Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Big Boxer Shorts

Opposite my language school is the China Central TV HQ, dubbed 'Big Boxer Shorts' by taxi drivers. It was designed by Rem Koolhaas and Ole Sheeren but, as is so often the case, the real stars were Arup, the engineers. You can see why. It has two lots of 54 floors, joined together in a simple (but spectacular) loop to form a cube with a whole in the middle. It's part of a large media zone which is still under construction. The half-completed building next door, by the way, caught fire in February 2009, some say from fireworks... The tall crane beside it would suggest that it's salvageable?

Monday, August 30, 2010

Girls' first day at school

Dressed in their new school uniforms and carrying smart black briefcases, Liz and I walked the girls to their first day at their new school. I don't know who was more nervous: us or them.

It's a small primary school: a 3-storey building, playground and gym; about 250 kids all-in. Parents and children mingled in the playground for a while before the children were asked to line up behind their new teachers. Most of the kids are half-Chinese (with one Western parent) although there's a sprinkling of 'full' Westerners. After a while, the lines of children disappeared into the building to their classes. I felt proud and a bit teary to be honest. So, they went off to hopefully make new friends - and so did we with various parents over coffee.

Emotionally drained, I went off to the opening of Beijing International Book Fair to give a speech about China being the country of honour at London Book Fair 2012. Easy by comparison!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Summer Palace

We departed in some trepidation for a day out at the Summer Palace, or Ye he yuan (literally Enjoy Peaceful Park). It gets very crowded on the best of days but a sunny Sunday in August is asking for trouble. A helpful notice outside indicated that it expected 35,000 people today and the first tight 200m or so was tortuous. But it broadened out into an esplanade with the beautiful Kunming Lake on one side and Longevity Hill on the other - both man-made. In fact the earth & rocks taken out to create the lake made the hill.

It dates back to 1750, was ransacked twice by western forces in 1860 and 1900, rebuilt by the Empress Dowager Cixi and is now UNESCO-listed. The temples and halls etc were gorgeous, but what really made it for us was the long walk around the west side of the lake, along a broad willow-lined path and over exquisitely arched bridges. One to take visitors to...

Saturday, August 28, 2010

From cutting-edge improv to reindeer music

Went to two very different concerts today. The first was something called China Express, a Belgian-Chinese assortment of performances which started off in Hangzhou & Shanghai and has now hit Beijing. There was some indie and some DJ stuff, but the gig I saw at UCCA in 798 was experimental to the hilt : three 20 minute improvised pieces by pairs of musicians and then a half hour ‘jam’ between everyone. For me the best set was Wu Na on guqin (ancient 7-string zither), the sound of which was lovely enough, but made intensely gorgeous when fed through Esther Venrooy’s laptop.
The second was a big folkloric music and dance production called Aoluguya, based on the Ewenki people in the extreme north east of China near the Russian border. They are closely related to the Ewenki in Siberia, their lives similarly dependent on reindeer herding, but they are dying out fast. On the plus side there were fabulous costumes, some energetic dancing and it was good to see the public promotion of ethnic minorities. On the down side, it was all a bit twee and Riverdancey and there wasn't much of a story. At the curtain call they brought on a few elder representatives of the tribe and a real reindeer. You can just about spot a blur of scarily large antlers as its minder tried to keep it under control.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Hard Rock Beijing

There is a Hard Rock Cafe in Beijing. In fact it's in our building. There's a sort of secret passageway which leads you from the apartments lobby into this most famous of ex-pat eating and drinking dens. I'd been to one just once before - the original (1971) place on Piccadilly in London, though not in 1971. Oddly enough there was one 200m from our office in Bangkok but I never went. There are apparently 149 of them in 53 countries.

Anyway, for convenience sake, this is where a couple of colleagues and I ended up this evening. It could have been anywhere: rock memorobilia plastered everywhere, videos playing Police hits, cheeseburgers pride of place on the menu, and the Philippino house band kicked off with Maggie May. But we had a good evening and downed several extremely overpriced beers. You can guess what we ate.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Street gyms

A curious aspect of outdoor life in Beijing (and I suspect of all cities in China?) are the colourful exercise apparatus which you can see in the forecourts and gardens of apartment blocks, in parks and even simply on the streets. What I find interesting about them is their design - they're ingeniously lo-tech but really well-made - and that they are mainly used by elderly. It's refreshing to see old people looking after themselves, chatting away together while they work out au dehors.

