Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Good Samaritans

The other day, as James and I headed over to the market for our breakfast, we noticed a woman who was trying to walk her bicycle, which was loaded with her market purchases, across the street. The basket on the bike was poorly loaded, and her bag of Chinese dates spilled out all over the intersection. There were dozens of people watching the scene as she tried to pick up her dates without getting run over by the traffic, yet not a sole offered her any help. Naturally, James and I leapt into action, helping her collect the dates and put them back in the basket, which we then helped her to load more securely. This was greeted with thanks from the lady, but just stares of incomprehension from the public.

The next day, James was at the office, leaving with some of the nurses for lunch when they went through a doorway. There were two other women coming in through the same door, so James held the door open for them. According to James, the nurses told him that the women commented to each other that they should move to whatever country James is from, since there people still know something about courtesy.

One thing that many visitors to China note is the virtual absence of civil culture here. People just seem to think that it's everyone for himself, and 'me first' is the mantra of the masses. Whatever happened to the socialist ideal of everyone working for the betterment of the group? Odd that it should take two Americans to show that there is another way...

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Vegetarian food--no discussions!

Last night we joined the hospital president, her husband, and her inlaws for a vegetarian dinner. We were planning to eat at a fancy place near our apartment, but for various reasons that did not work out so they asked us to go to a vegetarian place closer to their place instead. I have to confess I was not thrilled with the prospect of a vegetarian meal, but we like Anne and John and so we thought we'd give it a try. I was picturing a sort of grunge place like you might find in Greenwich Village or San Francisco, with tattooed and pierced New Agers selling tofu burgers and tempeh (though, now that I think about it, I should have realized that Anne would not be in for that kind of place--she is the picture of an elegant international lady, and grunge just would not suit her.) Instead it was a Buddhist sort of place with lovely decorations and gauze curtains and waiters and waitresses dressed sort of like Buddhist monks and nuns. In fact, the place is either run or owned by monks, so I wonder if the waiters might not in fact be associated with an order (no pun intended).

From being given our menus we should have known this place would be different--they were enormous and heavy tomes, with the drinks menu separate from the food menu (perhaps because otherwise it would have been too heavy to lift). They serve no alcohol in addition to serving no meat, so for drinks we ordered various fruit concoctions (I had beet, carrot, orange and something else, for example) and a pot of really expensive tea (Y288!). Then the food menu came, with such evocative, but ultimately unhelpful dish names like "I love you--no discussion". Fortunately the waiter offered some recommendations, though I was distressed to see that he tended to recommend all the really pricey dishes. We ended up ordering far too many dishes, but they were all amazing, and beautifully presented. Our first dish, a huge bowl that resembled the shell out of which Venus emerged in Botticelli's painting, was filled with ice cubes on which lay 6 servings of 'smoked meats' that for all the world tasted just like meat but were in fact made of flavored and pressed tofu. Before serving the dish, the waiter poured some sort of liquid into a container in the bowl, causing dry-ice like smoke to waft out of the bowl, making a lovely rippling effect that was mesmerizing. We also had "spare ribs" that again tasted just like the real thing but were made of wheat gluten; "suckling pig" that was served like Beijing duck with wrappers, sauce and cucumber slices; ethereal mushrooms that were very simply prepared but delicious, and a fantastic dish of cubes of tofu with chilies that was as close to gongbao jiding as you can get without actually using a chicken. The whole thing was great, and we had a lovely time.

I had forgotten that sometime ago I had been to a very similar restaurant, where the dishes all had meat names, but were in fact meatless, and in Beijing there is a place like this at a temple nearby. Now we have a place to take our non-meat eating friends for meals when they come to visit us, though we had better start saving up now; at $30/head I think this was the most expensive restaurant we've been to in Beijing so far.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Full House

For the past several days we have had a full house of guests. We never would have thought that we would have guests so soon after we arrived, so we had not packed bed sheets or other things for our guest rooms, figuring we'd just get them with our household shipment. As a result, when it turned out we'd have a full house for a few nights, we went out to IKEA to buy sheets, towels, etc. I don't know what people did before IKEA opened here. There really is no other place to go for one-stop shopping for household things.

Unfortunately, despite measuring the bed that was delivered last weekend, we somehow managed to buy the wrong size sheets and duvet for the thing. And of course I somehow misplaced the receipt so that when I went back to the store the next day I had to negotiate my way into an exchange, and even then I had to pay a 30% restocking fee. But the new sheets fit, looked good, and were comfortable for our guest to sleep on, so that's all that matters.

So now we have all the parephernalia for other guests to visit, even before our shipment arrives. So come on over!!

