Wednesday, November 30, 2005


A friend found this Chinese cooking class on Google. No English. Not for tourists. Hard to follow every word. Great to watch and listen and taste.

The second the teacher finished, students descended on the dishes with their own chopsticks, which they bring to class. The two fish dishes were reduced to bone in two minutes.
Orville Schell this week on China’s contradictions: http://www.truthdig.com/dig/item/china/


Went to a cooking class last night with a Chinese-American friend who is writing a book about food.

Some 15 other students, all local Chinese, jotted notes from bleacher-style seats in a middle school classroom as a chef showed them how to make four Sichuan dishes: spicy diced chicken thigh and chicken breast, carp simmered in soy sauce and chili bean paste and carp with a pepper sauce. He used only a wok, collander, cleaver and cutting board and a dinner plate to flip the fish.

When the students graduate, they hope to get jobs as cooks that pay about $250 a month. All but one were men. Some already work in kitchens, most don’t. One is a housewife with a four-year-old.

You need a sharp knife to debone chicken. The teacher showed how to sliver green onions or leeks, shave winter bamboo shoots, mince ginger and garlic and slice the skin of the fish every 2 inches or so, so the flavors penetrate. Make shallow cuts, he said, because the fish was alive two minutes ago and will be deep-fried. Deep cuts will make it blow up or look bloated. He put oil, soy, salt, cornstarch, salt and pepper directly onto a plate of diced chicken and mixed it with his fingers. He deep-fried then crushed and diced the peanuts, filling the room with a terrific aroma. He used the peppercorns just to flavor the oil, then dumped them. Added chili peppers to smoking hot oil, then the chicken, then chili powder, green onions, ginger, garlic and finally peanuts. He sauteed it all for a minute or two, and was done.

Saturday, November 26, 2005


Anniversary dinner and fashion show (by local designer Feng Ling) at My Humble House Beijing, complete with Australian wine, Russian and Chinese models, warm chocolate cake and big hair.
Phil and Sarah threw a great Thanksgiving ("gan an jie") dinner party last night featuring expats and Chinese, journalists and non-journalists, salads, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie, chocolate cake, stuffing, cranberry sauce and turkey! There were doctoral candidates studying village elections, writers dissecting the environment, NGO workers and TV presenters, toddlers who spoke German and Chinese, two enormously affectionate cats and copious amounts of wine.

The day before, a friend invited me to the one-year anniversary of a Beijing restaurant owned by a Singapore-headquartered chain, complete with fashion show. Their prices are high by Beijing standards and customers are mostly local Chinese who have lived or studied abroad for several years. The menu: lobster mousse with glutinous rice and a jicama cheese roll; braised turbot in a curry sauce; beef tenderloin with a foie gras sauce; fried rice with hairy crab; warm chocolate pudding with figs hand carried in from Singapore.

And today, I joined a gym.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005


Chamber pots as art exhibit, complete with a loud soundtrack of rhythmic, scraping sounds. To me, it's just odd. But many Chinese immediately recoil, instantly recalling the men who used to carry away the waste in a box slung from bamboo sticks on their shoulders and the maids who had to scrub the empty pots.
Not much local reaction to the Bush visit apparent in the day to day. One conversation partner scans headlines and front pages at her local newstand everyday and claims Bush didn't make the cover of anything for sale over the last four days (except for a photo of him riding his bicycle). The well-regarded Nanfang Zhoumo or Southern Weekend comes out Thursday however, so she'll have a closer look then. It's not a subject that interests or enages most ordinary Chinese, she said, and none of her college-educated friends or family members are talking about the visit. I asked if the story might be inside. She said then it wasn't important enough to follow. She's hardly a spokesperson for "ordinary Chinese," but a China expert from Washington DC visiting Beijing this week had the same sense, hearing the same from his contacts in local academic and think tank circles and from his taxi drivers. They knew Bush was in town, but had no idea what he said and didn't see much of an impact.

At school, another student says he laughed or smiled when reading aloud in class an anti-Taiwan passage from one of his textbooks. His teacher asked whether the average American would identify with Taiwan or China. "Without thinking, I immediately said Taiwan," the student said. He went on to explain that since Taiwan was a democracy, most Americans probably would relate to that. The teacher looked surprised and replied that China too was a democracy. "But um, you don’t elect your leaders do you?" the student said, incredulous but trying to be polite. "But we have the People's Congress," the teacher insisted.

Another teacher makes the distinction between Japanese wartime aggression being inflicted externally and Mao, who while killing many Chinese, only did damage internally. I did not pursue this line of questioning. People revere him for stabilizing the country and everyone seems afraid of instability and willing to sacrifice pretty much anything to avoid it.

Too many cars, but the government wants to enourage GDP growth and doesn't want to alienate people who can afford to buy cars. Too much pollution, but closing more factories or raising gasoline prices would cause the poor to riot. "Zenme ban," (what's to be done?) or "Meiyou banfa," (no way out of the problem) locals often say.

But who knows. Several ordinary Chinese have told me they think the primary issue that could lead to conflict with the US is Taiwan. The visiting China expert says his intellectual circle contacts are certain it will be Japan.

On a lighter note: locals also seem to dislike the Olympic mascots. They aren't cute, they're not very Chinese (some say they're like Japanese anime characters) and it's highway robbery to expect people to buy the entire set of all five mascots. Enterprising Chinese who were trying to hawk them individually outside the Silk Market, where foreigners congregate, were allegedly busted by the police.

BTW, I'm still eating chicken. Maybe I shouldn't, but the beef and chicken satay at a local hotel looked safe enough. Also, several doctors and nurses in Washington DC and at a local hospital here for expats say Tamilflu won't actually help fight the avian flu virus. This hasn't stopped expats, including journalists, from stocking up.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Went to a lowkey art auction at a hotel near the Worker Stadium where serious money changed hands in minutes. In the absence of a reliable stock exchange that everyone trusts, auctions have become a way for the rich here to get richer.

