The tail-end of last week was some of the most apocalyptically grim weather I've seen in Beijing - and that's saying something. Most of the last two weeks has been 'pale rider' bad.
This week we were expecting better.
On Monday we saw it. Shiny happy sunny day.
The template for the week to come.
No. On Monday evening it started getting stupidly humid again. And whenever it's stupidly humid, the air is also stupidly smoggy.
It's been like that for the last two days - some of the worst air pollution I can ever remember in Beijing.
I was assured by a number of Chinese folks I know that it was going to rain last night, to clear the air ahead of the birthday celebrations. People seemed to be scarily, dementedly confident of this. The news had been put out through the official channels, so obviously it must be true. But there was no rain last night. Or none to speak of. And today the toxic murk was even worse - visibility down to a few hundred yards.
So... tonight it really has to rain.
And it's trying. But it's very, very feeble and scattered so far.
I have heard that the usual cloud-buster batteries of rain-seeding artillery troops around Beijing have been massively reinforced with other units drafted in from all neighbouring provinces. And they're pumping everything they have into the night sky.
You see, the problem with this rainmaker juju is that.... you have to have some clouds to shoot at. And there haven't been any for the last several days. Just a great big pall of dank, clammy, polluted nasty air. But no actual clouds to speak of.
The guys in charge of the Big Parade thought they could guarantee beautiful blue skies for the whole shebang, but.... it's looking like it might not happen.
I joked in my last post about the national television channel having prepared a lot of 'perfect' footage of events in advance, during all the extended rehearsals over the past month or so. But really, if the weather in 6 hours time is as SHIT as it is now, that's what they're going to be showing, I suspect.
Schadenfreude? Who - ME??
Wednesday, September 30, 2009
The Choirboy (his second mention on here in 5 days, just to make amends for my supposed 'neglect' of him recently) observed to me a week or so ago that he was missing the sound of pigeon whistles* in the hutongs around the Bell and Drum Towers. It suddenly struck me (well, I'd only been back from holidays a few weeks, you see): it's not just the pigeon whistles that are missing, but the pigeons too. The hutong areas in my neighbourhood are a hotbed of pigeon fanciers, and it is one of my favourite recreations of an afternoon to watch the small flocks swooping and whirling in narrow little circuits round and round their ramshackle rooftop lofts (their owners always seem to fly them between 3.30 and 5.30pm).
There have been many attempts to outlaw or restrict the hobby in recent years - whether because of fears of bird 'flu, or misgivings that it is one of those aspects of Old Beijing that might not 'harmonise' with the image of the clean and modern city which China wanted to present to the world in Olympic year. But they always seem to have come to naught. Either the pigeon fanciers have some very powerful guanxi... or they're just a bunch of really stubborn old scofflaws who know that enforcement officers aren't likely to fancy clambering around on rickety hutong roofs to check if lofts have been vacated or not.
Yep, the pigeons (and their whistles) had survived even the comprehensive pre-Olympic sanitization programme. But now they're gone. Edicts have been issued. And this time even the surly pigeon fanciers' lobby is running scared.
I've recently heard that the birds haven't been banished completely, but that their owners have been prohibited from letting them out to fly for a number of weeks prior to tomorrow's great 60th birthday party. I doubt if that can be very good for their mental or their physical health; I hope they're going to survive this prolonged incarceration.
Having a stray pigeon fly across the nice television pictures of tomorrow's Big Parade, you see, could spoil the whole effect. And imagine what would happen if one of them pooped on Hu Jintao's head. Or flew into the air intake of one of the helicopters or warplanes that will be flying past. Why.... CCTV would have to cut to the 'fake' footage it's been preparing during the last month of rehearsals. Wouldn't that just be terrible?
Oh, no. We couldn't possibly risk that. So, the capital has become a no-fly zone for pigeons. I am not making this up.
China's birthday - it is a royal pain-in-the-arse!
* Beijing pigeon whistles are small wooden tubes tied to the back of one or two pigeons in each flock, which vibrate when air is forced through them in flight, making a loud thrumming, whirring noise rather like a talking top or a diabolo. They don't seem to have any function in helping the birds to keep together. Nor, indeed, in differentiating one flock from another, since all the whistles – at least to my untrained ear – sound much the same. I imagine that they are just for helping short-sighted pigeon owners to keep track of their flocks, and to reassure them that they haven't strayed too far way from home base and got lost.
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
I had an unhappy experience last week with one of my longest-standing employers here.
It's just occasional contract work, you see; and such paltry sums are involved that we had, for some time, been exempt from tax. A year or so back, they started taxing us. This was a bit of a pain, since the rates being paid are puny enough already for the kind of work involved. We were promised that an increase in the pay scale was in the pipeline, to offset - and, hopefully, more than offset - this 20% sting.
I never received any notification about any such change in pay rates. Lord knows, I've asked often enough - but they never quite got around to telling me.
Anyway, this month was a big month for me. I did a number of promotional events for them, most of them quite long - so, I should have been in for quite a nice wedge of cash to see me through the holidays. Something close to 5,000 rmb; over 4,000, even after tax.
But no.... it seems the new pay scale has introduced a strange and superfluous distinction between 'promotional' and 'training' events. 'Promotional' is now worth 25% less, it seems.
Also, the events were all credited as 1.5 or 2.5 hours, and..... well, the pay scale only provides for 1hr, 2hr, or 3hr events; so, in the past, if we went over a whole number of hours, we got paid for a full extra hour (whether we did 15 minutes or 45). But not any more. Oh no. Mind you, it could be worse. At least they're not rounding down. But they have invented a "half-hour rate" which is only about 100 rmb, and really not worth getting out of bed for.
Ah, but, that's not even the worst thing. No, the worst thing is that three of these four events were supposed to have been a full 3-hour duration (that's what I was booked for, that's what I did, that's what I claimed for in my paperwork), and they just arbitrarily decided to whittle them down to 2.5 hours for the purposes of calculating my pay.... without even having the decency to have a word with me about it first.
Were they thinking that I wouldn't notice? Were they thinking that I wouldn't care?
How WRONG they were! I won't be working for them any more.
Indeed, it does appear that all of those untrustworthy Western presenters have been banished from CCTV-9 news and current affairs programmes in the run up to the PRC's 60th anniversary celebrations.
