Monday, April 23, 2007

NYT Scoops "Life in Beijing"

Since my story about the "nail house" was later picked up by the New York Times and other US media, it seems only fair to let the Grey Lady scoop me for once. This story appeared last week, and was one that I meant to write about but forgot. At least I am acknowledging my debt to the Times; I did not see them credit me for their story...

April 17, 2007
No Spitting on the Road to Olympic Glory, Beijing Says

BEIJING, April 16 — For all the expectations and civic pride that Beijing has attached to being the host of the 2008
Summer Olympics, the event is a source of civic anxiety, too. What if traffic is terrible? What if the weather is bad? These
are worries for any host city, but Beijing also has a few more:

What if foreign visitors are forced to navigate a minefield of saliva left by local pedestrians spitting on sidewalks? What if
lines at Olympic events dissolve into scrums as local residents jump to the head of pack? What if Chinese fans serenade
rival teams with the guttural, unprintable “Beijing curse”?

China’s ruling Communist Party has never been very comfortable with the question, what if? While Olympic visitors will
undoubtedly be greeted with ecstatic hospitality, local officials are worried about some local habits. So as Beijing is
building new sports stadiums, subway lines, futuristic skyscrapers and public parks for the Games, city leaders are also
trying to rebuild Beijingers.

Citywide campaigns are trying to curb public spitting, discourage public cursing and littering and also promote lining up.
There is even a campaign to rectify the often hilariously bad English translations on signs and restaurant menus. Given
that Chinese leaders regard the Olympics as a milestone event to showcase China to the world, they obviously do not
want to be embarrassed.

“Public awareness of manners needs to be improved,” said Wang Tao, the soft-spoken, exceedingly polite civil servant
who has become a local celebrity for his efforts to curb public spitting.

Last week, the city commemorated “Queuing Day,” an event held on the 11th of every month because the date
symbolizes an orderly line. Volunteers wearing satin Queuing Day sashes shooed rush-hour commuters into lines at
busy subway stations, while hospital administrators and a few city officials handed out long-stemmed roses to patients
who stood in line to pay their bills or pick up medicines. Local news media swarmed the event.

“This is to encourage people,” said Zhang Xin, 30, an expectant mother, clutching her flower as she left Beijing Hospital
after her pregnancy checkup.

Chen Chunfang, one of the hospital administrators, summed up the purpose succinctly. “The Olympics are coming, and
everyone wants to show their best,” she said.

Beijing, of course, is a sophisticated city that is the cultural and political capital of China. Nor is it alone in being accused
of public boorishness; some people have even accused, say, New Yorkers of occasional displays of foul language and
unflattering public behavior.

Still, some Communist Party officials have publicly fretted that Beijing may not measure up. One delegate at the country’s
annual political meetings in March recommended heavy fines and a public education campaign to curb spitting, cutting
ahead in line, smoking and foul language.

“They are stubborn diseases that stain the image of the capital city,” Zi Huayun, the delegate, told the country’s English-
language newspaper, China Daily.

In fact, Beijing had already announced that people caught spitting in public before the Olympics could face fines up to 50
yuan, or about $6.50, hardly small change in China. Mr. Wang, the anti-spitting activist, said the Olympic spirit inspired
him to begin his campaign. “I felt I must do something to contribute,” he said.

He chose a very dirty task. Public spitting is a frequent practice in Beijing and even more common elsewhere in China.
(The sinus-clearing, phlegmy pre-spit hawking sound is so common that one foreigner wryly dubbed it “the national
anthem of China.”) Health officials, worried about communicable disease, have long tried to curb public spitting, with
limited success, given that many people do not consider it unacceptable behavior.

“I spent six months trying to figure out how to stop people from spitting,” Mr. Wang said. “I first wanted to wipe their spit up
myself, but just how much could I wipe? So I decided the best way was to ask the spitting person to stop.”

He chose to begin in May 2006 in Tiananmen Square, which might qualify as an official venue if spitting were an Olympic
event. “The first person I came across was a thin man, not very tall,” Mr. Wang recalled. “I said, ‘Mister, please wait a
second!’ But he walked away and I couldn’t keep up.”

