Tuesday, June 30, 2009

See ya later, suckers!!

Not that I want to seem too paranoid or anything, but..... well, I wouldn't want to risk anything - anything, even a little old blogpost on little old unread Froogville - drawing attention to me as I pass through the airport. So, I thought I'd defer a definitive announcement of my departure from Beijing until I'm safely out of Chinese airspace. Which should be about now.

Posting likely to be light over the next month-and-a-half while I'm on my travels, but I'm sure I'll still find time for a little froogery here and there.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Flu Corner

One of the spammers who's somehow got hold of one of my e-mail accounts recently is an Australian travel agency.

Amongst the 'helpful travel tips' they've been bombarding me with, there's been a heavy emphasis on escaping A/H1N1 infection.

Apparently, I should try to "avoid places where flu sufferers congregate".

What, like they have their own social sub-culture now? Are nightclubs ditching their midweek Gay & Lesbian nights in favour of the much more popular Flu Nights? Do sleepy little cafés hold Saturday afternoon 'Flu Corners' to facilitate 'virus exchange'? Are there 'Flu Sufferers', 'Recovered Flu Sufferers', and 'Aspiring Flu Sufferers' groups flourishing on Facebook?

Did they just mean to suggest avoiding crowded public places, I wonder? Or did they mean "avoid places where there is a higher likelihood of encountering sick people" (i.e., hospitals, clinics, doctor's offices!)? But the idea that there are places where flu sufferers deliberately gather together.... well, it gave me a good laugh!

Time to go

Just lately, things around here have been bugging me rather too much....

For example:

My landlord is an idiot. I've known this for a while. I've been renting from him for 5 years now, after all. But when I ask him (via a translating third party) if he is free to come around and collect his next quarter's rent during the afternoon on such and such a day when I will be working from home, and he does not make any reply (either to me or the third party).... then I do not imagine that he will turn up on my door at 6.30pm expecting me to be there (and waiting there till 8.30pm!); fortunately, I had already gone out to dinner, and run out of credit on my phone, so was spared his repeated demands for me to return home. I tried later to commiserate with the inconvenience he had brought upon himself; but, you know what, arsehole - we didn't have an appointment!

The cab driver I got on Saturday afternoon was an idiot. He spoke some bizarre dialect that wasn't - to my unskilled ear, anyway - remotely recognisable as Chinese, and - for reasons I couldn't possibly have fathomed even if I'd been fluent in his lingo - was histrionically refusing to drive me to Gongti Beilu (about as straightforwardly central a destination as any driver could wish for). I can only assume he didn't know where it was; or he just didn't like carrying foreigners.

My letting agent is an idiot. She rang me up on Sunday afternoon to ask me to come round to meet a potential flatmate and endure another round of talks with my would-be new landlord. We had arranged a day or two earlier that she would do this. I had rashly assumed that she would have fixed an appointment with the flatmate and/or the landlord, and would let me know what time had been arranged, so that I could wander over unhurriedly (the property isn't that far away from my current apartment - but a 15 or 20 minute walk) and meet them at the property. No, no - she rang me at no notice at all, as an afterthought, when the other potential tenant was already meeting with the landlord. "Can you come right now?" "Oh, yeah, sure. What am I supposed to fucking do? Teleport myself over there??"

The would-be new landlord is an idiot. He's worried that his property has remained unlet for three months. But not so worried that he'd consider sweeping out the yard, cutting back the foliage, or removing all the building materials and old flower-pots heaped up around the place. Or buying basic equipment, like a refrigerator and a washing-machine. Or negotiating down from his original asking price rather than up.

Everyone I walk behind on the subway, in the street, anywhere is an idiot. In the subway especially. I've been using the subway way too much over the past couple of months, and that's never good for the mental health (I have itemised its irritations before, here and here and here). Slow and erratically moving pedestrians in this country seem to function with a perverse collective consciousness that enables them - without even being aware of your presence in any conventional sense - to somehow work together to maximise your inconvenience.

Now, this is all run-of-the-mill stuff in China. Usually, I can greet such eccentricities with a wry smile. Lately, though, I've found my tolerance and humour wearing very thin. Lately, this kind of thing has just been starting to piss me off BIG TIME.

I am overdue for a break. I haven't left the country in nearly two years now. I haven't really had a proper holiday in three. No wonder 'China' is just getting a wee bit much for me. Six weeks of detox, and I'll be missing the place again, I'm sure, and ready once again to endure all these petty hassles with a laugh and a smile.

But right now..... right now......

If I get a taxi driver who doesn't know the way to the airport, there could be an incident.


The number of the post.

I slip this in sneakily, after the fact. Purely to fulfill a promise I made 18 months or so ago to mention Ramanujan's Number when I got to this milestone.

Bon mot for the week

"I'm afraid of losing my obscurity. Genuineness only thrives in the dark. Like celery."

Aldous Huxley (1894-1963)

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Baiting session

The Chinese film director Lu Chuan is supposed to be making a personal appearance at the Yugong Yishan music bar tonight, after a screening of his latest film Nanjing! Nanjing! (the Chinese premiere, I think, of its English-subtitled version).

Lu's name is on the two standout Chinese movies of the last few years, The Missing Gun and Kekexili (Mountain Patrol); but it's widely reckoned that he was no more than a 'front' for the temporarily blacklisted Jiang Wen on the former, and some critics even carp that he may have been less than fully responsible for the latter.

I really want to admire the man for his work - but these doubts as to whether it even is his work paradoxically come as something of a consolation.... because I've heard from a variety of sources in recent months that the man is a colossal prick - even by the standards of the movie business, and that's saying something.

Now, one of my very good friends bears a particular grudge against Lu Chuan because he did the original English translation of the script which enabled the director to shop the project around and get overseas funding, and was thus instrumental in getting the film off the ground; what's more, he claims, he didn't just have to render the rather turgid Chinese into decent English, he actually had to convert it into a screenplay format, because it had been written as a novella! And nearly two years later, he still hasn't been paid for that very substantial piece of work.

