Flooding in Beijing — What Does it Mean?

Beijing was hit with a terrible rainstorm over the weekend, leaving 37 dead.  From the pictures that have been posted online, it seems that much of the city was turned into a big lake because the storm sewers were not up to the task of handling the 7 inches of rain that fell in the space of 20 hours.


To understand the scope of the damage, it’s important to know a bit about the geography of Beijing.

Beijing is a municipal district under the direct control of the central government; it does not belong to any province. It comprises 15 districts, 5 of which are considered ‘urban’ and 9 ‘rural.’ The entire municipality is the size of Kuwait, with the urban districts only comprising a small percentage of the land area, as you can see in this map.


News reports indicate that much of the death and destruction took place in the Fangshan District, which received 18 inched of rain during the storm. The term ‘suburban’ has been used by some to describe this district, but that conjures up certain images (at least to outsiders) of middle class wealth.

In fact, Fangshan is predominantly rural and mountainous, and also quite poor. Except for a few newly built satellite towns, most of the communities are remote mountain villages.  That this area would experience severe flash flooding in a deluge is not surprising.

I have friends who work in some of these communities, and I’m hoping and praying that they are alright.

Here are some links to more articles and pictures:

Floods in Beijing — in Pictures (The Guardian)

Death and Destruction in 20 Hours (China Daily)

Beijing Underwater (Foreign Policy)

Irony and Sidewalks

My friend Kent, (aka The Talking Monkey) has penned another great piece on everyday irony in Chinese life. I laughed out loud at his rumination on the convergence of irony and sidewalks in Chinese cities:

Take the sidewalks, for example, which are largely unused because folks prefer to walk in the middle of the street in China. Why don’t they use the sidewalk, you might ask? Well, for one thing, sidewalks here are often difficult to navigate because of the trees planted smack in the middle of them. To negotiate the sidewalk, then, requires the elasticity of a Super-G Olympian. Lose focus for a minute and you become an instant tree-hugger, despite any lack of concern for the environment you might have. The sidewalks here are not intended for pedestrians; rather, they are for bikes, scooters and the occasional automobile, as well as Tibetans selling jewelry. The irony is that the middle of the street is often the safest place to walk, primarily because everyone expects you to be there. Ironic? Just a bit.

I can attest to often finding myself walking in the street; it’s just so much easier.

On one of my mom’s 12 visits to Beijing a few years back, she was hanging on to me for dear life as we tried to maneuver down a sidewalk across the street from my place, trying desperately not to fall into the various holes scattered about or get tripped on by the random chunk of cement.

She turned to me and said, “why are sidewalks in the US so nice and smooth and hazard-free?”

“Simple,” I replied.  “Lawyers.”

You can read the entire post here.

The Red Detachment

red detachment“What performance did you just see,” asked the taxi driver as I hopped into his cab late one night outside of the Poly Plaza Theater.

“The Red Detachment of Women,” I said.

As I had anticipated, he swung his head around and let out a big “Hah!” “You, a foreigner, went to see that revolutionary opera?”

“My friends gave me a ticket,” I said.

He asked me what I thought.

“Interesting,” I replied, because what’s not interesting about square-jawed socialist warriors in shorts leaping around a stage waving rifles?

He told me that was the music he had grown up with during the Cultural Revolution, then proceeded to sing the songs from it as we traversed the city on the Second Ring Road.

“The Red Detachment of Women” was one of  the most popular operas in China during the  Cultural Revolution.

This week the BBC ran an interesting story about the revival of Madame Mao’s Model Operas in China today.

Created by Chairman Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, these were the Yangbanxi, the Eight Model Operas with intriguing titles such as The White Haired Girl and Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy.

For the decade-long Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) they were virtually the only films, stage performances or music available to the entire Chinese population.

These state-sponsored works combined opera and ballet with simple plots about brave peasants uniting to defeat evil landlords, Japanese invaders and other enemies of the revolution.

Heroes looked like heroes with rouged faces, kohl-lined eyes and great hair, while villains were easily identified by their sneaky demeanour and bad moustaches.

And here’s a bit about their comeback:

But since the 1990s there has been an unexpected revival of the model operas. The White Haired Girl and The Red Detachment of Women have become part of the standard repertoire of the Central Ballet of China. Journalist Sheila Melvin, who writes on the arts and culture of China, explains when the Central Ballet of China go abroad they perform those “because they’re the ones that have stood the test of time.”

“When they began redoing them in mid-early 1990s they’d change the lyrics that were particularly offensive to rich people but the audience would get mad and shout out real words because they didn’t want it changed: this is what we grew up with and we want it sung the way it was written!” 

You can listen to the full report here.

In a society that has perfected the art of bubble-gum pop and lives off free music downloads from Google, it’s hard to imagine a time when there were only a handful of approved ‘red’ songs.

You’ve come a long way, China. 

(Image source: China Daily)

What is a Thunderstorm?

storm-cloud-23I realize I am a bit late to this story, but want to comment anyway. Last month the internet in China (and globally) was buzzing with word of a mysterious mushroom cloud that had appeared in the skies over Beijing late one afternoon.  Photos were posted on blogs and micro-blogs, and it didn’t take long for speculation and rumors to begin swirling as the cause of the cloud.  Had there been a chemical leak? Had North Korea blown itself up?

Of course, it was just a thunderstorm.  But why would a giant thunder cloud on the horizon be greeted with such shock and confusion?  After all, it is summer in Beijing, and thunderstorms are almost daily occurrences.

