There Goes the Neighborhood

Last month the character for demolish (chai) appeared on the buildings in the “village” near our office.  This week, it all came to pass.  The copy shop, the mom&pop shop, the donkey burger restaurant, the beauty parlor, the “Fat Boy Noodles” restaurant, the bike repair shop, the Kodak shop—–all gone.

Everyone’s had to look for new locations to set up their businesses.  We know where the copy shop went, but we’re still hunting for the relocated donkey burger place, not for the
donkey burgers, but for their black pepper beef, which was out of this world!  The family that ran the “mom and pop shop” have moved to a district several miles away.  I’m glad they found a place, but we’ll miss them, this migrant family from Shandong Province.  Grandma lived with them.  She’s a sweety who always had a smile for us foreigners as we walked buy or purchased things from her kids.  She was unique in that she is one of a dwindling number of still-living older women in this society who still live with the effects of bound feet.

We’ll miss them all, but the road really did need to be widened.

A Qin Dynasty German?

The wire services today published a bizarre story today about a German art student who dressed up like a terra-cotta warrior, snuck into the pit where they are displayed, and stood at attention for a few minutes before he was spotted by police and arrested!  Here’s the full story from AP:

A German art student tried to join a Chinese dynasty’s army — but he volunteered centuries too late. The 26-year-old man — identified only as “Pablo” or by his Chinese name “Ma Lin” — made a dusty brown suit of armor, a tunic and a helmet, and attempted to blend in with the ancient
warriors of the terra cotta army in the western city of Xi’an, the Hong Kong newspapers Ming Pao Daily News and Wen Wei Po reported on Monday. The outfit matched the uniforms worn by the thousands of terra cotta soldiers buried in the tomb of the Emperor Qin Shihuangdi, who ruled between 221-210 B.C., the papers said. The soldiers — one of China’s greatest archaeological discoveries — are displayed in a Xi’an museum. Pablo entered the museum Saturday with his uniform packed in a suitcase, the papers said. Once inside, he quickly changed into the outfit, jumped over a barrier and joined the soldiers, who stand in hundreds of rows. He blended in so well that security guards had difficulty finding him, Ming Pao said.” I got to the area where he was supposed to be, looked around a bit and didn’t see Ma Lin,” the paper quoted a guard as saying. “He just looked too much like a terra cotta warrior. “The papers showed photos of security guards dragging Pablo out of the excavation pit where the soldiers are displayed. Wen Wei Po quoted Pablo as saying he has been obsessed with the soldiers since his childhood. He reportedly said that he only planned to have a photo of himself taken standing near the museum’s excavation pit. “But when I saw the soldiers, I got too excited and just couldn’t stop myself from jumping into the pit,” he was quoted as saying. Since he didn’t damage the soldiers, Pablo was released after getting a lecture from the security officials, the papers said.

Maybe the Tourism Bureau needs to take a lesson from this fellow, and set up a “living history” type of display at the site.  They could have warriors walking around talking to people and giving tours!  Or pushing people in wheelchairs on the long walk from the parking lot to the display pits.  The last time I was there, as I got out of the car, a young man pushing a wheelchair (a wheelchair!!!!) came running and offered to “give me a ride.”  I assured him that I was quite able and fit enough to walk the half mile on my own two legs.  I tried not to be offended, with not too much success.

Below are two photos of the German Warrior, one lifted from this site, the other from the AP.

Where’s Pablo?????

The police look slightly amused!


Naked Oats

No, that’s not the name of an alternative rock group that plies the underside of Beijing night-life. It’s a term that I spotted numerous times on the menu of a restaurant I was in earlier this evening.  As is not usually the case in that part of town, this menu was in both Chinese and English.  There was one whole page of naked oat dishes.  Naked oats in soup.  Naked oats with tofu.  Naked oats with mutton ribs.  Naked oat noodles.  And I can’t figure out for the life of me what naked oats are!!!! 

