Thursday, May 31, 2012

Six Sigma in the toilet

Beijing is having another of its intermittent pushes to improve its image by beefing up hygiene standards in its public toilets.

Amongst a raft of new policies announced last week, the detail that caught every journalist's attention was the bizarre 'two fly' rule: no public toilet may have more than two flies in it. [Presumably this means houseflies rather than trouser flies... ho, ho. If flies on underpants were intended as the subject of this regulation, it would in fact be a covert addition to the current anti-foreigner campaign being waged in the capital. Chinese underpants do not have a fly; this is a Western aberration.]

One of the shrewdest and funniest commentaries on this measure came from Leo Lewis of The Times. Unfortunately his piece from last Thursday cowers behind a paywall (or a register-your-details-for-our-endless-e-marketing-assaults-wall, or something), but I don't think he'll mind me reprinting a brief highlight.

Issued yesterday to the bafflement of veteran toilet cleaners around the capital, the Working Standard of Beijing Major Industries’ Public Toilet Management is designed to bring draconian improvements to public hygiene and the 12,000 public toilets in the city.  

Key to that, according to one troubling paragraph, is ensuring that the number of flies “resident” in each facility is never allowed to exceed two. To widespread consternation, the rules offer no suggestions of how to achieve that exacting standard or even how to measure the fly population in the first place.  

As with all censuses, there are profound complexities. The two fly rule does not specify, for example, whether the quota refers to living or dead specimens, and whether or not to count a fly that had entered through a door or window but shown no sign of wishing to prolong the visit.  

One toilet cleaner, who gave her name as Wang, said that the rules were also frustratingly vague on what to do if the resident fly population was precisely two: “are we obliged to destroy the surviving two, or leave them be?” she said. 
Despite the apparently no-nonsense demands of the two fly rule, officials at the Beijing Municipal Commission of City Administration and Environment (BMCCAE) admitted that the rules were primarily designed to “lead public toilets in a better direction” and indicated that enforcement of the two fly rule would not be as rigorous as many toilet cleaners might fear.  
“We will not actually count fly numbers,” said Xie Guomin, an official at the BMCCAE, “the regulation is specific and quantified, but the inspection methodology will be flexible.”  [My emphasis]

Toilet cleaning professionals in several facilities near to The Times office in Beijing pointed out that the two fly rule has not been accompanied with any budgetary changes that would allow them to procure, for example, a fly swat.

So, as with most Chinese laws and regulations, it's really more of a guideline.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Does Yang Rui still have a job?

Apparently, YES.

For anyone who may have missed last week's uproar, you can revisit my post here and/or take a look at this video summary of the affair from Taiwanese humorous news site NMA TV.

CCTV's inaction is hardly surprising, but it is depressing. Their 'star' English-language presenter has revealed himself to be a vile xenophobe (not to mention a moron and a borderline psychopath). It is completely unacceptable that he should remain in the employment of the national TV station.

I feel the need to repeat my call to action from the end of last Monday's post:

Get active on this, people. Tell your friends, tell your workmates - Chinese and foreign. Use Twitter, use Weibo, use Facebook, use anything. Lobby cable networks. Lobby advertisers. 

Bombard CCTV with e-mails (try the programme's feedback address: Bombard them with phone calls or faxes (Tel. +86 [0]10 6850 9230 or 8824 4002, Fax +86 [0]10 6858 1282). 

Yang Rui Updates

Yang has torn in to Charlie Custer of the ChinaGeeks blog, who led the calls for a boycott of his Dialogue TV show - blustering at first about suing him for libel, and then resorting to bullying remarks about using his influence with the PSB to try to get Custer kicked out of the country.

Elsewhere (as reported by my mate Josh Chin for the WSJ, amongst others), he was making a half-assed attempt to backtrack slightly. He claims that his "foreign trash" slur was only intended to refer to criminal elements and not to the expat population in general. He also tries to make light of his abuse of expelled American Chinese journalist Melissa Chan by asserting that the term he used of her - 泼妇 - is more correctly translated as 'shrew'. (As if that's any kind of defence! In any case, I've talked with foreign translators and Chinese friends about this, and they are united in the view that it is an extremely disparaging and offensive term, and that 'bitch' is a more appropriate equivalent in contemporary English. The fact that it is an extremely harsh - and sexist - term of derogation is more important than the ostensible limitation of the basis of that derogation to being a scold/nag/troublesome woman. It is unwise to use gutter invective when addressing a serious and important issue, Mr Yang. It is even more unwise to yolk such terms to the adjective 'foreign', thereby implying some kind of essential connection or equivalence between the two and so constituting a slur upon all foreigners.)

I've also been told that Yang tried to head off the likely boycott of his TV show by foreign guests by jeering that anyone who declined to appear with him was "a coward" - an impressively mature and conciliatory attitude! [Unfortunately, this is the only source I've been able to find for this remark so far.]

Meanwhile, expat news blog The Shanghaiist has turned up more offensive nonsense from Yang's past musings on his Weibo microblog, indicating that he is also an anti-Semite.

And finally (well, not quite), a young English Sinologist has provided this amusing account of what an incompetent buffoon (and a swaggering bully) Yang Rui is, even when hosting a show in Chinese.

A few defences of Yang Rui have begun to appear, but - like this one, ostensibly by a Japanese journalist who's been a frequent guest on Yang's Dialogue show - they do little to help his cause, for the most part coming across as even more lame-brained and racist than Yang's original diatribe.