As a result of this, when Lu was looking for someone to write English sub-titles for the finished film (with typical Chinese last-minutism, this was only a couple of weeks before the film was due to make its debut at Cannes), most of the foreign translators I know refused to accept the commission. Thus, I'm rather curious to see what the sub-titles look like. I very much fear they'll have been done by a non-native speaker; perhaps even by a machine translator!!

But it's not only stroppy translators who have a gripe against Lu Chuan. A number of people have told me that he is not only habitually tight-fisted and unreliable in matters of payment, but a raging egomaniac - he seems to have got the idea that he is China's greatest living auteur (only Zhang Yimou is worthy of comparison, he seems to think; and a fairly distant 2nd), and thus treats everyone he works with like dirt.

So..... I'm hoping to enjoy the film tonight. But there could be quite a large heckling contingent at the Q & A afterwards.

I've been thinking of opening with....

"So, it seems everyone has a favourite 'Lu Chuan is such an arsehole' story. What's yours, Lu Chuan?"

Beijing landlords

All my plans and dreams for finding a nicer place to live are inexorably turning to shit.

The spectacular implosion of Option No. 7 yesterday is a good illustration.

As I mentioned, the landlord was hopeful of getting the same rent he'd had from his last tenant, although that was probably a bit high even in the buoyant market of a year or two ago, and a good 25% above the current going rate. He had at least seemed to understand that this might be a little unrealistic, and had expressed a willingness to negotiate.

Yesterday, the agent relayed the landlord's list of demands:

He's only prepared to drop the rent by rather less than 10% - and that only if I pay 6 months upfront.

Plus 2 months' deposit, rather than the usual one month's.

Plus a 1,000 RMB fee for the agent (again, a non-standard and highly dubious practice - although this is probably the agent trying it on, rather than the landlord).

Plus.... he insists that I sign a lease from the 1st July.
[Although he knows that I am out of the country for the whole of July and most of August, and am paid up on my current apartment until the 1st September. I had - rather generously, I thought - offered to consider signing the lease from mid-August... or maybe even from the 1st of August; AND paying my first quarter's rent immediately. That wasn't enough for this greedy prick. These people just don't seem to have even the rudiments of business sense: the 1st of July is only a few days away; that apartment has been vacant nearly a month already; the landlord has known that his previous tenant was going to be quitting for over three months; and, according to the agent, no-one else has even viewed the place, let alone expressed an interest; and most foreigners are quitting Beijing over the summer (either a standard holiday to get away from the excessive heat of July and August, or forced out by the crabbiness of the visa-issuing authorities) - if the guy acts like this, he's going to have an empty apartment on his hands for at least another 2 or 3 months. Well, it will serve him right!]

I said to my letting agent:
"You needn't have told me all of that. Every single one of those conditions is a dealbreaker!"

Friday, June 26, 2009


And I've just noticed that the electricity meter is displaying a line of ZEROs.

Well, actually, I noticed this last night. It's just that I've been so goddamned busy today that I haven't had time to go to the bank to add more credit to my recharge card. (Well, I finally got to the bank just after 5, thinking that it closed at 5.30, but......).

The last digit on my meter display is broken, so I might have as much as 9 units left. Or I might have had last night. Lately, needing to run the air-conditioning overnight, I've been burning through at least 10-12 units per day, if not 15..... so I can't quite understand why the meter hasn't run out already.

Today was not only one of the hottest days of the year, but also one of the first to be significantly humid as well. The prospect of trying to sleep here tonight with no air-conditioning is just horrendous.

Stress, stress, stress.

Decisions, decisions

I have spent every spare minute of the last week searching for somewhere new to live. I covet a siheyuan - one of Beijing's traditional courtyard houses.

And I have found one that is absolutely gorgeous.... perfect.... too-good-to-be-true. It's HUGE (something like 120 square metres of courtyard and 130 or 140 square metres of living space), it's in a central location (only 5 or 10 minutes' walk from the Bell Tower), and it's available for a knockdown price (it's been vacant for over 2 months already, and the landlord is panicking a bit).

Well, it's not quite perfect. It's unfurnished. It's really a bit too big for me. And it is still too darned expensive for me.

But it is the kind of place I've always dreamed of. And what price can you put on dreams? Maybe I should just take a crazy gamble, risk all of my savings on the chance of a year of fantasy living?

The options I've been looking at are:

1) Cast financial prudence to the winds and rent the entire courtyard on my own.

2) Find a friend to share it with me.

3) Let my agent find a stranger to share it with me.

4) Find a friend - or a friend of a friend - with a small business who'd use part of it as their office (a more attractive possibility, as I'd be splitting the rent without the hassle of actually "living with" someone).

5) Fit part of it out as an upscale guestroom, and advertise the chance of a few days' "courtyard living" over the Internet (I should think there ought to be plenty of people out there who'd be willing to pay maybe a couple of hundred bucks a night for something like that; and if I could promote it effectively, I wouldn't need to book out very many nights each month to make a substantial dent in the rent; I might even be able to start showing a profit..... although concealing all of this from the landlord might be a problem!).

6) Divide the space with a wall, to create two separate - but still easily linkable via a connecting gate - units; the larger of these, including a good two thirds of the courtyard space, would then be (just about) affordable for me.
[This would, I think, be the perfect solution for me; and it should be attractive for the landlord too, giving him more flexibility as to how he rents the property. Indeed, it was he who originally suggested it. Though it would be a pity to diminish the impression of spaciousness you get on first entering, I think it's a sensible and necessary step: the bedroom and shower/toilet/utility room just inside the entrance have no connection with the rest of the space, and it's difficult to imagine how a single tenant - even a family - would effectively make use of them.... other than as an office or studio, or granny flat or nanny's quarters. Separating these two buildings off, but leaving them linkable to the main space, would make the property much more desirable and easy to let. Unfortunately, the Chinese in general, and Beijing landlords in particular, seem to have little sense of commercial logic. I suspect that this landlord is offering to build a partition wall merely as an inducement to me to agree to move in. He does not see it as a way to improve the value of the property, but merely as a bothersome imposition necessary to indulge the foreigner's whims. I'd feel very nervous about signing a lease on the basis that the property was going to be divided, and then coming back after a 6-week summer holiday to discover that it hadn't been (or that it had been botched; that the wall had been built in the wrong place, to an inadequate height, or so shoddily that it completely compromised the character of the place). Cruel Fate, why do you mock me?]