Several large framed paintings and works of calligraphy were displayed off the lobby but most of the art wasn't on show. A projection screen showed the artwork for sale and simultaneous prices in RMB, US$, Hong Kong dollars and Euros that jumped every second.

There were blood-red peaks and winding rivers, Beijing opera figures, graceful women with flowers, baby chickens, aging fishermen and water buffalo but it almost didn't matter. Most of the 150 people in the auditorium (and calling in bids) weren't dealers but individuals buying only to turn around and sell later, an auction organizer said.

The middle-aged man next to me in bad shoes and a neon red cashmere vest was interested in a landscape valued at 42,000 RMB ($5,250). He raised his paper card identifying him as bidder #848 but in seconds the price was more than 55,000 and he was out. Asked how he chose what to buy, he said anything that was reasonably priced with a design that wasn't too “jian dan,” or simple.

The mostly male crowd smelled of cigarette smoke. They constantly jiggled their legs, twirled their pens and tracked the selling price of each painting. For “you qian de ren,” or people with money, you wouldn't pick out any of these big spenders on a Beijing sidewalk.

It was hard to understand the auctioneer's Mandarin monotone, punctuated with sharp and curt qians (1,000) and bais (100) and wans (10,000). A Guilin landscape by Bai Xueshi (b. 1915) started at $62,500. A painting of the Monkey King by Lin Feng Mian started at $150,000. A contemporary oil of a woman with a yellow fan started at $312,500. Smaller paintings by unknown artists started at 20,000 RMB ($2,500).

It was the last day of the Poly International 2005 Autumn Auctions. As I walked out, the man at the front desk gave me his catalog, so now I have my own minature collection.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005


Elle: "To have everything that one should have"
Winter began Monday, according to one of my teachers, even though the heat doesn't get turned on in most buildings until Nov. 15. The bathroom heater has begun to make odd noises but otherwise I need two quilts at night. One teacher says she's started to wear long underwear. Another continues to wear shorts and boots to work. Most people are rooting for high winds because they blow the pollution away.

At birthday drinks for a Reuters reporter, in a cosy bar on a stone boat on a pond in a park with locked gates that you have to slip through, I met the co-founder of the Beijing Cheese Club. He's Chinese-American and used to work at Daniel in New York. You have to RSVP to the cheese tastings right away because they sell out in 24 hours. Wonder whether local Chinese attend (traditionally not big cheese eaters).

Went to a God-awful Chinese film with English subtitles about a bunch of aimless, alcoholic, masturbating artists. This by a filmaker whose previous effort was an equally happy documentary about the Chinese addiction to gambling. I ought to buy Chinese DVDs of children's movies so I can practice listening comprehension with a pause button.

Got good marks on my last character tests but have started a tougher book, so progress is slower. Used to be able to finish a lesson each day but now have more characters per lesson. They often have the same radical, so they're easier to mix up. As I memorize the new ones, I can feel the old characters fall out of my right ear and land on the floor.

Met a Time Out staffer who said the magazine is run by someone with very good connections: a woman whose mother was an interpreter or translator for Mao and whose stepfather worked in Mao's Foreign Ministry. The magazine is still heavily censored but apparently gets away with more than other publications. For example, they have the first (only?) gay and lesbian page.

Vogue magazine launched in China in September, bringing their own international advertisers and billboard signage announcing something like "the ultimate fashion trends to look forward to." But the ads for Elle magazine speak more eloquently for the new class of monied Chinese: Ying You Jin You, or "To have everything that one should have, that one could wish for or one expects to find."

Saturday, November 05, 2005


Posted on Sept. 19th a view from my apartment of the Tai Ping Yang towers on a clear day (see archives), but this is the same view today. According to reporter friends, today is a really bad smog day, a 5 out of possible 5, which means you should stay home. I went for dim sum instead (so far haven't found anything that compares with Hong Kong or San Francisco).

Tuesday, November 01, 2005


Bad translation department: The literal translation of Dong Fang Hong, Xi Fang Hei is as described. But the actual meaning of this unpictured abstract photo at a gallery north of DaShanZi is "The East is Rising, the West is Declining." Or, according to a conversation partner and teacher, "The East is leading world trends, the West is bankrupt or Imperialism is dying and has no hope." The first part of the phrase is from a famous song for Chairman Mao about the hope of China.

Monday, October 31, 2005


Behind Hong Qiao market, meat and vegetable skewers and a sticky flour snack are for sale. My friend went for the roasted yams instead. She says they often cook at home these days. While tourists worry about whether to eat street food, many Chinese are concerned about food contamination and deliberate mislabeling in their packaged food.

An alley behind Hong Qiao market, a giant indoor collection of shops and stalls selling generally cheap clothes, housewares, shoes, toys, souvenirs and cheap and expensive jewelry. A family friend kindly showed me this neighborhood over the weekend: where and how she gets her watches, bedspreads, kitchen supplies, etc.

Halloween at Club Nuage in Houhai. Amazing what you will do under peer pressure. We were: two Chinese Americans, one Filipina-Canadian and one Caucasian American, who quickly became the target of a well-off Chinese guy who kept his girlfriend or date waiting downstairs while he hit on Amy.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

My parents and the paper's assistant managing editor in charge of foreign news were both in town last week, so I'm spending much of this week catching up. There's a test tomorrow on nearly 300 characters in my Book 1 before I can move on to Book 2. I need 3,000 characters to read a Chinese newspaper.

