Thursday, January 31, 2008

Baby it's Cold Outside!


For the past several weeks, the weather in Beijing has been remarkably colder than normal. In fact, I believe I am correct in reporting that the temperature has seldom if ever passed the freezing mark since before New Year's. The cold has been accompanied of course by wind, too, so it feels even colder than it actually is. But as bad as the cold in Beijing, it's nothing compared with the snow and other wintry weather that has befallen the country to the south of Beijing. (Here we are fortunate that Beijing is so dry that there is not enough moisture in the air to lead to any meaningful precipitation.)

I am currently in Shanghai, which is at the same altitude as Atlanta (more or less), but which has also been suffering from terrible cold lately (though not as cold as Beijing). But whereas Beijing is too dry to have much rain or snow, Shanghai is quite humid, and the place is covered with snow. In fact there was enough on the ground that at the hotel where I'm staying there are two sizable snowmen out front.

But even as bad as it is in Shanghai, that's nothing compared with the situation to the west, further inland, where the snow has been falling so intensely that they're saying it's the worst winter storm in 50 years. Trains are being stopped in their tracks, roads are closed down, and all this is happening just days before the entire country gets on the move to go home for Chinese New Year! Hundreds of millions of people manage to go home in the countryside only once a year from their jobs in the big cities, and many of them are now stuck at the country's transportation hubs, trying to get there. It's chaos.

In a related story, the weekend before last our hospitals organized a visit by some staff to an orphanage that we support in inland Henan province. A bus set out from Shanghai toward the town, while at the same time a train load of people from Beijing headed to the provincial capital, where they, too, would board a bus toward the town of Jiaozuo where the orphanage is located. It was a frigid day, and no one was looking forward to the ride in the cold train, but they were bringing the orphans gifts so they pressed on. Unfortunately, once the train got to Zhengzhou they found that the bus could not get to Jiaozuo because the roads were closed, so they got stuck in a fleabag hotel in town near the rail station for a night until they could catch the train back. Meanwhile, the bus from Shanghai got stopped in Anhui province and were told that the road ahead of them was blocked. Someone pleaded with the police to let them through so they would not disappoint the orphans, and the cop surprisingly complied. But eventually the snow became too much for the bus, and they had no choice but to turn around. No one ended up being happy that weekend, much less the poor orphans.

There is no sign that the winter weather will subside anytime soon, and here in Shanghai we're planning to get out on an early plane tomorrow in hopes that the promised further snowfall won't materialize until sometime after we take off. All I know is I had better be back in Beijing in time to catch my flight on Saturday to Bali!!

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Brazil Night

One of J2's favorite dishes that I make is feijoada, the national dish of Brazil, comprising black beans and a variety of meats that are cooked together for a long time and then served over rice with side dishes of sauteed collard greens (or kale), toasted manioc flour (aka farofa), orange segments, and spicy chili sauce. We found a Brazilian-owned restaurant not far from our apartment some time ago and went for their Saturday lunch feijoada (it's traditionally eaten in Brazil on Saturdays) but we found it rather disappointing, with no farofa and just not the right depth of flavor.

I thought it should not be too difficult to make the dish here, so I started looking for the ingredients a couple of months ago, though I found that the farofa and some of the meats, particularly the dried beef (carne seca) were just completely unavailable, and they, to me, are the sine qua nons of the dish that might explain why the version at the restaurant was so poor. I asked a Brazilian friend at the office if he knew of a source, but he did not, so I did the next best thing--saddled the next friend to come to Beijing with a shopping list, asking her to make a trek to the Portuguese/Brazilian store that I used to visit in Maryland and to bring a few things over. Marsha was a real trooper, and when she arrived in Beijing she had a suitcase full of Brazilian staples for my feijoada effort.

Last night was the appointed night for our feijoada outing, so on Thursday I went to the market to pick up the additional meats. Several things were not available, like smoked pork shoulder, smoked ham hocks, and chourico sausages, so I found substitutes, describing to the meat vendors what I wanted and eventually coming up with a range of things that I figured would give me the desired flavors and textures. I also could not find collards (or kale) so I made do with the leaves from Chinese broccoli. The beans were not a problem, especially since another friend, when he left Beijing to move back to the US, left us a lot of stuff from his pantry, including two enormous bags of black beans.

The aroma from the feijoada as it cooked seemed to be pretty much the real deal as it was cooking, though the proof of course would come only when our friends--including the Brazilian colleague and his partner--tasted it. As part of the plan, to ensure that their tastebuds were a bit dulled, we made sure to offer plenty of caipirinhas (the Brazilian national cocktail, made of limes, sugar, and cachaca) before we sat down to eat. Unfortunately one of them could not have alcohol, so we were in for a tough challenge. Would they feel that I was being presumptuous to invite Brazilians over for their national dish?? As it turns out, they seemed to enjoy it, and one had three servings, so I guess that's as good an endorsement as you can get.