Today, there was one poor Chinese lady who seemed to be fronting everything. She's an attractive woman, but her English pronunciation is especially tortured. Listening in to the business programme while I made myself a sandwich for lunch, I kept on hearing her banging on about "T-bones being very popular in Hong Kong". Eh??
Well, it seems that the Chinese government has just issued its first Renminbi-denominated treasury bonds, and they are proving a hot item especially with investors in the Special Administrative Region. T-bonds, T-bones - close enough.
Monday, September 28, 2009
Sunday, September 27, 2009
Last Tuesday I went to the Beijing screening of this year's Manhattan Short Film Festival at the Yugong Yishan music bar, not too far from where I live. Apparently it was planned to screen the 10 films 532 times in 173 different cities all around the world during this past week. All audience members were invited to vote for their favourite, and the winner of the poll is due to be announced on the website above this coming Tuesday, 29th September.
So, what did I think? [Yes, there will be SPOILERS in my thumbnail reviews below; but you've now missed the Festival, and you'll have forgotten by the time they show up on TV or on a DVD.]
(Well, first of all, I hope they randomised the order of screening a bit; otherwise, I would think, there'd be some weighting in favour of the first few films, since a certain ennui inevitably sets in after an hour or so; it's also possible that the later films, especially the very last one in the running order that I saw [which also seems to be the order that they are listed and discussed on the website, so probably is an unvarying sequence], might get a boost from the sense of relief an audience feels at finally finding something that hits the spot after a string of near-misses; being shown in a middle slot is almost certainly going to be a big disadvantage.)
The Boundary (Dir. Julius Onah, USA)
The most pointedly topical of the films, this harrowing micro-drama encapsulates the erosion of civil liberties by the Homeland Security regime in America since 9/11. It's inspired by a true story of an Arab family detained for interrogation at a border crossing when they tried to re-enter America after a brief trip to Canada, and perhaps benefits from having a recognised actor (Alexander Siddig - remembered as Dr Bashir in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) in the central role. However, at my screening, the film suffered from a poor quality soundtrack - the dialogue recorded at such a low level (much, much lower than any of the other films in competition) as to be almost completely inaudible. Hence, the crucial final twist - Siddig is abruptly released, just when it looks as though his wife has inadvertently said something to compromise him - was rather baffling; presumably it had been a case of mistaken identity (why do so many Arabs choose the name Ali?!). At the time, I felt there was something lacking in the execution of this one. It was a powerful story, but we never descended quite deep enough into the nightmare - it was all resolved a bit too briskly and easily. However, in retrospect, I find this is one of the ones that lingers strongest in the memory, and perhaps the sense of dissatisfaction at the time resulted from my inability to become fully involved in the story because of the soundtrack problems. I suspect this will be one of the strongest performers in the vote, especially with American - and Arab? - viewers.
Love Child (Dir. Daniel Wirtberg, Sweden)
I think there was a common response from the people around me that this was about the least impactful of all the films on show, but that may have been mainly because it was also the slightest - barely half the length of most of the other entries. A 4-year old girl has enjoyed being the centre of her parents' world, and feels jealous and alienated when they start neglecting her to shower attention on a cat. Originally, this had been just a three-minute film, and it might perhaps have worked better at that length. Here it was padded out to nearly twice as long with some prettily composed but essentially pointless shots of the girl - having run away - framed against scenes of urban desolation. There's an element of magic realism in the presentation - the cat starts wearing clothes and walking on its hind legs; the little girl returns home dressed in a cat costume to try to win back her parents' love - and perhaps this was the problem for me; a more straightforward approach might have established more sympathy, but this somehow just didn't engage me.
Mozambique (Dir. Alcides Soares, Mozambique)
This documentary autobiography has quite ravishing photography, and a touching subject - the lives of children taken in by other families after being orphaned by AIDS. The teenaged director is impressively talented, and has a tremendous eye for light and composition. However, I found the music added to the soundtrack cloyingly overdone, and there wasn't really very much substance to this: a vivid snapshot of lives we might otherwise never see, but no story.
Skhizein (Dir. Jérémy Clapin, France)
This 2-D/3-D animation is, I think, the likely winner because it has such a striking premise and is so elegantly realised (in simple grey/sepia drawings). It made a strong impression on, and won the votes of most the people around me at the screening. (And I am rather charmed by the fact that Clapin uses the Greek word for 'to split' as his title.) However, I have some misgivings that, as the only animated film in the field, it probably has an unfair advantage. A young office worker who lives alone finds his life mysteriously transformed after a close encounter with a meteorite. He discovers that he is literally "beside himself", his sensory perceptions and visible self displaced 91cm to the right of his now invisible physical presence. In order to continue to function in daily life, he has to draw chalk pictures of every object in his apartment 91cm to the left of where they are, so that he can co-ordinate the movements of his visible body with those of the invisible self which actually interacts with the physical world. It's a wonderful metaphor of urban alienation, and a disturbing study of obsessive-compulsive behaviour. I have quibbles about the development, though: I feel Clapin didn't really know where he wanted to take the story, and it degenerates in the last third; the ending is rather muddled and disappointing, at least in comparison with the brilliance of the set-up. However, it's certainly a unique and thought-provoking film, and would, I think, be a worthy winner.
Parking (Dir. Jorge Molina, Spain)
A young businessman, running late for an important meeting, finds himself suffering an escalating series of misadventures in an underground parking lot. This is a darkly comic fable that reminded me at times of the wonderful 70s short feature La Cabina (also Spanish - there must be something about the national sensibility that favours the macabre), although I'm afraid it is nowhere near as good as that classic. I would say that this is also a possible winner, in that it has a strong theme and is perhaps the most perfectly realised of all the films. However, I did feel that it was just missing something: perhaps we needed a little more background about the protagonist and his predicament in order to feel some sympathy for him, or if not sympathy (he's not a very sympathetic character) at least empathy. Also, the final twist is pretty obvious, and has probably been anticipated by most of the audience much earlier - which leaves the ending seeming a little weak.