Tried to take my parents to places not yet on the tour bus circuit. They've already seen the Forbidden City, Great Wall, Temple of Heaven, etc. Retired architects, they thought the way artists have renovated warehouse space was interesting. "They're very good at copying," aren't they?" Dad said. Oddly, he had no interest in the hutongs - the endangered species of old Beijing.

Typically, much of their visit revolved around food. We had lunch with his old classmates, all from the Jesuit-run St. John's University in Shanghai, which Dad left in 1952. One friend went on to work for GM. Another became a top soccer coach. Another emigrated to NY. Unsurprisingly, they didn't discuss how differently their lives have turned out. But I wonder if it's the elephant in the room. They did berate Dad for not forcing me to speak Mandarin as a child (Mom, who speaks Cantonese, escaped the lecture).

Had dinner with the grandaughter of an aunt of my Dad's. She’s 20-something and studying interior design and landscape architecture at Tsinghua University. She tells me that my architect Grandpa, Fan Wenzhou (actually Wenzhao), (Cantonese and Mandarin phonetics not the same) was well-known and that I should go to Shanghai to see more of his buildings. My grandfather studied under Paul Cret and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, class of 1921. I have already seen a Bauhaus-style apartment building (my Dad’s childhood home), a theater and the Sun Yat Sen memorial in Nanking, which he worked on. But Lei Lei is right: I should learn more.


The weather is turning. I bought brand-name black cordruoy pants for $12 only to be told by my conversation partner that I overpaid. A tailor hemmed them for me for 75 cents.

Met the Country Director for the World Bank yesterday. In his office is a coffee table book on environmental degradation which mentions a bachelor village in Gansu Province populated only by middle-aged men. It's such a parched and hostile environment that women refuse to marry men and move there. What an interesting story, except that I'm not reporting yet.

Monday, October 17, 2005


Shangxia Jiu Pedestrian Street, Guangzhou

Dong Hu Park

Traces of Old Canton, DongShan neighborhood

Bead shop on Kang Huang Street
Just back from a long weekend in Guangzhou, where I stayed with a friend of a friend. In a way, it's my "village," if I have such a thing. My mother's mother left Guangzhou for Hong Kong. My father, born and raised in Shanghai, is Cantonese.

It was a change of pace to actually understand what everyone was talking about, if not every sentence. Before I started studying Mandarin again, I would've been able to string together several coherent Cantonese sentences. Now, my sentences come out mostly in Putonghua, with Cantonese words where I couldn't think of the Mandarin equivalent. It sounded atrocious but gave me the illusion of progress.

On the three-hour flight down, a yoga instructor gave a video demonstration of how to relieve stress. The all-Chinese bookshops in Guangzhou airport carried self-help books on how to grow your wealth. Passengers stood up the moment the plane landed (before it left the runway) and began shouting into their cellphones.

Guangzhou is more laidback and more lush and green than Beijing, but just as grey and choked with traffic. Population: 3.2 million. Parts resemble LA with crisscrossing freeways smack downtown. Other parts look like Hong Kong with worn skyscraper apartment blocks so close together it seems you can reach from one to another. Older parts of town remind me of Macau and its colonial Portuguese architecture.

Parks are full of fragrant frangipani trees and old Banyans with long, intertwined above-ground roots. There was plenty of streetlife along the Pearl River, from lovers to drunks to pickpockets, all bathed in fluroescent light. And good people-watching in DongShanHu Park and at the massive seafood restaurants where you pick your own live dinner. It's like going to an aquarium and then eating the exhibits: big groupers, Australian lobster ($40 for just over a pound), wriggling silkworm larvae, snapping turtles, snakes and rockfish - which can kill if you step on one accidentally.

All the big restaurants seemed to have widescreen flat panel TVs and projection screens, tuned to news or blaring entertainment. A real-estate agent friend here said the louder the restaurant, the better. It's proof your evening has been really exciting. And Cantonese people are always eating. Morning tea before breakfast, afternoon tea following lunch, dinner in one restaurant and then dessert and drinks in another.

Tea bowls for cleaning your fingers after peel-and-eat shrimp are common in Hong Kong and Guangzhou but not throughout China. So Chinese tourists are increasingly coming to Guangzhou and trying to drink from their finger bowls, even with the tell-tale slice of lemon in them, our local hosts said. One of our hosts who speaks Mandarin, Cantonese and English (is learning Spanish) said she felt like she had a different personality when she spoke Cantonese. She's more serious in Mandarin, much more expressive in Cantonese.

Had lakeside dim sum one day and a simple noodle lunch off a busy pedestrian street the next. Less than ten years ago, Shangxia Jiu pedestrian street was lined with old residences. Now it teems with people mostly in their 20's and 30's buying sneakers, wooden toys and cheap costume jewelry with their parent's money.

We walked through the narrow winding alleys of a jade market where the bright pink, purple and turqiose colors made you wonder why the other vendors bothered insisting that they were selling the real thing. In the east, we looked at old brick houses in the old Dongshan neighborhood. In the west we went to Siguan House, or the Liwan museum, to see the insides of what one of these old homes looked like.

Near the five-star Garden Hotel, where we waited for another friend to get off work, sidewalk cafes were full of expats: Koreans, Russians, Middle Easterners. Guangzhou is an hour and a half from Shenzhen and Hong Kong and full of import export traders. That's especially true this week, during the annual Guangzhou Trade Fair, the biggest event in town. Pizza joints and belly dancing clubs as well as high fashion stores selling $300 jackets and $600 pants have cropped up to serve the traders as well as wealthy Chinese.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005


After lunch with the family of my Dad's former classmate (standing behind me). The couple in the middle of the back row are visiting from California.
Have caught my first cold here, and all five of my Mandarin teachers are unanimous: it must be the weather.

