Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A fishy tale

This is a cheap recycle of a post, but.... well, I thought I'd told the story on here before, and it deserves to be told, needs to be told.

A day or two ago on my mate JES's blog I threw down the phrase 
"I can't eat fish either. I was frightened by a mackerel when I was four." 
- which he kindly said was one of the funniest comments he could imagine ever receiving. But I feared he thought this was just a dada-ist quip I'd made up on the spur of the moment. No - in fact, it was quite true.

This is how it came to be....

A mackerel fishing excursion when I was a small child, in a very small boat off the south coast of England. I was both exhilarated and terrified about being sundered from the land for the first time (I’ve always had a bit of a love/hate fascination with the sea, perhaps even before this); and intrigued by this idea that we were looking for these strange elusive creatures hiding far below our feet.

But then we happened upon a shoal, and started landing them in numbers – using long, thick lines with multiple hooks on them. It hardly seemed fair: no actual skill involved. And I found fish very unsettling. I don’t think we ever ate them at home. And I’d probably never seen a live one, certainly not at close quarters – except maybe a tiny goldfish here or there.

So, when one of the mackerel squirmed off its hook just as it was being hauled onboard, it was quite a shock to me. It plopped right at my feet. And someone yelled at me to catch it, to pick it up – because, on this boat, there was quite a gap between the edge of the planking of the deck and the hull, and so this fairly small fish would easily slip through down into the bilges. It seemed to be wriggling in that direction for all it was worth.

Of course, knowing nothing about fish, I had no idea what their convulsive writhing would feel like in my little hand; or that they had such a distinctive odour, which no amount of washing would completely remove; or that they were so SLIMY, and that their translucent scales would come off all over your hand.

Yep, I was plenty freaked out enough by that moment. And further freaked out by my parents’ apparent unconcern or incomprehension of my trauma.

Then, that evening, I was woken up and frogmarched out of bed to join the dinner table to sample some of the fish that “I had helped to catch”. I was really not up for that, for so many reasons: being half asleep, being haunted by the fish’s dying wriggles in my hand, being wary of new food at the best of times. But I was forced – forced – to try a mouthful. And I nearly choked to death on a bone.

Fish – all seafood – has made me vomit spectactularly whenever I’ve tried it since. I’m sure it’s psychosomatic, but…

Monday, January 30, 2012

Who is Nat Geo, and why is he doing these awful things to me?

I thought getting a satellite TV hookup in my new apartment was going to be a big enhancement to my life.

And it is... up to a point.

But I suppose my expectations were geared towards what regular TV was like when I was growing up in the '70s and '80s.  My experience of satellite channels - in Asia, especially - has been limited to watching sports in bars now and then; or occasional stays in hotels, where I would only ever watch the BBC World Service or a film channel.

So, I'd been hoping for great things from the History Channel, The Discovery Channel, The National Geographic Channel.

I find I don't in fact have the first of those two. But, judging from how BAD National Geographic is, that's probably a blessed relief.

I suppose there are two factors at play here. One is the limited amount of available programming, which prompts the schedulers to spin out programmes which last only 30 minutes or less to a full hour. The other, perhaps, is the expected target demographic of - in Asia - primarily hotel guests, who are likely to watch only in short bursts and/or channel hop a lot.

I sympathise with the difficulties, I do. But the result is that the channel is almost unwatchable, unless you have both ADHD and a goldfish memory. Every programme you watch is interrupted every five minutes or so to show you five minutes or more of promotional clips.

It wouldn't be so bad if the programme breaks were a just a little less frequent. It wouldn't be so bad if they included some commercials - but Nat Geo don't do commercials much: only for its sponsors/partners, and the WWF. It wouldn't be so bad if there were some variety.  But, because of the limited amount of programming, there's a limited amount of promos: so, you get the same promos for the same shows coming up over and over and over again - sometimes repeated even within the same break!

And the thing that bugs the crap out of me the most is that a good 25% or 30% of the promos are for the programme you're actually trying to watch: yes, they are taunting you by saying, "THIS is what's going to happen next, if you can bear to sit through another 5 or 10 minutes of this promo garbage."

Ah, no, the thing that really bugs the crap out of me is the style of these promos: the rapid cutting and tricksy editing (poor old Cesar Millan probably receives death threats as a result of the nauseating scratch-mix music videos NG makes to plug his Dog Whisperer show), and the wild, jokey over-enthusiasm of the voiceovers.

Once in a while, there is something I really want to watch on the NG channel. On Monday evenings, they're currently showing a ragbag of World War II documentaries (History Channel stuff, you'd think - I don't know how it comes to be airing on National Geographic): mixed quality, but mostly quite decent, mostly stuff I haven't seen before. But, for maybe 80 minutes of documentary - tonight, about the Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima attacks - I've had to suffer 40 minutes of PROMO HELL, much of it for this very programming strand, 'Apocalypse World War II'.... which, I'm told (again and again and again and again) by the portentous voiceover guy (it might even be this guy: it does have the classic, self-consciously over-the-top style of a trailer for a Hollywood action picture), was "filmed by people who were actually there." What, as opposed to robot cameramen or satellites?? Is there now such a well-established genre of contemporary documentaries derived entirely from closed-circuit security camera footage that the involvement of on-the-spot cameramen has become something noteworthy, something we need to be specially reminded of?