A'Mare (Dir. Martina Amati, Italy)
The weakest film in the competition, by general consensus. It looks absolutely gorgeous, but it's a frustratingly opaque story, and it really goes nowhere. Two young boys from a Sicilian fishing village take a boat out to sea on their own. They find a lifeless man floating in the water with a big leather briefcase (this proves to be a complete red herring: we speculate on how he got there, whether he might be a drug runner or a people smuggler, whether the case might be full of money - but we never find out). They're not able to lift the man into their boat, so they tie a rope around him and drag him along behind (thus probably ensuring that he will soon drown, if he hasn't already): some kind of symbolism going on here, no doubt, but it's quite impenetrable to the audience, and we don't even begin to care. The boys lose one of their oars (which inexplicably drifts away from the boat and disappears, in the middle of a flat calm), and so are marooned. They spend an anxious night adrift, but are rescued by a coastguard launch first thing the next morning - so that's all right. Oh, and the dead man comes to life again, and swims powerfully away into the emptiness of the ocean. Er, what? 'Magical realism' again, I suppose. I don't always hate it; I just think it's seldom done well, or to any good purpose.
Plastic (Dir. Sandy Widyanata, Australia)
A slightly frumpy young woman preparing to go out on a date discovers that, when she looks in her bathroom mirror, she can mould her features and her body like plasticine - and, of course, she gets tempted to try to remake herself into some sort of perverse Cosmo ideal of impossibly 'perfect' femininity. It's all right as far as it goes, but it's not a terribly original idea, and it's mostly about the CGI rather than the acting or the story. Indeed, they had such a good budget to work with that they even introduced an utterly irrelevant CG moth fluttering around the woman's apartment. The superfluousness of that moth pissed me off more than anything else in the whole festival: it completely turned me off this film.
Miente (Dir. Isabel de Campo, Spain)
This is another topical piece - on human trafficking - that seems as though it might have been lifted from a newspaper report, but is said to be an original work of fiction. The protagonist is an attractive young woman from Eastern Europe living in a large Spanish city. She wants to send a flute to her teenage sister back home as a birthday present, but she doesn't have any money, so she has to steal one. It becomes apparent that she is being forced to work as a prostitute, and her brutal pimp is reluctant to let her have any communication with her family. Eventually he agrees to have someone deliver the flute to the little sister, because he has designs of luring her to Spain as well. This is a well-constructed and moving melodrama; but it's trying just a bit too hard, it's almost cloyingly worthy; and the 'happy ending' seems too contrived, unconvincing.
Lashabiya (Dir. Yehezkel Lazarov, Israel)
This was the most frustrating of the films on show. It might have been, perhaps should have been a clear winner, but the ending completely let it down. At least it provided proof that a really short film could compete with longer, more complete dramas - I think this was the shortest offering of all, only about 5 or 6 minutes. It also showed that I'm not utterly impervious to magical realism - here was some magical realism that worked. A young Arab is standing against a tree in a small courtyard. A row of ten soldiers are facing him, their rifles raised. It looks like a firing squad, but.... it's not that straightforward. The Arab turns to face the tree, and a game of Grandma's Footsteps begins - the soldiers scurrying forward while the Arab's back is turned, being eliminated from 'the game' if he spins around and sees them moving. The Arab invokes various other childhood rhymes and games to disqualify more soldiers, and one has to withdraw after stumbling and accidentally shooting himself in the leg. Finally, there is only one soldier left, and the Arab is looking down the barrel of his weapon. Then a school bell goes. The camera slowly - slowly, slowly (honestly, this shot must have taken at least 30 seconds, maybe more like a minute) - pans away from this confrontation, up, up into the leaves of the tree. You are waiting, waiting, waiting for some resolution, some finality - and there is none. I didn't speak to anyone that night who didn't hate this non-ending. It seemed obvious, inevitable from the set-up that there could really be only three satisfactory endings here: a) real schoolchildren come out of class and fill up the schoolyard, preventing (or perhaps witnessing) the execution; b) the soldiers and the prisoner go into a classroom for a lesson, continuing the primary schoolkids analogy, but defusing the imminent violence of the scenario (perhaps the teacher begins to tell them about the history of the partition of Palestine); or c) the prisoner just gets shot (it's difficult to avoid the fact that this is the logical conclusion to 'the game'; you don't have to show the execution, but you do have to hear it). I see from the interview on the Festival website that the director sees the Arab's almost-success in 'the game' as an acknowledgement of the resourcefulness of the resistance to Israeli occupation and an illustration of the limitations of trying to rely on military force. He sees the ending as indicating that the only option for the last remaining soldier and the Arab is to open up a dialogue - but I'm sorry, that just doesn't work. The scene is obviously set up as an execution, and the final soldier has 'won': audience expectation cannot be anything other than that the soldier will shoot, and panning away from that climax does not displace the expectation, it merely leaves the audience confused as to why the director has been so coy. If you want to make the virtue of dialogue into the moral of the film, then you have to show some dialogue (otherwise, the idea of dialogue is completely absent from the film; and it's hard, if not impossible to infer it just from the absence of a gunshot at the end). I think a lot of people wanted to vote for this film anyway, because it's such an arresting premise. With an effective ending, I think it would have won by a landslide.
Hammerhead (Dir. Sam Donovan, UK)
This was the most completely satisfying of all the films on show, impressive in its script, acting, and photography. It also has a very effective and memorable central metaphor (a hammerhead shark mask which gives its 10-year-old protagonist a split-image view of the world). I would pick this as the likely winner, since some viewers may prove resistant to the eccentric charms of the French cartoon Skhizein. Boris is a precocious brat who's crazy about sharks. His mum, who works in an aquarium, gives him the hammerhead mask as a birthday present. There have been reports of a large shark sighted off the coast nearby, so they decide to go to the seaside on a spotting trip as his birthday treat. Boris sees the outing as a last chance to try to get his estranged parents back together, but his plans are frustrated by the presence of Lilah, a co-worker at the aquarium with whom his mother has begun a lesbian relationship. It's not terribly substantial and perhaps a bit trite, but it's beautifully done, with great warmth and humour. With this film coming on last, it seemed in retrospect as though all its competitors had had more unusual story ideas which they struggled to tell effectively; whereas this was a fairly banal story that was executed near perfectly. Yep, it got my vote. But oh how I wish I could have voted for Lashabiya instead.
The Manhattan Short Film Festival is an admirable venture, but I have just a few misgivings about its operation. As I've already mentioned, I think having an unvarying running order creates a danger that the voting will be skewed in favour of the first or last films on the programme. I'm also wary of allowing animations into the competition, since they are a very different kind of animal from live action films: the amount of time and energy required by the production process almost inevitably raises the impression of overall quality and attention to detail in a good animated film; and the very nature of the medium makes it more immediately arresting to an audience. (I think Skhizein, for example, would probably not take the top prize in most animated film festivals, but would regularly win out against live action competitors.) Similarly, I think it's very difficult to judge documentary films against dramas, and I'd prefer to see separate festivals for these three very different genres. I also wonder if it might be worth introducing some parameters on running time - you can compare a 3-minute film to a 20-minute film, but you tend to appreciate them in very different ways.