Like my parents, they believe that when it's cold outside, it's easier to catch a cold. If they told me to put on a sweater, they'd definitely be my relatives. They're not talking about lowered defenses or more people with germs crowding indoors. They say there is a Chinese saying that the body is more tired in the fall and spring when it has to adjust to cooler mornings and evenings and warmer afternoons. Winter and summer are easier because it's always hot or always cold.

The Bookworm, my local library / Wifi cafĂ©, was packed tonight for a reading by Jim McGregor, who launched his book tour in Beijing today. A former WSJ reporter and Dow Jones executive, his book is “One Billion Customers: Lessons From the Front Lines of Doing Business in China.” Like any good journalist, he saved for the book tour the parts he had to cut for reasons of taste. Like comparing guanxi to sex - it doesn't matter who's on top, make sure the other side isn't just pretending to be satisified, have layers of protection, do background checks, etc.

More interesting was his riff on how the Chinese are getting richer and richer but more and more psychologically confused. People are unsettled because they have no other mission in life other than to acquire wealth. They don't trust anything other than money and immediate family. There's not much introspection in Chinese culture, McGregor said. Feelings and emotions are bad for your health. Even Buddhism exorts you to leave feelings and desires behind.

China understands the US and the West much better than the other way around, McGregor said. China is modernizing, but not Westernizing. That worries a lot of people in Congress, where, according to McGregor, the sensible center is disappearing. On his trips back and forth to the US McGregor said he was hearing more and more from the extreme right and left.

But China also has a lot of responsibility for one of the biggest stumbling blocks to smooth relations: intellectual property issues, McGregor said. It's not just pirated CDs and DVDs (Bertolucci's The Last Emperor and the latest Coldplay album are $2.50 here; Hotel Rwanda and Ray (Charles) are just $1.25), it's fake airplane parts!

Meanwhile, have been meeting two conversation partners twice a week. One likes to talk about art and we went to another cluster of art galleries not far from Dashanzi. This time, everything seemed derivative to me.

Most of the artists had shaved or nearly bald heads. Most said confident, flirtatious things to my friend and me (how and why we should sign their guestbooks). Many hired underlings to paint or sculpt for them. There were images of Mao everywhere, including paintings juxtaposing Mao's sayings with American corporate phrases such as “You've Got Mail”(selling for $300). It seemed like one big clichĂ©, all geared to sell to foreigners.

The other conversation partner talked about one of her girlfriends, a former college classmate who is attractive, educated and employed but who can't leave a longtime boyfriend who refuses to marry her. The boyfriend is rich, hasn't worked for three years and dislikes her friends. But he never says no when she calls him up to go out. He belongs to a new class of Chinese who can afford US$850,000 two-bedroom apartments with goldleaf in the walls.

Speaking of which, there is a Beijing man who sometimes drives a yellow Hummer into my building's driveway. Not sure if it's true, but taxi drivers tell me there are only three or four Hummers in Beijing.

Saturday, October 01, 2005


Outside a big electronics shop in West Beijing, a mostly-male audience gathered to watch scantily-clad women dance on stage in an apparent attempt to sell cell phones and home appliances.
Beijingers start celebrating National Day today by taking off for the suburbs or other cities, and Chinese from elsewhere flood into the capital. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday are non-working days for most; some people take the whole week off.

Had lunch at the West Beijing home of my Dad's old classmate. Understood maybe 50% of what they were saying, but that was with them trying to speak slowly and simply for me. Delicious meal including homemade tofu skin and "ping yu" or fried flat fish. But was so brain dead afterwards I could barely cope with trying to buy a second set of bed sheets. No drying machine nor laundry rack: can't wash and dry my sheets in one day. I know winter, thick and inexpensive but not cotton, lambswool and cashier.

Met a few classmates for dinner the other day at a place in Sanlitun called the Den. It's a dive, popular with foreigners. I walked in with a bike helmet and my Martha's Vineyard T-shirt and they asked if I wanted a table for one. I said in Chinese that I was looking for my friends and decided to wait at at the bar. I told the waitress that she could speak Mandarin to me slowly and I could probably understand her, but she just kept repeating in English: "Half price. Happy Hour. Tsingtao."

When another Chinese-American TLI student arrived, wearing nice clothes, modest makeup and shiny lip gloss, the staff wouldn't let her in. In much better Mandarin, she also said she was meeting friends. But the staff insisted, "No!" Finally, she announced she was going in anyway, pushed past them and found me at the bar.

As we moved to sit outside, a friend of hers arrived, also of Chinese descent. She wore a sleeveless top, bold jewelry, makeup. As we tried to find a table, the staff seemed even more agitated. Then the friend opened her mouth and spoke in a strong French accent. It took awhile, but when the staff finally realized we were just foreigners instead of hookers, they finally started smiling.

Monday, September 26, 2005


798 Photo Gallery, Da Shan Zi.

"Charm and Strength - Mao Zedong and the Chinese Contemporary Artists," at the Xin Dong Cheng Space for Contemporary Art.

Factory 798 grounds, Da Shan Zi.
Sat. Sept 24

Took a 15 minute taxi ride this morning to "Qi Jiu Ba," in Da Shan Zi. The industrial factory neighborhood in northeast Beijing, named for Factory 798, is now a collection of artist studios and galleries. You can find good art bookshops here, a few trendy cafes and the occasional tour bus of giggling, young Korean women. My Chinese is not yet good enough to ask what the factory used to make. Some of the artists are still struggling, others have struck it rich. Western curators and embassy officials have left business cards at some studios. Da Shan Zi is not listed in either of my guidebooks, which is a good thing.

