Saturday, April 30, 2011

Film List - My favourite actresses

In lieu of a 'Fantasy Girlfriend' post this month, here's a quick rundown of my favourite swoonsomely gorgeous and talented actresses working in the cinema today - a shortlist for possible future enrolment as 'Fantasy Girlfriends'.  (Tilda SwintonIsabelle Huppert, Kate Beckinsale, and Zhou Xun are omitted here only because I've already done FG posts on them.)

Froog's Favourite Actresses

Cate Blanchett

Amy Adams

Ellen Page

Mimi Rogers

Kristin Scott Thomas

Rosemarie DeWitt

Sophie Marceau

Isabelle Adjani

Salma Hayek

Parker Posey

Drew Barrymore

Bridget Fonda

Natalie Portman*

Paz Vega

Eva Green

Charlize Theron

Lucy Liu

Nicole Kidman

Thandie Newton

Milla Jovovich

Gong Li

Catherine Keener

Halle Berry

Anne Hathaway

Penelope Cruz

Naomi Watts

Emma Stone

Abbie Cornish

That's enough actresses.  Ed.

[* Exquisitely lovely - and dauntingly intelligent - though Ms Portman is, I find myself unable actually to fancy her. I fear she was rendered permanently off-limits by her debut performance in Léon. She was already clearly going-to-be-gorgeous, but it didn't seem decent to acknowledge that fact - since she was only 12 or 13 years old at the time. The mental barrier I erected to prevent myself being attracted to her beauty when she was still a child is, I find, still obstinately in place. Whenever I look admiringly at her lovely features now, there's an inner voice that screams at me, "Stop that! Don't you remember you first saw her in Leon?!"  Curse that darned film!!]


I was trying to live on an average daily budget of 200 rmb this month.

I'm going to overshoot that, but not too badly - only by about 500 rmb or so, 16 or 17 rmb per day.

However, this is despite making considerable - if intermittent - efforts at retrenchment. And despite having managed to live almost for free last week (being extensively treated by a visiting friend with a generous expense account, and then 'baby-sitting' a favourite bar over the weekend for a salary of alcohol!).

Beijing is becoming worryingly expensive. A few years ago, 6,000 rmb would usually have been the upper limit of my monthly spending, and I could often get by on 4,000 or 5,000.  Now, 6,000 is starting to feel like a very lean month, and I suppose I typically spend nearer to 8,000. It seems incredible that I was getting by on 2,000 a month for my first six months here back in the early Noughties.

In addition to that out-of-pocket spending, I also have to come up with 4,500 a month for rent, and a little over another 1,000 for sundry 'utilities' (including my annual visa arrangement fees).

This month, I didn't quite earn as much as I spent. Worse, I haven't yet been paid any of the money I earned (or not very much of it, anyway), so I've been having to dip into my savings a little. I hate doing that.

And next month, I'm taking a massive hit with another quarter's rent and my visa renewal due.

These minor vexations are probably exacerbating my current depression. I am coming to realise that - without a pretty radical shake-up in my employment situation - I can't afford to go on living here.

Friday, April 29, 2011

I'd almost forgotten how republican I am...

But today's turgid dollop of bread & circuses brings it all back to me.

I wish someone would get me one of these. The latter is available at the Sorry, but... website, and the former from Modern Toss...  here.

I'm not alone in my doomsaying

I receive regular e-mail newsletter highlights of the RGE Monitor, a subscription news service of in-depth economic analysis headed by the formidable Nouriel Roubini (who was predicting the 2008 crash in some detail more than three years before it happened, and at the end of 2009 was ranked #4 in a list of 'The World's 100 Most Influential Thinkers' by Foreign Policy magazine [although they put Ben Bernanke in 1st place, so it's obviously a bit of a cockeyed ranking!]).

A couple of weeks ago, Mr Roubini warned of "a potentially destabilizing contradiction between China’s short- and medium-term economic performance". He went on, "The economy is overheating here and now, but China’s overinvestment will prove deflationary both domestically and globally."

In the current edition of Foreign Affairs, predicting fragmentation of the world order and increasing zero-sum competition between nations, he has observed that the emerging economies of Brazil, India, and China are "far too focused on domestic development to welcome the burdens that come with new responsibilities abroad".