CCTV has apparently only commented to the extent of stressing that Yang's xenophobic remarks were his personal views rather than those of the station. They have not addressed the issue of how a man who expresses such contempt for foreigners can continue in a role where he is expected to act as a public relations bridge between China and the rest of the world. Keep sending the e-mails (letters and faxes even better - bury them in paper!).

Monday, May 28, 2012

Bon mot for the week

"Three minutes' thought would suffice to find this out, but thought is irksome and three minutes is a long time."

A.E. Housman (1859-1936)

I think of this whenever I encounter someone uncritically swallowing some goofy statistic like this.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Film List - Repeat Viewers

Just a very quick 'film list' this month, since I am in transit this week.

I thought I'd do a brisk rundown of the films that I watch most regularly. There are a few titles that I watch at least once a year, perhaps as many as three or four times a year.

Films I Can (and DO) Watch Over And Over Again

Music and Lyrics
(Dir. Marc Lawrence, 2007)
In addition to being a cracking romantic comedy (I've already reviewed it more fully here), this film has a special sentimental hold on me because it was a Christmas gift - one of the very few I've received in my adult life - from my good friend Tony the Chairman. It has become a bit of a personal ritual that I revisit this one every Christmas.

Cool Hand Luke
(Dir. Stuart Rosenberg, 1967)
The only serious film in this list, it is perhaps my favourite film of all. I can't watch it too frequently because it holds too powerful an emotional spell over me, is apt to provoke depression.

The Simpsons Movie
(Dir. David Silverman, 2007)
I am a complete nut for The Simpsons. If I had boxed sets of the TV series I would probably watch whole seasons back-to-back. The film is thus a godsend for me: the chance for a serious fix of Homer, without the danger of overdosing - only the equivalent of four consecutive episodes!

Shoot 'Em Up
(Dir. Michael Davis, 2007)
A slightly guilty pleasure, since some of the violence strays too far into the realm of the warped and sadistic (Paul Giamatti's hitman is really much too nasty for what is essentially an action comedy), but Clive Owen is superb as the taciturn, down-at-heel hero, and some of the action sequences are deliriously over-the-top.

National Lampoon's Animal House
(Dir. John Landis, 1978)
I first saw this film one week after starting at university, and I often feel that I have never looked forward since. I have to watch this magnificent campus comedy at least once a year to remind myself of that pivotal moment in my life.

Team America: World Police
(Dir. Trey Parker, 2004)
Satire done with marionettes - GENIUS! Matt and Trey even manage to make Kim Jong-il a sympathetic figure. Brilliant songs, too. I never tire of this - even better than South Park.

For A Few Dollars More
(Dir. Sergio Leone, 1965)
The middle film of the 'Dollars' trilogy is my favourite Leone western. I loved it when I first saw it at the age of about ten, and I've never lost that sense of exuberant delight in it. The film is chock-full of awesome moments.

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy
(Dir. Adam McKay, 2004)
By far Will Ferrell's best film to date (and he gets excellent support from Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, David Koechner, and Christina Applegate), this quickly became a cult favourite among a group of my drinking buddies in China. Our conversation is regularly littered with silly quotes from the film. (The morning after my 'leaving party' a few days ago, I announced to them, "I shat a squirrel.") News of an imminent sequel fills me with a mixture of glee and trepidation. It will be tough - impossible - to top the original.

Friday, May 25, 2012

I thought you were dead!

I was briefly confused on discovering last week that I had received a payment into my bank account from 荣格, Rong Ge. Then it occurred to me that this might be the 'Chinese name' for Ringier, the publishing company for whom I had done a little freelance writing a while back.

For reasons which escape me, Rong Ge is also the 'Chinese name' for the illustrious Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. [The auto-translate tool on my cyberbanking webpage kindly informed me of this. That's as far as 'English language service' goes with most Chinese banks as yet; such transaction details as get recorded for you at all are entirely in Chinese.]

Haiku for the week

Home, a childhood dream,
Conspiracy of memories,
Phantom we all chase.

Yes, I've come 'back' - to what?

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

That'll be me...

Well, I hope not!

Just a punning reminiscence of this poignantly appropriate song, of course. [I wish I'd drawn this. I think I could have done it better.]

Luckily, I've never been much bothered by travel sickness, even when I was a child... even in boats. Air travel I really rather enjoy.

And I should be airborne by about now. And gratefully leaving behind irredeemably daft China and its current foreigner-bashing mania.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

"Possible", but difficult

That formula, in fact, sums up trying to get anything done as a foreigner in China.

The latest example I've had experience of: applying for a credit card.

Now, I appreciate that, as a foreigner here, I might be a particularly difficult risk to assess; while my creditworthiness might appear to be good (foreigners, on the whole, earn rather better than most Chinese, since we are mostly in "expert roles" that require a good university education and/or considerable practical experience), I accept that I might fairly be considered a flight risk. If I quit the country at short notice, it would be difficult for a Chinese (or Hong Kong) bank to pursue me for recovery of any outstanding debts.

However, in a reasonable country, you would think that such concerns could be adequately addressed by such measures as a tight credit limit, monitoring card use (suspending it if I start using it overseas without prior notice), or a requirement that I maintain a minimum balance in my bank account equal to my credit limit as a guarantee.