At the 798 Photo Gallery, black and white photographs showed a spectator trying to get a better view by balancing on the rear platform of his bike; a rural performer holding a bicycle aloft - in his teeth; and the front tire of an early morning commuter emerging in an otherwise empty hutong alley. The bicycle is a member of the Chinese family, the photographer, Wang Wenlan, wrote. At rush hour, cyclists in China are like a mobile Great Wall, he added, and "when you are in the midst of it, you feel like you are the blood in the veins of society, lively and vigorous, sensing endless potential."

Playing in the background was a continuous loop of a Leonard Cohen song: "I'm turning tricks. I'm getting fixed. I'm back on Boogie Street. You lose your grip, and then you slip ... you ditch it all to stay alive, a thousand kisses deep." I could have been in west Chelsea in Manhattan.

Some say this is where young people today have the most freedom in China. A book I saw described the photographs of Song Yongping's parents in old age, ill health and death, juxtaposed with pictures of his parents as young party loyalists. Song's point was reportedly to show a modern revolutionary couple "whose youthful strength and ardour were spent serving a cause that gave them no support or comfrort in their last days."

At the Marella Gallery, photos of the artist Li Wei with his head buried in the ground were supposed to partly reflect typical Chinese behavior. Losing face is a terrible thing, so nothing is expressed directly and everything is oblique and only hinted at. A published description of his art said Li was hiding from international terrorism as well as from China's rapid economic change and globalization, which was "driving humanity toward serious international conflict" which in turn was often reflected in personal, domestic conflict.

Mao as pop art remains a popular theme here. At the Xin Dong Cheng Space for Contemporary Art, there's a painting of him with Marilyn Monroe and several elaborately decorated porcelain figures of Mao that evoke Elvis or Liberace.

One of the more personal exhibits was by the artist Song Dong, whose mother was born into a prosperous family but then became impoverished. Her KMT officer father was imprisoned for seven years. After his release, her mother died. Other hardships followed.

The Chinese saying "Wu Jin Qi Yong" refers to the traditional Chinese virtue of frugality and translates as "waste not." Song's mother, Zhao Xiangyuan, saved everything that might have a possible future use: plastic wash basins, scraps of cloth, old TV sets and phonograph players, clay pots, shopping bags, clips and pens. When her husband died in 2002, her collecting worsened as she tried to fill the void and hang onto the past.

Her son's art was a big room full of Zhao's household goods, arranged by her in neat piles against a wood frame house that represented her modest home.

"Today's young people can hardly understand the joy and sorrow involved in this type of collecting," the curator at Beijing Tokyo Art Projects wrote. "How could such messy, suffocating stuff make up an intimate environment, generating illusions of safety and even evoking secret memories?"

Song wrote that the project had helped his mother emerge from her grief. He had found a way to help clean out her house without angering her. And he had proved her right: all those things finally did serve some purpose.

Song Dong's "Waste Not," a display of objects collected by his mother, Zhao Xiangyuan, 67, over several decades.

Zhao Xiangyuan's shopping bag collection, sandwiched between her collection of old shoes and string.

Saturday, September 24, 2005


Looking north from the main bar strip in Sanlitun (all neon, beer signs and touts trying to entice foreigners to eat in their restaurants), into the leafier embassy neighborhood.

This is where I take my Mandarin classes. He laoshi, second from right, is the first of my five teachers each day.

Every morning at 8:15, nearly 2,000 students have morning assembly right under my window. Sometimes they stretch to marching band music but yesterday it was aerobics-style calisthenics to pop music.

Workers hanging lanterns and a bicycle repairman chatting with neighbors in a Sanlitun hutong next to my favorite gelato shop.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Was supposed to meet fellow students for dinner but instead spent last night dealing with a psycho leasing agent and his partner. Had the gracious help of the office and office staff. And the police were great.

I had thought the whole thing was over after the last crazy visit, but at 7 pm, agent Li called again. I explained that he needed to call my colleagues, in part because my Chinese isn't good enough but also because the office is handling my rent. He claimed not to have the number. I insisted he had it and told him I watched my "tong shi" give him the Washington Post number last time. I hung up, called the office and asked them to call Li. Two minutes later, Li was outside my apartment door, again.

The last time he was here, Li came by three times in one evening. The third time he brought three of his partners or bosses. They shouted, demanded money, tried to push their way into my apartment, banged repeatedly on my door and switched off my electricity. After that, we called the police, who said that if the agents ever came back, we should call building security or the police and they would come and tell them off.

Li did call again, saying he was downstairs. Cops didn't come because he wasn't at my door. This time he was, knocking and phoning at the same time. I called security, who were supposed to keep Li off my floor. They didn't understand me at first. I told them if they didn't call police, I would.

Security came up and talked to Li but he refused to leave. He continued to knock until one of guards stood with his back to my peephole. Li stood aside, trying to call his boss. Meanwhile, Phil called the police, then came over himself. Soon there were two cops, two security agents, the head of security, the Washington Post bureau chief and agent Li, a small party on my doorstep.

The female cop seemed to be in charge. She asked Li where he was from, then said, "This is Beijing. You can't just knock on people's doors demanding money. Are you from the north?"

Then Phil and I and agent Li all climbed into a police car, which sped off to the local station with its lights on, no siren. Li, clearly uncomfortable, wanted to make another call but the cops told him to get in the car. We were at the station for two hours. The desk officer had no discernable facial expression. I didn't realize that he was one of the police officers who had come to my apartment before, shortly after Li's first first visit. It turned out his surname was the same as mine. And he was on our side.

He spoke to us privately, then spoke separately to agent Li and his belligerent boss. The boss told other bystanders in the police station that he was being cheated by a foreigner, who expected special treatment. When I said “ta shuo cuo le,” (he's incorrect), he called me a bitch and accused me of lying about my lack of Chinese.