I'm keeping everything crossed for Option No. 6, but I don't have any great confidence.

My other fallback options (not as many, or as attractive as I'd like) are:

7) The first siheyuan apartment I looked at, beautiful and only a couple of minutes from Qianhai lake - but a bit pokey, and overpriced for what it is. (For the last two years it was rented by a German engineer from Siemens who didn't have to quibble about the rent. The avaricious - and unrealistic - landlord thinks he should still be able to get the same rent from me, despite the fact that property values across most of Beijing dipped by 25%-30% at the end of last year!)

8) A small house near my current neighbourhood. Not a siheyuan, but it does have a pleasant little backyard. I'm rather taken with this, but again the landlord's rent expectations are a little inflated, and I envisage some protracted haggling.

Or..... :

9) I could defer a decision, and commit myself to further frantic house-hunting when I come back in August. (I figure my landlord will let me roll over my present lease on a month-by-month basis for a little while, or let me sign up for one further quarter at my present - relatively inexpensive! - rent. If he doesn't, I'm going to be in a tight spot - returning to Beijing with less than a fortnight to find somewhere to live!! That is the kind of stress I could do without.)

Or.... :

10) I could just stay on where I am for another year.
[Oh god, I really do not want to do this - the 'Inertia Option'. But at present, it is looking worryingly likely. I just haven't had enough free time to seek out an alternative.]

It could be an eventful weekend. Indeed, my next post might be from the coronary unit.

Two fantasies for the price of one

I just turned up this picture of last week's 'Fantasy Girlfriend' Isabelle Huppert impersonating the divine Greta Garbo. Swoon.

This is in fact a still from a short video that was part of the collection of portrait studies of Ms Huppert that I went to see at Beijing's Ullens Centre for Contemporary Arts last weekend. The exhibition also included a rather similar black-and-white shot by the American fashion photographer Len Prince, one of a series he did back in the early nineties of contemporary celebrities portrayed in the style of classic Hollywood glamour photographs of the 1940s; unfortunately, I can't find that one online.

A haiku for the week

Hot sun, cooling breeze.
Who could ever want to leave?
The perfect summer.

Beijing always seems to do this to me. Whenever I am about to take a break, the weather becomes just idyllic. If I'd had a flight booked last week, I could have left without a moment's regret, and perhaps never come back...

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

More adventures in Chinese condoms

A new series of local condoms that caught my eye the other day seems to have names themed on heat. Well, heat or the lack of it.

One of them was, if I recall correctly, 'Fire & Ice'. Hmm - neither of these to be applied too closely to latex, I think.

Another was - I kid you not - 'Thermal'. Thick, woolly ones? Popular in the icy north in winter??

Ah, and a few more.

The Strong Man brand, I notice, has a variety called Passion Fine. (Is that an on-the-spot cash penalty for giving in to passion??)

Another new brand (well, new to me - there does seem to have been a sudden outbreak of diversity in the market) was, I thought at first, called 'Atlantis'.... but it turns out it's Alanis. (I wonder if Ms Morisette is getting royalties.)

And how could I have omitted thus far to mention Gobon? That reminds me of a song.

Oh, and SixSex! (As in "Nothing succeeds like.....?")

Censorship was never so SEXY!

One of the high points of the unfolding Green Dam fiasco this past couple of weeks has been the emergence of GREEN DAM GIRL - the sexy jack-booted cyberpolice manga babe who has been created by Chinese Net hipsters as a mocking emblem of the doomed kafkaware filtering package that the Chinese government is trying to foist upon all Chinese computer purchasers from next month. More pictures here (the one of her pulling down the knickers of an equally nubile 'Windows XP Girl' is particularly saucy... and a particularly apt piece of satire!).

[The bunny ears are a reference to the cuddly rabbit which is the software's official logo. And the insignia on her uniform is meant to be a 'river crab' - you remember how that's a pun on 'harmony', right?]

Monday, June 22, 2009

Tell me WHY

The Chinese Communist Party earlier this month launched a new political campaign, under the catchy slogan The Six Whys (always with the numbered lists!).

I gather there's quite a lot of "explanatory" commentary on some of the points in Chinese, but the core text at least has been published in English - I found it here (amongst other places).

Strictly speaking, there are more than 'six' whys, since points 2 to 6 make explicit the implied alternative being argued against with a follow-up 'why not?' question.

Even by the standards of Chinese political writing (at least Mao had a way with a vivid metaphor once in a while; since his day, political rhetoric here seems to have become merely turgid and repetitive, and - as far as possible - devoid of any actual meaning), this is pretty impenetrable stuff.

Beneath the typical fog of Chinese exceptionalism (the unique "facts and circumstances of our own country", "socialism with Chinese characteristics", "we can only take our own path[s]") and paranoid xenophobia ("hostile forces in the West refuse to stomach our nation's development" - ouch!), the basic answer to all of these very pertinent WHY NOTs seems to be simply - Because we can't.

If you struggle through the empty jargon to find any deeper level of meaningful argumentation, you find only a petulant Because we say so.

And the real reason - clearly implicit in all this guff but, of course, unexpressed - is: Because to do any of this would undermine the Communist Party's monopoly of power in the country (and hence its control of channels to personal enrichment).

It's curious, though, to see just what questions are deemed to be troubling the nation at the moment (and are thus, in fact, likely to be the questions troubling the Party leadership in its internal wrangles over the direction of policy): Must we persist with Marxist socialism, rather than moving more towards democratic socialism and capitalism? Why can't we embrace the principle of 'separation of powers'? Must we persist with a one-party system rather than adopting a multi-party system? Must we persist with state ownership rather than pushing further towards privatization? [Er, there has already been rather a lot of privatization, boys.]

Most worryingly, the final questions seem to suggest that turning back the economic reforms and reverting to a 'more pure' system of public ownership is under discussion (though, thankfully, being vetoed by Hu & co. at the moment). I've long been hearing rumours that there are some reactionary crazies running around in the upper echelons of the Party. If they got the army on their side, we'd be in for an almighty shitstorm.

