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:

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.