Finally, I am somewhat dubious about the selection criteria. The 10 films in competition were culled from over 400 submissions. And I would say that 2 of them were downright weak, and 4 or 5 of them were seriously flawed. I can't quite believe that these were the best short films made around the world last year, given the huge number of such films being made by talented amateurs or as film school projects. The conspicuous thing about these 10 films was that they had all been made by professional film-makers and had very high production values (well, all except the documentary about AIDS orphans in Mozambique; and even that seemed to have had a lot of money spent on it in post-production). I would imagine that they'd all been sponsored or commissioned by national TV stations. I suspect you'd find more zest and originality amongst lower-budget productions.
Setting such grouching (inevitable with me, I'm afraid!) aside, though, it was a fascinating two hours; and I'm already looking forward to next year's Festival.
I'm also very curious to see the results of the voting on Tuesday.
Saturday, September 26, 2009
A post title that stands on its own for anyone who gets the reference.
When it's 1.30 in the morning and you're drinking the good whisky and listening to The Wall, things aren't usually very good. I have had it up to here with police state China. And there's probably another fortnight of this shit to put up with. If we're lucky.
At least we're getting comfortably numb. But gosh, isn't that an apposite metaphor for most of the new Chinese middle class?
I've just spent an hour pootling around the Net trying to find proxy server addresses that might still work in China. I've tried half a dozen of them, and can't get any of them to work.
All the standard web-based proxies - even the less well-known ones previously overlooked by the Kafka Boys - have been stomped on this week. Every single one of them.
And I hear that even subscription VPN services appear to be having problems now. These bastards have found a way to crack encryption?! It's scary how good this censorship technology appears to be getting. And how thoroughgoing the current crackdown is.
The Forces of Darkness appear to be ahead of the game at the moment. But I'm sure this can't last for long. Armies of hackers must be toiling away at the problem at this very moment, and I trust that within a few days a new censor-proof proxy solution for China will emerge. I bloody well hope so, anyway. I'm getting mighty pissed off with this.
[I'm trying to persuade The Weeble - the only one of my friends with any tech savvy at all - to shop around the available VPNs to see if any of them are still China-censor-proof. The one he uses apparently isn't, or only very intermittently so - but he's only using the cheapest version which has acknowledged vulnerabilities. I think we may just have to accept that we're going to have to shell out a little bit more to get our Internet back.]
Any recommendations from readers would be most welcome.
Friday, September 25, 2009
Earlier this week, Kallahar's Place, the simplest and most reliable of web-based proxies, for the past three years my favourite back-door through the Great Firewall, was finally blocked by China's Net censors.
Proxylord, the proxy favoured by my drinking buddy Dr Manhattan, has gone under as well (it never did work for me, but he swore by it).
And as of last night, even Tor is being thoroughly squelched.
(I'm getting heaps of interference with my Yahoo e-mail as well; I'm beginning to wonder if I'm not being individually targeted for some extra-special harassment. It has happened once or twice in the past.)
I'm going to keep on trying to post via e-mail for as long as I can; but, at the moment, I have no way of reading the blogs myself - so I don't know if new posts are appearing as they should, and I'm not able to respond to comments. (Since I have comment notification to one of my e-mail accounts, I would be grateful if someone could leave a comment just to let me know that you can see this post out there, in the normal world, beyond China.)
I think I'm going to have to bite the bullet and get myself a subscription VPN at some point over the next few days. Watch this space for further developments.
Yesterday was one of the most hellish we've seen in Beijing all year - a return to the choking levels of pollution we saw just before the Olympics. An unseasonal mistiness - early autumn fog or late summer humidity? - is clogged with dust and smoke. A cough starts to develop within moments of you stepping outside, and you can feel the abrasive grit in your throat and lungs. The air, as I quipped to a friend last night, is like "asbestos porridge".
And today is not looking any better.
I assume that this is the price we have to pay for ensuring continuous blue skies through the October National Birthday celebrations. The guardians of the secret Weather Machine are not, after all, omnipotent. Some sort of karmic balance has to be struck: three or four days of toxic miasma before the week of sunny perfection.
Never before so tired -
Sleeping all the time.
I don't believe it can still be "jet lag" 5 weeks after I got back, but for one reason or another I'm still not sleeping very well at night.... and compensating with huge catnaps dotted through the day. Not good.
Thursday, September 24, 2009
My good friend The Choirboy was complaining to me the other day that he hasn't made an appearance on my blogs "in over a year". Ah, the vanity of youth!
In fact, his complaint is somewhat exaggerated; a quick search reveals that he was briefly name-checked over on The Barstool just a few weeks ago, and has had at least three other mentions this year, including the surely rather flattering suggestion in my notorious Cast List post that, in a film version of the blog, he should be played by the gorgeous Irish actor Cillian Murphy. And he was honoured here on Froogville at the tail-end of last year for his momentous victory in the Grand Final of The Bookworm's Professionals' Quiz.
This, however, is a favourite story from a year ago that I have been meaning to add on here for some time, but have somehow never quite got around to. (Be careful what you wish for, Choirboy!)
My best friend here in Beijing - a rather sporty and roguishly charming young Irishman that we have come know as The Choirboy - managed to break both his wrists on the eve of his birthday last year. Don't practise capoeira when drunk is the lesson we learn from this.
Although this was a moderately amusing story, he was naturally rather shamefaced about telling it, and his friends all soon grew bored of hearing it. So, for a while, we developed a little competition of suggesting more exotic explanations for his incapacity. Our favourite (since this was just after the Olympics) was that he had been Ireland's surprise hope of a gold medal in the men's table tennis, but that the Chinese team - desperate to protect its domination of the competition - had sent the heavies round to sort him out.
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
At the start of the month, my "China-bashing" blog-buddy Stuart put up this modest little post questioning whether Chinese schools really needed more 'patriotic education'.
Great oaks from little acorns, and so on. That simple observation has now spawned a thread with nearly 120 comments (well, I suppose it helps that he's only been posting once or twice a month since he left China) - fully one third of them mine!