I almost start to feel like a China-optimist by comparison....

I gather Mr R has also said - regarding the attempt by numerous governments to avert or ameliorate recession with massive spending programmes - "There's no such thing as a free lunch, especially when you have to pay for it."  (No, sorry, that must have been Yogi Berra. But Roubini has said something very similar.)

The weekly haiku

Spring revives heartache
Sorrows bloom like meadow flowers
Bright skies, darkling soul

Yes, I should probably have a new category tag on here labelled 'Depression'.  Sorry.  Time of the month... year... life, maybe.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Favourite posts from the 1st quarter of 2010

Time for another roundup of the best of one year ago....

Pick of the Archives:
Favourite posts, January-March 2010

1)  A breakthrough for Chinese poetry farmers!  -  5th January 2010
The characteristically mangled English pronunciation of CCTV9's newsreaders prompts this little piece of whimsy.

2)  Hubertina Hildebrand says Hallo  -  6th January 2010
Some e-mail spam from an exotically-named sender prompts this little piece of whimsy.

My 'List of the Month' records twenty or so of the surprisingly plausible names I'd encountered over the previous six months through the ReCaptcha spambot-blocking system.

4)  Problem? What problem?  -  12th January 2010
A particularly important example of Chinese 'cultural difference' - illustrated by Chinese artist Yang Liu.

5)  Only several... (War on Chinglish - 14)  -  15th January 2010
One of the most common - and, I find, the most irritating - quirks of Chinese English.

6)  There you go, China  -  19th January 2010
The despotic "first emperor" Qin Shihuangdi furnishes an unlovely - but all too apposite - paradigm for many subsequent Chinese rulers.

7)  Pacing  -  26th January 2010
The skills required for voicework are more substantial than is often recognised. (Interesting link in the comments here from JES, too.)

8)  It really ought to be a word  -  30th January 2010
Text-message clumsiness begets an inspired invention!

9)  The Rigmarole  -  2nd February 2010
It can take the Chinese a very long time indeed to take their money out (or put it away again). Really.

10)  A dark poem  -  7th February 2010
Some observations on Auschwitz, prompted by the recent theft (and recovery) of the 'Arbeit Macht Frei' sign from above the entrance.

11)  Those naughty Australians!!  -  11th February 2010
The folks Down Under really do create the world's most risqué advertising campaigns.

12)  Just for the record...  -  20th February 2010
... I am not a killjoy in the matter of fireworks. But...  (I never much enjoy Chinese New Year and its insane firework overkill.)

13)  War Music  -  21st February 2010
Some favourite excerpts from Christopher Logue's wonderful modern versions of scenes from Homer's Iliad.

14)  Can blue men sing the whites?  -  23rd February 2010
A long and virulent review of the godawful Avatar. (Includes a couple of links at the end to the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band's song which provided the post title.)

15)  Film List - more great openings  -  27th February 2010
A follow-up to this list from a year earlier; and an even better selection.

16)  Sometimes this is how it feels....  -  28th February 2010
You only post Gary Larson's 'God at his PC' cartoon when you've had a particularly bad day on the computer!

17)  Bon mot for the week  -  1st March 2010
Some of my own thoughts on depression (elaborated further in the comment). [Later, I try to cheer myself up with a bit of 'positive thinking'!!]

Some recollections of my student days, and the records my friends and I used to use for hi-fi speaker tests.  (Unfortunately, the YouTube link I'd embedded to Japanese electronica wizard Isao Tomita's version of Also Sprach Zarathustra has died; I must try to find an alternative link.)

19)  The ultimate Boy Scout  -  5th March 2010
A brief introduction to China's 'model citizen', Lei Feng.

10 more autobiographical confessions you may little have suspected about me.

21)  If I were an AMPAS voter  -  7th March 2010
I correctly predict the winners in just about every one of the Oscar categories this year - but I don't necessarily agree with them all. I was particularly scornful of The Hurt Locker and Avatar, and disappointed that only the superb Christoph Waltz won something for Inglourious Basterds. This dissatisfaction with the whole Oscar fiasco later prompted me to write a list of all the nominated films I felt should have won the 'Best Picture' Award down the years (in two parts, here and here).

22)  When is an artist not an artist?  -  12th March 2010
When they're self-proclaimed, I say.  (Or perhaps when they're millionaires?)

