Rumble Follow-up

I finally made it back to the Green Umbrellas today, a week after the big rumble, to settle my bill.  One of the girls working behind the counter had been our waitress that night.  I stopped at the counter and said that I had fled the night of the rumble and wanted to pay. 

She looked at me sheepishly and said "oh yes, you were eating the chicken/peanuts and the bean dishes."  That actually wasn't hard for her to remember since those are the two dishes that we have almost ALWAYS ordered for the past ten years! ."You had a coke too."

I told her that yes, I had ordered a can of coke, but hadn't actually opened it.  At that, a knowing look came across here face and she said to the other girl behind the counter:  "Oh, that explains why there was an unopened can of coke on the other side of the room that night.   One of the fighters must have picked it up and thrown it. "  I suggested that perhaps I shouldn't pay for that can of Coke, and they readily agreed.

I asked her a bit more about the fight and what happened after we had left.  She said that it had gone on for quite awhile following our departure, and that eventually the police showed up and arrested them all. 

I was glad to hear that, but it made me wish we had positioned ourselves safely across the street and stuck around to watch a bit more action.

Next time….




Passing the Torch

Various news outlets today reported on the dismantling of the Olympic torch that has been sitting on it's side atop the Bird's Nest since the close of the Olympic Games 2 years ago.  Here's what the Daily Mail had to say:

More than two years after the Beijing Olympic Games ended, workers today began removing torch on top of the Bird’s Nest stadium. The 45-ton structure, which remained lit during the 18-day competition in 2008, will take at least a month to haul down to the ground. Then it will be moved to an exhibition near the complex and put on display so that visitors can see it close up.

Here are some of my favorite photos of the torch ("my" as in I took them) in its glory days:
DSC_0029_edited-1bn (Small)
DSC_0048_edited-1bn (Small) (2)
DSC_0058-1_edited-1bn (Small)
DSC_0084-1_edited-1bn (Small) (2)
Remembering some fun times that summer.

Hot Zone

This scary map has been making the rounds on the China blogs today.  Produced by Canadian researchers Aaron van Donkelaar and Randall Martin at Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, it shows the distribution of fine particulate matter (otherwise known was pollution–but also including dust) across the globe.

As you can see, most of China, but north China in particular is a hot zone.

World pollution map 2
(link to map on NASA site)

I don't normally make political or editorial comment here, but I will break my rule this once.  This graphic is why, the next time you see a Tom Friedman piece about China, it would be best if you put down the paper and walk away.

Open Up! Police

Earlier this evening, as I was sitting on my couch reading a book, my doorbell rang–frantically, as is often the case in China, where it seems the person ringing the doorbell thinks that the person answering the doorbell should be able to open the door within 1.5 seconds.

I opened the door thinking that it would be the water meter reader, so was quite surprised to see four rather large uniformed policeman standing there. They informed me that they wanted to see my passport and residence registration papers.  I said "sure, I'll get them for you," and left them at the door chattering away about the foreigner who was talking to them in Chinese!

Fortunately, I knew right where the registration paper was.  "Here you are," I said, "I do everything according to the law!" — at which they all howled and chattered on about the fact that I could speak Chinese.

They thanked me, handed back my passport and papers, and went on their way. 

I'm not sure what that was all about.  Maybe just a random check on foreigners' registration papers.  Maybe something related to the 2010 census.

I am sure, though, that it was the first time in 25 years I've had police show up at my door wanting to see my papers. 

“Kung Pao Fighting”

In response to my post yesterday about the rumble at the Green Umbrellas, a reader wrote me with the following commentary, which is too good not to share:

Take a bunch of only-child men-children, marinated in a culture of Hong Kong cinema martial arts machismo, stratified education and employment
opportunities, mix in some pent up frustration from the week long moon cake fest
traffic jam, add a little bai jiu (rice wine) and lightweight IKEA chairs… 

Brilliant! Get a blog, Mr. A!!

Rumble at The Green Umbrellas

Most expats in Beijing have a favorite local neighborhood restaurant.  Where I work, we have a place around the corner called The Green Umbrellas.  Well, that's not really the name of the restaurant, but it's the unofficial name that a couple of colleagues and I christened the place when we discovered it ten years ago. It opened in the summer of 2000 at the beginning of Beijing's 'outdoor dining' craze, which has now become a summertime feature of many restaurants.  This new place had a nice veranda with outdoor tables and big green umbrellas.  To distinguish it from the other places in the area, we just started calling it The Green Umbrellas, and the name stuck (for us laowai, anyway). 

The Green Umbrellas is a fairly typical neighborhood 'jiachang cai' (family style) restaurant — big round tables, a five-pound menu filled with glossy photos of all the dishes, a haze of cigarette smoke, and way too many wait staff.  But the food is delicious, and that is what has kept us patronizing the place for ten years. 

Whenever I have guests in town, I make sure to have at least one meal at The Green Umbrellas, and without exception, my guests tell me that the food eaten there was the best of their trip. 

And that is why I was in The Green Umbrellas last night.  Some friends had been visiting for a few days and wanted to eat there last night one more time before heading back to the States today.  Since I never deny the wishes of my guests and never pass up a chance to eat at the Green Umbrellas, off we went.