My history of China residence (10 years continuous) and China employment (always on a 'foreign expert' working visa) really ought to be impressive enough to support a credit card application, you would think. I could probably provide personal testimonials as well, having worked for some very prestigious Chinese employers (several leading universities, educational publishers, and SOEs). My current account balance (now over 70,000 RMB) and pattern of use (over 40,000 RMB deposited in the four months since I opened the account, with nothing withdrawn) also meet a higher threshold than would be required of a domestic applicant.

But NO - a credit card for me?! How they laughed! 

For starters, a foreigner must have a 'Z' working visa to have any chance of being considered for a credit card here. Tough luck for the very many foreigners who come to live here in retirement, or to study for an extended period (I know a couple of people who are into the third or fourth year of their doctorates), or to do business, or to live with their Chinese spouses. The majority of these run small businesses here and/or have substantial private means back home; a lot of them plan to settle here for life. But because of the Chinese government's ridiculous visa policies, they can only get 'student' or 'tourist' or 'short-term business visitor' visas. So, no credit card for the likes of them, even though they are in effect permanently resident here and often have significant personal wealth.

Ah, but I have a 'Z' visa! Have you had it for more than one year from the same employer? Oh, these canny bank officials easily sense my particular weakness: apart from my experiment with schoolteaching straight after university, I've never held the same job for more than 10 months.

They also wanted a 'statement of earnings', which is problematical, since I don't have a single full-time employer, but numerous casual employers - most of whom still contrive to pay me with brown envelopes full of cash. Still, I could have found a way around that: it was just a token bit of paperwork they were looking for, and I probably could have got away with a pay-slip for just one month. There might even have been a way to get such a statement from the company sponsoring my visa (everything can be bought in China: I figure they'd probably be willing to transfer a wedge of money from their bank to mine, and get their accountant to provide the requisite chopped confirmation of this, if I paid them that amount +10% first), although I suspect they wouldn't have bothered to check if the company supposedly paying me this 'salary' was the same as the company that had helped me get my visa.

Oh, and there's also a requirement about how long you have left on your visa. It can't be a full year (well, if it is, that would be especially devious and unfair, because "one-year" Chinese visas are only valid for 364 days), but I think it's at least six months, maybe nine or ten months.

So, if you're a foreigner, you can apply for a credit card if you have a one-year 'Z' visa which you have only recently renewed and have been working with the same company for more than a year. And even then you'll probably get turned down for some undisclosed reason. We foreigners are all fundamentally bad people. Only the noble and self-restrained Chinese can be trusted with credit cards.

Of course, these 'regulations' only apply in mainland China. Since I now use a Hong Kong bank, I think I'll take a trip down there to apply for a card. I imagine they'll take one look at the size of my balance and ask if I want Air Miles with that.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Yang Rui takes a crazy pill

The current surge of xenophobia in China took another unpleasant turn a few days ago when the search engine giant Baidu joined forces with popular BBS site to launch a campaign to expose 'foreigners behaving badly' via the leading social networking site Sina Weibo. Weibo, it seems, is just an innocent channel for this latest outpouring of fenqing outrage, but if Baidu is initiating it, I think we can assume that it's probably been given the nod by someone quite high up in the government. This is one of the less positive consequences of China's explosion in mobile Internet use.

And now Yang Rui, the lead anchor on Dialogue, a daily political talk show on the English-language CCTV International channel, has joined in this witch-hunt rhetoric with a Weibo post that is so intemperate it would be frightening.... if it weren't so extreme that he simply comes off as doolally. [We're all "spies", apparently! And "snake heads" - I'm not exactly sure what he means by that, but it isn't anything good. Most vile of all, he crowed over the recent unfair expulsion of American Chinese journalist Melissa Chan, referring to her as "that foreign bitch". At least a good number of the Chinese responses to this incoherent burp of hate have been critical, and sometimes scathingly satirical. My translator friend The Weeble tells me that one of them said, "You can't just stop taking your meds like that..." Check out a translation of Yang's statement and some of the Chinese Netizens' reactions to it in this excellent ChinaGeeks post.]

I used to try to take a charitable view of Yang Rui. His fumbling delivery and constipated demeanour do often make me wince with embarrassment. And yes, he does regularly come across as prim, pompous, and condescending - occasionally even a little rude to his foreign guests. But it seemed to me that this was a classic example of someone being promoted beyond his abilities. I was prepared to believe that he was quite a bright guy really, and that his English might be dazzlingly fluent in everyday conversation, but - like so many of the Chinese presenters on that channel - the stress of having to interact with native English speakers on camera completely overwhelms him and turns him into a bumbling ninny. [And that's when a show is being pre-recorded. When these presenters have to do something live, it's bunny-in-the-headlights time. You have to feel sorry for them.]

However, a year or so ago I met some young folks from CCTV who'd worked on his production team, and they were more scathing about him than any foreigner I've heard. They called him "a moron" and "an embarrassment to China". Even then, I wanted to make allowances for him. I thought this might just be an overreaction from sensitive junior colleagues who'd found him difficult to work with, or - as I've encountered very often in the radio and television industry here - an outpouring of the disenchantment of frustrated ambition: bright kids fresh out of university resent how unreasonably difficult they find it to progress in their careers, particularly as presenters (as in so many areas of public life in China, it's almost all down to guanxi - who you know - rather than talent, I'm told). That frustration naturally becomes even worse when you have someone who is so egregiously unqualified - in intellectual acuity, English ability, or cultural awareness - as Yang Rui holding such a prominent position. But still, I sympathised with the difficulties Mr Yang faced in such a demanding role. I was prepared to be amused by his frequent gaffes, without judging him too harshly. He didn't come across as the sharpest tool in the box, but I wouldn't have called him a moron.