23)  A new playbook for Chinese diplomats  -  19th March 2010
The latest outbreak of childish - and self-harming - petulance over "the Tibet issue" leads me to offer up suggestions for an alternative approach.

24)  Another great website idea  -  29th March 2010
THE COIN goes online! But then a discourager points out that someone has allegedly come up with a similar website already. No new thing under the sun?

Another particularly common - and particularly risible - piece of Chinglish I am striving to eradicate.

26) Schrödinger's Cat in geopolitics  -  31st March 2010
Possibly my funniest, or at least oddest ever post title?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Sailing off to the Land of Nod

Last week, I happened upon this photo story about a 'Pirate Ship' treehouse that's been built in the bedroom of the 6-year-old son of someone... with oodles of spare cash, I must suppose. The ship is entered via a rope bridge, and can be exited via a 'secret' spiral tube slide down to the ground floor of the house. A nice piece of work by designer Steve Kuhl.

Not for the first time, I reflect that Youth is wasted on the young.  It wouldn't at all surprise me to hear that the spoiled young master is soon having nightmares about the hordes of bloodthirsty pirates and slimy sea-monsters crawling up that tube to invade his bedroom at night, and demanding to have the structure removed.  Me, on the other hand - I'd love something like that. What man wouldn't? It would make a great den - with a small bar, a big TV, a games console, a hi-fi. Oh yes - sweet dreams.

I can't help being unpleasantly reminded, though, that I did once really live in such a structure - albeit only for a few months. During my desperate days at the back end of the '90s, I found myself for a while living in bedsitterland in south London. The first room I had to take was nought but a prefabricated shack built on to the kitchen. The narrow space and wood-plank walls seemed a pleasant novelty - even 'cosy' - at first, but I soon discovered that the place was bitterly cold through the winter months, and I would occasionally wake up shivering despite having gone to bed wearing a tracksuit and a sweater. One night, the glass of water at my bedside actually froze. Moreover, the sense of being cooped up beneath the foc'sle of an old tea clipper was unpleasantly intensified by the narrow and rickety cot bed I had to sleep on, with its ridiculously bouncy foam mattress that simulated rather too convincingly the pitching and rolling of a ship in a light swell. I was able to upgrade to a room inside the house after two or three months. That spell in the 'ship's cabin' garden shed was definitely one of the least pleasant periods in my life.

I am also reminded that JES did one of his music posts on 'The Land of Nod' a while back - part of Natalie Merchant's Leave Your Sleep project, setting lullabies and nursery rhymes to music.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Another exhibition for Amy

My photographer friend Amy Johansson has a new exhibition coming up, this time a joint show with a painter friend of hers, Granada Arias.

It's on at the Nordic Club in Dhaka, Bangladesh. It opens this Friday (April 29th), and will run throughout May. (Well, that's what she tells me. I can't find anything about it on the Club's website yet.)

Well worth a visit, if you happen to be in Bangladesh.

[I'll try to post some pictures from it later on. For now, you can find examples of her work on her website, and here on the Kontinent site (a Swedish photographers' group of which she is a member).]

A lesson from history

A few weeks ago I was editing an academic article which described a nexus of factors leading to socio-political dysfunction and mass unrest... in China.

A few decades of particularly rapid population growth put pressure on food security, and lead to friction not only with the country's neighbours but even more with the minority peoples of its "internal border regions" - as internal migration sends huge numbers of Han Chinese into the more remote or inaccessible areas of the country to try to exploit previously marginal or under-utilized land. Food shortage, environmental degradation, and ethnic tensions are exacerbated by a central government which is simultaneously arrogant and heavy-handed in trying to impose its authority yet unable or unwilling to allocate sufficient funding to the task.  Endemic corruption through every stage of the chain-of-command fatally undermines the government's ability to assert its will effectively at the local level.  Repression of perceived 'subversives' only serves to breed greater discontent.  And eventually there is a succession of mass uprisings, following one upon another in a cascade.

Sound familiar?  Of course, this is the last few decades of the reign of the Qianlong Emperor, more than two hundred years ago.

Plus ça change…

Bon mot for the week

"Never express yourself more clearly than you are able to think."

