Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Fifth Generation

Currently reading Memoirs of the Beijing Film Academy: the Genesis of China's Fifth Generation by Zhen Ni (translated by Chris Berry). It tells the story of the 'class of 1982', the first batch of young film-makers to be able to enroll in the Film Academy after the Cultural Revolution, and covers the likes of Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou, Tian Zhuangzhuang and others. Fascinating stuff. They were young - well Zhang was older than the others (interesting to read how they bent the rules to admit him) - and idealistic, competitive but often working together. Zhang for example was the cinematographer for the Chen-directed Yellow Earth (1984), the first major film to come from the group, before he went on to direct films himself.  

But the best place to start is Simon Fowler's 101 Essential Chinese Movies, published just last year. He's a Brit, living in Beijing since 2006, and he's done an absolutely fantastic job on condensing a century of Chinese film history into 200 pages. Can't say I'll ever see them all, but Liz and I are steadily working our way through those that are available with English subtitles on Friday movie-sofa nights...  

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Ken Russell RIP

Farewell Ken Russell. Born in the same year as my mum, joined the merchant navy as a teenager (like my dad), made very good arts documentaries for the BBC, and then became, if not Britain's best film director, then probably its weirdest. I'm not a big fan of his work but you have to say he was original. Well, not quite true - he was (with Jarman) Britain's answer to Fellini. Women in Love, Tommy, Lisztomania and Altered States are all good films by any measure, though nothing since then has really stood out, although Gothic (1986) was passable. I don't think I saw anything after that. And I've never seen The Devils.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Korean musings

A bitty sort of day given that Liz+girls and I had different flights home (long story), museums all closed and the weather still grey, but pleasantly spent wandering streets on the south side of the Han River and sitting in cafes reading a guidebook. Here are a dozen mildly interesting facts about Seoul & Korea:

- Seoul is very big - 10m or 20m people depending on how you define it
- South Korea is about the size of Hungary and is smaller than North Korea
- 30% of Koreans are Christian - more than any other religion (next is Buddhism at 23%)
- The Seoul underground system, which didn't open until 1974, has 328 stations
- Although a peninsula, it might as well be an island (everything comes in or goes out by air or sea because of its 'interesting' northern neighbour)
- South Korea has the world's fastest internet speeds
- It also builds the most ships in the world
- Apparently there are plans to deploy English-teaching robot assistants to compensate for the shortage of teachers
- I think Seoul is one of only nine world cities that have hosted both the OIympics and a World Cup Finals match
- The Korean (Hangul) written language is an alphabet of 24 consonants & vowels, but instead of being written sequentially like the letters of the Roman alphabet, they're grouped into blocks
- Korean films are on the up, thanks in part to a screen quota requiring cinemas to show Korean films at least 73 days a year. Pusan Film Festival is without too much argument the best in Asia.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Art and War

This morning we visited Leeum Samsung Museum of Art. It's got all the right contemporary credentials: three buildings designed by Botta, Nouvel and Koolhaas; gorgeously presented collection of traditional Korean ceramics, scroll-art and metalwork; and a fine selection of contemporary works from Korea and the West - including Korea's most famous artist, Nam June Paik, plus Richter, Bacon, Hirst, Kapoor, Giacometti, Koons, de Kooning, Warhol... a big Bourgeois spider... a Rothko room... and a great series by the Canadian artist Adad Hannah of what look like still photographs of people in domestic scenes but on close inspection (the blink of an eye, the twitch of a finger) turn out to be videos. 

Then a great dejeuner at a classic French restaurant in the cosmopolitan Itaewon neighborhood. Not posh, just typically Gallic with great soup, frites, poulet with emmental, baguettes, a carafe of wine and an apple crumble to die for. Forgotten how good French food can be. We then gave our hosts some down-time, while we took a stroll around the large and incongruously central US army base (which is due to be handed back in 2019 to be turned into a park) before popping into the War Museum. An odd choice perhaps, but it was pretty interesting: one floor given up to impossible-to-comprehend ancient battles, another about the Korean War 1950-53, which goes some way to explaining the US base next door. I hadn't realized that the British contributed over 50,000 soldiers to the UN forces - the second largest after the US. 

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Seoul II Seoul (groan)

We're in Seoul for the weekend to see our French-Czech friends Xavier & Irena and their children Mia & Lukas. They moved from Bangkok last Spring and have a nice apartment just south of Nanshan Hill in the centre of town - although Seoul is so huge with so many different neighborhoods, it's difficult to tell where the 'centre' is.  