Because last night was Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, the place was packed–mostly with young men drinking way too much beer and rice wine.  At one table there were a few shirtless men displaying some very nasty tattoos.  That, perhaps, should have been a tip-off that trouble was in the air.

We ordered the usual (gongbao jiding and ganbian doujiao — kungpao chicken and spicy green beans) and settled in, grateful for our seat right next to the door with it's access to a bit more fresh air.

We hadn't been eating long when the rumble broke out–over what we'll never know, but given the amount of alcohol that was being consumed, the what most likely has no relevance. Within seconds, the twenty or so diners at two big tables were going after each other.  It was like something out of an Wild West movie — a saloon fight scene with fists, bottles, plates, and chairs being thrown.  I kept waiting for someone to be hit over the head with a beer bottle and the words WHAM!! and POW!! to magically appear in the air.

Given that our table was right next to the door, we knew that the melee would eventually come our way, so, grabbing our backpacks, and keeping our heads down to avoid the flying saucers we fled the scene.

My friend ran as fast as she could to the street, but my curiosity got the better of me and I stopped on the veranda to watch the progress of the rumble through the window.  I watched long enough to see one of the combatants land on our table — right in the gongbao jiding that I had been eating seconds earlier — then pick up the chair I had been sitting in and throw it across the room.

With our dinner obviously over, and the rumble now spilling onto the veranda, we high-tailed it out of there.  I'll go back this afternoon to pay for the meal.

A full moon and alcohol obviously don't mix!

The Great Mooncake Exchange

It's Moon Festival today in China.  Below is an essay I wrote
about it a number of years ago.  It's time for the annual re-publication.

Today is Zhong Qiu Jie, (lit. Mid-Autumn Festival) in China.  In
colloquial terms, it's called the Moon Festival, because it's
celebration coincides with the full moon that marks the midway point of Fall (as determined by the Chinese lunar calendar).  Much like Thanksgiving in
American culture, Moon Festival is a time when people want to gather
with their family members.  If that isn't possible, then people gather
with classmates, colleagues, and other friends to gaze at the moon and
think of their distant family members who are also gazing at the same
moon.  Poets in the Tang Dynasty were prolific in their writing poems
about the moon, so there's always a poem to be recited at a gathering.

Another custom on Moon Festival is the eating of moon-cakes.  It's
hard to describe them exactly, but think of small, individually wrapped
fruit-cakes.  There is an outer crust with a super sweet filling.
Usually they are very heavy, and laden with sugar and lard.  Not being
a fan of them, they sort of remind me of sweet hockey pucks. 

Making and eating and giving moon-cakes has always been part of the
celebration here, but as China's level of prosperity has increased in
the past number of years, like many other things here, moon-cakes have
sort of become an excess.  In the weeks preceding Moon Festival, all
the stores fill up with tables selling all manner of beautifully
gift-wrapped moon-cakes. They are elaborately packaged, and a 6 or 8
moo-ncakes in a beautiful box can easily cost 40 or 50 US dollars!  The
more expensive the moon-cakes you give, the more face both the giver and
receiver get. 

Moon-cakes must be sent to people with whom you do business. Clients
send to suppliers, suppliers to clients.  Moon-cakes are exchanged among
colleagues.  Teachers give them to students; students to teachers.
Friends to friends; family members to family members.  It's one giant
moon-cake exchange.

And as foreigners who are trying to live as acceptable outsiders, we
join in.  Last night my professor and his family came to my house for
dinner.  When they walked in, he gave me a nice gift box of moon-cakes.
I said thanks, took them, and set them in the kitchen (it's not polite
to open gifts here in the presence of the giver).  When it was time for
them to leave, I gave them a box of moon-cakes.  We all  laughed at the
fact that we were just exchanging boxes of moon-cakes.  I always enjoy
my professor because of his ability to see the humor in his own
society.  He joked that at the end of the day, moon-cakes don't really
get eaten–they just get passed around, sometimes ending up back where
they started.  I said never mind, and told him that he was more than
welcome to give away the box I was giving them.  He said I could give
away the box they gave me (which I plan to do).

Like many other things in a society like this that places a high
value on ritual for the sake of ritual, the important thing is NOT the
moon-cake or the box or the value, but rather that the ritual of giving
the moon-cake is performed. 

Moon-cakes, anyone?

UPDATE:  Three quick moon-cake stories from this year….

1.  It's time for me to now admit in a public forum that I really can't stand moon-cakes, and that I haven't actually eaten on in close to twenty years.  I have my avoidance techniques, which are a closely guarded secret.  Yesterday, while at a friend's tea house with some visitors from the US, we were served moon-cakes.  I thought my streak might come to and, but I pulled out my top strategy and was able to keep it in-tact.  My visitors, however, had to eat away!!

2.  I met a friend this afternoon, and instead of giving her a box of moon-cakes I gave her a box of cookies from a local bakery.  When I gave them to her, I told her that, since I didn't really like moon-cakes I decided not to give them to her, but wanted to give her cookies instead.  She was thrilled. "I can't stand moon-cakes, either!!"

3.  I did receive one very special box of moon-cakes this year from a Chinese friend. Inside were nine moon-cakes, one for each of the fruits of the spirit!