Ma's struggling marriage - but executed with exhilarating verve and originality, and full of bizarre and surreal touches, elements of magical realism. It's thriller, satire and domestic drama rolled into one - but it works: highly amusing, but also ultimately rather poignant. (I think the comedy is mostly very accessible to a foreign audience, although you probably appreciate it even more if you've spent some time in China. My favourite line in it is "Don't use the brick"; but you have to have been here a while to get that.)

Ma is movingly played by the always compelling Jiang Wen (slightly portly, ugly handsome, a sweaty everyman), a giant of mainland Chinese cinema - their equivalent of Robert De Niro or Gerard Depardieu. And the film is directed (and, I think, also written by - although I can't find the name of the novel it was adapted from) by Lu Chuan - definitely a name to watch out for (to my knowledge, he has thus far only made two feature films: the other one is my second favourite Chinese film in the last 5 years!).

Yes, if you want evidence that Chinese cinema is capable of more than dour studies of urban alienation or colourful riots of martial arts escapism, this is it. See 'The Missing Gun' - and let me know what you think.

Friday, May 18, 2007

A Tour of the Archive

As promised a few days ago, here is my pick of the posts from the first three-and-a-bit months of Froogville.

I was aiming for a 'Top 20', but, well, the list just growed and growed. We seem to have ended up with 28 - which is a lucky number for the Chinese.

Pick of the Archive: Favourite Posts, Sept. - Dec. '06

1) A New Year poem - 31st December

A complaint about the generally poor quality of poetry themed on the turning of the year, and the humble offering of a poem of my own - one of my 'freaky fables' series.

2) My first Christmas in ***??*** (Where in the world am I? [19]) - 30th December

A little bit of nostalgia for my early days in China.

3) The Question to The Ultimate Answer - 21st December

A homage to the late Douglas Adams, and my solution to the great conundrum of his 'Hitch-Hikers' Guide To The Galaxy' series.

4) Touch the monolith - 15th December

My multi-million dollar website idea!

5) A favourite 'beachcombing' - 12th December

A nutshell tribute to one of my favourite humourists, J. B. Morton; and one of the most famous examples of his work - 'The Dancing Cabman'.

6) Logorrhoea - 10th December

Strange word, strange poem - but a good summary, I think, of the creative urge.

7) A footballer anecdote (or three, or four) - 9th December

Some well-known funny stories about the great game retold.

8) That time of the week again - 1st December

Not many of my haiku will make it into these lists - but this one is particularly dear to my heart: probably one of the most romantic I have ever written.

9) The Simile Game - 30th November

Two-for-the-price-of-one: some silly, cynical wordplay and one of my best (I think) short poems.

10) Pulling the ripcord - 14th November

More wordplay: an anecdote from my Bar School days - and a great aphorism to finish.

11) 'Morbid' thoughts? - 14th November

A frivolous little poem on the subject of poetry; but one of my most revealing?

12) They can smell the fear.... - 10th November

In which I confess my unmanly terror of bicycles.

13) On the beach - 6th November

A poem I wrote to woo the Great Love Of My Life. It worked..... for a while.

14) My first review - 25th October

Unexpected praise for the blog is the cue for some autobiographical aphorisms.

15) Sporadic advance of relevance - 24th October

My favourite ever piece of mangled English, and the story behind it. A possible sub-title for the blog itself??

16) A Dark Fable - 23rd October

One of my very favourite poems (of my own, that is); inspired, of course, by you-know-who.

17) Name-dropping - 10th October

I met a famous poet once: this is the anecdote.

18) Possible epitaphs - 10th October

What would you like on your tombstone? More jesting wordplay.

19) The people I fall for.... - 8th October

The story of my love life!

20) More shadows..... - 2nd October

Very short, very silly - but I like it.

21) Lone Mosquito Blues - 30th September

Can you believe I was still being persecuted by mosquitoes this late in the year?!

22) A Haiku with a back-story - 29th September

One of my first haiku, one of my best - and written in tribute to my greatest friend.