Niels Bohr  (1885-1962)

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Some people will steal anything

I can't say Kinshasa had ever been high on my list of dream travel destinations, but after reading this story about black magic 'penis theft' the other day, I'll definitely be staying away from the place.

Of course, I was reminded of this - Eric Idle doing Noel Coward in The Meaning Of Life.

When you try to find this on YouTube, you stumble across all kinds of other oddities - such as angry Germans proclaiming that their penis is their best friend, or this Country & Western ditty from Rodney Carrington. Who would have thought that this was such a fertile topic for song-smithing?!  (I so nearly said 'rich vein' there....  Oops!)

Wot - no 'Fantasy Girlfriend'?

No, I'm short of inspiration.

And last week, I oh-so-nearly, sort of, almost had a real girlfriend - for a few fleeting days (if only she hadn't been leaving!). In these circumstances, I don't find myself fantasising very much. Maybe next month...

Friday, April 22, 2011

More strangeness on the streets at night

Last night, at about 1.30 in the morning, as I was walking back from a bar, I encountered a portly, middle-aged Chinese man - naked but for a pair of baggy, green-and-white striped y-fronts - taking a piss in the bushes around the edge of the Bell Tower Square near my home.

There were two particularly odd aspects to this phenomenon.

One, it was arse-freezing cold last night.

Two, there was a public toilet not more than 10 yards away.

I suppose, when nature calls, sometimes you just can't wait.

The weekly haiku

Childhood seems closer;
Last year, centuries ago;
Memory's telescope.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Happy Birthday, RAMH!!

Today - well, um, yesterday in my timezone - sees the third anniversary of Mr John E. Simpson's marvellous blog, Running After My Hat.

I confess, I had thought it had been going considerably longer than that - a sign, I suppose, of how content-rich it is.

I wasn't with him quite from the very first post, but I was a fairly early adopter. I was just having a browse through his early posts to see if I could find which was the first one I read, but I can't now recall.  I first 'met' JES in the comment-threads over at Moonrat's lively publishing blog Editorial Ass, and he started becoming quite a regular commenter on Froogville after I'd complimented him on his review there of Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (in my own review for Moonie's 'Celebrate Reading' series on The Wind In The Willows) in June 2008. His comments here shamed me into reciprocating (I think I'd visited his place as a 'lurker' at least a few times previously). Since then, my contributions over at his blog have occasionally threatened to exceed my writing output on here.

Back at the end of 2009 I saluted RAMH as my 'Website of the Year', noting in particular:

I espcially love his occasional What's In A Song? feature, exhaustively researched essays on classic songs, covering the history of their composition, musical structure, pop culture trivia, memorable performances, and many other fascinating side avenues too.
Another great favourite is the regular Friday post where he takes a poem from the whiskey river literary blog as the starting point for a stream-of-consciousness (sometimes more of an avalanche-of-consciousness) collation of loosely related poetry, prose, song, and much else besides. It is always a highlight of my week, and I can hardly wait to see what he's going to entertain us with next.

If you haven't yet checked out those two series, go and do so at once.

And to celebrate his anniversary, JES has created a compilation of some of the best musical moments from his blog - a lovely treat.

Happy anniversary, JES!  Looking forward to many more years of Running After My Hat!

I have finally found (a little late, but it's the thought that counts) an appropriate anniversary tribute for my dear blog-friend (well, he's American; in the UK, the tradition is to mark the completion of the third year with a gift of leather - but that's rather prosaic for a hat; and he's probably already got one) - a hat made of Waterford crystal, from the Paul W. Bryant Museum in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.


Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Does that come with potatoes?

According to this website, The China Potato Expo is on in Beijing this week.

It is described (only slightly Chinglishly) as follows:

CHINA POTATO EXPO is considered to be the only international trade show in the category of potato...

and other root and tuber crops... 

and related products...

in China.

The lack of a definite article at the start and the dread linguistic tic 'related' at the end are the Chinglish markers; although I suppose event titles sometimes do omit the article, and 'related' is (for once) actually appropriate here. And it must be hard for copy-writers to work their puff-magic with such resolutely unsexy subject matter. And perhaps that clunky "is considered to be" is a deliberate legalese vagueness: they're not saying that it IS the only international potato trade show in China, just that certain unspecified persons believe it to be so. Please drop me a line if you know of any other candidates.  [Only my undernourished Irish forebears are capable of finding the potato sexy.  Check out the brief instructional video below for the usefulness of the phrase, "Does the bride come with potatoes?"]