Now I would call him that, and worse. This Weibo outburst was so outrageously objectionable - so downright irresponsible at a time of such strain in the relationship between the Chinese people and the foreigners living amongst them - that CCTV really MUST disown the remarks, and Yang Rui himself. He must be sacked.

Unfortunately, it's unlikely that anyone at the station will have the balls to take the initiative to do something like that without a lot of external pressure. Yang Rui is something of a sacred cow; he's been there for years, he's got a very high profile, he must have guanxi up to the eyeballs, and he doubtless wins favour among some of the high-ups in the government with his toadying promotion of the party line on so many of the topics addressed in his programme. But he's also a fool, an idiot, and a xenophobic hate-monger - he CAN'T be allowed to continue in this position as one of the main 'faces of China' that CCTV presents to an international audience.

Charlie Custer, the proprietor of ChinaGeeks, one of the best blogs of China news and commentary for the past few years, and himself a guest on Yang Rui's Dialogue programme a couple of times, has taken up the banner in denouncing Yang Rui's contemptible and ludicrous remarks: he suggests that all foreigners should refuse to appear on that show until Yang Rui is removed.

I would like to see the campaign go further. I would like to see people undertaking not to appear as guests on any of CCTV International's shows. I would like to see viewers undertaking not to watch the channel any more (not many people do anyway, but it's the principle of the thing). I would like to see sponsors/advertisers boycotting the channel (not that they have many anyway; but it would be nice to see companies issuing statements that they never will advertise on the channel while Yang Rui still has a job there). Above all, I would like to see cable networks suspending the channel, dropping it from their packages (unlikely, I know, but we can dream).


Mr Custer aptly notes in his piece: 
"That being a rabidly xenophobic (and apparently extremely stupid) person doesn’t disqualify you from holding a post that is dedicated entirely to dealing with foreigners is as strong a sign as any that China has no real interest in soft power. Or perhaps is just utterly incapable of implementing it."

I imagine CCTV will try to take the heat off him for a while by using only their alternate anchor Tian Wei (who's vastly better anyway) on the show, or perhaps by 'resting' the programme completely for a few weeks. Not good enough. Nobody should go on the show with Ms Tian either - not while Yang still has a job.

Get active on this, people. Tell your friends, tell your workmates - Chinese and foreign. Use Twitter, use Weibo, use Facebook, use anything. Lobby cable networks. Lobby advertisers. 

Bombard CCTV with e-mails (try the programme's feedback address: Bombard them with phone calls or faxes (Tel. +86 [0]10 6850 9230 or 8824 4002, Fax +86 [0]10 6858 1282). 

This monstrous and hateful incompetent has to be strung out to dry - and soon.


Curiously, Baidu's American PR spokesman Kaiser Kuo hastily denied Baidu's involvement in setting up the 'shame a foreigner' forum I mentioned in my opening paragraph here. That's a whole other story in itself. I'd love to see some analysis of where that People's Daily story came from and what it was trying to achieve. And I'm slightly sceptical as to whether Baidu's hands are as clean as Kaiser is trying to make out.

Eight days on from this post there was no sign of Yang Rui being sacked - or even suspended - from his post on CCTV's 'flagship' current affairs show. I therefore felt impelled to repeat my call for mass lobbying of the station to try to get them to take the appropriate action against Yang.

Around five months later, Yang Rui made some further public statements of a vaguely apologetic character on this matter. Well, he claimed to have offered "sincere apologies" on numerous unspecified occasions to Melissa Chan, and acknowledged that his choice of words may have been "incautious", and proffered the vapid aphorism that "writers should take responsibility for what they write". He didn't really seem to be taking a lot of responsibility himself, and he certainly didn't come out plainly with a 'SORRY'. Moreover, he hemmed his remarks around with a lot self-justifiying - and indeed combative - crap about the furore being a situation of "mutual demonization" (=Why is everyone so angry with ME? It's so UNFAIR!). And he reverted to ominous nationalistic bombast at the close, saying, "A rising China needs to be more self-confident, and should not be afraid of being criticized for criticizing others." God help us from a 'rising China' that's full of pricks like this!

Bon mot for the week

"Out of intense complexities, intense simplicities emerge."

Winston Churchill (1874-1965)

Saturday, May 19, 2012

I feel FREE

Leaving one's home of ten years is a bit of an ordeal. Having to do so at short notice, without much of a plan of what to do next, is even worse. And to do this against a backdrop of increasing government hostility and harassment - what regular Chinese folks are starting to call a "white purge" - and a succession of illnesses, injuries, and mishaps is really very unpleasant. I have been oozing stress out of every pore for the past couple of weeks.

But I have finally finished all of my outstanding bits and pieces of work and taken care of the most important of my leaving chores (bought a flight out, confirmed my first accommodation on arrival, obtained a big wedge of foreign currency, etc.), leaving myself with SIX DAYS CLEAR before I leave. I still have a fair amount of running around to do (buying presents for people, trying to firm up a sub-let on my apartment, having farewell drinks and such), but the pressure is mostly off now. And I find I am looking forward to a change of scene, to getting away - for a while, at least - from the oppressive atmosphere of this crazy, wicked, obtuse country.