23) What job do I do? - 28th September

The story of my (non-)working life!!

24) Shadows and Froog - 25th September

A celebration of a favourite poetry anthology and a favourite poet; and the first and best of my own 'freaky fables' poems.

25) Fragment - 22nd September

A (still!) unfinished piece of poetry, but a promising one.

26) Christopher Robin goes down on Alice.... - 16th September

A naughty joke, and a very silly anecdote - but a good illustration of my frivolous, subversive personality.

27) I-Spy - 10th September

More on my employment prospects; and a 'true story' from my University days.

28) In dispraise of blogging - 8th September

A key early post on why I do not consider myself a 'blogger'!

Now, all I have to do is work out how to insert this in the sidebar......

This morning's breakfast browse

Revelling in the fact that this is the first morning of the week when I haven't had to plunge into the heaving human sea of rush-hour commuters (yes, I know, many of you have to do it every day - I don't know how you survive; it's driving me mad!), I've been indulging in a 'lazy weekend' ritual of a lie-in, an unhurried breakfast, and 20 minutes' poetry reading to start the day.

I just happened on this piece by Robert Graves. I don't remember reading it before. I never cease to be amazed by Graves - he's so diverse in his obvservations, has so many good things to say. This is a wonderful evocation of the sense of detachment, of alienation that we feel in modern society; and, of course, it chimes particularly with my experience this week of having to move among the faceless hordes on the subway every day.

On Dwelling

Courtesies of good-morning and good-evening
From rustic lips fail as the town encroaches:
Soon nothing passes but the cold quick stare
Of eyes that see ghosts, yet too many to fear.

Here I too walk, silent myself, in wonder
At a town not mine though plainly coextensive
With mine, even in days coincident:
In mine I dwell, in theirs like them I haunt.

And the green country, should I turn again there?
My bumpkin neighbours loom even ghostlier:
Like trees they murmur or like blackbirds sing
Courtesies of good-morning or good-evening.

Robert Graves (1895-1985)

The weekly haiku

Exquisite torture
Of unrealised daydreams -
The imagined kiss.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

In the meantime..... (coming soon)

Tulsa seems to be too busy at the moment to attend to her challenge to produce her list of 'favourite posts' from this blog, so I have been pondering the matter myself.

I am planning to produce a guide to my 'archive', highlighting what are, in my - hopelessly biased and flawed - opinion, my best posts so far. I hope this will provide some diversion to any readers who may happen to join me during the anticipated period of 'light' posting over the next few weeks.

There's already such a huge back catalogue of posts that I can't easily winnow it down to just a few selections. I'm intending to approach it quarter by quarter, and I think that's likely to produce a couple of dozen recommendations or so for each period.

The first instalment will cover the end of last year - from my modest beginnings in September through till December 31st. That's slightly more than 3 months, of course, but what the hey. I was rather less prolific back then; but I suspect that the recent increase in volume has been 'padded' by a lot of shorter and sometimes less consequential posts; the amount of 'real quality' has remained much the same.

It will take a little while to finalise and write up the list, so bear with me. Expect it in a few days' time.

Ominous signs

Blogger has been worryingly glitchy today.

It might just be some random problem of my computer or my local connection, but I easily get paranoid about such things as: Blogspot blogs being unavailable (even temporarily) via Anonymouse; Blogspot blogs being (even temporarily) unavailable on Firefox (via the cunning re-routing 'hack' popularized by Yee); Blogger itself being (even temporarily) unavailable for the creation of new posts. It is tempting to suppose that this is the Kafka Boys flexing their claws, toying with us like a cat with a dazed mouse, as a prelude to an intensified Internet clampdown around the end of the month.