Monday, August 23, 2010


Getting tired of order-in, eat-in-the-classroom lunch. A stroll outside revealed this interesting option...

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Books and temples

More exploring... Late morning we find ourselves in the excellent Bookworm, an English-language bookshop-cum-library-cum-cafe-cum-bar. Nice to find a replacement for our beloved Neilson Hayes library in Bangkok, although this is much more commercial. In fact, the food is pretty expensive. However, it has a great atmosphere and a very good book selection, not least on all things China. I was quite surprised to see Jung Chang's uber-critical Mao: The Unknown Story on the shelves. On Sunday mornings they also do children's stories.

In between hunting for children's shoes (shoes and furniture seem to be an ever present theme since we arrived), we visited the rather attractive Dongyue Miao temple. It was founded in 1319 but has been rebuilt numerous times since then. It's a practising temple, and while there we witnessed some lovely music played by black & white attired monks. A refreshing respite from the hubbub outside.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Rain 1 Furniture 2

Chucked it down all day, absolutely non-stop. More flooding and mudslides. Add earthquakes into the equation and China gets more than its fair share of natural disasters. The front page story in today's China Daily stated that there were "more than 26,000 geological disasters in the first seven months of the year". That's a lot of disasters and, get this, "nearly 10 times the number in the same period last year". Still, nothing stops the hunt for furniture. Sofa and dining table/chairs nailed.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Something for the weekend, sir?

Continuing the theme of barber conversations (see 21 June), my first haircut in China was limited to two sentences, both equally prosaic but fairly essential: Wo yao li fa ("I want a haircut") and Duan y dianr ("Just a trim please"). I also tried the impossibly advanced Wo bu xu yao xifou fa ("I don't need it washed") but it came out wrong and met with what-the-hell-is-he-on-about faces. So I just edged away from the basin and that did the trick. Good cut though.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Punch-up at the OK IKEA

Furniture-hunting at Beijing's big big IKEA which is known as Yi Jia Jia Ju here, or Yi Jia for short. It's the same the world over; we even had Swedish meatballs for dinner. While in the utensils section we witnessed two women having a fight. The real thing: punching, kicking, throwing things. A couple of Smarta serving bowls hit their mark, though they stopped short of the Fornuft knives set. The girls were quite intrigued.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Ritan Park

Lunchtime, and the need to get out of the classroom is strong. It's all hi-rise concrete & glass in the immediate vicinity but a brisk 15 minutes' walk away is Ritan Park. It's a lovely, tranquil place, full of trees, ponds, gazebos and playgrounds. Apparently it was built as a temple to the sun gods and the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties would make ritual offerings at the central altar. First time I'd heard of sun god worship in Chinese history...

Saturday, August 14, 2010


On a clear, blue-sky day (apparently a rarity), we go in search of shoes. Instead of our local Westernized enclave, we take the subway to Wangfujing Street, Beijing’s equivalent of Oxford Street I suppose, a couple of blocks east of Tiananmen Square. It’s hot, crowded and still has the feintest air of pre-Capitalism.

Shoes are bought in Beijing Department Store, the city’s first, opened in 1955, but now gutted, revamped and full of international brands. A hundred yards further up is the Foreign Language Bookstore where zealous young staff fall over themselves to practice their English. “Do your children want to learn Chinese? We have many books and audio visual aids”. One taps me on the shoulder while I’m reading the back cover blurb of a novel. “Can I help you? Your girls look like princes”. I suggest “princesses” and she’s quite put out. Our purchases are wrapped in used paper & twine.

Across the road is St Joseph’s Church which has been there in one form or another for 350 years. Its latest incarnation dates from 1905. Several couples in wedding attire are having their photographs taken on one corner, though they weren't married within. The doors are locked -apparently you can only get in during mass times which are very early in the morning, all in Chinese, except for one in Latin. After that we find, hidden up a hutong (narrow lane), the former residence of novelist & dramatist Lao She. He was born in Beijing in 1899 but spent much of the 20s in London teaching Chinese at SOAS and absorbing English literature. Here we are at the entrance.