Anyway, any request to Tell me WHY inevitably puts me in mind of the great and good Sir Bob Geldof, and the song I Don't Like Mondays by The Boomtown Rats - for my money, the greatest hit of the 1970s (and hence, of my childhood). Unfortunately, the original video does not seem to have surfaced on YouTube yet. However, there is this very powerful performance by Geldof, accompanied only by The Rats' pianist Johnny Fingers, from The Secret Policeman's Other Ball - a celebrated 1981 variety show staged on behalf of Amnesty International, which featured just about anyone who was anyone in the world of British comedy at the time, and some great music too (I wonder if the whole show is available on DVD?).

I also found
this performance from the 1985 Live Aid concert, and this one (minus the original Boomtown Rats, but with Bob still on good form) from the Live8 20th anniversary event in 2005.

Note: I originally started to write this on Monday evening, but my netlink to Blogger has been bothersomely unstable again this week - hence the delay in getting this up.

Bon mot for the week

"How I have walked, day after day, and all alone, to see if there was not something among the old things which was new!"

Thomas Cole (1801-1848)

Saturday, June 20, 2009

My Fantasy Girlfriend - Isabelle Huppert

The stunning French actress is the most enduring - and the most life-changing (I suspect she has set one of the major paradigms for the type of woman I am attracted to; yes, she is probably the chief root of my dangerous obsession with redheads!) - of all my many crushes. I have been in love with her for almost 30 years, since I first saw her heartbreaking performance in La Dentellière when I was just entering my teens (a late-night treat on BBC2 one weekend). Some years later, at university, I discovered her earlier film Les Valseuses - a typically perverse and eccentric Bertrand Blier comedy - in which, when barely 20, she was more than holding her own opposite Gerard Depardieu. That sealed the deal for me: not only head-turningly pretty (though in a tauntingly accessible-seeming, girl-next-door kind of way), but a stupendous talent as well. Such poise, such confidence, such wit, such ferocious intelligence. And that red hair. Oh, it's been very hard for any of the women I've actually met to even begin to match up to Ms Huppert.

She has been formidably prolific in her career, regularly turning out at least two or three films a year for over 35 years now. Her nearly 90 films include a fair few dogs (Heaven's Gate!), but also a very large number of really fantastic films and haunting performances. I can't think of anyone else who can match her for the sheer number of great roles she's appeared in; she is the outstanding film actress of our times. If you're not familiar with her work, here's a brief bio, and an appreciation by John Patterson of The Guardian (a "venturesome actress given to playing sluts, nutters, illiterate murderesses, abortionists, psychopathic matrons, brothel madams, petit-bourgeois housewives purring with resentment and unslaked sexual thirsts"!!). Then head down to your local DVD shop and buy everything of hers you can find - especially any of her collaborations with Claude Chabrol (La Cérémonie, Une Affaire de Femmes, etc.).

I fell for her first when she was little more than a gawky girl, who appeared to be not much older than me (I was a precocious youth... and the two or three-year delay in foreign films making it on to British TV nurtured for a while the enticing delusion that she was "within my reach" age-wise).
In fact, she has nearly a dozen years on me - but, my god, she has aged well: she is still looking magnificent in her mid-50s. If anything, age seems to have refined her beauty.
That beauty has inspired not just me, but very many of the greatest photographers of the last few decades. And at the Ullens gallery here in Beijing this month there is an exhibition of some 150 photographic portraits of her. I'm planning on heading up there this afternoon for an extended swoon. And this evening, I may watch La Dentellière again, for the first time in over 20 years. I will probably cry at the end. Again.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Haiku for a dismal week

Perpetual twillight -
The damp gloom stifles the soul.
A week without sun.

I cannot express how much this f***ing weather depresses me. I'm sure the suicide rate must have soared this week.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Feeling victimized

I had been thinking of writing a quick post about what a great summer we've been having.

Really, I think this is the best one we've had since 2003. And my memories of that may have taken on an unduly rosy tint because: a) it was so long ago now; b) SARS hit Beijing, so all schools and colleges got closed down, and I enjoyed a couple of months' paid holiday (shame about all the fear and suffering caused by the disease, of course; but, thankfully, the number of cases in the end was pretty small; the weather was absolutely gorgeous in May and June that year, and for several weeks the city seemed almost deserted, as panicky Beijingers stayed home until the crisis had started to blow over; paradoxical as it may seem, and slightly guilty though we always feel to say it, the SARS summer was an absolutely marvellous time for foreigners in Beijing!); and c) I went back to England on the very day that the weather finally started turning nastily humid.

The following year was quite nice too, as I recall, but a shadow was cast over the memories of that summer by a traumatic event in the middle of it, and also by the fact that I forewent a holiday that year, staying in Beijing and working all the hours I could to try to put my finances on a more secure footing. 2005 was freakishly hot: it was regularly in the high 80s Fahrenheit from fairly early in April, and by the end of May or so was almost continually in the high 90s - just too darned hot, even when the humidity wasn't too bad. In '06 and '07, as far as I recall, the soupy humidity arrived early, spoiling much of May and June (as well as pretty much the whole of July and August, as it always does). And last year, we scarcely had a summer at all, thanks to frantic weather management in the run-up to the Olympics: week after week of abysmal air quality, dull grey overcast skies, and artificially engineered showers.

But this year has been just gorgeous. The ongoing drought in north China has perhaps been saving us from the humidity curse; and the economic slowdown has bequeathed us some of the best air quality and clearest skies I've ever experienced here. Summer was a little slow to arrive, but for the past 6 weeks or so, we have enjoyed an almost uninterrupted spell of dazzling blue skies and bright sunshine, with temperatures in the mid- to high 80s F being rendered very comfortable by dry air and refreshing breezes.

Unfortunately, I've been working like a dog for the past two months, and have had very little opportunity to enjoy this superb weather.

Last Monday was the first day I'd had completely free in about three weeks. And it pissed with rain all day.

This week I have contrived to keep most of the week free of work commitments. And we've had four of the most miserable days I can remember - a patch of most unseasonable chilly damp air having the great misfortune to coincide with a spate of early-harvest stubble burning in the surrounding countryside. The official descriptor for our weather this week has been SMOKE. I might have favoured SHITE.