I'm glad they're not narrowing the focus too much.  I shall be eagerly seeking out the "other root and tuber crops".

Strangely, this event is filed under the category of 'Apparel & Clothing'. Really? It's all going to be clothes made from potato fibres?? Intriguing novelty though this would be, I doubt many of the leaders in the clothing industry will be enticed away from the contemporaneous Dubai Fashion Week.  We shall see.

Monday, April 18, 2011

It doesn't travel well

Or, Why I don't learn Chinese [13]  (A long overdue revival of one of my favourite series on here!)

The Chinese are apt to boast of their language being the most widely spoken in the world.

After all, they say, there are 1.4 billion of us - what other language comes close to having that many speakers?

Well, in fact, of course, not even Chinese - putonghua, the official standardized form of the language, commonly known in the West as 'Mandarin' - comes close to having that many speakers.  China's 55 recognised ethnic minorities (and various unrecognised minorities) each have their own - mostly quite unrelated - languages, and they account for some 10 percent of the population here.  Even within the 'Chinese' languages spoken by the majority Han population, there are at least six major families of languages in addition to Mandarin, all pretty much mutually unintelligible.  

The highest estimates for numbers of people who speak some Mandarin here are not much over 1 billion, and often as low as 700 or 800 million.  And, in many cases, that's not going to be much more than a smattering - spoken garbled and grudgingly by people who regard it as a second language.  And even amongst that large part of the Chinese population who are categorised as first-language Mandarin speakers (rather than speakers of Shanghainese [part of the Wu group of languages] and Cantonese [part of the Yue group] and so on) there are many accents/dialects that are barely intelligible to 'standard' Mandarin speakers: the people of Sichuan, for example, turn the tone system completely on its head!

People who speak a form of Mandarin that foreign students of the language might just about recognise, and speak it as their everyday language, are mainly confined to the handful of provinces in the northeast of the country, and number perhaps only a few hundred million.  (Many foreign students find that even the accent and dialect of Beijing - which is supposed to be the foundation of standard Mandarin - is a bit of a challenge, and prefer to study further north-east, in Harbin or Shenyang, where the Mandarin they use is 'purer'.)

But, yes, even so, Mandarin does certainly boast the largest number of native speakers - by far - of any language in the world.

But the vast majority of them live in China.  Until recently, the overseas Chinese diaspora were predominantly Cantonese or Hakka speakers. More Mandarin-speaking mainlanders are joining the exodus these days, but.... outside of a dense-packed overseas Chinese community, where are you going to hear Chinese spoken?

Is it an official language in any other country of the world?  I think not. Malaysia would be the likeliest candidate, I would think - but NO; English, yes; Chinese, no.  Ah, Singapore.  But that's about it.

Is it an internationally used language in any field of business or academe?  Apart from its inevitable recognition as one of the official languages of the United Nations.... I think not.

Mandarin Chinese, basically, is only spoken by Chinese people to other Chinese people - and almost exclusively within China.  (And even here, they are starting to accept that they've got to learn to use English to communicate with the outside world.)

In an article (originally published in Language Today in Dec. 1997), The World's 10 Most Influential Languages, a Swiss linguistics enthusiast called George H. J. Weber made the argument that - based on a matrix of factors including the "socio-literary prestige" attaching to a language (another area where I suspect Chinese scored nul points) and the global standing of the countries that used it - English was by far the world's leading language.  Admittedly, that was quite a long time ago now; but, as of 2008, Weber was confident that demographic shifts and so on had not had any significant impact on the basis of his ranking.  Chinese came in at No. 6 - almost entirely due to its sheer volume of speaker population.  English prevailed in the top spot - far, far ahead of French and Spanish in second and third places - primarily because it is spoken, to a significant degree, in well over 100 countries around the world.  Chinese is never going to be able to match that.

I do find it difficult (impossible!) to justify making the effort to learn a language that only enables you to talk to the people of one country - even if there are an awful lot of them!  Arabic or Spanish would be my top choices for another language.  Or maybe Russian.  (I already have a smattering of French and German.)