No, it's just that the scriptwriting is every bit as CRAP as the voiceovers and the editing and the scheduling.  (And the sound engineering - Jeez, the levels are all over the place; the charity ad for the WWF's Coral Triangle fund is TWICE as loud as most everything else, battering the eardrums, rattling the windows, annoying the neighbours.)

It's like a How Not To demonstration of how to screw up a television channel. And yet the National Geographic Channel is apparently very successful; so, they must at some level "know what they're doing"? The audience today actually tolerates, or even responds positively to this kind of SHIT???  I despair of the modern world.

Bon mot for the week

"A fanatic is one who can't change his mind and won't change the subject."

Winston Churchill  (1874-1965)

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Film List - favourite prison films

This theme seemed all too apposite at the moment, since poverty and ill health - and dread of the ubiquitous fireworks outside - have kept me a prisoner of my apartment for the whole month.

Also, I have long wanted to do a post on this for two particular reasons: first, to give me an excuse to mention again Cool Hand Luke, which is one of my favourite films in any genre, and did, I fear, have a formative impact on me in my childhood; and second, to exclude The Shawshank Redemption - which is a steaming pile, one of the most overrated films of all time.

Having got that out of the way, let's move to the list. Once I started thinking about this, I was a little surprised to find that there weren't that many obvious contenders. Prison films are not as numerous as one thinks (if one excludes the B-movie lezploitation genre), and most of them aren't all that good.

Looking around for a bit of inspiration on the Net, I found most selections were cheating a bit (or a lot): a few of them even included Alien 3. Look, people, the 'prison movie' is a pretty clearcut genre: it must be largely or wholly set in an institution of correction (One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest might be set in a prison-like environment, but it's not set in a prison), and it must be a serious drama (not a comedy like the Jim Jarmusch classic Down By Law or Peter Sellers' Two-Way Stretch nor a quirky novelty story like Burt Reynolds' footballing yarn The Longest Yard or its Vinnie Jones remake Mean Machine) - and it must be about the struggle to live within the system and/or to escape, not about battling hideous acid-blooded predators. POW films are a distinct - and I suspect, rather more numerous - genre; so, Stalag 17, The Wooden Horse, King Rat, and The McKenzie Break will have to await a post of their own. I also exclude films which merely have a large element of prison story in them: In The Name Of The FatherDead Man Walking, The Hurricane, American History X and the recent Stone (a difficult and deeply flawed but extremely resonant film which might well get a post of its own soon) may focus on a man's imprisonment, but most of the story takes place outside the prison. A prison film - apart from a how-they-came-to-be-here prologue and an escape/release coda - is set almost entirely within the confines of a prison.

As with my other lists of this kind, I'll avoid attempting to rank these selections (except to say that Cool Hand Luke is No. 1, obviously!) and adopt a chronological arrangement instead.

Here we go...

Froog's Favourite Prison Films

I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang
(Dir. Mervyn LeRoy, 1932)
A prototype for Cool Hand Luke, but without the messianic sacrifice motif. For its day, very bold in its portrayal of the inhumanity of the prison system.

Brute Force
(Dir. Jules Dassin, 1947)
But for Cool Hand Luke, this would be the best American film in the list - a savage noir drama about the tough-as-nails Burt Lancaster leading a prison revolt against a sadistic warden.

Le Trou
(Dir. Jacques Becker, 1960)
But the best non-American film - and arguably the best film of the lot - is this French masterpiece of suspense and claustrophobia. Just as Dassin's Rififi was the seminal heist movie, Becker's film is the seminal prison escape movie - and similarly makes great use of real time and largely dialogue-free sequences during the escape.

The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner
(Dir. Tony Richardson, 1962)
A fine adaptation of Alan Sillitoe's famous novel about life in a Borstal - the UK's 'reform schools' for young offenders - with a mesmerising performance by a very young Tom Courtenay as the protagonist.

Birdman of Alcatraz
(Dir. John Frankenheimer, 1962)
A great performance by Burt Lancaster - although it's not as accurate an account of Stroud's life as one might wish (he spent half of his incarceration, and did most of his famous bird work, at Leavenworth Penitentiary).

The Hill
(Dir. Sidney Lumet, 1965)
Not a conventional prison, but a British military stockade for delinquent soldiers in North Africa during the last days of WWII. I saw this as a midnight film on British TV in the 1970s, and it has haunted me ever since. Gorgeous black-and-white photography, a brutal story, and the first proof that Sean Connery was capable of more than just being a suave superspy - something of a forgotten classic.

Cool Hand Luke
(Dir. Stuart Rosenberg, 1967)
The sweatiest film ever made? I have written enough about this before - here and here and here and here...

One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich
(Dir. Caspar Wrede, 1970)
Tom Courtenay again: a decade on, he has graduated to playing Solzhenitsyn's titular gulag inmate in a shamefully overlooked film, one of the bleakest and coldest ever made (shot on location in northern Finland).

(Dir. Franklin J. Schaffner, 1973)
One of the first films I can ever remember seeing in the cinema. A bit ponderous, and not nearly as good as Henri Charrière's enthralling biography about his life in the penal colonies of French Guiana in the 1930s (which I'd already read, at the age of 8 or 9, borrowing it from my brother), but the cinematography is sumptuous, and Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman make an eminently watchable pair of convicts.