And I am beginning to feel persecuted by the weather gods. Tomorrow I have to work again. What's the betting the blue skies are back?

Why seems it so particular with thee?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Another Chinese condom guffaw

I thought I'd wrung all the mirth possible out of condoms in China the other week, but no - here's another one.

Local market leader Strong Man has brought out a new variety called..... URLTA.

I am not making it up.


Another gem from the recording studios.....

A fairly typical scenario: a businessman returns to his office after lunch and his assistant passes on the messages left while he was out.

"Someone calling himself Professor Li phoned. He asked for you to call him back as soon as possible."

How we laughed!

And this is a slightly tricky one to explain, because it is possible, native speakers do use this construction from time to time.

But.... it's a very non-standard way of introducing someone's name. And it tends to imply doubt or disbelief.

That is to say, you'd use it when you find the person's name odd, unlikely, laughable, and you're inclined to make a joke about it.

Or maybe when you're hesitant about passing the information on because you're worried you got the name down wrongly and are looking for confirmation or reassurance from the person you're telling.

Or where you think the person was obviously using a fake name - a phoney, an imposter, call the police!

But not when you're simply passing on telephone messages.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


Last weekend I suffered yet another of my occasional bouts of vexation with a Chinese educational institution that had hired me to give a lecture on 'Presentation Skills' as a promotion for some business course or other that it is offering.

I am used to these things always being thrown together at a few days' notice (I do sometimes decline invitations like this, pointing out that such last-minutism is disorganised, unprofessional, and frankly somewhat discourteous to the lecturer; but at the moment I am trying to raise the money for an airfare home, so I choked down my rage). I am used to being given no advance information about the likely composition of the audience or the exact purpose of the event. I am used to the advertised timings being very flexible - not to say wildly inaccurate. I am used to the money being crap.

I am used to it all, and I can put up with it. Usually. Just about.

I am not, however, used to the venue being miles out of town.

Nor am I used to none of the actual organisers being present (and we had three tiers of "organisation" for this: the British company that directly employs me to do these promos; the Chinese university that usually runs its courses; and this weekend's host, a small private college that's owned or managed by one of the guys in the set-up at the university).

So, after being passed on to three successive liaison contacts in the space of 24 hours, the girl I finally ended up talking to - Contact No. 4 - was a niece of one of the teachers at the college..... who had never previously been there, and so didn't really know where it was.

Not the kind of person you want to be giving you the directions for how to find the place!

Although, I tried to console myself, maybe this would work out OK, because at least she would be making the effort to find the place herself, and would thus be having to pay close attention to landmarks and road names and so on. Such was my fond hope.

Almost all Chinese, in my experience, are profoundly inept with geography. I don't think they get much if any training in the use of maps at school. They never seem to have any sense of direction (it doesn't help that many Chinese maps still follow the old convention of putting South at the top; but that alone does not explain the depths or the ubiquity of Chinese cluelessness in this regard, I don't think). If they do manage - by some fluke - to pick the right point of the compass (ah, and there's a further confusing quirk of the culture here, in that the Chinese typically give directions in relation to where you want to go to, not the point of reference where you're at - so, when they say "west from Dongsi subway", they usually mean "east from Dongsi"; i.e., that Dongsi is west of where you're going, but you'd need to head east from Dongsi to get there), they have absolutely no sense of scale: suggested times or distances between points are invariably pretty inaccurate, and can be out by an order of magnitude (I generally find it best to assume that small distances are probably underestimated by a factor of 10: '50m' probably means 500m, and '500m' probably means 5km). And then, of course, there's the complete lack of attention to the names of streets and buildings: most people can't even give the Chinese name for something accurately or consistently, and they often get even more wildly off-the-mark when the place also has an English name; and there never seems to be any awareness that the Chinese and English names might be inconsistent, or that the Chinese name/description might be ambiguous (I lamented here how, for example, "Zhongguancun bookstore" is not a very helpful address, since Zhongguancun is a large district, and has a number of major bookstores).

All this I know, and try to make allowance for. I am used to none of the Chinese institutions I work with being able to provide me with the maps I request (but, oh, I keep lobbying for this!). I am used to the Chinese addresses they provide for me being unrecognised by my taxi driver. I am used to the oral directions they try to provide to my taxi driver over the telephone dragging on for many minutes and bringing little or no enlightenment. But in the end, somehow or other, I always get where I'm supposed to be going. I could do without all the unnecessary hassle and confusion, but this is China.

Saturday's experience, however, was a shock even to a battle-hardened soldier like myself.

I have now delivered one of these lectures without ever finding out the name of the college that was hosting the event. The liaison girl didn't seem to know it; it wasn't written up anywhere that I noticed on the campus (not in English, anyway; but I suspect not in Chinese either, since it's not a purpose-built space, but a part of some old PLA premises the college is renting); and the intermediaries at the British education company never saw fit to tell me.

And I very nearly didn't find the place at all. The liaison girl was not able to give any kind of coherent directions at all, in English or Chinese: she didn't even know the name of the street the campus entrance was on, much less the name of any other road junctions or landmarks that might guide us. After she had baffled and irritated my cabbie for about 10 minutes or so, in three different phone conversations (and nearly killed the credit on my mobile phone into the bargain), I got out of my cab - at a very prominent filling-station, on a main road, next to a factory whose address I could read on its brass nameplate - and told her to come and find me. That worked, after a fashion.

The really bizarre thing is that the directions she'd sent me by text message in Chinese were more or less adequate (I assume they must have been passed on to her by someone at the college, and she had no understanding of them). The thing is, this college isn't very visible, as its entrance is down a little side lane, about 100m off the main road. The "directions", therefore, had told us to look for a conspicuous Beijing Duck restaurant. This my cabbie and I had found, but we weren't sure why we were supposed to be looking for it. Neither, alas, was the poor liaison girl. Nobody could tell us that we were supposed to be looking for a concealed entrance on the opposite side of the road.

I was, in fact, at the venue - or within a minute or two's walk of it - half an hour early; but I ended up getting to the lecture room a few minutes late. Vexing. Very, very vexing.