I'm feeling quite uncommonly buoyant, actually; positively exhilarated about the imminent prospect of escape.

So, apologies if I've been more than usually grumpy and navel-gazing over the last few weeks. Time, at last, for some happy stuff!

And what is more uplifting than Cream's I Feel Free? I was tempted to embed this famous TV appearance (not sure which show this is; one of the precursors of Top of the Pops in the UK, I suppose), or this montage of stills from Easy Rider, in which the song was featured, but I finally plumped for this - one of the earliest examples of a promo video? - in which the trio caper around the countryside in cassocks. It has something of a Monkees feel to it. Or Python... Or Pete and Dud....

Ah, Pete and Dud. Yes, that reminiscence puts me in mind of this, something else that always makes me feel good - one of the great comedy duo's very finest hours, the climax of their 1967 feature film Bedazzled, featuring the Leaping Order of St Beryl. (The original skit featuring this idea from their BBC TV show Not Only... But Also can be seen here.)

Friday, May 18, 2012

When is a gunboat not a gunboat?

When it's Chinese, of course.

According to Shen Dingli, an "expert" on international security quoted in an article in the Chicago Tribune the other day, China's actions in (so far) sending only small patrol ships rather than major warships to assert its claim over the Scarborough Shoal display great "restraint", are an effective projection of its "soft power", and demonstrate that China is not engaging in "gunboat diplomacy".

Restraint, soft power, gunboat diplomacy - I think Mr Shen needs to consult a better English dictionary.

As so often with me, a Punch cartoon from the 1970s came to mind; but, alas, I have been unable to locate it online. 

One of Queen Victoria's gunboats is chugging up a river somewhere in the heart of Africa. The riverbank is lined with hundreds of angry tribesmen brandishing spears. The captain on the bridge remarks to his first officer, "I suppose Lord Palmerston knows what he's doing."

I never have that sort of confidence in our political leaders.

Haiku for the week

Guests begin to stink
(Like fish, the Italians say);
Hosts turn unfriendly.

This is a proverb I always take care to remind myself of when setting off on an extended jaunt 'back home', knowing that I am going to be dependent on the hospitality of friends for extended periods. I think the Italian wisdom suggests that three days is the limit of tolerability, which is a harsh rule indeed. But I try not to stick around for more than 4 or 5 days at a time if I'm under people's feet, perhaps a week or so if they're out of the house most of the time.

It is starting to seem as though there is a similar principle which applies at the national level - at least here in China. So many of us foreigners who've been here 5 or 8 or 10 years, or even longer (and, in many cases, had thought we might settle here for life - though I was never one of those), have been driven to leave in the past year or two... because the things about this country that most provoke our rage and disgust and despair are actually getting worse rather than better as the years go by. Even the most Sinophile of expats are reaching their breaking point and giving up on the place. Most of my longest-standing friends here have gone already; most of the rest are talking about leaving in the next year or so.

And now the government is going through one of its periodic spells of actively seeking to hound us out of the country: making us liable to swingeing 'social security' contributions, making it ever harder to obtain visas, even instituting a concerted policy of petty harassment against us by the police (though this is only here in the capital so far).

On top of all that, we get this idiot stoking up the always-simmering-below-the-surface xenophobia of the great Chinese public. It was IMPOSSIBLE for a foreigner to get a taxi this morning (one of the four drivers who refused me a ride made a pretty fair go of attempting to run me down).

Oh, and we get the first foreign journalist to be expelled from the country in 13-and-a-half years (one of the brightest and best, too).

And obscene sabre-rattling towards the Filipinos....

I wouldn't count on Chen Guangcheng getting his 'promised' permission to leave the country any time soon, either. [Ah, well, at least I was being unduly pessimistic about one thing. I hadn't been following the news on Chen over the previous couple of days, but he and his family arrived in New York less than 48 hours after I wrote this. An isolated piece of good news in a dismal month for China.]

Yes, it's a good time for foreigners to quit the country. This place is going to hell in a handbasket.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

I'm thinking of a 15-digit number: can you guess what it is?

When I experienced strange difficulties in accessing my cyberbanking a couple of weeks ago, I went along to my branch to make further enquiries in person.

How was it, I asked, that the cyberbanking log-in page would not recognise my 'account number' as a means of accessing my account details?  And moreover, how was it that the online customer help service had told me that my 'account number' "couldn't possibly be more than 16 digits", when it was in fact quite clearly 19 digits long?

Well, it turns out that the 'account number' for cyberbanking purposes is not the account number. Oh no. It's a secret number, for the use of bank staff only.


I could not extract an adequate explanation from them as to why the bank would need its own code number for referring to my account. Or why this number is ordinarily kept secret from customers. Or why they were now willing to share it with me. (Gosh, I can be a forceful fellow at times!) Or why the cyberbanking log-in page was prompting me for a number that I, as a customer, wasn't supposed to know, instead of the REAL account number which I did know.

Sometimes you just have to make do with what you can get, and treat it as a positive result. At least I was able to confirm that - for all regular intents and purposes (checking my balance, arranging inpayments from employers) - my 'account number' is the 19-digit one that appears on my bank card.