Bon mot for the week

"Every man has three characters – that which he exhibits, that which he has, and that which he thinks he has."

Friday, April 15, 2011

'Tis the season...

For commemoration.

And, perhaps, for a rebirth of the inventive and optimistic spirit of the 1980s here, for an end to repression and the beginnings of reform. One day, perhaps; one day, but not yet a while.

On April 15th, 1989, Hu Yaobang died. 

As General Secretary of the Communist Party in the early 1980s, he'd been the prime architect of Deng Xiaoping's reform programme. However, his liberalizing tendencies went too far for the Party's conservative 'old guard'; he was blamed for an upsurge of volatile student activism in the mid-1980s, and forced out of office at the beginning of 1987. Fellow liberals Zhao Ziyang and Bao Tong took over the reins of power and tried to push ahead with reforms, but Hu lived out the last two years of his life in obscurity, publicly disgraced.

In that time, he became a figurehead, a martyr to the still vigorous campus political groups; and the announcement of his death led immediately to speeches, vigils, and memorials at universities all over Beijing. The next day saw the first of a series of mass meetings, where student leaders issued a call for an official reassessment of his political legacy. On the evenings of the 18th and 19th, crowds of several hundred students demonstrated in front of the gates of the Party headquarters. On the 22nd, an estimated 50,000 students marched through Beijing to Tiananmen Square, to listen to a broadcast of his funeral service taking place in the adjacent Great Hall of the People. It was the beginning of a spontaneous protest movement that would soon evolve into a continuous occupation of the Square by hundreds of thousands of students and workers.  

There are several notable dates over the next seven weeks; but this is where it began.

The weekly haiku

How fleeting the Spring!
Summer days but wintry nights - 
barely a Spring at all!

I suppose we should be grateful that at least Spring has happened in Beijing this year (last year, it didn't), and more or less on time.  But it feels as if it's over when it had barely begun....

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Time travel is BAD, m'kay?

This link (left for me by Found In China's Stuart in a comment a few days ago) led me fortuitously to this insane-but-true China news story: the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT - rhymes with daft) has banned TV dramas about time travel.

Apparently, TV series in which modern-day young people miraculously travel back to the China of earlier historical eras - and find adventure and romance there - have become a bit of a vogue in the past year or two. But that's now been stopped in its tracks, because SARFT deems that "the producers and writers are treating serious history in a frivolous way, which should by no means be encouraged any more."

It's amazing where this government can find possible sources of 'disharmony'!! The New Yorker's media commentator Richard Brody probably has it right when he suggests that such escapist fantasies imply a dissatisfaction (inappropriate, unjustified, ungrateful, disloyal!) with present-day China: "The free play of imagination—the liberation of the inner life—is itself a higher stage of politics."

Reflecting on the theme of time travel prompted me to waste half an hour in idle noodling around on the Internet, which led to the discovery that the opening episode of the last series of Dr Who - which was first shown in the UK at this time last year - drew some criticism for being too sexy. Whatever next?!

So, there's absolutely no chance that it will ever be screened in China, then? I wonder if it's being blocked on Youku??

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Inscrutable llamas

This website on the care of llamas provides the following guide to interpreting a llama's mood. It seems to be mostly in the ears, no?

The real-life example below demonstrates that reading llamas' expressions is not as straightforward as the diagram would have you believe. I think I'd categorise the animals below as - smug, imperious, and about to hawk up a loogie.

I try to aim for an alert/curious but at the same time relaxed state myself. I'm not sure what I should be doing with my ears.

Practical wisdom

A visiting friend was recently soliciting advice on shopping in China. The question cropped up, "How can I tell if something's a genuine antique?"

My response: "When they arrest you at the airport."

This answer, of course, can serve many questions: How can I tell if I'm deemed an 'enemy of the state'? etc.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The call of the wild

We are about to 'lose' Hopfrog, one of my most regular commenters on here over the past six months or so. He's decided to take some time out to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,650 mile stretch of mountain country, from Campo on the Mexican border to Manning Park in Canada. It's a challenge that's likely to take at least six months. And although he's taking his i-Phone, I hope he won't be making too much use of it - a key element of the appeal of such an adventure is, surely, detaching oneself from the hubbub of modern life, escaping the burden of constant 'connectivity'. So.... we're not likely to be hearing from him much in the comment threads until the end of the year.