[And, as if that wasn't marvellous enough, I also encountered a new twist in equipment screw-ups - they gave me a computer that didn't have PowerPoint! Luckily, we managed to dig up an IT assistant who was able to install the program for us; but I had to blag my way through the first 15 minutes of the presentation without my visual aids.

Boy, am I ready for a holiday!]

New Picks of the Month?

Er, NO.

Since we've reached the middle of the month already, I figure I'll leave last month's selections up until July. And I did particularly like these two. Please go and have a look at them, if you haven't already.

From Froogville, I chose IMLTHO, a post from July 2007 in which I rant against my least favourite acronym and the vice of false humility (none of that on here, I assure you);

and from Barstool Blues, it's The Worthy Opponent, a celebration of my pal Tony 'The Chairman's phenomenal pool-playing skills (in honour of his recent 50th birthday!).

Monday, June 15, 2009

Another great Chinese film plot summary

During my voice recording work last week I came upon this priceless distillation of the plot of a well-known film. It's not quite as good as this all-time classic, but....

The elder brother is a fool. The younger brother does not hate him for it.

Can you guess what it is?? (I'll put the answer in the comments, just in case it eludes you.)

I worry that this perhaps suggests an over-simplistic response to Western cinema in most Chinese viewers. I also worry that it betrays a certain characteristic naivety/intolerance of the Chinese in regard to mental disability. Still pretty funny, though.

Traffic Report - (belated) blog stats for May

Last month, there were 42 posts and just over 12,000 words on Froogville.

There were 50 posts and around 12,500 words on Round-The-World Barstool Blues.

I like to let the junior sibling take '1st place' once in a while - and The Barstool, having raced ahead with a flurry of short posts right at the start of the month, steadily held on to its lead throughout the next four weeks.

Considering my output recently has been inhibited by heavy work commitments and by the considerable interference of the Chinese Net censors, that was still a dauntingly prolific month. My resolution to try to cut down is still bearing little fruit!

The censorship problems here in China at the moment have cut into my readership rather. A good number of my 'regulars' are here in China, where Blogspot is at present very vigorously blocked; and, I fear, a lot of folks haven't figured out which proxies can circumvent this, or just can't be bothered to go to the extra trouble. Also, I believe certain proxies render visitors 'invisible' to the traffic-monitoring tools - so my real numbers might be a little better than reported.

The Barstool has received an occasional boost in visits recently through some mentions on the 'Talking Pints' thread of The Beijinger's forums. And, for some unknown reason, the great bar names thread has suddenly started getting a lot of attention, drawing 200 visits over the past month or so. And on Froogville, my 'Fantasy Girlfriend' post from 18 months ago on the lovely Dr Charlotte Uhlenbroek has started developing a bit of a following; as has my March post on the 'grass mud horse'.

The Barstool, I note, has lately drawn its first visitors from Israel, South Africa, and Guatemala; while Froogville can now tick Iran and Tanzania off the list! Oh yes, Froog is going global!!

A double bon mot

"Certain defects are necessary for the existence of individuality."

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)

"No member of a crew is praised for the rugged individualism of his rowing."

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Film Quiz - answers

A couple of weeks ago I gave you 10 memorable (if mostly, I confess, somewhat obscure) quotations from films that I like, and challenged you to identify them - character, actor, and film. Quite a few of my 'regulars' joined in, each recognising one or two of them, at least.

Now, to put you out of your misery, here is a complete rundown.

"I don't know how to run a newspaper. I just try everything I can think of."

Oh, you will kick yourselves if you didn't spot this one! Charles Foster Kane (played by Orson Welles) in the incomparable Citizen Kane.

"In 1966, I went down to Greenwich Village, New York City, to a rock club called 'Electric Banana'. Don't look for it. It's not there any more."

Marty DiBergi (played by Rob Reiner) in the classic spoof 'rockumentary' This Is Spinal Tap.

"Sometimes, the spaghetti likes to be alone."

Secondo (played by Stanley Tucci), younger brother to Primo (Tony Shalhoub), in Big Night, an under-appreciated classic, perhaps the greatest of all foodie films.

"I'm a Derek. Dereks don't run."

Derek, of course (played by Peter Jackson), in the Lord of the Rings' director's debut feature, the hilarious 'no-budget' horror comedy Bad Taste - surely the best zombie film ever made (basically a home movie, but a stunningly well executed one).

"If I win, I get to take you home. If you win, you go home with me."

The oddly lovable douchebag Tommy Basilio (played by the marvellous Steve Buscemi) in Trees Lounge, possibly the greatest film made about a bar.

"Who would cross the Bridge of Death
Must answer me these questions three
'Ere the other side he see."

The Bridge Keeper (played by Terry Gilliam) in Monty Python and The Holy Grail - the guy who gets hoist by his own petard when he can't differentiate between the African Swallow and the European Swallow.

"Moisture is the essence of wetness, and wetness is the essence of beauty."

The charmingly brainless male model Derek Zoolander (played by Ben Stiller) in the very silly eponymous comedy Zoolander.

"Of course he's willing to die. You think we do this kind of work because we're scared to die?"

The tough-as-saddle-leather marshal-for-hire Virgil Cole (played by Ed Harris), said of his equally tough sidekick Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) in Appaloosa - the best Western I've seen in many years.

"The saddest thing in life is wasted talent."

Wise bus driver and loving dad Lorenzo Annello (played by Robert De Niro) in A Bronx Tale, although it is also quoted in the closing voiceover by his son Calogero - "C" (Lillo Brancato). This is a wonderful, wonderful film, a gangster tale with heart; it's the model for the Simpsons episode where Bart goes to work in Fat Tony's bar.

"That wasn't no miss, Vargas. That was just to turn you 'round, so I don't have to shoot you in the back."

Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles, again), the raddled, bloated, scheming, unscrupulous chief of police of a small town on the Mexican border in the very, very dark thriller Touch Of Evil - often called "the greatest B-movie ever made".

And the 'mystery link', of course, is that these actors were all also the directors of the films in question (and in nearly all cases, a contributing writer too).