For dessert, I made another Brazilian specialty--quidims, or coconut flan, using hard-to-find and harder-to-open fresh coconut. They turned out stupendously, and I even got a request from one of the Brazilians to let him take the left-over one home (one guest was a no-show).

So in the end, it was a very successful venture, and I have been asked by another one of the guests (who was born in Vietnam) to regroup the same guests for Vietnamese night after Chinese New Year!

Saturday, January 19, 2008

China's Awful Banking "System" Strikes Again

This morning I ventured out in Beijing's frigid temperatures to do a few errands, including shopping for some books and possibly replacing a lost iPod. At the bookstore I thought I'd use my ATM card to pay for my purchase, rather than dip into my cash stores, but when the clerk swiped my card she said there was something wrong with my account. I insisted my account was in fine shape, and had her try again. Still no dice, so I ended up paying in cash, all the while facing the clerk's suspicious glances at this shady foreigner with the dodgy ATM card.

Then I went to Bainaohui to buy the iPod. There, too, the ATM card would not work, so I tried to get cash out of a cash machine, again with no luck. Now I was getting concerned, so I called my bank's support line for information on what was going on, only to get a recording that sounded like it said that the info line was closed temporarily. So I headed over to the nearest branch of my bank (China Merchants' Bank, the 6th largest in the country) only to find it all sealed up tight with the windows blocked. When I got to the door, there was a sign reporting that, in order to better serve its customers (!), the bank was going to be closed for all transactions from 4am on Saturday, January 19, through 8am on Sunday, January 20. I have never in my life heard of a bank shutting down like this for a full day (and then some!), especially without providing any advance notice. Of course, there is also no avenue for customers to complain (and if there were, no likelihood that anyone would pay any attention to your complaint, and even then, CMB's customers have little recourse, since all the other banks are even worse than CMB).

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Olympic Preparations

With the Olympics coming in a mere 8 months (or, according to the advertising video screen in the elevator at work, last time I looked, around 210 days), the city is becoming festooned with all sorts of exhortations to the populace having to do with the Olympic Games. Over the past few weeks, billboards have gone up all over the city with the 10 do's and don'ts of the Olympics. Interestingly, a lot of the rules have to do with protecting the revenue-generating potential of the Games, by not counterfeiting the Olympic goods that are fore sale all over the city or bringing your own food and drinks to the stadiums. Here's a list of the rules, taken from another blog's translation:

  • Do protect Olympic intellectual property rights - don't buy or sell pirated imitations.
  • Do observe regulations regarding the use of Olympic symbols - don't abuse the Olympic flag or songs.
  • Do defend traffic safety - don't jump guard-rails or barge through red lights.
  • Do line up according to the rules - don't push and shove.
  • Do beautify the city - don't spit all over the road.
  • Do treasure the capital's ancient cultural sites - don't post messy advertisements everywhere.
  • Do cherish the sport stadiums and facilities - don't stir up trouble or create a scene.
  • Do safeguard security and order - don't bring your own beverages to competitions.
  • Do struggle to be a civilized, lawful audience - don't threaten the peace by gambling.
  • Do improve others' awareness of Olympic law - don't let illegal activities ruin the whole thing.
Judging from what I have seen of late, there has been little progress on slowing down the pushing, shoving and spitting all over the place. In fact, it seems to me that there has been a bit more phlegm than usual lately, which may be connected with the much colder weather we've been having lately.

In addition, since our apartment is right across the street from the Worker's Stadium which will host some of the matches, we have been wondering what restrictions there might be on access to our street (which is already almost impassable when there is a concert or other event at the Worker's Gymnasium up the road). This question has been answered to some degree by the notice posted on our lobby wall, instructing residents to apply by Jan 18 for a permit to drive their cars home during the Olympic period. Without the pass, people won't be able to drive down the street, apparently. We don't have a car, so we don't need the pass, but I wonder what would happen if we're in a cab?

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Shanghai Fabric Market

For some time, I had heard stories about the famed Shanghai fabric market. People have said they would rummage through stall after stall of fabrics, turning up amazing finds that they would subsequently turn into wonderful items of clothes. In all my years of coming to China, I had never been to the Shanghai fabric market, and my experience last year of visiting the Beijing fabric market in Muxiyuan, where the vastness of the market (more a fabric neighborhood than a fabric market, really) and the difficulty in identifying where the 'good' stuff was kept hidden, prevented me from really trying to track it down.