Hopfrog is no tyro at this long-distance hiking lark. He walked the entire length of the Appalachian Trail back in 2002. Indeed, his online monicker was originally a "trail name" given to him by a fellow hiker on that trip, because of the bad limp he'd developed (inspired by a particularly gruesome Edgar Allan Poe short story). You can follow his progress on this new adventure on his blog (mirror here).

Best of luck, HF.  I am mighty envious.

Bon mot for the week

"It is a mistake to look too far ahead. Only one link of the chain of destiny can be handled at a time."

Winston Churchill  (1874-1965)

Saturday, April 09, 2011

List of the Month - Signs of Spring in The Jing

The weather doesn't always warm up quite as quickly as it should, as we'd hope, but there are a number of other dependable markers of the shift in the seasons here in Beijing.

Signs of Spring in China's capital

The air fills up with 'cotton wool'.
(Botany is not one of my stronger subjects, but there is a variety of tree very common here in Beijing - a 'cottonwood', I suppose! - which at this time of year releases balls of 'cotton wool' in colossal quantities. I imagine it must be some sort of seed dispersal device. I've heard it said - by bullshitters, preying on my ignorance of botany? - that these trees are sex-differentiated, and that the Beijing government is trying to cut down on the annual plague of airborne cotton wool balls by culling the 'female' trees. I haven't noticed any trees being removed, but there have certainly been some radical pruning policies adopted - for all the trees here - in recent years. And I think the quantities of cotton wool have been diminishing as a result, although there's still an awful lot of it. Five or six years ago, when the phenomenon seemed to be at its height, the sidewalks would often be ankle-deep in the stuff, and it could become a hazard - or a serious annoyance, at any rate - to your breathing.)

The air fills up with sand.
(Spring and autumn are the occasion for a twice-yearly splurge of small-scale building work around the city: repairing, renovating or rebuilding portions of the old slum housing in the hutong districts, upgrading water and sewage pipes, and sometimes relaying roads and sidewalks. Hence, there are piles of building materials - especially piles of sand - blocking alleys and sidewalks everywhere. I suppose it makes sense to do this kind of work before the more extreme weather of summer and winter sets in; it is unfortunate, however, that the sudden change of temperature in our brief transitional seasons causes them to be a time of high winds - and thus all the exposed dirt and dust and rubble, and the piles and piles of sand, readily become airborne. The weather is loveliest at this time of year; but the air quality tends to be the worst.)

The streets fill up with secret policemen.
(Beijing allegedly has a colossal number of policemen, more than twice as many as London or New York; but fully half of them are assigned to 'political duties' - i.e., spying on and harassing potential 'dissidents'. Many of them are humourless goons whose only job skill, evidently, is manhandling people into the backs of vans.  Although they operate in 'plain clothes', the unsmiling visage, the buzzcut hairstyle, and even the incongruously brightly coloured polo shirt is very much 'uniform'. Lots of these guys skulking down at the bottom end of Wangfujing Street lately - wonder what that's all about? Spring, alas, is the peak season for the suppression of dissent. It used to be that we'd only get a major crackdown for a week or two either side of June 4th. But there are a number of other anniversaries connected with the 1989 Tiananmen protests strung through April and May, and several connected with discontent in Tibet in March; and, as the government here has become increasingly anxious and insecure in recent years, the level of 'precautionary' police activity at this time of year has ramped up enormously, and spread out over longer and longer periods. With the recent spate of popular uprisings across the Muslim world, the CCP leadership's anxieties have reached unprecedented levels. And the Buzzcut Brigade are out in force - on T-Square, around Wangfujing, everywhere.)

The Internet stops working.
(More directly bothersome for most of us than the proliferation of sinister goon squads on our streets is the Kafka Boys' annual attempt to strangle the Internet.  The clampdown over the next couple of months is likely to be so over-the-top that even those of us using robust VPNs will suffer a significant loss of functionality in our Internet connection; the system gets so overloaded by all the filtering that at times it pretty much grinds to a halt.)

And a young man's fancy turns to thoughts of.... leaving.
(Yep, I'm really starting to think I've had enough of this shit. Even the blue skies and the sweetness of blossom in the air can't lighten my mood.)