His campaign has since gained momentum. He has attracted hundreds of volunteers for his group, known as the Green
Woodpecker Project. They carry tissues, which they offer to people as an alternative to spitting on the ground, and try to
convince the offender, usually male, to change his ways. Mr. Wang himself carries a small camcorder and posts spitting
action shots on his Web site.

“Woodpeckers pick up worms and clean up the forest,” Mr. Wang said. “I want to clean up the city the same way.”

Beijing’s mangled English signage is not so much a bad local habit as a local institution in the eyes of resident
foreigners. English translations on signs are considered fashionable and good advertising, as well as a gracious gesture
to foreigners baffled by Chinese characters. But until recently, the attention paid to the accuracy of the translation was, at
best, uneven. Consider that a local theme park about China’s ethnic minorities was initially promoted in English as
“Racist Park.”

David Tool, an American who teaches analytical thinking at Beijing International Studies University, recalled attending a
Peking Opera performance in 2001 that offered a running digital translation in English.

“They had this line that should have said ‘auspicious clouds in the sky’ but it read ‘auspicious clods,’ ” Mr. Tool recalled.
He said a group of foreigners in the audience erupted in laughter, which he found offensive, even though he was also
offended by the bad English.

Mr. Tool and a prominent retired professor, Chen Lin, are now at the vanguard of Beijing’s English police, an effort
emboldened by the Olympic self-improvement campaigns. City officials have enlisted the two scholars and other experts
to retranslate the bad English translations on signs around the city. Last week, Beijing announced new standards and
official translations that can be used on more than 2,000 different types of signs, as well as on menus.

Mr. Tool said he spent his weekends visiting different businesses as if he were a detective in a linguistic vice squad. “I go
in and I say the Olympics are coming and this sign is wrong,” Mr. Tool said. He then sends an e-mail message with a
correct translation or has a printout delivered.

He is writing a book on the subject, and no wonder: regular blunders include typos on menus in which the ‘b’ in crab
becomes a ‘p.’ Some translations are trickier, like describing pullet, which is a hen less than a year old but appears on
some menus as Sexually Inexperienced Chicken. Mr. Tool said one prominent sign had become a regular photo op for
foreigners: the Dongda Anus Hospital.

Mr. Tool intervened. It is now the Dongda Proctology Hospital.

Score another gold medal for Beijing’s self-improvement campaign.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Another Beautiful Weekend

It was another beautiful weekend in Beijing this week, with sunny (and relatively clean) skies and warm weather. We had a bunch of errands to take care of, but we took the time to pop by the Jingshan Park again to see whether the peonies had bloomed. While some had popped, the majority are about another couple of days from opening, so we'll probably have to make another trip next weekend with our visitors, who will be arriving on Friday and Saturday of the coming week.

Since we got to the park a bit earlier this time than last week (around 9am, as opposed to noon), the place was hopping with all sorts of people. It's a bit of a Chinese thing to go to parks in the nice weather and engage in things like public singing lessons, rhythmic dancing, water-brush calligraphy, etc, and today the place was abuzz with all sorts of groups doing these things. We took a bunch of photos, some of which are here on this page; the rest are here.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Noodle Making at the Noodle Loft

We had dinner last night at the Noodle Loft (面酷), a rare Shaanxi style restaurant that specializes in hand-made noodles and other dishes from this interior province. The fun of the place is watching the noodle makers go at their jobs, as I hope the videos make clear.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Olympic Fever

Yesterday the newspapers all announced that tickets for the 2008 Beijing Olympics had gone on sale as of that morning (and to think I had no idea that Beijing was even hosting the Olympics next year--they keep it so quiet here). Not wanting to miss my chance to be part of history, I scoured the internet until I found the page where you can order your tickets (if you're interested, this is it). Unfortunately, you're not actually buying tickets on this site, you're merely applying for tickets, since they're meant to be sold on a lottery basis. Also, you can only apply for one ticket per event at a time, so if you want to go with a friend, as I do, each applicant must set up a separate account and submit his/her own application. I suppose there is then a pretty good chance that one person could get a ticket, and the other person will get scuppered.