It probably doesn't help that Blogger is now part of the Google empire. Last year, the whole Google operation (including G-Mail) in China got closed down for a week or more around the beginning of June, and there was severe disruption and slowing of connection speeds for a full month. Several guys at the American IT company where I used to work (this was not actually the armourers of government censorship here, Cisco - although some of them had previously worked there) confidently maintained that this was not directly the result of a 4th-June-related government crackdown but of an opportunistic 'denial of service attack' (probably orchestrated, they speculated, by Baidu, the leading player in the Chinese search engine market) that took advantage of the keyword filters being imposed in regard to the events surrounding that date. An intriguing, plausible-sounding conjecture.

It's 18 years ago this year. The new kids starting at University this September were born in that year. I think that makes it, potentially, an especially resonant anniversary. And, of course, it's only one year till the Olympics. The CCP leadership are crapping their pants.

I don't expect anything to happen at all - by way of protest or remembrance, that is. More's the pity. But I do expect the government to do its damnedest to stop too many foreigners blogging from here over the next couple of months.

So, if I go silent for a while..... that will be the reason.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Stopping suddenly AND bending down

An added twist to the local vice I decried last week. (I'm now once again an early morning commuter three or four days a week, so I am getting to see a lot fo this.)

In addition to suddenly stopping dead for no very good reason - in the middle of a dense crowd of moving people - many Chinese also seem to think nothing of dropping instantly into a crouch or a squat or a kneel, so as to become pretty much invisible to those coming up behind them.

The other day, I almost tripped over a young girl who decided to stop to adjust her shoes - one yard from the subway train she'd just disembarked from, in the middle of a narrow gap between two pillars on the platform, with about two dozen impatient commuters streaming around her. She was so tiny, she would have been far below my eye-level when stood erect, and when she scrunched up into a ball not much more than a foot high - INVISIBLE!

I call this the 'Human Bollard' phenomenon. I have found it especially hazardous when running in the Beijing Marathon over the past few years. Actually, in my first outing - running the half-distance in 2003 - I had one guy who went from running normally to a dead stop AND in a crouch (adjusting a shoe-lace, I think) in the space of about half a second, when he was directly in front of me. I don't know how he did that. I just don't have that braking capacity when I'm running. Having no chance to stop myself, I was tempted to leapfrog over the top of him - but instead (a rare display of courtesy and tolerance on my part!) I jinked abruptly to one side to go around him...... and tore up something in my left knee. I managed to finish the race that day, but my knee was getting very sore and slowing me down badly by the end of it. And that has tended to be a recurring source of injury for me in long races since. Bloody Human Bollards!!

The story of my life

A favourite Gary Larson cartoon.

Rather alarming how one simple gag can so aptly encapsulate the whole of my experience on this earth!

Monday, May 14, 2007


"I am not a number. I am a human being."

But some numbers carry such emotional resonance that we wouldn't mind being associated with them. That, after all, is why so many people wear the shirts of famous footballers.

I have just watched Cool Hand Luke again - for perhaps the first time in a couple of decades. (Tulsa, noting my complaint that I had been unable to find it on DVD over here, very kindly brought a copy back for me from her recent trip home to the States. At first, I was in a panic that it wouldn't play. I don't think DVD players here are supposed to play US-coded DVDs, but...... this is China!)

I noticed - I think for the first time ever (it's not, after all, really a very important detail) - that '37' is the number daubed on the back of Luke's prison uniform.

I wonder if there is any particular significance in that, any numerological connotations, perhaps? Aha, a quick check on Wikipedia reveals that it is "the largest prime factor of the Number of the Beast, 666". Yes, I'm sure the writer, Donn Pearce, had that in mind! (More likely coincidence, don't you think? 37 is one third of 111, so it's a factor of all three-figure numbers with the same digit repeated.)

Well, it has a significance for me now. I love that film, that character - and now, that number.

Watch out for sly references to the number '37' in future posts.

But is it ART?

I was just challenged - by my new mystery commenter, EARTHLING - to publish more of my photographs on the blogs.

As I explained in my reply (over on the Barstool, here), I have certain technical problems about that at present - as well as a general reticence about "showing my work".