The status and purpose of the other 'account number' is likely to remain forever a mystery to me.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

It's not like they don't want us here (2)

Ah, no, that's exactly what it is.

Fresh from my ordeal of spending four-and-a-half hours trying, and failing, to reach the new foreigners' health check centre (now located many miles OUTSIDE the city), and my consequent abandonment of plans to renew my visa, immediately upon getting back to my apartment yesterday I learned of a new campaign by the Beijing police to 'crack down' on foreigners "working illegally or overstaying their visas".

To this end, the police are planning to blitz the areas most frequented by foreigners - Wangjing/Lido, Wudaokou, Sanlitun - with spot checks demanding to see our passports and residence registration certificates. Theoretically, there has always been a legal requirement for foreigners to carry these documents (since we don't have any local ID), but no-one - least of all the police - has ever given it a second thought, since it is obviously a completely fatuous idea that we should risk losing our passports by carrying them around with us all the time.

I imagine that, as with the pre-Olympic 'spring cleaning' of the city, this asinine crackdown will initially target Africans (many of them are highly visible in selling drugs around the bar district; hence, unfortunately, all Africans get stigmatized by this). But it could soon become a hassle for everyone. It does sound as if the authorities are pretty serious about this; and the campaign is slated to last for 100 days. I'm glad I'm going to be out of the country for at least 90 of those.

For my last week here, though, I am going to spend as much time as possible in Wudaokou and Sanlitun, sidling up to coppers and defying them to ask me for my passport. I really want to have an opportunity to piss myself laughing at them.

It's not like they don't want us here (1)

Oh no, wait, it is.

After a month of canvassing advice and ringing around numerous different 'visa agents', I'd finally found someone who said they could still arrange a Z visa for me. And his 'shell company' wasn't concerned about the new social security regulations, so the price wouldn't be too outrageous. In fact, if I applied from the UK while on holiday this summer, it would work out even cheaper - only about 20% or so more than I paid last year. After weeks of nothing but bad news and closed doors, this revelation was so exhilarating that I impetuously decided to move ahead with this option... even though I'm unconvinced I want to come back at all, and am pretty damn certain I don't want to be here for another full year.

Alas, this visa application would apparently entail that I would have to get a health check at the hospital specially designated for this purpose. I don't know what the regulations about that are: they are even more obscure and pointless and open to being completely ignored than most such Chinese legal requirements. I've been living here 10 years and have only had to do the health check twice, I think.

Still, my last experience of this had been pretty positive: a very swift, efficient, painless process. (Well, efficient in liberating you from your money. Pretty nearly worthless as a health check. They're really only interested in the blood screening for HIV. The ECG and the X-ray are a joke. And for the rest, the doctors just automatically tick or rubberstamp all the boxes without reference to your actual physical condition. The first time I went through this charade, the presiding doctor was challenged to try to enter an idiosyncrasy on the form and discovered that he only had the one stamp - 'No Abnormalities' - and was thus unable to record my friend's defective vision.)

I was almost looking forward to experiencing this quirky ordeal again, because at least the hospital is conveniently close to my new apartment, only about a 20-minute walk away. 

Make that was. I hadn't realised, having somehow escaped the need to renew my health check for some 5 years now, but the hospital was relocated just after the Olympics.... to Xibeiwang Township. That's not in Beijing; it's one of the new 'satellite towns' that are springing up all around it. Still partly under construction and barely inhabited, this place DID NOT EXIST until 5 or 6 years ago, and it is in the exact middle of nowhere. It is outside the city's 5th Ringroad, which is the outermost limit of what can really be considered the city. It is several miles outside the 5th Ringroad. It is several miles from the nearest subway station.

Internet searches on the transport options to get there decline to return a bus-only option. Even the Beijing bus company's search engine insists that you should use the subway to get three-quarters of the way there. The problem with this is that the subway early in the morning is quite hellish - far worse than the buses. And the stations at the northern end of Line 13 - Shangdi, Xi'erqi, Lishuiqiao, I've had to use them often in the past - are a particularly unpleasant prospect: crowded, chaotic, overrun with aggressive 'black cab' (unlicensed) drivers.

I set out at the crack of dawn to try to avoid the worst of the rush hour, but Line 13 was already a maelstrom of seething humanity. And when I got to the 'nearest' station, even the regular cabs were all operating off the meter. The first couple of people I spoke to opened by demanding 100rmb for what I'd been told should be only a 15rmb ride. The asking price soon plummeted to 50rmb, but - after barely 4 hours' sleep and no breakfast (you're not supposed to eat before the blood tests, for some reason) - I just didn't have the patience for this rigmarole, and decided to try to use the bus instead.

A friend had done a Chinese Internet search for me to come up with the number of a bus route that was supposed to work. Unfortunately, she hadn't thought to specify where the stop was. It wasn't at the bus station next to the subway. Or anywhere nearby that I could find. (I eventually happened upon one - hours later - that was about half a mile away.) However, I spotted a bus with the number, heading in the right direction, and decided to follow it until it reached a stop. Well, it appears to have been some kind of 'express bus' that only stops every few miles (rather than, as is more usual with Beijing buses, every few hundred yards). Or I somehow managed to miss the next stop. Or the next several stops. I walked about five miles without seeing a stop for this bus, although I was still tracing its route - the route of the bus that was supposed to take me to the hospital. I appealed to numerous friends via SMS for help in identifying another bus number that might take me to the hospital. Most of them didn't get back to me for nearly an hour, and when they did, were only able to offer numbers which did not correspond to those displayed on the last bus stop I'd passed.