Tuesday, October 17, 2006


The other day, while sitting home minding our own business, someone came to the door. As is our usual practice when the doorbell rings, James got up and brought the dogs into the kitchen, where they would be out of sight and hopefully not make any noise, just in case it's a cop doing a dog inspection. As it turned out, this time it was a guy coming around to collect our water and sewage fee. Earlier in the week I found out that our phone bill had not been paid for August and September, and even though we did not live here in August, I paid it off and kept the invoice for the landlord to reimburse. Thus it did not seem to be too unusual that the water bill should have gone unpaid, too, as the guy told me. He had a book full of water bill receipts, wrote out all the numbers, etc. All told, we had to pay Y300 or so ($36), which seemed like an awful lot for water, but what do I know? I told the real estate agent to relay the info to the landlord so they could pay me back.

Today the landlord's man came over to take care of some other matters and he took a look at the receipt for the water, telling us that the bill was a fake and that water bills are paid at the bank, not to men who knock on your door at night. He guesses that it was just a scam, but in any event it was not related to our actual water bill. Live and learn.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

The scroll to the left was written by a calligrapher whose younger brother has a stall at the Panjiayuan "dirt market". The calligrapher, Qian Liqun (钱利群), has a very unusual style that I had never seen before, and when I first saw his work a few months ago I started to think that I should get one. I have always been fond of calligraphy, and would love to study it seriously, but I would never be as creative as Mr. Qian.

The characters in this scroll are very hard to make out, and even the brother selling them admitted that he doesn't so much read the scrolls at the market as memorize the poems themselves so he can recite them. For those of you with Chinese, here is the text of the poem on the scroll, a Song dynasty work by Xin Qiji about the Lantern Festival:



Lanterns look like thousands of flowers aglow;
Later like stars, from the skies, fallen below.
On main streets, horses and carriages ply.
There, ladies shed perfume, as they pass by.
Orchestral music and song greet our ears,
As the moon, slow and steady, eastward veers.
Of the Spring Festival, this night marks the end.
The whole night, capering, carps and dragons spend.

Adorned with ribbons or paper flowers on their head,
Clad in their best raiment, something bright or red,
Women squeeze their way among the festive crowd,
As they talk and laugh; even giggle aloud.
Rouged and powdered; perfumed to their heart's content,
They cannot but leave behind a subtle scent.
Up and down the main streets, I must have run—
A thousand times or more in quest of one,
Who I have concluded, cannot be found;
For, everywhere, no trace of her can be seen,
When, all of a sudden, I turned about,
That's her, where lanterns are few and far between.

Nice, huh?

Chaine Dinner

In the wake of our earlier Chowhound dinner, on Saturday James and I attended, along with the hospital president and her husband, a gala dinner of the Chaine des Rotisseurs at the Shangri-la Kerry Center hotel. The Chaine is a group of gourmets/gourmands that was founded in 1950 in France on the base of a goose-roasting guild that was initially set up in 1248 (!) to ensure the quality of the geese prepared for the French royal court. Nowadays geese don't figure too prominently, though in theory, to qualify for membership you should either own a rotisserie (or a wine cellar). A friend of ours let us know about the organization and helped me to join, and since then I have been to several dinners, mostly in the DC area, but including one on the Great Wall in 2002.

The dinner last night was quite an affair. Men were encouraged to wear black tie and many did, and the women were mostly in formal gowns. It was interesting to note the preponderance of European men with Chinese wives/dates. The four of us met up at the hotel a bit before the evening was to begin, and had a drink at the bar before going to the ballroom. In hindsight, perhaps having a drink first was a bit of a mistake, since the dinner was preceded by a cocktail hour with free-flowing Moet champagne and martinis, and the meal itself was accompanied with (by my count) three white wines, two reds, port and cognac.

Here's the menu:

Cocktail Hour:
Flaky Siew Mai Croissants
Baked Kan Kong Wonton Rolls with Goat Cheese
Har Kau Shrimp Focaccia Buns
Tuna Tartar and Mango Salsa in Black Pepper Crusted Chinese Scones
Fresh Salmon Wrappers

Combination of Alsatian Foie Gras, Caspian Beluga & Cultivated Caledonian Prawns

Chicken Consomme with Oysters and Poached Lobster Medallions

Double Duck Delicacy in a King Prawn Reduction & Iced Laurent Perrier Fuji Apple Refreshment
TORBRECK The Steading, 2002

Pan-fried Marbled Beef on a Black Pepper Duck Reduction, Windmill Dumplings & Golden Fried Turnip Cake

Coconut Bird Nest Supreme with an Almond Cream Gratin and Blood Orange Salad

Chocolate Cheese & Fruit Ensemble

As the meal progressed, it's fair to say that our ability to discern the subtleties of the meal diminished, and by the end of the meal our ability to conduct a coherent conversation was severely undermined. However, the event was a big success, and I imagine that when the next one comes up on December 2 we will likely have willing companions.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Chowhounds in Beijing

The Chowhound community, for those of you unfamiliar with it, is a group of people who are interested in finding excellent and authentic foods. The website (www.chowhound.com) is a great resource for people traveling to new places, since you can post a message on their boards asking for information about where to eat just about anything in that place, and you'll get a slew of responses, most of which are pretty reliable.