(Dir. Alan Clarke, 1977)
Alan Clarke was one of the great assets of British television in the 1970s and 1980s, directing many of BBC1's landmark 'Play For Today' series of TV movies in the early '70s, and graduating on to more experimental and often very violent subject matter which could only get a late-night showing on BBC2. Many of his films, I believe, were only aired once; but they etch themselves permanently into your mind (Road, Contact, Elephant - the latter two being a couple of the best things made about The Troubles in Northern Ireland). He was instrumental in launching the careers of Tim Roth (as a racist juvenile delinquent in Made In Britain) and Gary Oldman (as the charismatic leader of a gang of football hooligans in The Firm). I think Scum - a brutal study of young offenders' institutions (with a first starring role for Londoner Ray Winstone, who has gone on to become Britain's favourite gangster) - was originally made for the BBC as well, but proved a bit too extreme for Auntie, and so was given a cinema release instead.

Midnight Express
(Dir. Alan Parker, 1978)
I don't think Parker - or Oliver Stone, the screenwriter here - have done anything better since. The bad machine doesn't know he's a bad machine.

Escape From Alcatraz
(Dir. Don Siegel, 1979)
I remember this being a workmanlike prison drama rather than anything outstanding; but it's much better than Shawshank.

(Dir. Stuart Rosenberg, 1980)
A dubiously eligible choice, since the main focus of the story is on saintly governor Robert Redford's battles with the Prison Board to improve the treatment of prisoners; but the scenes of life in the prison - particularly when Redford goes undercover as an inmate - are pretty harrowing. My recollection of this film (haven't seen it in well over 20 years) is that it is a worthy misfire: I just didn't buy Redford as the governor, and even less as a pretend-prisoner.

(Dir. Tom Clegg, 1980)
A gritty British prison escape drama that stays rather closer than most to the true facts of the story on which it is based. Casting rock singer Roger Daltrey in the lead, though - although he isn't bad - probably doomed it to not being taken as seriously as it deserved.

Kiss of the Spiderwoman
(Dir. Hector Babenco, 1985)
A prison love story - that's got to be a sub-genre of one, hasn't it?

Murder In The First
(Dir. Marc Rocco, 1995)
This film plays annoyingly fast and loose with the facts of the Henri Young case; but it is a very powerful story, and a superb performance by Kevin Bacon in the lead. Admittedly, this slightly strains my criteria, since much of the film is courtroom based.

(Dir. Hector Babenco, 2003)
An even better film from Brazil's master director, inspired by real events in Sao Paolo's notorious Carandiru mega-prison (more of a vast apartment complex that just happens to be closed off from the outside world) where police SWAT teams responded to a 1992 mass riot by conducting a massacre.

(Dir. Steve McQueen, 2008)
Another slightly outside-the-box choice, in that rather than being a standard prison story it focuses on the special case of the 1980s hunger strikes by IRA prisoners in Belfast's Long Kesh prison, and considers the conflict from the perspective of both the prisoners and the guards. It is a strange, terrible masterpiece, hauntingly beautiful - one of the best films I've seen in the last decade. And Michael Fassbender is absolutely stunning as the leader of the protests, Bobby Sands; he is now deservedly on his way to international stardom, but he'll probably never better this.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Haiku for the week

Firecracker rattle
Sounds just like constant gunfire -
Unhappy memories.

I fail to see what is so festive about turning your city into a warzone for two or three weeks. Too many places have suffered this ordeal for real. This city has. The continual din of background explosions during the Chinese New Year holiday becomes very wearing on the nerves.

At least we are a third of the way through this year's insanity. But, as Marvin said: "The first million years were the worst. The second million years, they were the worst as well. The third million years were really awful. After that, I just went into a sort of decline."

Thursday, January 26, 2012

More abstraction

No, it's not in fact the crappiest brickwork in the world - although Beijing does have a lot of that. The bendiness of this wall (actually just a brick effect facing) is an optical illusion created by the reflection in the - presumably rather warped or wobbly! - plate glass windows in the adjacent office block.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A veil of tiers

I am wrestling with statistics once again.

I'm trying to write a piece on domestic consumption profiles in China, and the data my employers have given me to work with is all over the place. For example, one stat - a survey on the new importance of 'healthy lifestyles' to better-off Chinese consumers - suggests that 4.5 million people can now be considered as displaying this preference; this, I am told, represents "1 in 16 people in China". Er, not if you accept the generally agreed population total of 1.3-and-a-bit billion, it doesn't. It's barely 1 in 300. What gives?  (There is, alas, very little chance that even my laowai analyst colleagues would pause to query something like this, and absolutely none at all that any of the Chinese researchers would.)

My main concern, however, is not with identifying and quantifying specific consumer segments (we all know those kinds of numbers are just made up, anyway; although it is nice if our inventions can be at least vaguely plausible), but with the broad question of the urban/rural population split - what proportion of of the Chinese are still living "in the countryside", and how is the urban/rural distinction defined?