Still, it was a beautiful, beautiful day. I was quite enjoying the walk. I was willing to take a chance on being able to get there by foot, relying on dead reckoning and a not terribly convincing printout from Google Maps (with stuff that's only been built in the last few years, you can't rely on Chinese maps to be at all accurate). But after nearly 90 minutes, there was still no sign of the bloody hospital.

And then I thought to myself: "What the hell are you doing out here, 20 miles out in the countryside, searching for a hospital that quite possibly doesn't even exist? Why on earth are you going to all this trouble to get this stupid, bogus health check to apply for a visa to stay in this doomed shithole of a country?"

Perhaps it was just hypoglycaemic despair. But I like to think it was a moment of clarity.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Where I'm at in my life just now

"It's an utterly GORGEOUS morning... except that I am in China."

(A text message I sent to several friends here earlier today.)

It is one of the most peachy-perfect days you could ever wish for. The kind of day that can make even walking 15 miles in ill-fitting shoes and failing to get important things done seem kind of pleasant.

Unfortunately, we only experience days of such blissful weather a handful of times a year in Beijing, whereas circumstances of the latter type prevail incessantly.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Forced departures

China's mounting reluctance to issue visas to anyone is starting to bite: the cull of IELTS examiners I anticipated a couple of months back has just started getting under way; and I myself will have to leave next week. But China will not be much compromised by our loss, either in its internal functionality or in its external perception by the world at large.

When, on the other hand, the government chooses to expel one of the smartest and most respected foreign journalists working here, it does enormous harm to its international reputation.

For the past couple of years there have been intimations of a clamping down on foreign reporting here: many journalists, freelancers in particular, have found themselves facing longer and longer delays in getting their journalist's accreditations and visas processed, and sometimes being granted only short-term rather than full-year visas amid intimidatory rumblings about the record of their past coverage of China, or their employer's record, possibly having a bearing on the approval of their applications.

But no-one had had their journalist's status revoked... until last week, when Melissa Chan, an American Chinese reporter who has for nearly 5 years been the English-language correspondent for Al Jazeera in China, found her accreditation cancelled, making it impossible for her to get a new visa and thus obliging her to leave the country at short notice.

It's not clear why Melissa has been singled out for this treatment. The authorities mutter darkly about her having failed to "respect China's laws", without - of course - mentioning which particular laws she might have infringed. It's possible that their wrath is directed more against Al Jazeera than against her personally, since they have also declined to accredit a replacement for her, thereby forcing the news channel to close down its English-language bureau in Beijing for now. It's possible that it's part of the tense diplomatic manouevring between China and the US over the Chen Guangcheng case. Or perhaps it's just a brutally random gesture of intimidation, a pour encourager les autres warning to the rest of the foreign press corps to back off from 'negative' stories in this sensitive period of the leadership transition. Melissa herself declines to speculate openly on the reasons, and - in her inspiringly upbeat farewell piece a few days ago - she refuses to feel bitter or sorry for herself. [Do go and check out that article, and the archive of the rest of her reporting from China, to see what a fine writer we're losing.]

Many of my journalist friends are shocked and disgusted by this news, and depressed at what it seems to signal about the way China is heading this year. Evan Osnos in the New Yorker, mostly a fairly optimistic commentator on this country, has written bitterly that the expulsion of Melissa Chan by the Chinese government "revives a Soviet-era strategy that will undermine its own efforts to project soft power and shows a spirit of self-delusion that does not bode well for China’s ability to address the problems that imperil its future."

Quite so. I am glad to be getting out of the place this month. And increasingly doubtful whether I shall ever be coming back.

A double bon mot for the week

"The better the artist, the more vulnerable he seems to be." 

Al Alvarez (1929- )

"An artist feels vulnerable to begin with; and yet the only answer is to recklessly discard more armour."

Eric Maisel (1947?- )

Saturday, May 12, 2012

My Fantasy Girlfriend - Liz Phair

I have a weakness for 'rock chicks'. Who doesn't?

But Liz is more than just an eye-catching figure up on the stage or a ballsy interviewee, she's a truly incandescent talent. Her debut album Exile in Guyville emerged while I was on my great back-packing expedition in the early '90s. A friend I was visiting in China introduced me to it in the spring of 1994 and made a cassette copy of it for me to take with me on my further travels - and so it became hardwired into my brain as the 'soundtrack' to that year of adventures, and associated particularly strongly with my first experience of China. Hence, I dare say, she surfaces in my thoughts at this particular juncture because I am reflecting back a lot on my time here as I stand on the brink of departure (uncertain quite when or whether I shall return, and definitely moving towards a final withdrawal within the the next 12 months).

I was initially bowled over by the music, fascinated by the personality forcing itself into my brain through the earphones of my battered old Walkman. I had never seen a picture of her. And while one of course likes to fantasise that people one admires will also be quite physically attractive, and those fantasies are not usually too far disappointed with music stars who tend somehow to scrub up well, I was unprepared for the discovery later in the year that she was breathtakingly pretty as well - not the elaborately airbrushed beauty of the supermodel or the alienating perfection of the super-actress, but a believable, accessible, girl-next-door sort of prettiness, and all the more devastating for that.