So what did I apply for? The only thing that I'd really like to see is the Opening Ceremonies, since they are going to be staged by the great Chinese movie director Zhang Yimou along with Steve Spielberg (who used to be married to Amy Irving). My thoughts are, let's see the opening ceremonies, which will be in the evening of August 8, and then hightail it the hell out of town the next morning, since Beijing will be closed for business.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Jingshan Park

Today (Saturday) was a beautiful day here, so we took the opportunity to visit the Jingshan (Prospect) Park north of the Forbidden City. I had forgotten that this park is chock full of peonies, one of our favorite flowers, but unfortunately they were not yet in bloom. However we imagine that they should be in time for our friends' arrival in two weeks, so we'll plan another excursion here then. Meantime, here are some photos to whet your appetite, and perhaps you'll want to see the rest here.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

I love my Apple TV!

Last week I finally got my hands on my newest electronic toy, an Apple TV that I had ordered as soon as I learned about them this past January and that I had to wait and wait until it was finally released and someone could bring it back to China for me. Fortunately, the release coincided with my boss's trip to the US, so in payback for my bringing her a Cuisinart from the US, she brought back this little 7" square item.

If you don't know what an Apple TV is, it's sort of like an iPod for your TV (and if you don't know what an iPod is, then I am afraid I cannot help you). The main reason for buying it was that it allows us to watch the myriad TV shows that we download through iTunes and other services on the TV and to hear the sound through our stereo system, but it turns out that it is also very useful for playing our music collection (which I downloaded into iTunes before moving to China in order not to have to schlep our CD collection) the same way. And a nice thing is that even those items that I bought on iTunes that cannot be played on non-Apple devices are now playable through our stereo.

Since I brought up the TV shows that we download, perhaps you'd be interested in knowing what shows we go to the trouble of buying/downloading in the land where DVDs are available for next to nothing. Here's the list:

Battlestar Galactica
The Office
My Name is Earl
30 Rock
The Sopranos
Desperate Housewives
The Simpsons
24 (only because a friend is supposed to be in it this season)
South Park

And occasionally when an interesting show or miniseries comes on we'll download that, too. It certainly makes being in China feel a lot more like home.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

One More Harbin Photo

I finally got around to stitching together the above photograph of the piece-de-resistance snow sculpture at this year's Harbin Snow & Ice Festival. It's a likeness of Niagara Falls done all in snow, and took five photos to catch the whole thing. I used a pretty nifty photo stitching program that I found on the web, and I think it did a pretty good job.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007


We have wanted to visit Tibet for a long time, and ever since our successful foray into the high altitude areas of Peru last year we have determined that we can handle the altitude and should get to Tibet as soon as practical. We have decided that this is as good a time as any, and plan to depart on July 20 from Beijing on the 48-hour long train ride to Lhasa (thus spending J2's birthday on board the train). The rest of our itinerary looks like this:

July 20-22 Take train T27 at 21:30 p.m from Beijing, arrive at Tibet at 20:58 p.m on the 3rd day and then drive to Lhasa for a rest
Arrive at Lhasa Railway Station. Be greeted and offered a white scarf (called Kada) in a Tibet traditional way then drive to Lhasa. Have a rest for acclimatization.
Accommodation: Kailash Hotel with twin sharing room or similar class if late booking

July 23 Sightseeing in Lhasa
Today, you will visit the highest palace in the world—Potala Palace which is the Dalai Lama’s winter palace. It locates on the red hill, a good viewing point in Lhasa. In the afternoon, we go to the renowned Jokhang Temple which will provide you one of your first sights of devout Tibetans. In the temple you will see the glistening Sakyamuni statue which is considered as Tibetan Buddhism’s rarity. After then, stroll around the bustling Barkhor Street.
Accommodation: Kailash Hotel with twin sharing room or similar class if late booking