We've been having great sport teasing poor old Pffefer, Stuart's pet fenqing. (Actually, I hesitate to use that term of him, because he's definitely at the more moderate end of fenqingdom and often has some quite pertinent things to say. Unfortunately, on this occasion he's been behaving like a berserker, and has earned repeated slappings down.)
More recently a chap who calls himself 'in-ur-face fenqing' has joined in the fray too. With a screen name like that, you know exactly what you're going to get! (I banned him from Froogville a little while ago because he was like a dog that won't let go of a bone; indeed, he was like a dog that doesn't realise it's gnawing its own leg off, and I find that rather too pitiful a spectacle to endure.) Stuart has had the brilliant idea of neutralizing his rabid hostility by giving him the more friendly nickname 'Cuddles'.
Do go and check this thread out. I haven't had so much fun for ages.
But I really should get out more...
Monday, September 21, 2009
Another fascinating item of news on China Central Television's 'International' channel today. Well, more a piece of non-news, actually. I wonder if they've devised some kind of mechanical suction device to extract all the meaningful and newsworthy content out of their copy before they go on air with it. Perhaps a modified and scaled-down version of the notorious Weather Machine that they use to create freakishly blue skies for major public holidays and the visits of foreign VIPS like heads of state and the International Olympic Committee?
It was announced on the lunchtime business news programme today that more than 150 foreign products had been refused entry to China after failing quality control checks.
Hmm. The beginnings of a story there. But that was it - no development; no context at all. There was some highlighting of particular brands that were alleged to have been found wanting; and some very vague and possibly misleading examples of the kind of defects discovered (not tied closely to the companies/products that had been mentioned by name); and one fascinating snippet about one of the companies - Pepsi, I think - having warned the authorities in advance about a possible shortcoming with one batch of products being submitted (why? again, this piece of information was completely without context or explanation - I would assume that the company felt this problem was non-ideal but not actually hazardous or contrary to regulations, and was seeking to forestall any harumphing by the inspectors by giving full disclosure in advance; all we can do is assume in cases like this, because Chinese news reporting hardly ever actually tells us).
There was absolutely no discussion of whether such problems are common or uncommon, or whether this number of rejections at one time is exceptionally large, or how it comes about that these rulings - and the release of the news - should happen just now. I'd conjecture that it's some kind of shot across the bows in the ongoing grumblings about protectionist trade policies in the US (and elsewhere). Or maybe it's just pre-October 1st (birthday of the Republic!) propaganda designed to reassure people that quality control in China is finally emerging from the Dark Ages (or to remind them that Western countries are crap, really).
There was certainly a note of barely-contained gloating in the delivery of the Chinese newsreader who read the item.
When they have news stories this badly written - or this nakedly propagandizing - these days they usually seem to run them when the foreign presenters are having a day off. It's as though they don't trust them to read this stuff without demanding re-writes. Or without cracking a cynical smirk.
They're probably right. I hope so, anyway. It must be a wretched job, being a foreigner working for the state media here.
Friday, September 18, 2009
Grey day, sunlight nil.
Visibility - dull haze.
Weather machine rests?
The sun does not seem to have come up this morning. Outside my window is a humid murk of fog and dust and smoke. Once again I blame the preparations for October 1st.
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
Yesterday was the deadline for registrations for this year's Beijing Marathon. I was full of good intentions of trying to get myself signed up for it (even though I had a bunch of work chores to take care of), but.... Well, I just didn't find the time.
Cold feet yet again, I'm afraid. Since picking up a bad knee injury on the Great Wall Marathon nearly three-and-a-half years ago, I have suffered a succession of minor but persistent injuries as well as a number of more general health problems which have inhibited me from getting back into a regular training habit. And, as a result, I've put on a lot of weight: I'm nearly a stone (6kg, if you must have it in metric terms) heavier than I was when I tried "running the Wall". Over the past three years I suppose I must have been forced to abandon plans to compete in at least 6 or 7 marathons here in China: Beijing, Shanghai, Xiamen, The Great Wall. I am pathetic.
I did quite a bit of running during my summer holiday, but was bothered by a nameless metabolic (or existential) ailment which has been mysteriously sapping my strength and my will for some months now. Since I got back to Beijing 4 weeks ago, I have dismally failed to get back into a daily jogging habit; I have in fact managed only 4 or 5 - fairly short - runs in all that time. So, I just don't think I'd be able to get in shape for the full-distance event, which is now just one month away. And I rather fear I may have to go and see a doctor to try and find out what it is that's making me feel so bloody feeble all the time.
I've never been what you'd call a natural athlete, and, after such a long run of injuries and ill health, I'm beginning to think that I may have run my last marathon. Now that I am entering my middle forties - with the stoutening of girth which seems inevitably to accompany this stage of life - my body no longer seems to be capable of putting forth the effort, or enduring the physical pounding, that long-distance running requires.
Damn. I'm going to miss it. It has been a big part of my life.
Then again, maybe my bloody-mindedness may yet get the better of me. I hate to admit defeat, ever. The Beijing organisers may still be accepting "late registrations" for a while longer (at an elevated fee, but that's more of an annoyance than a fatally offputting price barrier). If I can get in a few good - painless - runs in the next week (and/or rustle up some more work, which would help to make the dratted registration fee seem a less irresponsible expenditure), then I may... just may give it a go after all.
Watch this space.
Monday, September 14, 2009
Earlier this year I learned the unhappy news that two of my oldest friends had split up. It rocked my world to its foundations: not only was I deeply concerned for each of them, and for their young children; I felt a huge sense of dislocation and loss for myself.
These guys had got together in their first few weeks at university - shortly before I even met them - and, despite a few ructions and ruptures here and there in the early days, had essentially been a couple ever since. It never seemed exactly an 'ideal' relationship: there was always a lot of 'creative tension' between them that could be uncomfortable for others to be around; but, despite this constant scratchiness, the relationship worked. Other friends married and divorced, and remarried - sometimes within a few short years. But these guys just went on and on. They'd always been together (25 years - the whole of my adult life!). And I thought they always would be. They had been one of the few enduringly stable elements of my life. And now - though I hope I can continue to be friends with each of them separately - that bedrock of stability is shattered. It is acutely disorienting. (Yes, yes, unimaginably worse for them, of course. Quite bad enough for me.)