Later, one of the Post's senior researcher arrived to help translate. I asked Li's boss if he had a sister, a daughter, a mother, and whether he expected them to be treated the same way, harassed and stalked for money. Foreigner, my ass, I said loudly. The researcher translated that too or something very close to it.

We had no contract, no agreement with agent Li or his company. We didn't know that a second agent would show us the same apartment, at a better price. We hadn't deliberately gone around them. We repeatededly said they should call or visit the bureau to resolve any dispute. Or hire a lawyer. We'd be happy to meet them in court (renters don't generally pay the agent's fee. Li demanded more than twice the fee my landlady paid the second agent).

But they preferred to bang on my door, and said so. They told the police that they would continue to come see me because they knew where I lived, and because I was in "their" apartment.

Suddenly, after the desk officer spoke to Li and his boss, they promised to stop harassing me ("sao rao" in Mandarin). I'd love to know what the police actually said. Li's boss promised they wouldn't call, visit or even go to the bureau. I said they were welcome to come to our office, but they said they wouldn't waste another minute on this. It's finished, closed, they said, walking out of the police station in a huff.

On the one hand, they really lost face and I wondered whether it's really over. On the other hand, another observer said, they knew they were wrong. That's why they didn't want to pursue it legally. So it's over.


Getting around by bike is great. I now park it in my apartment. I'm not the only one: each morning all the mountain bikes in the building come down by elevator.

Crossing guards here are armed with whistles, red flags, bullhorns and a sharp sense of limit lines. They scold and shout at cyclists who nudge just so slightly over the white line, waiting impatiently for the light to change. In some things there is such order here, in others absolutely none.

My routine for now means rising about 7:30 and starting for class at 8:30. After three hours of drills, reading comprehension and pronounciation practice from three different teachers, I am ready for lunch. Most days that means a $5 bowl of rice and meat at a Japanese restaurant next door, where the waitresses are slowly teaching me the whole menu. The other customers are either Japanese or Chinese businessmen or other foreign visitors or students. Then it's back for two more hours of character class. The teachers dictate and I write words – and now, whole sentences – on a white board. The other students are embassy staff, graduate students, lawyers, businessmen, American, Norwegian, Japanese, Spanish and Dutch.

Then it's home for several hours of homework. Sometimes I stop at the Post Office ("xinfeng" for envelope) or the grocery store ("yan" for salt and "tang" for sugar; they're sometimes both in unmarked clear plastic bags) or today the visa office ("wei shenme" for why, as in, why is my year-long multiple-entry visa now cancelled?).

I also stopped for a gelato and did my homework outdoors watching workers dig up the road with jackhammers. Everywhere you look they're tearing down hutongs or simple two-story brick apartments to make way for gleaming high-rises or hotel, office and shopping complexes. At the next table was another foreigner speaking fluent and rapid Mandarin to two Chinese friends. I could make out that they were talking about the quality of coffee Americans are used to drinking at home (were they planning to open a restaurant?). Then they moved on to a discussion about Iraq and American and Islam. I traced my characters and listened with envy.

Monday, September 19, 2005


The northeast view from my apartment in Sanlitun.
Yesterday afternoon I bought a brand-new bicycle for about $20. By this morning, it was stolen from the tented bike hut on the grounds of my apartment building - a tent that has a security guard. I hadn't even used it once.

Unlike most Chinese cyclists, I didn't simply chain the tire to the frame. I secured it with a heavy "motorcycle" lock to a sturdy pole. I purposely bought a plain, local brand bike with smallish wheels and no gears. Unfortuantely I got it from a shop directly across from my apartment building, so they knew a foreigner had just chained a brand new bike in the tent.

"Mei ban fat," said one of my Chinese teachers. Nothing I can do about it. Most people lose three or four bikes a year, they said, especially students on college campuses. So this afternoon, I spent another $20 buying another lock and repairing the brakes on a used bike belonging to one of our office staff. Fingers crossed.

When I told my taxi driver the story, he looked amazed. He had heard of stolen bikes – but before I had even sat on it? He laughed and told me it didn't matter whether I bought an old one, a new one, or used three locks. It was bound to be stolen again.

A new bike is about a week's worth of taxi fare to and from school, so it's worth trying again. Looking forward to seeing so much more of Beijing this way.

Does anyone make a bike lock that can't be cut or picked and is big enough to chain a bike to a tree? Could be a market here.

As for helmets, I really ought to get one. But no one wears them here. Motorists are supposedly fined heavily for hitting cyclists, who have their own bike lanes here.

Even bike shop owners otherwise looking to make a sale told me not to bother. Their rationale: you'll look like a foreigner. But maybe this is the one time I really want to look like a foreigner.

Saturday, September 17, 2005


Dongyue Temple - a Taoist temple where worshippers can offer prayers to a spiritual bureaucracy of departments on official morality, happiness, justifiable wealth, wandering ghosts and 15 different kinds of violent death

Friday, September 16, 2005

Sept. 12, Tuesday

Across the street from a jampacked Ikea store is the Bian Yi Fang Peking Duck restaurant. Had lunch there Sunday with a classmate of my Dad's, from St John's University in Shanghai in the 1950's. His children and family friends from California joined us eating duck at least four different ways but no one was quite sure what was salty, sweet, dark, white or whatever. Among other topics, there was animated discussion of the rising stock market and current housing prices: they said they wished they had gotten in earlier so they could have made some money. A daughter-in-law works for Chevron managing "downstream" products like lubricants. New cars and the demand for gas were skyrocketing in part because cars are still relatively cheap in China, she said.