But a colleague in the office told me of her recent experience at the Shanghai market, and about how it had been moved into a temperature-controlled building not far from the Bund, so I decided to try it out. Today, during a break between meetings and during the lunch hour, I wandered over and was amazed by what I found.

The market has at least four floors (though I only visited the first two) and they are chockablock with stalls selling material for shirts, suits, coats, dresses, etc, as well as tailors waiting to convert your purchases into items of clothing. Many of the stores have numerous swatch books in addition to bolts of cloth on the racks, and you could easily spend hours if not days browsing through the selections. In my limited experience, it seems that the pricing is pretty consistent, with fabric ranging between Y60 and Y250 per meter ($8-$35). I bought material for a navy blue blazer, a sport jacket, and a suit and paid in total around $120, all wool/cashmere blends.

The market (for those of you interested in going) is on Lujiabang Road, just west of Zhongshan Nan Lu and south of Fuxing Lu.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

The Tailors of Beijing

In the past few weeks, we have found that almost all our clothes have had to be altered as a result of our having lost a lot of weight. We took a lot of our clothes to our regular tailor, Mr Zhu, who has been making clothes for us ever since I found him in the old Ruifuxiang fabric shop on Wangfujing years ago. Mr Zhu left that shop soon after we moved to Beijing in 2006, and now has his own shop at the China Travel Service Hotel, and while we have had a bunch of things made there, we have noticed that the selection of material is nowhere near as good as it was in the old location.

About two weeks ago, we wanted to have Mr Zhu make us some new shirts and trousers, but were unable to find a lot of material that we liked, so we tried the tailor at the Sanlitun Friendship grocery store. This place is very much geared to expats and tourists who come to the Friendship store to pick up Western-style foods, so the material is much more suitable to our taste. I even managed to find some shirt and corduroy trouser material that I thought had potential, so I ordered a few things, while J2 ordered a couple of pants and shirts. Unfortunately, the shirts did not turn out quite how I wanted (though the cords were perfect). Meantime, Mr Zhu found some material that he thought J2 would like, so we ended up ordering a pair of them to be delivered to us when he finished fixing our old clothes.

Then this past Friday we were having lunch with one of our colleagues, Tony, who had just returned from the US. He was wearing a really nice shirt, which he told us he had made by a tailor who totes his samples with him and does all the fittings at your place, so very convenient. We contacted them right away and arranged for them to come over that evening to let us take a look at what they had. When the wife of the tailor, a woman named June, arrived, she said her husband would come a bit later, but in the meantime we started to check out the material for shirts, suits and trousers, and were very impressed with the selection. J2 and I both found things we liked (including the same shirting that Tony was wearing) so we planned to order a few items.

We were just discussing with June how we are friends of Tony so we should get a good price when the husband rang the doorbell. When we let him in, I realized that I knew him, too! He also used to work with Mr Zhu back at Ruifuxiang, so he also used to make clothes for me (including a suit for J2), and he too left to set up his own company. What a small world! We thus were established not just as friends of Tony, but as old customers of Mr Ding, so we got a very good price (including free upgrades of our shirt buttons from plastic to shell).

This evening (Sunday) Mr Ding was scheduled to bring us the clothes-in-progress for a fitting (our houseguest, Dongmei, was also having a qipao made, hoping to get it back in time to take home with her on Tuesday). So we were waiting for him to show up when Mr Zhu phoned to say that he would be bringing the altered pants and J2's new pair. Holy awkward situation, Batman! Mr Ding ended up arriving first, so I warned him that Mr Zhu might come at any time, and if he did not want Zhu to see that we're also working with him, he was welcome to hide in the bedroom. Sure enough, when Zhu arrived, that's what he did, though luckily Zhu only had to spend about 5 minutes here, enough time for us to make sure that the pants all fit.

When Mr Ding came back downstairs, he finished our fitting (everything we tried on was pretty much spot-on, and the shirts were beautiful) and he said that if we ever needed to have anything altered, he'd happily come over and do it for free (assuming the changes were simple). The real test will come with the suit that Mr Ding is making for me; I wanted a black suit, and they had some really nice material. When he asked if I had any particular requirements, I showed him a suit (my favorite) that I had made a few months ago at WW Chan in Shanghai. That suit was made with authentic Zegna fabric, and has all sorts of nice features, like my name embroidered inside, beautifully stitched lining, etc. Ding offered to copy it exactly, assuming I did not need it in a hurry, so we'll see how he does, since he charges about 1/5 what Chan does. Stay tuned for the outcome!