Almost everything you read about China's urban centres refers to a 'tier' classification. Unfortunately, this nomenclature is very slippery, and there is no standard definition of what the tiers are. The most thorough discussion I could find of the issue is here; but even these suggested criteria still leave considerable uncertainties - with occasionally vast divergences as to how many cities and which ones fall within the 1st and 2nd Tiers - because they don't take into account the problem of how one gauges the population (or the geographical size, or the GDP, or any other worthwhile metric) of a given city. City governments invariably control great swathes of territory far beyond their core urban area, and most population figures (etc.) quoted will usually be for that entire area, including outlying suburbs, satellite towns, expanses of open countryside; the population of the city proper is probably rarely more than 50% of the headline figure, and perhaps often less than 25% - but it depends where you draw the line.

So, allocating cities within the upper tiers and assessing their size/wealth is a thorny problem. But I am more concerned with the lower end - the so-called Tier 5 cities, communities still so comparatively bijou that they might not be considered as "urban" at all (although they are sure as hell a lot more "urban" than an isolated farmstead or a mountain village of a few dozen people - which are the kind of places where a lot of Chinese people [15%??] still live).

The data supplied by the management consultancy I'm doing this article for alleges that this Tier encompasses more than 20,000 settlements, with a total population of around 150 million people.  Hmm - that doesn't sound like cities to me.

Indeed not. No, there is a recognised cohort of 'small cities' of much larger population than this, and which most lists number at around 500 (yes, that's in addition to the 42 cities that, even by the most conservative assessment of 'core urban population', number well over 1 million people; less finicky catalogues suggest that there are now more than 100 Chinese cities of this size; and then there are another 50 or so bubbling under with populations in the high hundreds of thousands). And these very numerous 'small cities' are commonly said to accommodate not a mere 11.5% of the country's population, but a far greater proportion, something around 25-30%.

In this article, for instance, I found a table of information on the city Tiers, said to be derived from the '2008 China City Statistical Yearbook' (no publisher cited). This repeats the commonly quoted figure of 494 cities in the "small, undeveloped" 5th Tier category (since we're now three years on, you can probably bump all of these figures up by at least 10%). However, certain aspects of these figures are very funny - funny peculiar, that is. In particular, the "median population" of these Tier 5 cities is said to be 609,000. Now, it would be very odd to give the median figure for this kind of thing; and you'd expect it to be lower than the arithmetic mean (because only 10 or 20% of cities in this category have attained a higher-than-average population size). I suspect this is a clumsy translation from a Chinese source, and that 'mean' was intended; although I suppose it is just as possible that it was the original Chinese survey that made this mistake. 

I was initially sceptical about that 600,000 figure - but I was myself suffering the Chinese curse of misplacing a decimal place. I suppose that would give a total of 300 million for people living in this tier - which sounds about right (not 3 billion, as it had seemed to me at first!!).

However, it still doesn't solve my fundamental problem: are these Tier 5 'small cities' considered urban or rural?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Seasonal trade

This is my friendly neighbourhood firework stall. You find one of these temporary kiosks every few blocks or so, and they'll be doing a fairly brisk business for the next two weeks - then disappear just as suddenly as they popped up a few days ago.

I failed to catch it in this picture, but the guy in the grey parka was smoking a cigarette as he pondered his purchases.

Yes, of course there's a sign warning that you shouldn't do this. But enforcement is patchy; it's more of a guideline.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Side effects

With the two-and-a-bit week bore-a-thon of the Chinese New Year, we expect the days on end of unquiet sleep and shell-shock; we expect the choking palls of gunpowder smoke across the city (occasionally thick enough to close down the aiport!); we expect the plethora of crappy 'Temple Fairs' (crowds and carnies and bugger-all else); we expect the subway to be too heaved out to use during the daytime, but largely deserted at night; we expect it to be impossible to travel anywhere within China (online travel agent C-trip has been taunting me with 'special offers' of hotel rooms in the 'paradise city' of Lijiang in the temperate southern province of Yunnan supposedly available for as little as 70 rmb a night; the catch being that there is currently NO WAY to get to Lijiang!): we expect all our favourite restaurants to close for a while (without usually telling us exactly how long for); we expect it to be impossible to get a haircut for a fortnight or more either side of the dratted holiday.

That's the standard shit we have to endure at this time every year.

But this year, I've noticed two other curious phenomena that I think must be indirectly related to this dratted holiday:

1)  The stink in my drains is back with a vengeance.
It was a nasty annoyance when I first moved in here a couple of months back, but I managed to clear it after a week or two. I speculate that its violent recurrence NOW is connected to the dramatically reduced occupancy in my building. My immediate neighbours are still here, but every other apartment on my floor seems deathly still; and taking a stroll in the courtyard last night around 10pm, I counted only half a dozen or so lights on - in a five building multi-storey complex that must comprise several hundred units. With little water-flow through the system, the sewers on the lower floors tend to get log-jammed...

2)  There's no decent fruit to be had
There were some lovely apples, oranges, and bananas around during Christmas time, some of the best I've ever seen in China. Now, my small neighbourhood supermarket and the two nearby open-air markets I often use seem to have hardly any loose fruit - and what there is is deeply crappy quality. The reason, I surmise, is that all the good stuff has been assigned to the expensive boxed gift sets of fruit that are such a popular present when making house calls on friends and family at this time of year. (I don't know why I hadn't noticed this in previous years. Perhaps I don't always eat quite enough fresh fruit.)

Only another two weeks to go....