Whenever a Chinese menu is translated into English, there’s sure to be something funny.  I don’t know who names Chinese dishes or what the process is, but the naming process must involve a struggle between poetry and realism; between not enough information and too much information.  For example, the name of a dish might be  "The Emperor is Taking a Swim,"  which definitely doesn’t give the eater any clue as to what he/she might be about to eat.  On the other hand, you might spy on the menu "crab ovaries and fungus," which, in my opinion is way too much information! Other fun entries might be "fish balls and duck lips," or, well, "naked oats."

I think I’ll stick with the gongbao jiding (kung pao chicken—which, if directly translated comes out "palace exploding chicken cubes")

Shanghai Sunshine

A friend of mine who writes a monthly article for "That’s Shanghai" magazine has just published another of his great essays on life in Shanghai.  This one is titled Here Comes the Sun, and here’s the opening to whet your appetite:

There is an environmental disaster of epic proportions looming over the great city of Shanghai and it is threatening to change our way of life forever.  We are being forced to dress differently, walk differently and apply chemicals to our skin to protect us from this hazard.  In spite of the evidence, some observers claim that this phenomenon is a natural occurrence in cities of about 20 million people and 5 million cars.  To put a name to it, it is called "the sun," and it has been beating down on us without mercy.  To recent residents of "The Hai," this may not seem like a big deal; indeed if they were formely denizens of Norway, for example, they probably welcome the heat. However, for those crusty veterans who love nothing than to bore their listeners with stories of "the way it used to be in China," the intense heat of the sun is a sign of impending Armageddon, the fifth horseman of the apocalypse, a surfboard his steed, and a beach umbrella his standard.

Read the whole thing here.  It’s got a great ending!

Night Train to Manchuria

I’m off on the night train to Manchuria tonight.  Well, it’s not really called Manchuria anymore, but Dongbei (the Northeast).  I’m going to Changchun for the weekend.  Changchun was the capital of the Japanese occupation in the 1930’s and 1940’s, and thus was the home to China’s last emperor, whom the Japanese installed as a puppet of a newly-reconstituted Manzu Guo (Land of the Manzu), from whence we get the name Manchuria.  The Manzu are an ethnic group whose ancestral homeland is China’s northeast, and who swept down into China in the mid-1600’s, conquered the land, and set up the Qing Dynasty, which lasted until the Republican Revolution in 1911.  In the 1930’s, after invading the northeast, Japan said to Puyi (the deposed emperor of China), "look, we’ll set up a new country in your ancestral homeland and you can be king!  That was an offer he couldn’t refuse, so they whisked him up to the new city they were building to rule their Asian empire.  That city was called Xinjing (new capital) at the time, and is today Changchun.  But I digress….

This trip for me is going to be a bit of a stroll down memory lane since I lived in Changchun from 1990 to 1998, first studying Chinese, then working at Northeast Normal Univeristy.  I have lots of friends in the city.  But I will also be attending the 60th anniversary celebrations of the university, which means I’m also in for a weekend of banquets, speeches, and who knows what other fun ceremonies! 

I’m taking the overnight express train, which takes about 8 and a half hours.  Board. Sleep. Wake up. You’re there! This boggles my mind, because when I first moved to Changchun in 1990 the express train from Beijing to Changchun took 15 hours! 

Everything is on fast-forward in this country….even the trains!

Walking a Chicken?

For the past couple of weeks I’ve noticed a granny sitting on a little plastic stool in the grass outside my building.  Seeing grannies sitting on stools watching the world go by is a farly common sight in China, especially out on the streets and lanes.  What’s struck me as a bit odd is her location all by herself under a tree, in this quite upscale high-rise housing development. Well, nevermind, if granny wants to go sit outside, she can sit outside.  The weather’s been halfway decent recently, so it kind of makes sense.  Also, maybe her daughter-in-law is driving her crazy and she goes out to get some peace and quiet!

Yesterday morning, as I was leaving my building I saw her standing in the parking lot, stool in hand.  Heading out for a morning sit, I thought.  Then I noticed something very odd.  About 10 feet from her, right next to the big black Lexus, I spotted a chicken!!  Yup!  A chicken.  Now, that in itself is odd enough, but closer observation revealed that said chicken had a pink plastic string around its foot, and the other end was firmly in granny’s hand.  She was out taking a chicken for a walk!  Keep in mind this is one of the more upscale housing developments on the west side of Beijing, and folks around here like to at least give the appearance of being rich, sophisticated city folk.  Not granny.  Her chicken needed to go for a walk, and if that meant dodging Cadillac SUV’s and Buicks, so be it!