Moved into my new apartment Sunday and watched the 9/11 anniversary commemorations live on CNN. The next night, I got a visit from a leasing agent demanding money for showing me the apartment. We rented through a second agent who offered us a better price. We broke no rules, signed no exclusive agreements and had no idea the second agent was going to show us the same apartment. The Post's Chinese staff navigating the apartment search said it was no problem. But the agent had a problem and came back three times, bringing his bosses / goon squad with him. They tried to push their way into my apartment, turned off my electricity and shouted and banged on my door. I called the landlady, building security and Phil Pan. Only day two in my new home and already I've got the police in my apartment. They sided with us, but the agent's bosses told Phil the next day they were coming back. We're too angry now to pay them a dime. The experts around me say they believe the situation is settled for now.

Sept. 13, Wednesday

Visited the Dongyue Temple just north of Jianguomenwai Dajie. Originally built in 1319 and since restored, Dongyue is a Taoist temple with dozens of small rooms with statues in them – sort of like small chapels. Each "department" describes a spiritual bureaucracy in uniquely Chinese fashion. There are departments for jaundice, for signing documents, for halting the destruction of living beings, for official morality, for false accusations, for wandering ghosts and for 15 different kinds of violent death.

Worshippers leave red wooden ornaments or amulets hanging from the front railing of the most popular departments, such as those for longevity or happiness or for the Door God who wards off evil and brings fortune to a home. The department for controlling bullying and cheating has no red tags. The hall of descendents - where people pray for many healthy children – has hundreds of red tags. There is heavy emphasis on getting credit for good works. At the Department for Determining Individual Destiny, people are encouraged to "perform merits to avoid falling in with low-class society." Even Hell has a fair trial court.

Sept. 14, Thursday

Started Mandarin classes today at TLI-IYU. I'm doing five hours a day not including an hour lunch break. Three hours in the morning for speaking Chinese, new vocubulary words and comprehension of sentences using both characters and Pinyin. In the afternoon, two hours of character drills. Not sure I can maintain five hours but will try. All the Japanese students at TLI (who already know many of the characters or Hanzi) are in class for six or more hours a day. Plus they hire tutors.

Everyone in Beijing is helpful when I open my mouth and the most fractured Chinese comes out. It's not like Hong Kong, where people would ask why I couldn't speak Chinese (Cantonese) properly. Taxi drivers, supermarket clerks, hotel staff, waiters, bartenders - all are patient and eager to help me find the right words.

Last night in a Yunnan-style restaurant down an alley off the main bar strip of Sanlitun, I ordered a delicious noodle dish called Guo Qiao Mi Xian, or "Crossing the Bridge" noodles. Long ago, a wife made her husband lunch each day but it grew cold as she walked it across a bridge to his worksite. So she improvised, carrying a hot soup and raw ingredients. The fatty soup would congeal and the layer of fat would keep the soup warm. When she crossed the bridge she removed the layer of foot and added the ingredients, cooking them on the spot. Including bottled water and rice wine, dinner was less than $5.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Sept. 9 Friday

Friday was my first free day after a three-day search for an apartment. The fourth day was spent in bureaucracy, more of which is to come (After paying nearly $900 for a comprehensive physical in DC so I wouldn't get stuck with needles in China, the international visitor's medical center at Heiping Hospital rejected my US documentation because there wasn't enough medical terminology proving that I didn't have syphilis).

Got around by myself without any trouble, but so can any tourist. You just need to pronounce where you're going and know a big landmark next to it. I beat out a line of locals rushing for taxis by shouting "Kai Lai Jiu Dian," the Chinese name for my hotel, but the driver probably just liked my destination.

Visited another journalist today who lives in a 30th floor three-bath, three-bed apartment in a big complex with a health club and pool. Very modern, very white and very expensive (US$3,000 per month).

Took a taxi to the Wanfujing pedestrian street and the Oriental Plaza shopping mall and got a real dose of consumer Beijing: large pharmacies, pearl emporiums, tourist trap curio stores and food shops with wall-to-wall bins of Chinese sweets, dried fruit and jellied candy, all packaged like brightly-colored holiday ornaments. The street is full of neon and people strolling, many wearing those lovely ankle sock pantyhose.

When they say you can get anything in China, it's true. From Lindt chocolate to Walker shortbread, from Biotherm to Clinique makeup, from cheap foot massages to Easy Spirit shoes. The imported chocolate biscuits I bought were expensive and stale; but the five-mushroom soup in the Gloria Plaza hotel's Cantonese restaurant was delicious.

I went into Adidas to see who was buying pricey athletic gear and authentic running shoes when fakes are available all over town. It was mostly young men and one tall Chinese guy with an impressively long set of dreadlocks.

The upmarket Oriental Plaza is packed with designer stores (Givenchy, Paul Smith, St. John, Valentino, Swarovski ... Missoni and L'Occitane are coming) and also more affordable gear (Esprit, Kookai, Nautica, Swatch). But all of it is expensive by Chinese standards. At one end there is a Volkswagen car dealership. There is also a BMW Lifestyle store: sweaters, luggage, coats, no coupes.

The Grace Kelly nail salon in the mall is deserted, probably because a basic pedicure and French manicure costs $26. In the tiny strip of boutiques in Sanlitun Road near my new apartment the same thing costs $8.

In open market stalls across Beijing you can bargain a fake Kipling nylon handbag down to $4 but at the omnipresent Starbucks, Chinese consumers are paying more than $9 for half a pound of beans. A cup of Starbucks coffee ranges from $1.50 to more than $2. The Wangfujing Starbucks was crowded with young Beijingers. Hotels and restaurants here seem mostly to not have heard of decaf.

I bought a cotton skirt and a light coat at Esprit. Because those two things cost so much by local standards, they gave me a pair of khaki pants for free. Hemmed them for me on the spot. And gave me a VIP card for 20% off future Esprit purchases. What service. Actually the pants took half an hour and I absent-mindedly went back to the hotel without them. Will go back for them tomorrow: they will remember me as the idiot who couldn't speak Chinese, who wore extra large and who forgot her pants.