Friday, April 08, 2011

It makes a fellow proud to be an Oxonian!

I have just learned that a couple of weeks ago, alongside the famous 182-year-old Boat Race, England's two oldest universities inaugurated an Inter-Varsity Stoat Race.

There's been a Goat Race for a few years now, so I suppose this was a logical progression. Unfortunately, Cambridge appear to have established an ascendancy in goat racing. Oxford, however, stormed to victory in the first-ever Stoat Race on March 26th, thereby establishing a crucial early lead in what I am sure will go on to become a long-running and historic sporting series.

Then again, we won the first Boat Race too, but then got stuffed in seven out of the next eight; and we haven't held the lead in that series for 82 years now.

I take an especially keen interest in these novel forms of sporting contest, since I went to the college which originated Tortoise Racing. This is the kind of creativity that distinguishes the truly elite academic institutions. Beida, Tsinghua, and Fudan are never going to muscle their way into the 'Top 30' of the QS Rankings until they start cultivating this sort of wild undergraduate frivolity.

Haiku for the week

Buds peek forth cautious
Spring unfolds in slow motion
Nervous of chill air

The blossoms have finally been coming out in the last few days here in Beijing - but serially, hesitantly. There's still a hint of menace in the north wind - so the jasmine flowers won't bloom.

There are, however, some almond trees in flower. Almond flowers, I gather, symbolise hope.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

The vision thing

Malaysia, I found on my trip there a month ago, is one of the most pedestrian-unfriendly countries in the world. The traffic is tumultuous; pedestrian crossings are few and far between (and seem to work on absurdly long intervals, when they are functioning at all); and underpasses are even fewer; in many places, there aren't even any sidewalks (the main railway station in Kuala Lumpur is currently surrounded by construction sites, which make it just about impossible to access on foot).

It is, at first, quite daunting. Trying to walk any significant distance can be unduly stressful. Trying to cross a busy road seems a terrifying prospect.

But the thing is.... drivers there look where they are going.  Yes, the roads are packed, and the traffic often moves dangerously fast; yes, drivers are selfish and undisciplined and not always well-skilled in controlling their vehicles. But it's not anywhere near as bad as China. And they look where they're going.

I was quite stunned by this phenomenon when I first recognised it, because it is so very, very different from the situation I have become used to here in Beijing.  I soon found that it was actually surprisingly safe to cross the street in Kuala Lumpur, because, even on the busiest roads, drivers actually look out for hazards ahead of them and take appropriate evasive action. Understanding the use of the brake pedal is novel enough; but it's the noticing obstructions in the road ahead - the way that drivers actually look at you and see you; make eye-contact, and then don't try to run you down! - that I found most astounding after all these years of living with Beijing's homicidal traffic.

One of my earliest posts on here, The Land of the Blind, mused about the possible link between the notoriously poor eyesight of the Chinese and their apparently often limited imaginative vision, particularly in regard to the narrow range of their consideration or compassion for others.

It is on the roads that this failure to pay attention to others is most bothersome, most dangerous; but you see it everywhere - in people dropping their luggage on your feet when they board a subway carriage, in people parking their bikes across doorways, in people constantly walking into you (and then acting as if it's somehow your fault). The Chinese seem to actively avoid looking about them: they look down at their feet, they check their mobile phones constantly, they focus on the point they're aiming for several yards ahead and filter out everything and everyone else around them; they waddle along in trance-like cocoons of self-interest, almost completely insulated from the outside world. resolutely unaware of what's going on in the environment around them. Most of the time, the Chinese really do not look at other people around them; and when they look, they don't see; and when they see.... they don't care.

And it is tempting to derive other metaphors from this, to discern a wider significance in the phenomenon. You speculate that this 'cocoon of self-interest' evolved as a necessary defence mechanism against the oppression and hardship the Chinese people suffered under Mao - and through so much of their history. And it is certainly the thing that is chiefly keeping the Communist Party in power here: so long as there are more people who are complacently satisfied with their increasing material comfort than there are people who are frustrated and disaffected and suffering, then... there isn't much chance of a revolution. Nobody much cares how many lawyers and journalists and academics are thrown into jail, so long as they can save enough money to buy an i-Phone or a flat-screen TV. This really is The Land of the Blind.