You can take peasant out of the countryside, but you can’t take the countryside out of a peasant!

Army Road Hogs

I’ve written here before about Beijing’s notorious traffic problems.  The "root causes" are legion:  too many new cars being added to the roads too quickly; narrow roads; rookie drivers; and a general disdain among the driving population for regulations, which seem to carry no more weight than a friendly suggestion.  Hey, I’ve got an idea….why don’t you stop for the red light!  Or, here’s another suggestion…don’t drive your SUV at top speed the wrong way down the bike lane.  Whatever.

And, if all that weren’t bad enough, another major source of annoyance is overabundance of cars (almost always black) with white license plates and unique horns (signifying that the owner is a military official).  These guys don’t just annoy.  They terrorize.  They don’t stop for lights, they drive on shoulders, they speed, and in general do whatever they feel like with absolute impunity, knowing that no traffic cop would have the guts to actually stop them.

But these days may hopefully be coming to an end, at least for the duration of the current crackdown.  The China Daily reported today that the military in Beijing has ordered their drivers to start obeying the traffic laws. They’re concerned because the army is getting a bad image. 

Another crackdown that’s got my support. 

A Long March of My Own

After a month of non-stop work, I managed to get some down time this week, down-time being defined as catching up on sleep, cleaning out my cluttered desk drawers, reading a book, and doing some hikes with a friend visiting from out-of-town.  On Wednesday we spent the afternoon exploring the Botanical Gardens–what has to be Beijing’s most beautiful park.  It’s nestled in a valley at the foot of The Fragrant Hills, just 20 minutes from where I live. 

Then, yesterday, since the weather was so nice we decided to head to the hills again.  This time we started near the south entrance of the Fragrant Hills Park, and found a road that headed up into the mountains.  Well, this little hike turned into our very own Long March.  Mao and Company may have been heading for a safe place from which to launch a revolution.  What kept us going was the knowledge of a kilometer-long alpine slide at Badachu, another of Beijing’s mountain parks to the south.  A map I had along indicated that there was a road that would take us there, but one never really knows.  Every so often we’d meet someone else walking along the mountain road, and I’d ask what they knew about the road.  Every single conversation went like this:  Me:  Does this road go to Badachu?  He:  Yes (then some directions).  Hey—you speak good Chinese.  Me:  No, it’s very bad.  Thanks for the directions. 

By the time we got to the top of the mountain near BadaChu, we were tired, hot, and thirsty, having already consumed the water we’d carried with us.  Then, lo and behold, right there on top of the ridge was a little farmers home, and outside was a sign saying that they sold drinks.  Yay!  And, wonder of wonders, he was even selling PEPSI, my favorite drink on the planet!  We bought a couple of bottles and sat down on the front porch to chat with Farmer Z.  He told us he and his family had lived on top of the mountain for 30 years.  What a spot—far above the noise and congestion and pollution of the city.  I asked him if he went into the city very often.  "Nope," was his reply.   

Pepsis guzzled, we headed on towards our destination, the BadaChu Park, where we knew there was an alpine slide that would whisk us down the mountainside.  We knew we were close because we could see the chairlift, and hear the sound people laughing as they slid down.  It was getting late, and we were now starting to fear that by the time we got to the park the slide would be closed.  Well, our fears were realized.  We got there just after they’d closed up shop.  But after we told them we’d hiked fo 3 hours all the way from the Fragrant Hills to ride the slide, they took pity on us and unlocked the shed and got out a couple of toboggens for us.  We paid our 40 kuai and off we went….whizzing down the mountainside!! 

Adventures like that are a good reminder that Beijing is not all cement and traffic jams—these mountains are barely 5 miles from where I live.  As soon as my legs recover from this, I’m heading back out there!