And now.... I learn that my oldest friend in China is going to quit. She's put in nearly twice the time that I have here (maybe there's something in that rule of 7-year cycles?), and it's fried her mind rather. She needs a change of scene, some new challenges. I have a feeling she'll be back in two or three years, but.... well, her decision to leave is rather abrupt, and very unsettling for me. I had thought she would always be here. And she has been another of my rocks - one of the few consistently reliable sources of sympathy and comfort, consolation and advice I've found out here. I never suspected just how much I'd miss her until I discovered she was going to leave in a few weeks.
Saturday, September 12, 2009
|Last week, on my way out to visit my friend Nick's photo exhibition, I ran afoul of the tanks. A double column of light tanks and self-propelled guns was waiting to roll into town from the east, and almost all major roads for half a mile or so in all directions around them were blocked off. Even the footpaths alongside Tonghui Creek were closed (since they passed under the road where the column was being held, awaiting its move order), so thousands of pedestrians were being forced to walk along the elevated Jingtong Expressway, the only thoroughfare still open. Every weekend, you see, from late August until the grand 60th anniversary of the PRC on 1st October, there are full-scale rehearsals of the planned festivities around Tiananmen Square. The centrepiece of those festivities is going to be a massive parade of military hardware (How quaint! Isn't that SO Cold War?!) down the central artery of Chang'an Avenue. Of course, this causes huge disruption of traffic across the whole city for 48 hours at a time. But it's all worth it. Oh yes.|
No, it isn't. How I wish a new 'Tank Man' would bravely step into the middle of the road and say, "Enough of this foolishness. Go back to your barracks, and stay there."
Now, I admit I can't quite shake off my schoolboy fascination with the paraphernalia of warfare, and part of me thinks it's quite cool to be able to see this sort of equipment up close. A much larger part of me, though, is ashamed of such trivial pleasures, and feels a much stronger and more profound sense of discomfort when confronted with this spectacle: there is something incongruous, indeed downright sinister, about encountering troops and tanks in the streets of a city. I think this would be true anywhere in the world; but it is especially so here in a city still haunted by the traumatic memories of the imposition of martial law 20 years ago.
Inevitably, this has become a favourite talking point for me over the past couple of weeks, both in private conversations and in the weekly discussion group I'm running with some Chinese lawyers.
I find it very disheartening that none of the Chinese I've broached the subject with so far seems to think there is anything untoward about any of this. Indeed, they don't seem to have even any awareness of the concept of 'militarism'. They don't see this sort of posturing as immature, or provocative. They don't see it as the kind of thing that can lead to wars. I guess they don't have any familiarity with the arms races in Europe - and, in particular, the rise, and then the resurgence of aggressive nationalism in Germany - which precipitated the two World Wars.
So, I move on to try to consider the semiotics of this sort of event from first principles: what exactly is the thinking behind this? what sort of signals is it intended to send out? aren't you at all concerned how negatively this is likely to be viewed in most other countries around the world? how do the Chinese themselves interpret its message?
Well, the Chinese perception of this HUGE display of military power planned for the October 1st celebrations seems to be (and here I am shamelessly recycling a comment I contributed [or tried to contribute - I'm still being plagued by Internet glitches!] to an interesting thread that's been evolving this week on Stuart's Found In China blog) that it is necessary and justified, to intimidate China's enemies.
Yep, they don't even say "potential enemies" there, just "enemies". When challenged as to who those enemies might be, they start off with the USA and the UK (which seems to be more about lingering resentments of the "century of humiliation", and envy of global hegemony rather than any, you know, realistic military threat). When you point out that the USA and the UK have neither the desire nor the capability to fight a land war against China, they reconsider for a moment, and then suggest India, Russia, and Japan. Actual neighbours. That's a lot more worrying. But when you press them a little further, and ask, "Come on, really, who might you ever use these weapons against? Who are you actually trying to intimidate?" Why, then they say: Xinjiang, Tibet, and Taiwan.
It's not just swaggering militarism. It's preparation for civil war.
That's why I feel so uncomfortable with it.
And it makes a mess of the tarmac.
Friday, September 11, 2009
You live in a house, but you stay in a hotel.
The Chinese only have the one common word for all forms of 'residing', so they are incapable of differentiating between long-term and short-term accommodation arrangements.
This can occasionally be - discombobulatingly - charming. I have been greeted by Chinese hotel receptionists with the warm wish: "I hope you live a long time." In fact, it was their own commercial advantage rather than my longevity that they had in mind.
This is an error - using 'live' instead of 'stay' when talking about holiday accommodation -that comes up all the time in the recording scripts I work with. And my partners and I painstakingly amend the faulty scripts, pointing out that they should say 'stay' in instances like this; although we have little expectation that anyone at the publishing houses will ever pay any attention.
And when they do pay attention, as often as not it just backfires on us. Today we had a whole clutch of uses of 'stay' where people were almost certainly talking about their home addresses.
Further little footnote here - when we're talking about our present arrangements for temporary accommodation, we usually use the Present Continuous Tense: I'm staying at the Hilton until Friday.
This really shouldn't be very difficult, but....
After grim Summer,
September's a perfect month:
The bluest of skies.
Of course, one worries that it is that darned Weather Control Machine being pressed into use again. It's not just the parades for October 1st that that they're rehearsing...
Thursday, September 10, 2009
Today, I have just been reminded, is Teacher's Day here in China.
It's always seemed a bit daft to me to have it at the very beginning of the academic year, usually after just a few days of classes (at universities and private colleges, in fact, it is usually before the start of classes - so a Chinese colleague will give you presents "on behalf of the students").
When I've quizzed students as to how they conceive the rationale for showering their teachers with gifts and thank-you cards at the beginning of the school year, they've usually said something like, "Well, it's to make sure that they like us - and give us good marks."
'Bribery', as we call it in the West.
Not very effective bribery, of course. Well, one does hear stories now and then of super-rich parents trying to influence teachers with fancy dinners, jewellery, TV sets - but I've never been confronted with such a moral challenge myself. No, the gifts most of us get are just stupendously tacky. In my first year here, one of my friends received a small plastic figurine of a footballer which - by pure coincidence - looked uncannily like the former Liverpool winger Steve McManaman. That was one of the better ones I've ever come across. I got a tea cup that year, which at least had utility going for it. On subsequent occasions I always seemed to get a pen that didn't work (ah, China) or a hideously ugly set of miniature Beijing opera masks.