However, I did snap quite a few shots while up in the Dashanzi art district a week ago (although mostly of my friend's delightful little daughter, Elsa), and I happen to have those on this computer (most are stored on an ancient Vaio that I am no longer able to use for Internet access), so...... well, I suppose this one I quite like.

And yes, I am visible (but not recognisable) in the reflections.

A bon mot on lawyers

"Lawyers are like nuclear weapons. I have to have them because the other guy has them. But as soon as anyone uses them, everything gets fucked up."

Danny DeVito (as Lawrence "Larry the Liquidator" Garfield in Other People's Money)

Sunday, May 13, 2007

PS: Putting a face to the name

My frequent references to my great, long-ago affair with 'The Evil One' have prompted a number of queries from my correspondents as to who she was, how we met, what she looked like, how she managed to cast such a spell over me.

Well, I did find this photograph of her on the Internet a while ago. I don't think she can object to my posting it here, since she remains veiled by my teasing nickname for her - and there is, I think, absolutely no chance at all that any of my blog's tiny readership could recognise or trace her from this.

Darn, is this really a recent photo? She hardly seems to have changed at all in 10 years. My heart lurches once again....

I did eventually succumb to an upsurge of moral qualm about having posted her picture here... a few years later, when it became apparent that websearch tools were starting to become rather adept at 'recognising' photos. This, I thought, might make it possible to identify her by doing a comparison search on the photo I'd used here. And I didn't want to run that risk.

Having her picture here was perhaps too taunting and torturing for me as well: more than a dozen years on, I'm still completely daffy about the damn woman.

A fetish from long ago

Great former love, 'The Evil One', had strikingly attractive hands - or so I thought. Funny the things we choose to fixate on, in regard to a loved one. They looked particularly fine in this pair of Italian gloves she used to like to wear, when I first met her, during London's damp and chill winter months. She told me she had bought them some years earlier, on a trip to Florence (apparently, Florence is the centre of glove-making in Italy; or so she told me; I hadn't previously been aware of that). And she was fretting that they were starting to wear thin, so rationed the occasions on which she would put them on. I fantasised about taking a holiday in Florence together with her, so that I could buy her a replacement pair.

Hence this little thing - another of my 'instant' poems, and probably the most romantic I have ever written.

The Ruin of the Florentine Glovemakers
("She had a favourite pair of gloves, you see...")

All the glovemakers in Florence, all those craftsmen
Of fine calfskin, and their fathers and their grandfathers
Since the ancient trade began, have never seen hands
Like yours. Now they shut their shops,
And urge their sons to other skills, because they know
That Perfection, once encountered, ends the dream,
Destroys the motive; that lesser hands cannot
Deserve their labour or inspire their art.

And so it is with me. I have so admired
The elegance of your hand
That I will never wish to hold another.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

It's happening again

Blogspot is blocked again.

Conspiracy or cock-up?

Actually, 'Conspiracy of Cock-up' might be a good title for a China book.

I think, this time, it's pretty clearly no accident, and is likely to remain in place for at least 5 or 6 weeks. After all, what sensitive anniversary is coming up at the beginning of June? I think you know what I'm saying.

A nod to Danwei

I just recommended one particularly interesting article from the Danwei news blog, but (if, by some strange chance, you haven't come across it already - it has a huge following amongst expats here in China) it is well worth checking out on a regular basis.

Indeed, for my money, there is only one essential 'China blog', and Danwei is it.

It's a fascinating, funny, often unbelievable roundup of China news, most of it translations of Chinese media articles (including bulletin board posts and blogs). I particularly recommended Liu Qi's gripe about the most common annoyances of modern life in China from a week or two ago, but other recent gems have included the annual roundup of the most common names in China (momentous news: Wang has just leapfrogged ahead of Li as the most common surname, apparently), the Ministry of Culture's fumbling attempt to explain and justify its crackpot new scheme for introducing a system of certification for 'cultural professions' (thought by many to be aimed at discouraging the proliferation of TV talent shows: they might run short of contestants if people had to pass a music exam before being allowed to sing in public), and the "It could only happen in China" revelation that the pre-Mayday special edition of the Beijing Evening News was so big that news vendors were hoarding it, refusing it sell it to customers because.... it was worth more to them as scrap paper! (Astounding, but true.)