N said the strangest thing: "Is this all a dream?"

Friday, August 13, 2010

Chaplin & lucky numbers

My first Beijing arts event is the opening of a Charlie Chaplin film festival of all things. Our involvement was fairly minimal but it was a good do and interesting to experience the venue (open-air plaza of a very cool-techy residential development called, cannily, MOMA), audience (sophisticated, full-house) and production level (high). It could have been Tokyo. Nice to watch City Lights again, tonight with live musical accompaniment by an accomplished jazz trio. I can't believe it's been 21 years since I produced a small touring exhibition commemorating Chaplin's birth...

I have been asked whether I'm worried about it being Friday 13th today. The Chinese are obsessed with lucky & unlucky numbers. 8s are good as ba sounds like fa ("wealthy"); the Olympics started at 8.08pm on 8/8/2008. 4s are bad as su sounds like "death". In my language school there are no floors 4, 14, 24 etc, nor a 13th. Phone numbers and car plates with lots of 8s are very expensive, 4s correspondingly dirt cheap. And a phone number with 520 in a sequence is popular as it sounds like "I Love You" when said in Chinese.

Thursday, August 12, 2010


Our home is confirmed. We'll be living at Golf Apartments from the beginning of next month, once our baggage has arrived by sea from Thailand and cleared customs. It's near the office (5-10 mins by bike or taxi) and school (15 mins by bus). We're on the 17th floor of one of several towers in a pleasant compound. There's a great view west over the city, including - and here's the name explained - a 9-hole golf course immediately next door, although it's got nothing to do with the apartments so no membership thrown in, even if I wanted it. It's amazing to find such a large expanse of green so central - a bit like the racecourse in Bangkok.

This evening we meet the owner, Mr Jia. He's CEO of Solar Total China, speaks fluent English, has just put his son into Imperial College London, and - as it turns out - has exquisite taste in art and furniture. He invites us out to the new house he's just had built just outside the city to have a look at furniture. It's amazing - very secluded with high ceilings and filled with wonderful, authentic & replica Ming & Qing Dynasty tables, chairs, paintings, prints, vases... The immense gate of an old temple is attached to the back of the house and there are ponds and trees dotted about. He's obviously rich as heck. The new China.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Great Firewall of China

Difficult to keep up with the blog... First, parents-without-internet for all of July, now the ban on Blogspot, Facebook, YouTube etc in China. I can get a proxy server but our PC has just died, so it means I have to go into the office (which, being diplomatic, is firewall-free), early before class. But hard to concentrate when colleagues arrive and introduce themselves. Trying to keep a record of impressions off-line and will probably upload end of each week for a while.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Qing zai shuo yibian

Please say it again. Six hours of class work + 2 hours of homework each day. Forgotten what it's like to study like this. I must confess I didn't really try with Thai. But quite enjoying this although I keep forgetting the vocab and the tones are hard. Today I learned that mai means both "buy" and "sell" depending on how you say it, and consequently that if you put the two together - maimai - it means "business", which makes some kind of perfect sense. I also love the fact that an elevator is a dianti (literally "electric ladder") and a computer is a diannao ("electric brain").

There are two British Embassy guys in school too. One's been here for six months, the other just starting like me, but both have had a year studying in England already so they're pretty advanced. I'm lucky to get four weeks. I can hear them chatting with their teachers in adjacent rooms and am green with envy.

Lunch is a take-in. Yesterday I ordered mine at 11am for 12 noon. It arrived arrived half an hour late so I lost most of my lunch hour hanging around. Today I placed the order at 10am and it arrived 10.30am! Still, it's popped in the microwave and is nice & filling. By 5pm it's my brain that's full.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Xiansai shang ke

It's classtime now. I am taken, much like a schoolboy, to my first day at language school. It's opposite the China TV building - Rem Koolhaas & co's extraordinary half-a-cube fancy. More on that another time. We struggle to find the Cross Border office on the 18th floor. A reflection of the times: it's merged seemingly overnight with another company, and a new logo hangs over the reception desk.

I am assigned two teachers: Lilian and Tina. Many Chinese have a western name alongside their own. We're starting from scratch so there's the tones, initials and finals to get right first. I'm focussing on speaking and listening, and we'll write in pinyin, the standardised transliteration of Mandarin into the roman alphabet. I'm not going to bother with reading and writing Chinese characters at this stage.