Big Night - which, I think, probably beats out Eat, Drink, Man, Woman and Babette's Feast as the best film about food - is about two Italian immigrant chefs, brothers struggling to keep alive their little restaurant in 1950s Brooklyn. Primo is an irascible perfectionist who refuses to compromise and cook the mundane dishes that most customers want; his younger brother Secondo is only a tad less passionate about food, but more pragmatic and flexible in seeking to make a success of the business. They plan a 'big night' as a last-ditch promotion - a special banquet for all the leading figures in the local Italian community, and for a special guest of honour, the singing sensation, Louis Prima. Without giving too much away, I can say that the party does not pass off well, and the two brothers, at their wits' end, have a huge quarrel. This is the aftermath the next morning. Apparently it's in Italian (I can't get any sound on YouTube at the moment!), but it doesn't much matter since the scene is almost entirely wordless. The young kitchen assistant has slept in the kitchen overnight; Secondo comes in and starts making himself a frittata - an Italian omelette - for breakfast; then Primo enters, just as the other two have begun to eat. It's the only scene I can think of where the entire preparation and eating of a dish is shown in real time, in one take - and I can't think of any other scene that so perfectly conveys the pleasure of cooking, the simplicity of it, the love it can inspire. And it sets up one of the great images of reconciliation - just beautiful. Enjoy.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

List of the Month - Excuses....

..... for not going down to Tiananmen Square on the 3rd or the 4th.

I had been planning to, but it didn't quite happen. Amongst the reasons why:

1) Lack of time, energy
I've been working like a dog for the past few weeks, almost literally from dawn to dusk on many days. Trying to fit in an expedition down to the Square as well was a pretty major undertaking.

2) The hours of daylight
The time I would really have wanted to go would have been in the early hours of the morning - partly because that's when the clearing of the Square happened; partly because (as Stuart slyly suggested a couple of weeks ago) it would have been nice to get a photograph of the national flag at half-mast over the Square during the dawn flag-raising ceremony. Not much chance of that happening in my present state of exhaustion, alas. And sun-up is around 4.40am - ouch! The flag-lowering at dusk was a tempting alternative - but that happens at around 7.40pm, and I didn't find that timing convenient for me either on that day.

3) Stiff legs
I went for my first run in about three months on the afternoon of June 3rd. It had been my intention to wander out to Muxidi in the evening, to see if there might be some kind of low-key commemoration going on, and perhaps to light a candle myself. After the run, I was too creaky and enfeebled to contemplate it any more, and instead retired to bed early. [Muxidi is a residential neighbourhood about 5 miles or so west of Tiananmen, and was the scene of probably the largest single shooting incident of the crackdown - a massacre that even the Chinese government is unable to deny or conceal. At around 10.30pm on June 3rd troops started firing sustained volleys into the crowds attempting to block their progress to the Square - and fired, seemingly randomly, into surrounding buildings too - killing nearly 200 people. Much of the area is relatively unchanged, and I imagine that quite a number of the residents of 20 years ago are still living there - and would have been the people mostly likely to mark the anniversary in some small way. I didn't hear of any kind of public demonstration, though; whatever commemorations there were, they were very private and discreet.]

4) Discouraging weather
Just as I was about to head out on the late afternoon/early evening of the 4th, the sky suddenly clouded over and it began to rain. I hadn't really left myself quite enough time to get there before sundown anyway (I'd been planning to walk - fearing likely police checks at the Tiananmen Square subway stations).

5) I am a coward
I'm afraid I did also allow myself to be deterred somewhat by misgivings about the likely level of security around the Square. The number of police, secret police, and army (many of them in plain clothes) was, of course, much increased over the usual - overkill, oppressive - levels. And there were numerous reports of strict ID checks all around the area, and of some foreigners being denied access to the Square (although I also heard of a number of people getting on to the Square without any hassle at all; it may have been that only known journalists, or people who looked like they might be journalists because they were carrying nice cameras, were getting such bothersome attention). I'd only just got my new visa back, and hadn't yet managed to re-register my residence with my local police station: I just didn't fancy taking the chance - even a very slim chance - that this 'irregularity' might be exploited to make trouble for me.

6) I was too emotional
I often get pretty choked up visiting the Square. I have other reasons of my own for being especially emotionally brittle in the month of June. And the heightened emotions surrounding this momentous 20th anniversary have left me a bit of a basket-case over the past couple of weeks. I didn't want to be seen blubbing in public. And I didn't want to risk an attack of the red mist, getting myself into a fight with one of the plain-clothes goon squadders.

7) Despair
I found the certainty that there would be nothing to see down there too goddamned depressing for words. The Chinese people today are too ignorant of what happened, or too complacent in their slowly growing prosperity, or just too damned cowed and apathetic to raise any kind of protest about the events of 1989. And the few, the tiny handful that might have wished to do something will have been efficaciously discouraged by the knowledge that scores of goons with truncheons would have been all over them as soon as they raised a cigarette-lighter to their candles. The bad guys won 20 years ago. And they're still winning today. I hate that. It makes me sick to my stomach.

8) Not wanting to be a 'tourist'
I get the impression from friends, from other China blogs that - apart from the security forces and a few Chinese tour groups - just about the only people down at the Square last Thursday, certainly the only people there with any interest in the anniversary, were foreigners. This is primarily the Chinese people's trauma, not ours; and there is a danger of our taking too prurient an interest in it, of appropriating their grief as our own. God knows, I am often guilty of this myself - but on this day I didn't want to be a gawker.

I have been to the Square since (and got very emotional). I will go there again. And I will write many more posts about the 'crackdown', its aftermath, and its continuing significance for us today. But I didn't visit the Square on the 3rd or 4th this year; and I don't feel too regretful or guilty about that. I think I made the right choice - even if, at the time, I wasn't fully conscious of the factors shaping my decision.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Tiananmen anniversary roundup

I was 'away' (over-emotional and overworked) for slightly more than the week I'd planned.... and this weekend isn't looking auspicious for a resumption of blogging either.

To keep you stimulated, here's a selection of the most interesting things I read related to the Tiananmen anniversary during the last week or so.

I'd already mentioned Philip Cunningham's Tiananmen Moon blog (a plug for a book of the same name [astonishingly enough, that link is not currently blocked in China!]). He seems to have closed it now, but the final two posts were long excerpts from his personal experience of June 3rd and June 4th in Beijing.