Bon mot for the week

"If you compare yourself to others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself."

Max Ehrmann (1872-1945)

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Happy New Year! (AGAIN)

[Traditional Chinese painting courtesy of Cindy Pon]

Today is the eve of Chunjie, the 'Spring Festival', or New Year in the Chinese lunar calendar.

Another of my online acquaintances, Cindy Pon - unreasonably talented author and artist - kindly gave me permission to use one of her exquisite Chinese brush paintings as a Greetings Card for you here. Do go and take a look at her website for more examples like this.

A happy and prosperous 

Year of the Dragon

to all of you!!!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

My Fantasy Girlfriend - Isobel Lang

I usually attempt to disown the idea of having any particular type of woman that I am especially susceptible to, but...  Well, yes, there are certain common factors in the women who most appeal to me, namely - being clever, elegant, tall... and having red hair (I just can't help myself; I think it must be a foible I've inherited from my Irish ancestors).

These desirable attributes have perhaps never been better combined than in the person of the lovely Isobel Lang, who burst upon British TV screens in the mid-1990s as a new BBC weather presenter. I'd never previously made a point of catching the forecasts every day, but Isobel had soon transformed my viewing habits. (I gather she's now moved to Sky, which is a rather less prestigious home, but - hopefully - a much higher paying one.)

I think she made a guest appearance once on the motoring show Top Gear, wherein I discovered that she owns a Morgan - a gorgeous hand-built retro sports car. It was the +4 model, if I remember correctly.

Beautiful, intelligent, and has good taste in cars?? Swoon...

Friday, January 20, 2012

Recently, on The Barstool...

What's been happening over on my 'drinking blog' lately? Well, quite a lot...

The end of December traditionally sees a HUGE post on my picks of the best and worst from the year's bar and music scene happenings, The Froog Bar Awards (2011).  As a prelude to that, I did a couple of my 'Top Five' roundups (slightly overlapping), on the year's most interesting new openings and on the nearly-but-not-quite bars that failed to establish 'Bar of the Year' credentials for themselves.

I have huffily renounced the Blue Frog 'restaurant' and its over-rated burgers, declined to lament the passing of up-itself music bar D-22, mocked the world's worst designed business card, been briefly suckered by one of China's notorious 'Shanzhai' copycat brands, shared yet more of my wisdom on hangovers, and discovered some rather wonderful gift ideas (one of which led me, at the end of the same post, to ask readers to nominate their favourite tippling authors - alas, there has been no response so far).

Thanks to new blog discovery booksandmusicandstuff, I have in the past couple of weeks been getting very nostalgic about my long-lost record collection, and about my musical 'education' in general. I was also inspired to produce a post - likely to be merely the first in a long, ongoing series - on some of my favourite basslines.

Other musical treats have included a couple of 'Christmas songs' from Tom Waits (well, one of them is actually by a cheeky soundalike), a blast of Chicago blues guitarist Jnr Boy Jones (who played the gig of the year in Beijing just before Christmas), some Johnny Cash (on the 44th anniversary of his celebrated Folsom Prison concerts), and just yesterday a tribute to the wonderful Janis Joplin (it would have been her 69th birthday).

You see why it's worth taking regular trips over to the 'dark side'? There's lots of good stuff over there.

Haiku for the week

Battle's constant din;
The ghosts and demons routed - 
All fleeing my way.

The great annual trauma of the Chinese Spring Festival celebrations has begun. I shall endeavour to spend as much as possible of the next 18 days in the protective cocoon of my apartment. I hope I've laid in enough provisions.

Thursday, January 19, 2012


Perhaps I should have kept my mouth shut about the difficulty of changing light-bulbs in China last week.

Just a few days ago, the only light in my kitchen suddenly cut out.

It is a circular neon strip bulb; so, immediately I am almost certain it will be impossible to obtain a replacement... other than - perhaps - from a specialist store in the 'lighting district' (yes, we have one).

But in order to attempt that, I must first remove the bulb from its mounting. And in order to do that, I must work out how to remove the lightshade.

There are no obvious catches anywhere on the shade: it appears to be moulded solidly to the rest of the mounting. And it is near impossible to examine, since it is flush to the ceiling. And it is hazardous even to try to touch the thing, since it is bolted to the ceiling.... and the ceiling consists of a series of flimsy metal 'planks' which are secured by... well, nothing very much, as far as I can see; fridge magnets, possibly. They pop loose and sag down alarmingly when I so much as lay a finger on the rogue light fitting.

I fear I am going to have to embrace the ignominy of asking my landlord how to change the light-bulb in the kitchen. And he's off home in Chengdu for the next fortnight.

If I need to do anything in my kitchen after dusk, I have to leave the fridge door open. Really.

Another 500 day

Yesterday's weather in Beijing was decidedly misty. Foggy, in fact.

And when the air is damp, the pollution levels go through the roof - often approaching or surpassing the 500 rating, which is as high as most Air Pollution Indices measure.

I was reluctant to set foot outside in that murk, but I had some urgent shopping to do, so braved it for a couple of hours in the afternoon.