I managed to bargain for some tiny "jade" ornaments, the kind with embroidered cord that you can attach to your cell phone if you want it to be ke' ai (cute). I probably saved twenty cents, but it was thrilling to be able to do it in Mandarin.

Sept. 10, Saturday

Met the agent and landlord at my new apartment this morning to sign the leasing contract. Needed translations of Chinese instructions on the microwave buttons and dishwasher dials. Learned how to turn on the electricity. You buy electricity at a bank; they give you a card which you insert in a meter outside your apartment door to see how many kilowatts you have left. Then we all trooped over to the local police station for a residency permit. Technically I have to come back next week after taking my residency permit to the visa office (where foreigners clear out their paperwork), the police said. But then they admitted that no one ever does.

Had lunch at a restaurant in the suburbs called The Orchard, organized by the Foreign Correspondents Club. The restaurant, owned by an American couple, is in a beautiful apple orchard in what appears to be the middle of nowhere. The grounds have been irrigated to include a carp pond. Nice to get away from the highrises.

Met other journalists but also an Australian woman with a local NGO who then helped me navigate the subway. The fare is 37 cents to go anywhere on the East-West line. Only slightly more, I think, for the other line. Ticket ladies take paper tickets from you and rip them up. No maps with fancy graphics or electronic strips but the platforms are as wide and clean and the ceilings as high as in the metro in Washington DC.

Friday, September 09, 2005



Looking north from my hotel near Jianguomen. The Post bureau and corporate apartment are in one of the tall peach-colored buildings on the right.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Sept. 7 Wednesday

Found the apartment: a studio in a modern high-rise near Nan Sanlitun Lu for about US $600 a month. Convenient, close to shops and restaurants and a comfortable, well-lit place to study.

Withdrawing money from a Citibank ATM to pay my rental deposit was a separate challenge. At 430 pm in Beijing, customer service says it's still Tuesday in New York. Because of the Labor Day holiday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday are counted as one day. By Thursday though, Citibank Beijing is saying it's the US bank that's placing limits on my withdrawals, and US Citibank is saying it's Beijing's fault.

A trip to the international visitor's health center at Heiping Hospital was like a trip to the DMV. You're sent upstairs only to be sent downstairs only to be told to come back tomorrow because there is no one to help you today.

Sept. 8 Thursday

At 10 am, Heiping Hospital was crowded, organized chaos as foreigners and Chinese lined up trying to get their health exams and health records in order. Some visitors spoke Mandarin but many did not. None of the staff seemed to speak English. Some people didn't have enough money and lined up for nothing. Others walked into the private exams of other people.

On the streets, the most popular car seems to be the Volkswagon. A Chinese car called the Qi Rui, or the Cherry, is also everywhere. Taxi drivers say it costs about US $20 to $25 to fill up a tank of a mid-sized car. The traffic is horrendous as thousands of new cars are aded to the streets each week: drivers say they can see the license plate numbers jump exponentially.

Lunch was a bowl of noodles at a Taiwanese takeaway in the French supermarket Carrefour. A basic bowl with meat and vegetables was just under 8 yuan, or less than a dollar. You pay slightly more for a vegetarian version, more for dumplings and more for a hot, unsweetened soy milk on the side. But it's all very cheap.

The market was jammed with shoppers buying mooncakes, plastic hangers, toilet paper, bed sheets and cleaning liquid. It's cheaper than Ikea, and some say more popular than the big discounter Walmart, which got here after Carrefour and apparently annoyed consumers by starting life here as a members-only store where you had to pay to shop.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Sept. 3, 2005 Sat

Took off from San Francisco at 2:20 pm PST after paying to upgrade to business class. Debated for about 10 seconds before considering the 11-1/2 hour flight. Definitely worth it. The adventure begins.

Sept. 4, 2005 Sun

Smooth landing at 4:50 pm Beijing time. No lines at immigration and barely any at customs. The Post's driver, "Xiao Xie," picked me up with a big grin and a sign with my name on it. It all seems so easy.

My colleague Phil Pan is "Xiao Pan." Apparently I am Small Fan. Practiced my Mandarin on Xiao Xie as we slogged through traffic. He thinks I'll be fine but I'm not convinced. I have to resort to my Chinese notes to continue the conversation.

Phil takes me to a nearby noodle restaurant, where he showed me how to use my new smartphone. Then we toured the two-bedroom apartment I'll inherit next year. It's spacious and filled with beautiful old Chinese furniture. Phil has a one-minute commute across a courtyard to the office.

Meanwhile, my convenient but average hotel completely ripped me off the first night until the local Post staff renegotiated the rate for the rest of my stay, saving 57%.

Sept. 5, 2005 Mon

Met Grand Aunt Xiao Bi-lian after breakfast, my paternal grandmother's step-sister. She was delighted with a photocopy of two old photos, one showing her and her sister as young girls at a Shanghai birthday party circa 1938, the other showing Dad and his mother, who she refers to as "sister."

Bi-lian brought along her "daughter" Wang Lei, who is actually her paternal granddaughter. But Lei Lei, 26, doesn't call Bi-lian "Mah Mah." Lei was an only daughter and was sent to live with another only daughter cousin so the two would have each other for company. As a result, Lei follows her cousin in calling Bi-lian "ah boo." which is a term for a maternal relative.

Spent the afternoon apartment hunting near the Taipei Language Institute in East Beijing; it's mostly expensive high-rise complexes which seem to totally isolate their inhabitants. One living room view took in eight construction cranes. Tomorrow we search closer to downtown.