July 24 Sightseeing in Lhasa
Morning time will be spent visiting Drepung monastery which is on the hillside west of Lhasa. Drepung is a Gelugpa monastery. To reach it, you have to climb up a small hill which will be a kind of interesting. Later, we will go to visit the Sera monastery where lively lama debating will be seen (except Sundays). This is very interesting. Many lamas sitting or standing in the yard debate a certain topic their teacher has given. Rest time would be spent in Tibet Museum to understand the whole history of Tibet and its people, land, culture and religion
Accommodation: Kailash Hotel with twin sharing room or similar class if late booking

July 25 Lhasa-Yamdrok-Gyantse
Today we will continue our journey to other places of Tibet. About hundred kilometers, you will appreciate the holy Lake of Yamdroktso Lake. When arrive in Gyantse, the historical city of Tibet, we will visit the Pelkhor monastery for its famous Kumbum pagoda. Besides Pelkhor, we will also visit a Nunnery to watch the chanting.
Accommodation: Gyantse Hotel with twin sharing room or similar class if late booking

July 26 Gyantse-Shigatse
After visit Shalu Monastery drive to Shigates.On the way to Shigates have a mountain village family visit for a glimpse of everyday Tibetan life.
Accommodation: Shigates Manasorovar Hotel with twin sharing room or similar class if late booking

July 27 Shigatse/Dunxum
Visit Pachen Lama’s seat palace, the great Tashilumpo monastery, a very big and complex monastery in Tibet, then take a look at the local market. Head to Dunxum for a rest.
Accommodation: Jinzhu Hotel with twin sharing room or similar class if late booking

July 28 Dunxum/Namtso
Drvie to Namtso Lake(Heavenly Lake).. In Nov. 14, 2005, Namtso Lake in the Tibet Autonomous Region was selected as one of the five most beautiful lakes in China by Chinese National Geography magazine. Namtso Lake's touching beauty should not be missed by any traveler who visits Tibet. Its purity and solemnness are symbols of Qinghai-Tibet Platean. In Tibetan, Namtso means 'Heavenly Lake” . The water here is a storybook crystal-clear blue. Clear skies join the surface of the lake in the distance, creating an integrated, scenic vista. Besides the beautiful scenery in Namtso, it is also a famous sacred Buddhist place.
Accommodation: Camping

July 29 Namtso/Lhasa
On the way back to Lhasa, you can fully enjoy the beautiful landscape through Yangpachen hot spring. Then make a detour to Tsurphu Monastery. Have a good rest in Lhasa for next day’s flight.
Accommodation: Kailash Hotel with twin sharing room or similar class if late booking

July 30 Lhasa/Beijing
After breakfast transfer to Gonggar Airport to take the flight back to Beijing. Tour ends.

Of course, we'll be posting travel reports and photos from this trip!

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Moroccan Night

The other night we hosted the second outing of our little dinner group, this time choosing Moroccan as the theme. As hosts, we were only supposed to provide the drinks, but I could not pass up the opportunity to make a bisteeya (chicken with sugar and almonds in phyllo) and to try my hand at baklava.

Our guests had to scramble a bit to find Moroccan dishes to make for the dinner, but everyone managed to find something, and in the end ALL the dishes were true to the theme, and were delicious! The menu ended up looking like this:

Hummus with pita
Assorted nuts
Charoset (OK, not really Moroccan, but it was Passover)
Chicken with Preserved Lemon
Chickpea Salad
Mint and Arugula Salad
Shrimp with Tomato and Onion
Lamb with Eggplant and Tomato
Potato Shorba
Assorted Fruit
Dried Dates

The only blot on an otherwise perfect evening was the fact that one of our guests (and the maker of the shrimp dish) had a bit of an accident in the afternoon and wound up in the hospital having his femur pinned together. Happily, he is on the mend, and we were able to bring him some leftovers the next day so he could at least taste the product of his labors.

The next dinner is set for June 16 in celebration of Wellington Day, so we expect Beef Wellington, Brussels sprouts and such British fare.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007


On Monday night I was lucky enough to be invited to the home of the chairman of the company I'm working for for Passover seder. Passover has always been one of my favorite holidays, but I absolutely hate to spend it in group dinners organized by a Jewish center or synagogue. So being invited to my boss' house was a real plus, and something I was looking forward to for a while.