There's wonderful stuff like that on there almost every week.

And over the past year they've also started adding a lot of self-shot video content, archived on the sister site Danwei TV. The latest clip shows the rather lovely musician Wu Fei talking about her instrument, the guzheng. A favourite from the archives is
this film of American folkie Abigail Washburn (who does a mini tour out here each November) and her band jamming with musicians from the Mongolian folk group Hanggai on a hutong rooftop. And then there's the Sexy Beijing series, in which the irrepressible Anna Sophie Loewenberg (who does indeed manage to be strangely sexy - despite sporting the scary hair and horn-rimmed specs of a Gary Larson matron) hits the streets to conduct frivolous vox pop interviews (she's probably aiming for the sly satire of Louis Theroux, but mostly comes across more like a young Esther Rantzen - but still, pretty funny most of the time).

Of course, I have my gripes about Danwei (the name is the Chinese for 'work unit', the basic building block of social administration under the old-style Communist regime, and still extant to this day, although declining in importance as the economy grows and diversifies). It's sometimes a little too prolific for its own good (hey, I should talk, right?!): if you fail to check in for half a week, you can sometimes find 10 or more huge posts to wade through. It can be a little bit po-faced at times (although its coverage does seem to have diversified somewhat over the past year and a bit, moving away just a little from its original primary focus on the Chinese media industry to become more wide-ranging and quirky, as it tries to embrace the huge, nebulous, bizarre topic of modern 'urban life'). And it does tend to flaunt its creators' 'mastery' of Chinese a little unnecessarily (I see little need to pepper almost every article with quotations in Chinese; only rarely are the original Chinese characters of particular interest or relevance; and, in those cases, it would be nice to offer the pinyin romanization of them alongside - there are software programs that will do this for you automatically in a little pop-up balloon).

Nevertheless, it is a rare example of a 'serious' blog that maintains a sense of humour; and it has become an invaluable "window on China". A must-view for anyone interested in this strange, wonderful, crazy country.

"China Rage" - not just a foreigner phenomenon

I had been meaning to post a link to this story - Liu Qi on Civic Responsibility - for a while, but for some reason the 'archives' on the excellent Danwei site have been inaccessible for the past few days.

A few of my posts last week lapsed into what is known in the trade as the 'China rant'. I try not to do it too often. I try to do it with humour, rather than just invective. I try to do it with a certain self-awareness and self-mockery of my own faults and failings. I try to derive general principles that might be of use and interest to a wider audience, rather than just bitching about my 'bad' day. But, yes, from time to time, I do it. It is a vice that all foreigners here fall into. China is an awesomely baffling and irritating place in many ways, and sometimes you just have to vent.

And then, of course, we beat ourselves up with post-colonial guilt, and apologise for our intolerance, insensitivity, and 'cultural elitism'.

It's liberating, then, to be reassured once in a while that the Chinese - well, educated, middle-class Chinese, anyway - experience the same phenomenon, share exactly the same pet peeves about their fellow countrymen as we laowai, and occasionally like to indulge in a cathartic bitching about them.

Liu Qi is a Chinese newspaper columnist based here in Beijing, and this piece is his personal list of the things that really get his goat about Chinese social behaviour - his '17 hates' (the Chinese just love numbered lists).

It's a fascinating piece.

It does, I think, raise many questions about how far some of this disdain is a product of unconscious Westernization (or conscious, aspirational Westernizing) - 'vices' like spitting and queue-jumping are seen almost as often amongst white-collar workers as they are amongst unlettered peasants, and you didn't see much public criticism of such behaviour until recently (ah, the Olympics - the major driver of social change in China..... for one more glorious year!). And you could find most of these problems, or their close equivalents, even in the more advanced, industrialized nations. Liu's comments on the callous impatience of a crowd of bystanders waiting for a suicidal ledge-jumper to make his fatal leap reminded me uncomfortably that such unworthy impulses lurk within us all; and, while I'd hope that such a response would not be so widespread amongst the British public, I am quite certain that you would find it in a significant minority.