I have nothing that could be called "teaching" in my schedule at the moment; and, in fact, I haven't set foot in a school or university classroom for at least 2 or 3 years now (well, the last time, I was running a teacher training course rather than teaching kids, and that's two years ago now). I am mightily relieved about that. Teacher's Day comes as a fortuitous reminder of how happy I am to have wriggled free of that (in China) most depressing of professions.
Wednesday, September 09, 2009
Once again, I am grinding my molars to powder.
Just when I thought these lame-brained dickheads I edit for (sorry, that should be "internationally distinguished academics who have the ear of the Chinese leadership") couldn't get any more comically inept in their misuse of English....
Yes, they manage to throw up a new perversity in the sphere of quotations.
This latest (mind-buggeringly LONG) piece I'm working on features the frequent quirk of including extended paraphrases of US foreign policy statements that are almost, but not quite, word-for-word quotations. No, of course they're not enclosed inside quotation marks. Neither are they introduced as quotations (although there is the further - inspired! - wrinkle in the presentation of these pseudo-quotes that they are usually preceded by a context-providing sentence alluding to the attendance of President Obama or one of his staff at a major conference, or making a significant public statement on related issues; these sentences, however, always stop some way short of pointing out that what follows - often for the bulk of the whole paragraph - is what he [or Hillary or Joe or Robert or Richard] actually said). I can only tell that they are quotations because.... well, as an experienced editor, I tend to notice when the English is suddenly completely free of errors. Or when lacunae in the text are marked by a triplet of full stops (... ). The latter, of course, is evidence that the dipshit author is not merely including an unattributed quotation, but that he is quoting it from a secondary source - from somebody else's edited quotation of it - rather than from the original.
Ah, but wait - this doofus has one final dollop of icing to add to his botched-quotations cake.
Yes, believe it or not, he follows the extended paraphrase with the actual quotation in full - IN BRACKETS. Not in inverted commas. Oh no. Brackets.
So, apart from quoting at unnecessary length, quoting from secondary rather than primary sources, quoting without the use of quotation marks, and quoting without any clear attribution - he's DOING IT ALL TWICE.
I despair, I really do. It is absolutely doing my head in.
While I'm doing plugs for friends, I suppose I should mention that one of my journo buddies, Michael Keller, is appearing at The Bookworm today, along with the award-winning science and natural history writer David Quammen, as part of the Worm's three-week mini-festival commemorating the 150th anniversary of Darwin's On The Origin Of Species. These guys are both dauntingly knowledgeable on many aspects of evolutionary theory, so it should be a fascinating talk. Particularly so if we get some Creationist hecklers in from the Shunyi Bible belt. Or some hardcore Chinese fenqing who insist that obviously civilization started in China, and African origin of man theories are patently bogus, and by the way, we invented dinosaurs too, and we discovered evolution way before that Brit, we just didn't think it was worth telling anyone else about it.....
If that doesn't happen, I may just have to represent those nutjob viewpoints myself.
Mike has written a graphic adaptation of Darwin's great work to make his ideas more accessible to schoolchildren (due for publication next month, I think), and will be doing a further session at the Worm next Tuesday afternoon (15th) to present that.
Tuesday, September 08, 2009
I took a trip out to the wild east side of town at the weekend to support the launch of 'Smoke and Light', a first show by magazine photographer and long-time drinking buddy Nick Otto. (He's got his own website now: www.nick-otto.com.)
His photographic inclinations, it seems, at least in this selection, coincide pretty well with my own, with an emphasis on unusual viewpoints and - as you'd expect from the title of the collection - on a striking use of light. Most of the pictures have very muted colours, or have been converted to pure black & white; they tend to rely heavily on high contrast, and artfully composed shadows, silhouettes, and reflections.
One shot has an old man in an indoor fruit & veg market suddenly stepping into the dusty but dazzling shafts of light falling from an oblong window high overhead - looking for all the world as if he's being beamed down from an alien spaceship. Another favourite of mine among the monochrome shots focuses on the lower legs of a group of Beijing commuters tramping through a rain-slicked underpass, legs mirrored in the puddles to create a barcode effect. And there's a splendid, ethereal colour one of the crazy incense-stick overkill that breaks out at the Yonghegong Lama Temple over Chinese New Year - a hellish scene of shadowy supplicants jockeying for position in front of the massive censers, engulfed in a sulphurous swirl of mist and smoke.
Yes, well worth a look. I don't think he's particularly looking to sell prints, or to snaffle up a book deal - but if you're interested, he probably wouldn't say no.
The photos are on view for the next couple of weeks at the CNEX Saloon Café. CNEX is a worthy venture, an artsy but cosy bar and performance/exhibition space that's already put on an impressive variety of documentary and short feature film screenings in its first six months of existence. Ufortunately, it is a very long way away, and not at all easy to find (they don't seem to have their own website yet, but the address is in the listing for them linked to above).
I'm rather hoping Nick might repeat the show later on somewhere a bit more accessible, like Gulou Dongdajie's Café Zarah maybe.
Monday, September 07, 2009
I have - infamously - commented before on the the shortcomings of Chinese cuisine, and the other week my prejudices on this topic received further reinforcement.
I was watching a cookery programme on TV where the chef began the preparation of a pork dish by cubing the meat and then boiling it. The Australian presenter, struggling gamely to conceal her bafflement, queried the reason for the choice of this technique.
"To get rid of the meaty taste," said our chef, matter-of-factly.
It is a strange philosophy of cooking, to be sure.
Saturday, September 05, 2009
My attempts to find somewhere new to live foundered on the twin rocks of my current landlord's bullying intransigence (the dumb bugger refused to allow me to extend my lease for a further month or two, even at a higher rent, and with the promise of introducing a friend to take over the apartment from me - with no gap in tenancy at all, and at an even higher rent!) and the extreme stupidity, bloody-mindedness, and inability to make a decision of all the prospective new landlords I was talking to (it seems a lot of Beijing landlords are unwilling to let their properties in the current depressed market: all of the places I looked at back in June are still available; and one of the landlords has actually raised his asking price since then!).
So, I am living in the same old place - supposedly for another full year. (I could have signed up for two, to try to peg my rent for a bit longer, but.... well, I'm really hoping I might still be able to find somewhere else and do a moonlight flit.... at least, once I get towards the end of the next quarter I've paid for up front.)