The air in my neighbourhood stank of sulphur dioxide. Really, almost enough to make you gag at times. I don't think that can have just been the build-up of exhaust fumes in the air; there must have been a tanker spill somewhere nearby. Or something.  Not nice.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


Over the last several years, I have griped a lot - too much, perhaps - about the widespread obtuseness and inefficiency one encounters in China, and have at times been close to utter despair as to whether this country will ever catch up to the standards of foresight, consideration, and common sense that we rather take for granted in the developed world.

But the two guys who delivered and assembled my IKEA purchases for me last week - they actually gave me HOPE.

They didn't faff around for 10 or 20 minutes discussing how to divide up the work; they just got straight down to it. They didn't constantly hassle me with trivial enquiries or requests for confirmation of instructions; I happily got on with some e-mailing while they worked quietly around me. They were brisk and efficient, completing the job in a little over 40 minutes. They didn't botch anything, and have to backtrack and start again. They didn't even have to ask where the powerpoints were. And they didn't leave a mess. 

Most remarkable of all, they didn't even have to ask me where I wanted the stuff put.

I mean, it might be blindingly obvious that a coffee table goes in the middle of the room in front of the TV set, and that the tall bookcase goes in the corner, in one of the only two available bits of empty wall space, while the two smaller bookcases might go in the slightly wider stretch of wall next to my desk.... Yes, it's not exactly rocket science. But to have a Chinese workman solve such a puzzle for himself?? Unheard of!!!!!!

Maybe things are slowly moving forward here, after all....

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Strange fruit

I just noticed some strange white objects scattered all over my terrace - whitish, wedge-shaped, a couple of inches or so long.

I wondered for a moment if someone down in the street had been pelting my apartment with jiaozi, the little dumplings that are especially associated with this holiday. Maybe bombarding foreigners with unwanted surplus jiaozi is becoming a quaint new Spring Festival tradition?

No. On closer examination, I discovered these alien objects to be large cloves of garlic.

The Chinese are prone to using their window ledges as larders, and when it gets a little windy... some of the food may get dumped on people down below.

Alas, I already have a couple of bulbs of garlic in stock, so I don't think I'm going to be able to make use of my unexpected windfall.

It's happening again

Just when I was starting to feel ever so slightly more upbeat about staying in China for a while longer, just when I was starting to feel just a little more optimistic about my employment prospects here... 

I've been in tentative discussions for a while now (ahem, two-and-a-half years!) with a large Chinese law firm about developing some kind of permanent relationship with them to co-ordinate all of their various English language needs in editing, polishing, copywriting, client liaison, marketing and promotion, staff assessment and training, and so on. And we seemed to have taken a big step forward toward that goal when they suddenly invited me in for a meeting with one of the senior partners a couple of weeks ago.

But I guess that meeting didn't go so well.

What feedback did I get from them?  NONE. Even after sending a follow-up e-mail of my own to a couple of the lower-ranked partners who'd set the thing up. Not even after sending a text message reminder about that follow-up. And then a follow-up to the follow-up.

How did I know it was DEAD? Call me psychic!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Bon mot for the week

"Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase."

Martin Luther King, Jnr  (1929-1968)

Today is the Martin Luther King Day holiday in the US.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

List of the Month - Lyrics Quiz

A simple enough challenge this week: name the song, the writer, and the artist most associated with it.

Easy-peasy, lemon-squeezee!

Except that not many people have such unduly retentive memories as I do for such trivial things as lyrics. And not many people have such quirkily diverse musical tastes. Or... do you??

Let me know how you fare down in the comments. I'll post the answers there in a week or so. Good luck!

Froog's Song Lyric Quiz

God sends his spaceships to America - The Beautiful.
They land at six o'clock, and there we are - the dutiful:
Eating from TV trays, tuned in to 'Happy Days',
Waiting for World War Three while Jesus slaves...

I got wild staring eyes
And I got a strong urge to fly,
But I got nowhere to fly to...

Since I was eight I've loved you.
Through garden gates I've shoved you.

My new purple shoes been amazing the people next door,
And my rock-and-roll 45s been enraging the folks on the lower floor.

He gives the kids free samples
Because he knows full well
That today's young innocent faces
Will be tomorrow's clientele.

With the fingers of a potter
And the laughing tale of the fool,
The arranger of disorder
With your strange and simple rules

I'm so tired of playing,
Playing with this bow and arrow.
Gonna give my heart away,
Leave it to the other girls to play.

Well, it's true that I stole your lighter,
And it's also true that I lost the map,
But when you said I wasn't worth talking to,
I had to take your word on that.

Friday night, they'll be dressed to kill
Down at Dino's Bar & Grill.

Oh, I'm so nervous,
I don't know what to do.
I light a cigarette.
I only smoke when I'm with you.
What the hell do I do that for?

Still, I could think of a lot of worse places to be -
Like out on the streets, or down in the sewer,
Or even on the end of a skewer!

Feeling like a paper cup
Floatin' down a storm drain;
Got myself a silk umbrella,
But I can't afford a drop o'rain.

Friday, January 13, 2012

One year ago today...

... saw the first appearance in my comment threads - the de-cloaking - of Cedra, a talented artist from Albuquerque, New Mexico. [And NO, I can't ever think of that place name without hearing Bugs Bunny's voice!]