Liu's main criticism, though, the thread running through his whole article, is the quietism of the Chinese, the paralysing reluctance to make a scene about anything, to speak out in criticism, to try to get things changed. That's been a problem in China for perhaps thousands of years. China's greatest modern writer, Lu Xun, was making similar points in his essays 80 years ago.

It may be a more deep-seated and more troublesome phenomenon here in China, but again, it's not unique to this country. Similar criticisms are often levelled against the British national character - who can forget the classic Fawlty Towers episode where Bruce Boa's loud-mouthed American guest gave all of his shy, reticent English fellow-sufferers an inspiring lesson in assertiveness? That, however, was 30 years ago now; and Basil Fawlty's sensibilities were rooted in a period a couple of decades earlier than that. I think the British today are far more outspoken, assertive, willing to complain - we haven't perhaps caught up to the Americans yet, but we are getting there. If we can do it in one generation, how long will it take the Chinese?

Anyway, do please go and check out Liu Qi's article (translated into English, of course): it's a very good read.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Two kinds of law

This is a distinction which, to some extent, holds true, I'm sure, everywhere in the world; but it does seem to be particularly marked, particularly important in China.

(I've just started leading a 10-week training programme with a big foreign law firm here, so I may soon be in a position to comment further on this, having picked my students' brains.)

There are the laws. And there are the laws that are - or can be - enforced.

In this country, most of the laws are of theoretical interest only: they have little or no practical consequence.

Take, for example, the prohibition on carrying out unsociably noisy work when people might be trying to sleep. I have been many times assured that it is a law here that construction work cannot be carried out - at least, not anywhere near residential areas - between the hours of 11pm and 7am. And yet..... just about every construction site in the city routinely works 24/7.

The law exists in principle, but you have to fight bloody hard to try to get it enforced. (I did once manage to get it enforced, at a very local level, when the hotel which managed the accommodation building I was housed in on the campus of one of the Universities I taught at a few years ago was relaying the surface of the parking area immediately outside my window, and wanted to work throughout the night. I got the hotel night manager out of bed and got one of my Chinese friends on the phone to him to explain that working after 11pm was illegal, and that we would call in the police if they didn't stop. It worked!!!)

On Monday night - the last day of the week-long May holiday, and the eve of my first early morning start at this rather important law firm gig - there was heavy plant rumbling up and down the street outside my apartment, workmen yelling, and pneumatic drills hammering away all night. They've been completely resurfacing my mile-long street for some time now, but that particular evening the work obviously reached a peak of intensity in the stretch around my building. I tried sleeping on a sofa in my living room (which has the 'double glazing' of an enclosed balcony at the far end, and no other external walls), but even in there the din was still very audible, irksome, oppressive. And it was a wretchedly muggy night as well. I got almost no sleep at all. Not a good start to the week.

At least that all-night working right outside hasn't been repeated since. I can't be answerable for my actions if it is!

A runner's haiku

Mile on mile on mile
The heart lightens, brain empties.
The Zen of running.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

On a lighter note

I do stand very much in need of a major clean-up in my apartment. There are still unmanaged areas of stickiness from drink spills at my big party two months ago! And the landlord will be coming around in a couple of weeks, hopefully to renegotiate the lease for another year, or, ideally, two (I don't want to get kicked out on the eve of the Olympics!).

I was reminded of one of my favourite songs from the Dead Trolls' CD I mentioned at the start of the week, 'Mom's coming to my house'.

It's just your basic 'catalogue song', but the list of embarrassing things that need to be tidied away gets more and more outrageous:

"Hide the drugs, hide the butt plugs,
Cover up the pentagram with the rugs..."