More intriguing eye-witness recollections were offered by Don Tai, a Chinese (I assume: he doesn't offer much biographical detail on his blog) Canadian who happened to be attending a Beijing university as an overseas student in 1989 (he has stopped in here on Froogville once or twice with a comment). This post about his experiences visiting a Chinese friend who lived near Tiananmen Square "the morning after" is particularly wrenching.

The New York Times' 'Lens' photojournalism blog carried a piece on the 3rd recounting the stories of the four press photographers who captured pictures of the 'Tank Man' - which led to the emergence the next day of an additional, previously unpublished shot taken by AP journalist Terril Jones. Unlike the more familiar views of the incident taken from the elevated vantage points of windows and balconies in the Beijing Hotel a few hundred yards to the east of Tiananmen Square, this picture is taken at street level. It seems a random, unremarkable snapshot of chaos and terror: a few people running or cycling away from the approaching armoured column (apparently a group of APCs had rolled through shortly beforehand, with soldiers on the back of them firing into the air to try to disperse the groups of onlookers along the side of the road).... but then, suddenly, you notice - in the background, in the upper left corner of the frame - the familiar figure of the 'Tank Man' taking position in the middle of a pedestrian crossing, getting ready to play his historic game of 'chicken' with the lead tank. Curiously, there's no reference to this grainy black-and-white long shot that I dug up for my 6/4 post on Froogville last year; I wonder who took this.
The Boston Globe's June 5th article carried a lot of large photos related to Tiananmen (so large, unfortunately, that they won't all load very readily - at least, not if you're having to use Tor - but be patient: they're worth it), some taken at the time (including a large version of that previously unknown street-level 'Tank Man' photo), some today (showing the enhanced police/military presence there this year to discourage any acts of commemoration or other potential embarrassments). I found the most moving ones to be those of this year's candelit mass vigil in Hong Kong's Victoria Park (150,000 people - according to most non-CCP sources - and you can readily believe it when you see photos like this one).
I also found interesting this June 2nd article from the UK's Guardian by Chinese author Ma Jian about how the government here is suppressing the memory of the 6/4 crackdown. It's a much better piece of writing than his horribly over-long and almost unreadable novel about these events, Beijing Coma - although a little too polemical at times for its own good (his allegation that the government knew of the melamine milk-doping scandal ahead of the Olympics but suppressed the news is plausible but, I fear, unprovable; and his suggestion that the ice lollies he fed to his daughter when visiting here last summer were all melamine-tainted is clearly a cheap shot, an over-emotionalism that does a disservice to the rest of the piece).

Another major Chinese writer, Yu Hua, had this op-ed piece in the New York Times at the end of May, titled 'China's forgotten revolution', a bitter observation on how the CCP has killed the idea of 'the people' in China. Do take a look, if you haven't already.

For the sake of "balance", check out how Chinese state media discuss these events. Well, actually, the mainstream media here discuss it little or not at all. But this paper, Global Times, is a new English-language venture, aimed at delivering the CCP 'message' a little more palatably and effectively to international audiences - so they felt (quite rightly) that they couldn't completely ignore the anniversary and retain any credibility with their target readership. It starts off slightly promisingly, with references to the increased police presence on the Square, the blocking of certain websites, and "scholars, officials, and businessmen declin[ing] interviews" with the paper. But then it quickly slides into the standard guff about how no-one cares any more because of 'the economic miracle' (with a sly reference or two to "the burnt bodies of soldiers" being one interviewee's only childhood recollection of the event). Credibility still not very high, I'm afraid, boys. But credit for daring to mention "the June 4th incident" at all; it's usually completely taboo in the Chinese media.

I was relieved to see that Hillary Clinton, after hitting the 'mute' button on human rights issues rather exaggeratedly when she paid her first visit to China a few months ago, issued a more appropriately forceful statement ahead of the 6/4 anniversary:
"A China that has made enormous progress economically, and that is emerging to take its rightful place in global leadership, should examine openly the darker events of its past and provide a public accounting of those killed, detained or missing, both to learn and to heal."
Hear, hear.

And finally, here's an interview with Guernica given by Wu'er Kaixi, one of the main student leaders of the '89 protest movement, now living in exile in Taiwan (his parents are refused permission to leave the mainland, so haven't seen him in person in over 20 years; at least in recent years Skype has enabled them to start keeping in touch by videophone).

There have been a lot of very moving words and images out there this past two weeks. And I hope this flood of remembrance and respect is going to continue for a good long time yet - until the Chinese leadership (and the majority of the Chinese people) start remembering too.

A week on haiku

Tears for the blood shed;
Tears for lost hope, lost chances;
Tears for all the lies.

No, a week - 9 days - on, I'm still not feeling much less sad and angry about that anniversary.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

A week for silent reflection

The dismal anniversary is upon us, and that seems like a reasonable cue to take a little break from blogging for a while. I get too darned emotional about these events, and if I wrote about nothing else for the next week or more, I daresay everyone would get rather weary of it. I'm sure I'll have at least a few more TAM posts in me at some point, but for now I think this sombre milestone would be better commemorated by a week of respectful silence.

There are lots of people out there writing better stuff about it than me, anyway. Long-time China hand Philip Cunningham, for example, has been providing a fascinating day-by-day recap of the 1989 events as he experienced them on his blog Tiananmen Moon (though I think he's not much of a writer, and in later life he appears to have become in some ways a bit of a CCP apologist, or at any rate an over-compensatory USA-basher, he was unquestionably here and in the thick of things when it all went down 20 years ago) - a teaser for his just-published book of the same name.

Expect me to be back around the middle of next week (if I don't manage to get myself arrested /deported in the next 24 hours or so).

And if you are going out in Beijing, or anywhere in China, tonight or tomorrow - Wear White.
[It is the Chinese colour of mourning, and I gather a few of the still active leaders of the '89 movement have been advocating this as a sign of respect - perhaps one of the few that people might be able to get away with here. It will be difficult to tell how many people are intentionally making such a statement of support, since the weather is very warm and lots of people are wearing white for comfort anyway, but..... we'll see.]