I have a theory as to why this one caused such consternation. Most of the time, the sky in Beijing is white, thanks to the pollution. Actual clouds are not visible, so people here rarely have the chance to see giant thunderhead clouds billowing up to the heavens.  In other words, the thunderstorms are virtually invisible.  The white sky becomes a bit darker, then BOOM!!  That’s the only way we know a thunderstorm is upon us..

Here in Minnesota we also get summer thunderstorms, but here we can see them marching  towards us from the horizon. Sometimes, in the late afternoon, we may be sitting in the sunshine, but can look around and see a thunderhead 30 miles north, or 10 miles south, or 5 miles east, or 50 miles west. They are gorgeous, and they look like mushroom clouds.  In fact, I spotted a cloud similar to this as I was driving home from my sister’s house this evening.

Last month’s storm rolled through on an unusually clear day in Beijing, so the thunderhead was clearly visible.  And that freaked people out.

(Image source: People’s Daily)

When Caricature Becomes Reality

It’s another scorcher in the Twin Cities today, with the temps predicted to top out at 99. Of course the heat index will be WAY higher than that, perhaps approaching 175 degrees, or at least that’s what the hyperventilating weather-persons would have us believe. (I’ll save my rant for the stupidity of this so-called “heat index” for another post).

We’ve had a couple of runs at this hot weather in Minnesota this month. My family and friends blame me, saying I brought it with me from Beijing. I tell them to stop whining….at least the sky is blue and the air is breathable.

On another super hot day a couple of weeks ago my mom, sister, and I went for an afternoon drive (we like to do that) and stopped in a small town for lunch and to fill up the gas tank.

When I went inside to pay for the gas (the old-fashioned way), and handed my credit card to the lady behind the counter, she turned to me and said, in a thick Minnesota twang, “Hot enough for ya?”

I replied with the only cultural-linguistically appropriate response to such a comment: “Yup, sure is!”

Sometimes caricature is reality.

(Image source: The Filtered Files)


Swimming Masks

Just when you thought it was safe to go in the water, these photos from China emerge. I don’t know if they’ll affect you the same way, but I had nightmares after viewing them.

Here’s the thing.  urban Chinese women will go to any lengths to avoid direct sunlight hitting their skin. It’s not a health thing; but rather a status thing. Lighter skin is good – a sign of wealth and leisure.  Dark skin is bad – a sign that one is probably a common laborer or a peasant.

I discovered this during my first year of teaching in Henan in 1984. In the spring, my teammate and I (who was a California girl) bought bamboo reclining chairs and would sit in the sunshine in the courtyard of our apartment. Our students would come by and beg us not to sit in the sun.

“Please don’t do this,” they would say.

“But I have to. I am from California,” my teammate would reply.

Today, when out on bikes, women don movable sleeves to keep their arms covered and ‘Darth Vader” hats to keep the sun off their faces.  Umbrellas are used more on sunny days than on rainy days.

So I guess it was inevitable that someone was going to just go all out and make a mask to completely cover a woman’s face.

Next thing you know it will be an entire body suit.

Why not?

Reuters has lots more of these photos in a slideshow.

I dare you to look at them. I dare you NOT to look at them!

Related Post:

The Ultimate Sunscreen


A Stunning China Video (update)

For some reason that video I tried to embed on the last post was causing problems for the site, so I had to delete it.If you’re coming here to see it, please just click on this link instead:

“Moments in China,” by Ryan Edmond.

If I can figure out what’s wrong, I’ll try to re-post it at a later time.

UPDATE:  Another attempt to embed the video….




The Best Chinese Restaurants?

chinese restaurants

If you have ever done a road trip across the US, or even in one particular region of the country, you will no doubt have noticed that, no matter how small or remote a town may be, it will always have a Chinese restaurant. This seems to be true, whether you are in a village in the wilderness of Maine or a one-horse town in Nebraska.

Many years ago I took a road trip from Minnesota to Yellowstone National Park with some Singaporean friends. After a couple of days on the road, eating burgers and sandwiches, by the time we reached Cody, Wyoming, they were in serious need of rice. I thought the chances of finding a Chinese restaurant in Cody were small, but lo-and-behold, there was one.  My friends were thrilled, even if the food wasn’t that great.

The Asia Society blog recently published a post titled The Best Chinese Restaurants in America: Are they all in California?, by David Chan. He writes…

Ranking the 10 best Chinese restaurants in the United States is fairly easy for me. It’s something I’ve often thought about, though I have never put pen to paper. However, I feel as though I must provide an explanation first, since I suspect the result is not what you might expect.

As you see, all 10 of the restaurants I listed are in California, most of them are in the Los Angeles area, and most of them serve Hong Kong style food. That might lead one to believe that I am biased towards restaurants in the city that I live that serve a particular cuisine.

Obviously no Panda Express or Leann Chin.

But it did get me wondering which Chinese restaurants in the Twin Cities would be on a “best” list?

My personal favorite is Hong Kong Noodles, in the Stadium Village area near the University of Minnesota. To be honest with you, it’s pretty much the only Chinese restaurant I will go to when I am in town. It’s small and crowded and noisy (which makes it very authentic), and they’ve got great Hong Kong style dishes that are actually difficult for me to find in Beijing.

So, what’s your favorite Chinese restaurant?

(image source: best-reviewer.com)