One of the great pleasures of this blogging malarkey (which I have often fretted is a perilously addictive and self-indulgent hobby) is that it acts as a magnet, gradually winning the attention of wider and wider circles of other bloggers and blog readers with whom one can establish contact. And a few of these develop into regular commenters and/or e-mail penpals. (Cedra, in fact, hasn't been such a frequent commenter; but she has had a very busy year! Check out her website Lights All Askew in the Heavens for more details of what she's been up to.)

There has proven to be an unexpectedly rich source of new friendships in what had seemed to be a perversely reclusive activity. And Cedra has become one of the most valued of these friends. It feels as though I've known her far longer than year.

Haiku for the week

Unease, tension, dread,
Waiting for the first firework.
Calm before the storm.

Barman Mike tells me he's heard the odd explosion already in the hutongs further south from me. But around my way, it has been uncannily peaceful: not a single bang! as yet. Usually, you get kids starting to experiment with the ordnance at least a couple of weeks ahead of the Chinese New Year holiday, but this year.... an ominous silence reigns. And we're now only 9 days shy of the annual gunpowder apocalypse. I wonder what's up.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

IKEA mathematics

If it takes two experienced workmen with power tools 45 minutes to assemble three small bookshelf units, how long would it have taken me to achieve the same feat on my own?

It really doesn't bear thinking about, does it?

Was my 106 rmb fee (about £11) for 'delivery & assembly' worth it? Absolutely.

Staring at the ceiling

One of the most curious phenomena to be spawned by the emergence of middle-class affluence in China over the past decade or so has been an obsession with interior design.

This is an art - or a science, or a blend of the two - that has had to be created here more or less ab nihilo. So, its hallmarks tend to be complexity rather than elegance, and fiddliness rather than functionality.

Now, these light fittings in my new apartment really look rather good: quite modernist, even a bit Art Deco-ish, instead of the cod Louis Quatorze multiple sconces and chandelier arrangements that central light fittings here so often attempt. But they are still woefully impractical. Like almost all Chinese light fittings I've ever seen, they are bolted to the wall or ceiling in elaborate, obscure, and nonsensical ways, which make it virtually impossible ever to change a failed bulb.* 

*  Even if you do manage to dismantle one of these confounded light fittings without causing injury to yourself or it, you might not be able to find a replacement bulb, anyway. There doesn't seem to be any standardization of light fittings. Most apartments have a bewildering variety of regular incandescent bulbs, energy-saving bulbs, and neon strips, in all kinds of different shapes, sizes, and wattages, and with screw, bayonet and clip-in mounts. In my last - fairly small - apartment, I counted 11 different kinds of light bulb in use. Even the two circular neon strips, the main central lights in the bedroom and the study, which appeared to have identical fittings/shades, proved upon examination to be of different sizes and mountings. My bedroom light failed a couple of months after I moved in; and I could not find a supermarket or hardware store for two or three miles in any direction that could give me a replacement for it. Since I don't do anything in my bedroom other than sleep, this was not such a big problem; I learned to go to bed in the dark. After nearly two years of that, I am having difficulty reprogramming myself to remember that light is once again an option at bedtime in my new place.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

My kitchen - a photo essay

My new kitchen is a big improvement on my last-but-one (and the last-but-two; and my last one, in fact, although that wasn't too bad; my first apartment in China didn't really have a kitchen at all). But it's still less-than-wonderful in a number of ways.

It's quite long, yes, which gives me much more counter space than you usually find in Chinese kitchens. Unfortunately, there's not a lot of worthwhile storage space, so the counter soon gets cluttered up with your rice-cooker, blender, coffee-maker, etc.

The kitchen is long, but narrow. Very wide-hipped people would have to move up and down it sideways (particularly now that I've brought in some bookshelves for food storage on the wall opposite the counter). In fact, very wide-hipped people probably can't even enter, since the fridge-freezer prevents the door from opening more than half-way. [It's quite common in China for a fridge to be placed in the living room or dining room rather than in the kitchen. Fridges, until recently, haven't been much of a thing here. In the winter - in the northern half of China, at any rate - you can preserve food by leaving it outside, on a balcony or stoop or windowsill. And in summer - well, you can't trust that food has been adequately refrigerated in transport and storage, so it's safer to try to buy the freshest produce you can on a day-by-day basis. There's also a persistent anxiety here about how much electricity fridges consume; the ultra-thrifty Chinese will often switch them off when they're "not using them" - i.e., when they're not at home, or when nobody else is looking. This is one of the most notorious hazards of sharing with a Chinese housemate. It is also one of the biggest drawbacks of shopping in small neighbourhood stores (the lady who runs the one downstairs in my building is so absurdly cost-conscious that she turns the lights off when there are no customers) or eating in cheap restaurants.]

So, my first gripe: there's not enough room for the fridge-freezer... or for any general cat-swinging, elbow-waggling activities (I can touch both walls at the same time, without getting anywhere near to a full extension of my arms).