It's tough and I long for the breaks, but the teachers are good and I find myself sort-of enjoying it. Four weeks. It's a fantastic opportunity and privelege and I'll never have the time again, so must make the most of it.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Bicycles versus Cars

Over breakfast we listen to Katie Melua’s Nine Million Bicycles in Beijing. But they're on the wane. There are now four and a half million cars in Beijing now, with over a thousand new cars hitting the roads each day. Cycling is now a liability, although there seem to be a fair few bike lanes. Definitely going to get one. Still too early to say whether we need a car...

Friday, August 6, 2010

City or suburbs

Where to live? It's a difficult decision. Many ex-pat familes choose to live in Shunyi, out by the airport. We can see the attraction. You get a house, small garden, lots of children around, half a dozen very good international schools with big impressive facilities, safe environment, cleaner air and stairs. A & N want stairs. On the other hand, it's miles out, although the commute isn't so bad (30-45 mins). There's not much cultural interest out there, or even decent shops. And it's very estranged from 'real China': a big, cosey bubble which could be anywhere in the world. And what would Liz do out there? The temptation must be to stay put and not make the effort to come into town. We'd need a car, and we're not really sure we want a car.

City-living has its pluses and minuses too. On the minus side you can forget the house. But is that so bad? We've always lived in flats, and our 4th floor place in Bangkok was fantastic. OK, no private garden but most places have a communal green space with a basic playground and paths for bicycling. It can be noisy but there are pockets of calm. Views of endless buildings can be soul-destroying, but at a certain height Beijing becomes quite beautiful, and there's a surprising amount of green. There are less international schools in town and they don't have the kind of all-singing, all-dancing facilities, but the one we've chosen is nice & compact and not too far from my office. A definite plus is that I could cycle or possibly walk to work. But the real plus for us would be being in the thick of it, experiencing China's capital for what it is - a vibrant, cultural, fascinating city. Being able to pop out to the shops, restaurants, exhibitions, temples, concerts - just as we loved in Tokyo, Bangkok and London.

We've been taken round countless apartments and houses in both locations so have a good idea of the options. Now to make up our minds...

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

My new name

I have been given a Chinese name. Some Chinese have difficulty pronouncing western names so they sort-of transliterate them. Here are my Chinese characters which in pinyin transcribe as Dai Wei Li. This doesn't actually mean much - Dai is an old Chinese family name, Wei is to keep or protect, and Li is good manners - but apparently it's easy on Chinese ears, has a good respectful aura about it and sounds a bit like David Elliott - well, the first two syllables. Correspondingly, a fair amount of young Chinese take westernized names. In my team there's a Lucy and a Jason.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Act 1, Scene 1

Introductions, meetings, a party... Meet Patrick, the no.2 here, the arts team and then off to the Ministry of Culture, followed by a team lunch and then - groundhog day - another meeting at the MoC 'though with different people in a different room but with the same furniture and same boiling hot green tea. Formal protocol but actually actually it's more relaxed than I was expecting. No-one wears suits or ties due to the summer heat and civil servants are not allowed to have the aircon cooler than 27 degrees.

There's a party in a trendy bar to say goodbye to Neil and hello to me. I am introduced to about 50 arts contacts, mainly Chinese but also a smattering of expats and British Embassy people. A nice bunch: young, enthusuastic, internationally-minded and all speaking good English. For some reason I end up teaching a 10 year old boy - the son of one of the guests - how to play pool before a few of us adjourn to another bar on the appropriately named and reassuringly lively Bar Street.

Feeling my way into this new life...

Monday, August 2, 2010

Beijing: arrival

So here we are in Beijing, home for the next 3-4 years. Met at the airport by the BC driver and whisked into Beijing. We're staying at a serviced apartment at Landmark Towers next to the office (Here's the view from our window). It's OK, a bit drab, but plenty of space and fine for the next few weeks. Feel a bit weird, tense, jetlagged, nervy... but to be expected I guess. Unpack a bit and then explore the facilities. There's a gym, small pool, an even smaller supermarket and numerous restaurants. We decide to eat Japanese. Strange to see people smoking at tables. But norimaki and udon tempura are good...