Friday, January 27, 2006

The Chinese New Year starts Sunday. I can already hear illegal firecrackers going off outside my apartment window. Chinese friends are complaining about the high cost of the holiday, from price gouging to the apparently required gift of two or more bottles of expensive liquor to tons of relatives (you'd lose face if you just gave fruit). Decorations are up at all the stores, and they're not all traditional. Makes the celebrations in US Chinatowns seem positively old-fashioned.

I'm flying to DC tomorrow because there are no classes next week and travel in China during the country's most important holiday isn't exactly recommended.
I spent a recent evening with a Chinese friend whose down-to-earth college roomate and husband are addicted to a popular Thursday night TV show about how to be a TV host. Three young Chinese guys competed before a studio audience which voted one the winner. All had perfectly coiffed and spiky hair and dance moves influenced by the latest hip hop videos. Two professional commentators dished out sharp opinions ("when you're not dancing you look like you're incapable of thought") and the contestants were given the opportunity to respond in kind ("you have a nice voice but you're too fat.")

One of the first questions my hosts asked me was how much their apartment would cost in America. I had never met them before, but like many other Chinese I've met, asking total strangers direct questions about personal real estate seems to be a favorite hobby. The husband worked in insurance, the former roomate was an editor in a publishing house. Their two bed one bath apartment was about 100 square meters and would cost US $200,000-$300,000 if located in downtown Beijing's central business district. But in far west Haidan it was more likely to have cost about $80,000-$90,000, they said. Only theirs had been heavily subsidized by the government and cost them about half that.

A bi-lingual sign in the lobby of their modern highrise read: Welcome to our community. Foreigners here for more than 24 hours must report to the nearest police station.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Hit my first karaoke joint in Beijing, at a place called Partyworld, to help a CNN producer correspondent celebrate her brithday. Apparently, you know your Chinese is good enough when you can sing at least one song in Chinese by reading the Hanzi characters scrolling across the bottom of the screen. I can't.
People here are preparing for a weeklong Chinese New Year celebration, which kicks off with New Year's Eve dinner with family and relatives Saturday Jan 28.

According to two of my teachers, one of the surest signs that New Year is approaching is the spike in crime in urban centers like Beijing. The city has a growing number of migrant workers, all of whom head home to their villages for the holiday. They are under heavy pressure to bring back money and gifts, my teachers said, regardless of whether they actually have jobs.

One of the Hanzi characters I was reviewing this week is "xiao tou," or petty thief. But xiao tou are not simply pickpockets; they also climb the balconies of five-story buildings and break open windows to steal cameras, jewelry and money, according to local press reports. One thief climbed to the top of a building and was pushed off the balcony by the would-be victim, who was then jailed for killing the would-be thief.

My teacher's neighbors heard a thief try to break in when they were awakened by their barking dog. They were afraid to call police, who might not arrive in time, and they didn't know how many thieves were outside their door. So the neighbor and her husband started yelling loudly at each other hoping the thief or thieves wouldn't know how many people lived in the apartment and might be frightened off. It worked.

Another sign of the approaching New Year, according to the EastSouthWestNorth blog, is the prominent advertisement of adult diapers. For people who have to ride overcrowded trains with overcrowded toilets (or worse) on the long journey home.

Monday, January 09, 2006

The small lane of restaurants and food stalls between my apartment and the gym.

The Forbidden City, nearly deserted in winter. Donna Kato's pic.

Yu Yuan bazaar dumpling makers, Shanghai.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Am back after a lightning quick Christmas and New Year's in the US: San Francisco, Washington, New York City. Family, a few friends, editors and more family. Updated the iPod. Packed China books. Bought dark chocolate. Saw Syriana, about how US oil interests affect a fictitious country in the Gulf, and The White Countess, about 1937 Shanghai, as the Japanese invade. By the time I am back in China, pirated copies of Memories of a Geisha will be for sale on the sidewalks in front of Carrefour.

My brother, Elliot, and his daughter, Jenna, two and a half and inseparable from her panda puppet.
Just before leaving China, a friend came to visit me in Beijing. She toured the Forbidden City and the Great Wall while I attended Mandarin class, but we traveled together to Shanghai for a weekend of dumplings, sightseeing, shopping and a look at a couple of buildings my architect grandfather designed before he fled in 1949.

Robert Fan, or Fan Wenzhou, designed this apartment building at 2 Yongfu Road between Wu Yuan and Fu Xing roads in Shanghai's French Quarter. My Dad, who lived here between 1932 and 1941, when he was 2 to 11, calls it the Bauhaus apartment building, for its straight lines and concrete block look, but others say it is more Art Deco.

Original built in 1930 as the Nanking Theater, the Shanghai Music Hall was recently relocated to People's Square and is one of the few Western-style buildings designed by Chinese in Shanghai. Designed by my grandfather and Zhao Chen.

Dumplings at Xiao Yang's, a hole in the wall with an enormous line out front, in the Wujiang pedestrian street off Shimen Lu in Shanghai.

Donna Kato, at the Yu Yuan Gardens and bazaar complex in Shanghai's Old City. The gardens were founded by Ming dynasty officials in the 1500s. The bazaar is full of tourists eating stinky tofu and buying overpriced souvenirs.
China is: brassiere ads in taxicabs, cigarettes on the menu and Wrigley's doublemint gum on a plate after dinner, cars honking at you for using the crosswalk, nosepicking and shops virtually sold out of $1,500 Italian cashmere sweatsuits. It's a place where women's restroom attendants lift the toilet seat after you, in order to prepare for the next customer (it's easier to squat over the rim). It's a place where PR agents customarily pay Chinese journalists $39 to $63 to attend press conferences.

And everywhere, a cover-your-ass mentality. Having to fill out customs declarations forms on exit, when published airport regulations for outgoing passengers who have nothing to declare say otherwise. Being refused free bottled water for passengers of a flight that was delayed six hours, because we had boarding passes for the delayed flight but not the proper vouchers for a free meal. Officials may be worried about instability and unrest in the countryside, but in the city, there are plenty of examples of people slavishly following the rules.

The mining company consultant who sat next to me in business class, however, said there was reason to hope. He was on his way to Ulan Bator in inner Mongolia on this trip, but has worked with the Chinese on various mining projects. Many Chinese are trained to build mines the way they have always been built, and often try to complete a task or produce a piece of equipment cheaply and quickly, he said. But he was beginning to work with young Chinese who relished the challenge of coming up with innovative fixes when forced to by clients who insist on fewer widgets of better quality. Made a mental note to look for more out-of-the-box thinking.