I had been pondering a list of all the shortcomings of my present apartment, to try to energise myself in the desperate last-minute race to try to find an alternative at the end of last month. Boy, did that backfire on me! Now I find myself stuck here - indefinitely - with that catalogue of grievances and irritations swimming around in my head, haunting and taunting.
Here they are, then, the....
10 Reasons I Would Be Glad To Leave My Present Apartment
The dodgy electric wiring (which results in bulbs blowing with alarming frequency - so much so that I've grown complacent, despairing about trying to replace them.... and find that I am now living in near-total darkness!)
The crappy level of lighting in those rooms where the lights still work (trying to cook in the kitchen at night is probably ruining my eyesight)
The radiator pipes, which cause a maddening tick-tick-tick continuously for the 4 months the winter central heating is on
The shoddy quality of the fixtures and fittings (particularly in the kitchen, where the artificial ceiling - made out of something like linoleum - long ago came unstuck and is now precariously supported only by the gas pipes; and don't even get me started on the cupboards)
The lousy quality of the water pipes, and the water, which results in everything - the shower head, the washing machine - getting regularly clogged up with foul-smelling silt
The crappy gas-fired water-heater in the kitchen, which keeps on cutting out for no apparent reason - making even the washing-up a rather long drawn-out and frustrating business
The fact that my 'guest bathroom' has a bath that is too narrow for use by actual human beings, and no effective water-heater (it's connected to the one in the kitchen, which is nearly 100ft away, and - as griped above - cannot even provide a reliable supply of hot water in the kitchen)
The building site outside the window (not very noisy any more, but still an eyesore - and still nowhere near completion nearly a year after the work began)
The ever worsening rumble of traffic on the 2nd Ringroad (I was concerned about this when I first moved in, but it seemed very tolerable back then; traffic has got much worse in the last 5 years, and, in particular, the amount of heavy traffic in the wee small hours of the morning has got ridiculous); unless I can improvise some kind of "double glazing", I fear I shall be condemned to continue sleeping in my living-room (the two bedrooms are both too noisy now), even when (if??) that dratted building site finally shuts down its rattly pumps and generators
My landlord, who - even by the wretched standards of most landlords - is a greedy little toad
Aaaaargh! Well, at least I capped it at 10.
I feel I ought perhaps to try to add some counterbalancing positive points here, just so that I don't go completely mad and hurl myself off the balcony on to the builders below.
5 Things I Rather Like About My Present Apartment After All
The location - 8 minutes to the subway, 15 minutes to the Bell Tower, 25 minutes to Nanluoguxiang (I can't now really imagine ever living in any other part of town)
The space (gosh, yes, even with two of the three main rooms completely unused, it is BIG)
The balcony (I don't like that it's enclosed, and I probably don't make as much use of it as I should - particularly since the builders took over the park beneath - but it is still rather nice to have it.... for sitting in the semi-open air on a warm summer's night)
Taxi heaven (a lot of drivers use my road as a less congested alternative to the adjacent 2nd Ringroad - with the result that I rarely have to wait more than 15 seconds to hail a cab, at any time of the day or night [and I mean any time])
The stairwell (which, as I've mentioned on here before, is probably the nicest stairwell in Beijing; indeed, possibly the only nice stairwell in Beijing)
There - I don't feel quite so manic now.
(And, since 'List of the Month' is supposed to be a Saturday feature, I'll try to backdate this. The e-mail posting I've been using doesn't enable you to control tags or formatting or hyperlinks or datestamp or.... but I am now restored to direct Blogger access, albeit intermittent and incomplete; so I should be able to tweak some of these shortcomings.)
Friday, September 04, 2009
One of my reliably vexing employers in Beijing (in fact an English company, but thoroughly Sinified in the way they do "business" here) was trying to persuade me to take a jaunt out of town to deliver a few business English lectures next week.
I don't have that much on, and I need the money, but...
Well, I won't name the destination city for fear of offending its residents, but, among both my Chinese and foreign friends who have any knowledge of the place, it is invariably rated amongst the 4 or 5 shittiest shitholes in the entire country. And that's an ugly contest.
Still, I need the money. And I had assumed they'd be paying me a full day rate for each of the days involved. That could be a very useful piece of change.
They've pencilled in three of these little lectures in just over 24 hours. Unfortunately, the first one is the evening before the other two. And their budget doesn't run to airfares, apparently. Well, it's not that far away, I suppose. The "fast train" only takes 4 or 5 hours these days, they assure me. But then you've got to add the best part of an hour at least either end for getting to and from the train station; more, in an unfamiliar city, trying to make it to an unknown venue, via an unknown hotel. Figure 8 hours as a minimum, on the outward leg, at least; even with an optimally timed train, I'd have to be leaving soon after breakfast next Wednesday. And the final event on Thursday evening finishes just a bit too late to get the last train back, so I'd have to stay over another night in Crapville, come back Friday, probably not getting back home till well after lunch.
So, I'd be losing three full working days here in Beijing. You'd think, wouldn't you, that they'd pay at least a two-day, if not a three-day rate for that?
But no, their "policy" is that they can only offer the standard by-the-hour, per-lecture rate that I'd get for doing these things right here on my own doorstep.
What's that word again? Ah, yes, that's it - NO.
The Very Best of Froogville
Pick of the Month: a random recommendation from the archive
Days Ai Weiwei was detained
With ironic, sinister symmetry, the celebrity artist/activist was incarcerated on the same day that my friend Wu Yuren was finally released from 10 months' detention.
Now, like Wu, he's been released on extremely restrictive 'bail' terms - but could face re-arrest at any moment. He was detained incommunicado from April 3rd to June 22nd 2011.
Days Wu Yuren was in prison
"Released on parole" after 10 months; "parole" lifted another year later. The original charges against him were apparently dropped without his trial ever being formally concluded.
Why was Wu Yuren in prison?
Why do I care about Wu Yuren?
How you might have helped Wu Yuren (and the many others like him in China)
Remembering the Tiananmen protests of 1989
- Froog is an escaped lawyer - but there is no need for alarm; he is only a danger to himself, not to the general public. An eternal wanderer, he now lives in an exotic city somewhere in the 'Third World' *, where he is held prisoner by an unfinished novel (or, more precisely, an unstarted novel). He spends a lot of time running, writing, taking photographs, and falling in love with women who fail to appreciate him. He also spends a lot of time in bars. [* OK, I'll come clean: I've been living in Beijing since summer '02.]