Back in DC I used to hang out with a select group of Chowhounds pretty often, trying out new restaurants, occasionally eating at each other's places, etc. I became the go-to guy for anything related to Chinese food, and whenever a promising new Chinese place appeared, I would inevitably get an invitation to check it out. When I came to Beijing in 2002 I made contact with the Chowhound community here and met a few for meals.

This time around, I again began to post on the China Chowhound board and thus came to meet a fellow Chowhound, this time a fellow from Chicago with no Chinese language who was here initially for a six-month stint that may now be extended to a year. His posts indicated that he was not venturing too far beyond the standard "expat" havens, so we decided we'd go out for something a bit different. James, Dongmei and I met him at Yuxin, a Sichuan place not far from our apartment and his office, for a dinner of shuizhuyu (slices of fish boiled in oil with peppers) and other dishes. He turned out to be a very nice guy, who immediately figured out my sense of 'humor', and who also enjoyed the meal a lot. The photograph heading this post was taken by him.

Quite a few of my DC Chowhound friends read this blog, I believe, so here's to hoping that they will come visit before too long so I can share these meals with them, too!

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Some more photos

There are some additional photos from our weekend excursion to the fabric market and Beijing duck on our photo site:
  • More Beijing Photos
  • Wednesday, October 04, 2006

    A Fine Day Out

    This morning was another of those amazing days that you have to take advantage of in Beijing since they don't come all that frequently; the sun was shining, the sky was blue and the temperature was warm enough for shorts but not too hot, and with the National Day holiday still being celebrated there would not be much traffic on the streets. With our friend Dongmei in town, this seemed the golden opportunity to go for a bike ride, so we took her to the 24-hour bike rental place near our building (Y20 per day, or Y60 per month) and headed out.

    We started off with a stop at Alien's Street, the shopping Mecca for all Russian traders, to get Dongmei some small things that she forgot to bring with her, and then we set off on a tourist trip, riding our bikes down to Tian'anmen Square, and then along the west side of the Forbidden City toward the Drum Tower and then along Houhai, the 'back lake' along which a slew of bars and restaurants have recently proliferated, and then back along Dongzhimen Neidajie to the house. In all we biked around 15 miles, with frequent stops for photos, food (we had a pre-lunch snack of bbq lamb skewers with Xinjiang vegetables, and then lunch of pretty poor dumplings and some stir-fried dishes near Prince Gong's palace (which was too crowded to visit).

    It was a lovely way to spend our last day off before returning to work tomorrow, and who knows when we'll have a lovely day like this again?

    There are more photos of our day out on our photo site: http://shuanglong.smugmug.com/gallery/1964949

    Sunday, October 01, 2006

    Addictive Personality Disorder

    I was reading in an expat monthly recently that it is very common for foreigners living in China to gain weight in the first months that they live here as they find themselves eating far more than they would normally and particularly drinking far more, since Chinese food here is generally so good, and cheap, and goes particularly well with the beer that is also so good and cheap.

    In our case, we have not found ourselves gaining weight, since we walk a lot, moderate our intake, and go to the gym when possible. However we are prone to another addiction, and today we fell prey to it once again. Yes, we are once again off the furnitureholic wagon.

    This morning we decided to spend the National Day holiday visiting the village of Gaobeidian, located just east of us along Jianguo Lu past the fifth ring road. Gaobeidian is a 1000-year old village that is now known as the largest market for antique and antique-like Chinese furniture.

    Gaobeidian's shops line both sides of the road, which extends for about a mile from the main road. There are several challenges that face a visitor to Gaobeidian--first, the sheer number of shops is enough to tire anyone, and second, you have to be able to discern the good pieces from the bad. The range of pieces available is also daunting, so when you are looking for something for a particular use, you really do have to check all the places until you find what you need.

    We were a bit lucky that our cab dropped us off at the far end of the town, right near a bunch of places that specialized in things like architectural decorations and screens. We had wanted a screen for a while, and here we found some lovely ones with richly decorated scenes of daily Chinese life on one side, poetry on the other. We ordered one of these from the guy with the widest selection (they all seem to come from one producer) and proceeded on our way.

    In the main part of the market, with the 1-mile long shopping street, we started on one side and figured we'd walk back on the other. Seems we made a good choice, since the place where we found what we were looking for was among the first places on the opposite side of the street from where we started (so among the last places we got to). This place, Song Qing Antiquities, had a huge assortment of mostly antique pieces, including the three cabinets we ended up buying (see photos below). And the nice thing is that the prices here are much lower than in other markets we've been to, and with the holiday they were even lower.

    Now to return to our 12-step program.