An angry incident

I had another of those near-death experiences last night. I was leaving the Sanlitun bar district with a few friends after a nice farewell dinner and drinks for the visiting sister of one of them (it wasn't even particularly late - single mums with babysitters to relieve!). We were having to walk a few hundred yards to a major road to find a cab. The road we were on was fairly well-lit, but narrow, and - as so often in this town - it didn't have much of a usable sidewalk because of the massive obstructions of trees and telegraph poles planted in the middle of it.

Car drivers, knowing that this is adjacent to the teeming bar zone, and that people have no choice but to walk on the road, should anticipate the likelihood of pedestrians - often, indeed, large crowds of less than fully attentive pedestrians - blocking their path. This is not a stretch of road that cars should be driving along at 11 at night at 40+mph.

The bastard didn't even honk his horn or flash his lights. We heard his engine behind us, heard the tyres on the road approaching stupidly quickly. My companions instantly scattered to safety. I, on the other hand, spun around to fix the driver with my most baleful stare, and obstinately held my position in the middle of the road. I admit, I do play 'chicken' like this quite a lot. I almost always win. However reckless and incompetent Beijing drivers may be, they do have some slight instinct of self-preservation and they know that killing a foreigner would be very, very bad for them. Unless they're one of the black Audi brigade, of course; in which case, they can pretty much get away with anything. Well, this guy wasn't in a black Audi, but he was approaching so fast that I didn't really have much opportunity of getting out of his way if he didn't manage to find his brake pedal.

He braked - very late and very hard. His car nearly touched me, only finally coming to a stop an inch or two off my shins. I don't believe his car control is anything near good enough to have judged it that finely. He just got lucky. Very lucky. So did I. It was a sickening, terrifying moment.

My adrenalin levels, naturally, were through the roof. I vented by yelling obscenities and flicking the finger at him. I considered - as I have done once or twice in similar incidents in the past - pounding on his bonnet (that's the 'hood' to you, my Yankee friends), or kicking out at his bumper or headlamps.... but I refrained from this, being somehow still rational enough to realise that I didn't want to risk provoking an ugly escalation of the confrontation in front of my female companions.

The guy was glaring at me and revving his engine impatiently. He was off again the instant I started to move aside, and almost creased me with his rear end as he swung into a left turn. I was again tempted to aim a kick at his doors, but again relented - contenting myself with a loud slap of the flat of the hand against a window. This time it was his turn to stop and hurl obscenities at me.

We exchanged psycho stares for a few moments through his open passenger side window. I out-psycho-ed him and he drove off. I'd always been pretty confident he wouldn't actually get out of the car to start a fight. (I was much bigger than him; and there's a strong vein of physical cowardice in most of the Chinese - they'll yell a lot, but they won't often come to blows. Not unless they can take you by surprise with a brick or a bottle. That's a topic for another post, perhaps.) He may even have had some instinctual awareness that the fact that I had women to 'protect' - or show off in front of - would be likely to make me a more formidable opponent (that's not particularly a facet of my personality, just universal human nature).

There was a danger, though, that he would come after me in the car. I've had that happen to me a couple of times. (Again, perhaps, a topic for a later post.)

Fortunately, he disappeared into the night, and we were soon able to put the unfortunate encounter from our minds.

Sadly, this is a pretty routine event in China, and particularly in Beijing. Standards of driving are just appalling. People don't follow the rules of the road. People don't know how to control their cars (a nation of bike-riders who don't like to use their brakes is slowly becoming a nation of car-drivers who don't use their brakes). People don't have any basic sense of road safety. People drive too fast. People drive aggressively. People drive drunk. People drive with feeble, uncorrected vision. Official road death figures are in excess of 100,000 per year, and the WHO speculates that there is probably massive under-reporting. Even so, it's a little over 10% of the worldwide total.

My one-man campaign to defy and challenge arsehole drivers whenever I meet them is going to get me into big trouble one day, I know.