The knee-trembling revelation came for me with her appearance on the cover of Rolling Stone. I can't remember now quite when that came out. I think it must have been towards the end of 1994, when I'd reached New York and was just about to head back home to the UK again. Of course, I bought a copy. Two, actually. I wanted to have one to show to friends and one to keep under wraps as a souvenir of this bewitching indie diva who had kept me company through so many strange experiences during the last 9 months on the road.

I confess there was a more straightforwardly erotic dimension to her appeal as well. Many of her lyrics are exaggeratedly forthright about sex, and suggest a persona that is uninhibited almost to the point of nymphomania. As I have observed on here more than once before, the art is not necessarily the life; but the image she presents of herself in several of the songs on that fabulous first album - and in many more subsequently - does set the imagination racing rather.

She doesn't have a label any more, but put out her last album, Funstyle, independently. She's always been  too edgy and free-spirited to get on very well with record companies, but she's been producing music - consistently inconsistent, but regularly interesting - for 20 years now, defiantly ploughing her own furrow. As she said to fans on her website: "This is my journey. I'll keep sending you postcards."  Apparently, there may be another album - and a book! - in the works. I'm particularly looking forward to the book: she has an astonishing facility with words, is one of the most impressive lyricists of our era; I have a hunch her extended prose will be just as good.

Smart, sassy, talented (a more than decent guitar player, to boot), heart-meltingly pretty, and a bit of a handful in the bedroom - Liz P would seem to be the complete package.

Here's Never Said, one of the best songs from that great first album (the original video; I'd never seen it before). Rolling Stone ranked Exile in Guyville at No. 328 in their '500 Best Albums of All Time'; I would have placed it at least 250 spots higher. You could also check out this much mellower live acoustic version.

And here's another, Divorce Song (from which I quoted a passage in my Lyrics Quiz a while back), set to a montage of more photos of the lovely lady.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Recently, on The Barstool...

So, what's been going on over on my notorious 'drinking blog' over the past month and a half??

After the improbable discovery of a 'Swiss Club' in neighbouring Tianjin, I tried (and, of course, miserably failed) to initiate a new reader participation thread inspired by the The Fast Show's great delusional lothario, secondhand car dealer 'Swiss' Toni.

Reflecting on the strange culture of all-night drinking we have here in Beijing, I compiled a double 'Top Five' of the bars where I've seen the dawn come up and the bars where I've fallen asleep (yes, there is some overlap).

We've had a couple of posts on cocktail recipes - here and here - inspired by the fact that my friend Stephanie Rocard was one of the winners in the recent Beijing preliminary heat of the latest Diageo Reserve World Class Bartender Competition.

On the music front, we saw the second instalment of my new 'Great Basslines' strand with a Top Five 'Chuggers', and a much cheesier Top Five Songs I Miss (from the idiosyncratic playlist at my favourite bar, compiled by the original owner, a mate of mine who has now returned to Oz). I have also posted Harry McClintock's Big Rock Candy Mountains (a song I first got to know as a very young child - although I think I was simply charmed by its surreal imagery and had no inkling of its rather bleak context), husky-voiced Norwegian siren Ida Maria's infectious shoutalong lust song I Like You So Much Better When You're Naked (with a rather charming fan video animated from b&w stills), and some examples of virtuoso playing of a traditional Chinese instrument, the suona (a sort of reedy mini-trumpet). And I celebrated Cinco de Mayo last week with a blast of Los Lobos (and a flash of Salma Hayek!).

I've also shared my views on the imminent Bar and Club Awards run by The Beijinger magazine (I have a tenuous affiliation with their rival, City Weekend, but I am always asked to contribute to their preliminary nominations round), pondered the likely hopelessness of trying to rescue a bar from the Chinese predilection for naffness, delivered an affectionate appreciation of one of the great fictional drunks, Rab C. Nesbitt, discovered a rather wonderful statistics website which revealed to me that North Dakota is one of the best places in the US to get a drink, happened upon a particularly good line from Nietzsche, shared a bitter joke about the musical profession from cartoonist Mark Stivers (who's a musician himself), made a very silly comment on a careless capitalization error on a bar menu (one for JES, my bad-joke-addicted blog-friend), identified the true secret of mixing a good drink in a vintage cartoon, and reminisced on my first summer in Beijing, during the SARS scare.

And finally, my resurrected Invent A Name For A Rock Band game reached its 200th comment. [Unfortunately, that seems to have killed the thread stone dead! Perhaps because bloody Blogger will only display the first 199 comments?!]

Always lots of good stuff over there on the 'dark side'....

This week just keeps coming at me!

After 'flu from hell, dislocating a knee, protracted wrangles with Chinese banks, and a spontaneous data wipe on my computer... today I managed to scald my testicles.

A cup (or two or three) of hot water is essential for lubricating the vocal cords when I'm recording teaching materials or whatever. And this morning one of the girls from the studio was fussing around trying to adjust my microphone when the boom suddenly collapsed, dropping the mike violently on to my little collection of paper cups and so unleashing a tsunami of steaming liquid across the table and into my lap.

Gentlemen in China are more than usually anxious about this sort of injury this week, after the recent news from the far southern province of Hainan of a man dying when a woman attacked him by squeezing his balls.