Chinese gas-fired water-heaters are a source of constant aggravation. At least this one isn't inside a cupboard (like my last two were), but I still have concerns about carbon monoxide emissions - and I try to leave the window open whenever I'm doing a big session of washing up. Actually, it's a pretty good heater; much the best of its kind that I've yet encountered here. But the pilot light does cut out alarmingly frequently, and the electric ignition 'jams' (requiring the electricity to be unplugged in order to 'reset' it). The temperature readout is a work of fiction (this heater can allegedly pump out water at up to 80 degrees Centigrade, even on medium settings); in fact, all of the dials have to be ratcheted up to the max to produce water that is even moderately warm. And there's an odd resonance in the water pipes that sometimes produces a high-pitched whine for several minutes at a time (usually around midnight, when I'm just trying to get to sleep). Oh yes, the real doozie is this: the gas supply is shared with the cooking rings, and the pressure is too feeble to sustain both at the same time. I found during my small New Year's party the other week that every time a guest went to the bathroom (the washbasin taps are fed by the same water-heater), the flame under my pot of pumpkin soup was extinguished. Every time. A right pain in the bottom it is.

One of the reasons I don't have much in the way of wall cupboards is that I've got this instead. It is allegedly a crockery sterilizer. I have no idea how it is supposed to work, and I don't trust it to be all that efficacious - or even safe to operate. The wall-mountings aren't secure enough for me to trust using it even for crockery storage. I imagine this is evidence that my kitchen was equipped round about the time of the SARS outbreak in 2003. This kind of unnecessary - mostly probably bogus - 'safety' appliance became all the rage for a while around then.

At least my extractor hood works - sort of. The fact that the brand name - Shuaikang - is upside down doesn't exactly inspire confidence that the appliance has been correctly installed, but... it does make loud windy noises; and burning smells disappear eventually.

Notice also that this photograph is taken more or less at my eye level. The top of the extractor hood is just below the level of my chin, which makes it a little hard to see what's going on in the pots on the stove. I suffer similar vexations with the kitchen sink. The top of the sink (and the counter work surfaces) are only a few inches above my knees; the bottom of the sink is about level with my knees; the top of the mixer tap (which, of course, only has a few inches clearance above the sink) is well below the level of my waist. I got a stiff back doing the washing up after my party. Chinese kitchens are built for very short people.

And, of course, what might be a moderately nice view looking out over the kitchen sink - my terrace, and the far side of a bustling, low-rise street - is almost completely obscured by all the landlord's junk piled up outside the window. This is China. THIS is a Chinese kitchen.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Bah, humbug!

My new apartment came pre-equipped with a "traditional" Chinese New Year decoration - a "lucky" red lantern.

Now, the traditional decoration, I believe, would be an actual lantern rather than an ugly hunk of cardboard; it would be hung outside the house, rather than in the middle of the living room; and it would be displayed for the period of the New Year holiday only - not left up year-round.

Chinese apartments tend not to be all that generous in their allowance of headroom. Mine is better than some I've seen, but the ceiling is probably only about 7'6" high (I can touch it quite comfortably, only going slightly on tiptoe). So, this bloody great cardboard box hanging from the central light-fitting was not much more than 5' clear of the floor, and I would bash my head on it quite regularly as I tried to duck and weave under or around it in crossing the room.

I had been thinking of leaving it up for Chinese New Year (which is now fairly imminent). I quickly repented of that thought. The pointless eyesore has now been removed.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Can you guess what it is?

I was a bit flummoxed at first. And I'd seen where it came from.

But I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like this before.

It is a smell trap - to be placed into the drains in your bathroom floor. The idea is that they are open at the top but closed at the bottom; the outlet is through a small hatched door three-quarters of the way up which can be lifted by water; so, until they're nearly full, these little cylinders are closed, and provide a seal against the horrible smells (and so on) that may be lurking in the pipes below.

This is very necessary in China, because all the drains go into the same pipe - yes, the sewage pipe - and the Chinese are  still largely unfamiliar with the simple miracle of the S-bend. (5,000 years of history, and they haven't discovered plumbing yet!)

Unfortunately, of course, this being China, the design is seriously flawed: the hinged door sticks, is not easily lifted by the rising water; it gets clogged by hair and dirt in less time than it takes to have a shower; and even when clean, unobstructed, and with its hinge moving freely, the opening is far too small to allow the ready passage of the volumes of water produced by your average shower nozzle. Result: the bathroom floods every time you have a shower; and you have to remove the traps at regular (daily!) intervals for maintenance, which allows the disgusting drain stench to escape into your apartment.

Ah, China.

Bon mot for the week

"It is tact that is golden, not silence."

Samuel Butler  (1835-1902)

Saturday, January 07, 2012

The warmest place to hide?

You may already have seen this, since it seems to have become one of the first big viral hits of the year on the Internet; but, having nothing else much to blog about on this dull, snowy Saturday morning, I thought I'd share it with you.

A young Brit called Lee Hardcastle (from Leeds, I suspect; although I'm becoming very inexpert at accent differentiation as a result of my diminished exposure over the past decade-and-a-half) makes rather fine, nicely grotesque 'claymation' shorts in a home studio. His latest effort is a two-minute distillation of John Carpenter's horror classic The Thing - rendered with Pingu characters. [Loyal readers may remember that I have a particular affinity for the cute penguin.]

This is surely one of the best calling cards ever made, and I fully expect young Mr Hardcastle to be working with Nick Park or Tim Burton quite soon. Check out more of his stuff on his website or his YouTube account.

Alas, it also seems likely that this video will get pulled quite quickly for infringing the Pingu copyright. So, enjoy it while you can. [Ah, yes, Lee's original posting got squelched very quickly. But it has now been re-posted by others.]