As my contribution to the event, I offered to contribute charoset, the apple-and-walnut puree that is supposed to resemble the mortar that the Israelites used to build the pyramids, and horseradish that is to remind us of the bitterness of life under the pharaoh. The apple stuff was easy enough, other than the sweet kosher wine, which I only procured on the Friday before Passover through the Chabad group here, but finding a knob of horseradish turned out to be impossible, so I resorted to jarred.

The dinner itself was really lovely, and a very interesting experience. The guests included friends of theirs who live in Beijing, and a large number of visitors from around the world who happened to be in town during the holiday. These people somehow found out about the seder and got invitations. As a result, as we read the story of the exodus from the haggadah, the number of accents to be heard were remarkably varied, with Australian, South African, Israeli and British accents among the more to-be-expected ones, and Chinese among the more unusual ones. The Chinese guy turned out to be a student of Jewish culture in Shandong, and he came as the guest of one of the other visitors. Having studied Jewish history and culture from books, he was particularly thrilled to be able to experience this holiday in person, which sort of made us feel a bit like exhibits in a zoo, but he was very sweet about it, and made us feel like we'd afforded him a valuable experience. (I never did find out why he's studying Jewish culture; would be curious to find out.)

The dinner was a big success, and I hope we'll be included in next year's guest list!

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Video from Drum Tower

This is a short video taken during the half-hourly demonstration of the drums at the Beijing Drum Tower, as described in the previous post.

April 1 Update

It's been a little while since I last wrote so you might be wondering where I've been. Well, it's been a very busy couple of days. Last week started off with a flight to Guangzhou for business meetings and some site inspections, then off to Shanghai for more meetings for a day, and back to Beijing on Wednesday. The last two days of the week were filled with more meetings in Beijing, and loads of work to do, so most evenings I would return home more or less exhausted.

When the weekend came, we were very pleased that the sun was more or less out, and though Saturday was rather windy there was at least no sand in the wind, so we decided to break out the bikes again for a bit of a ride. We had never been to the Confucius Temple, so that was our first destination, about a 15-minute ride, though it was into the wind the entire time. At the temple we were a bit disappointed to find it undergoing major renovations so much of the place was covered with scaffolding and tarps. What we could see of the temple was very nice, though, and the renovated bit peeking through the covers were really beautiful, so we'll have to come back in July when it's supposed to be done.

Luckily the Confucius Temple is across the street from the Lama Temple, which some of you may know was the model for our 2002 Gingerbread House. This temple has been renovated recently, it seems, since the colors were very bright and the buildings were in good shape. Because of the wind, visitors were not permitted to light incense, so we were not going to be able to light the two bundles of incense we bought out of guilt from the ladies who were watching our bikes (instead visitors were told to just leave them at the censers, which we thought meant that they would be given back to the vendors to resell, so we opted to keep them for use next time).

After our visit to the temple we got our bikes and had a nice lunch at a Xi'an-style restaurant up the street for bowls of delicious noodles (biangbiangmian) and soup with little bits of broken bread in it (yangrou pao mo). We biked back home (again into the wind, somehow) and took it easy until meeting some friends from work for pizza and beer in the Sanlitun area.

On Sunday we again had nice weather so we biked over to the Houhai area for lunch at the Nine Gates Snack place (九门小吃), where a number of stalls sell traditional Beijing snacks. Our rather random selection was very good, and we finally learned why wheat tea (miancha, 面茶) is a popular snack; whereas it was extremely bland at the previous place we had it, here it was loaded with sesame flavor and really hard to stop eating. We also tried a sweet version that we also liked a lot.

During the ride home we stumbled across a nondescript bookshop that had a bunch of medical texts and we found a bilingual medical dictionary for James to use at the clinic, and we also stopped at the Drum Tower and Bell Tower to check out the lay of the land for a visit by two friends who'll be arriving at the end of the month (we determined that the area is worth a visit). We also made the acquaintance of a driver with a big van that can take us up to the Great Wall in comfort when they come, so that's one logistical issue solved.

This turned out to be a pretty nice weekend, and though our legs and butts are a bit sore, we really needed the exercise!

Of course, there are photos: here they are.