Visited Changdeokgung, one of Seoul's five grand palaces this morning (but a sylable out ofr place and it could have been Changgyeongung, Gyeongbokgung, Gyeonhuigung or Deoksuggung). Dates from 1412, burnt, rebuilt, burnt, rebuilt etc. Nice, calming place but strangely empty, both of 'things' and people. After a heavy chicken & kimchi lunch we strolled past little shops selling photos of boy-bands, poked our nose into the Tudor/Gothic-affected Choong An High School (which might as well have been Charterhouse), and into Bukchon, a charming higgledy-piggledy warren of lanes peppered with tiny traditional Korean (hanok) homes... which in turn merged into Samcheong-dong, meaning 'district of three pure things': read boutiques, coffee shops and galleries. You couldn't move for them. In fact, this triple combination is a surprising (to me) feature of the city. I've been to Seoul twice before but both for work so can't say I know it, and it's the first time for Liz and the girls. It reminds us very much of Tokyo: sophisticated, modern, efficient, sprawling, very urban, and slightly all over the place - the latter being very un-Beijing which is, if not contained, then certainly regimented.

In the evening we saw Nanta - Korea's longest-running theatrical show which has been performed continuously in three smallish theatres in Seoul since 1997, as well as at Edinburgh Festival, on Broadway and in a dozen other countries. The plot revolves around four cooks attempting to prepare a wedding banquet, but essentially it's Stomp with food -comedy, acrobatics, magic and traditional Korean samul nori music, performed in this case with kitchen knives, chopping boards and sundry utensils, with audience participation and much food flying around. Fun for all the family.

Friday, November 25, 2011

A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing

Today I spoke at a conference about Corporate Art. Felt slightly odd amongst experts from the big boys like AXA, AIA, Deutsche Bank etc given that the British Council Collection is not corporate and has a miniscule acquisitions budget, but actually it worked quite well. The BC's Collection has over 8,500 works by hundreds of artists, ranging from Lucien Freud's Girl with Roses bought in 1948 for the princely sum of £157 (now worth millions) to a bag of rubbish by Michael Landy.

PR opportunity aside, it was interesting to see how the culture of corporate art is changing from simply being seen as investment opportunities to making collections available to the public. It was also intriguing to chat with Mark Tucker, CEO of AIA insurance group as it turned out he used to play for Wolves in the late 70s.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Zaha & Soho

Visited two Zaha Hadid construction sites this afternoon with the charming Satoshi Ohashi, their chief designer. They're both commercial projects for the property developer, Soho, and needless to say both are massive and amazing. We're hoping to involve ZH in the UK Now festival - exhibition, talks, or as venues for other events. 

Soho Galaxy in Chaoyangmen on the 2nd Ring Road is the more central of the two and has about a year to go. It's got five ring-like buildings interconnected by skywalks and is a hive of activity. We walked around the construction site dodging welders' sparks and an army of workmen pushing breezeblock-laden wheelbarrows. At peak time there are over 5,000 workers on site.

Soho Wanjing is further out near 798 in the north-east and is just getting started. But they've got a fabulously sleek showroom which acts as an office for the Soho people to sell the units (three years in advance, 70,000RMB / £7,000 per square metre, most already gone) and a mock-up for ZH to test materials etc. Great to get out of the office and be inspired by some quality architecture.  

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


Mad day at work: too many meetings in morning & afternoon and teleconferences in early evening and trying to play catch-up with my inbox inbetween. And still managed to squeeze in a mid-term parents consultation session at school. That's the plus of the ten minute home-office-school triangle, each 10 mins by bike from the other. So the girls seem to be doing well. Funny, we just realised that their teachers' characters are quite similar to their own.  

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Shanxi Landscape

More morning meanderings before getting a minibus to Taiyuan and then a train to Beijing. For an hour or so, before the dark closed in, we looked out onto a weird, bleak, treeless 'countryside'. A brown, parched landscape ravaged by what seemed to be open-cast mining, and pitted by riverless gulleys, forlorn looking buildings and the occasional industrial town to break up the monotony. 

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Pingyao Mugshot

Chilly but gorgeous, blue-sky day spent wandering the streets of Pingyao. The city is a UNESCO heritage site with around 4,000 perfectly preserved Ming and Qing style houses surrounded by a heavy-duty 6km wall. We have good guides in Alyssa and her best friend Amy who came here on a school trip six months ago, but basically we just mooched around, popping into temples, courtyard houses, nick-nacky shops and surprisingly good cafes.

One interesting feature of Pingyao are the old Qing Dynasty banks, over 20 of them dotted around the city. One of them, Rishengchang (founded in 1823), was considered to be the first bank in China, and at its peak controlled over half the Chinese economy.

Funny thing. At the end of Alyssa's school trip back in May, they had a class photo taken in front of the watchtower which got put onto a mug for each child... which I recently dropped & smashed. By chance we passed by a shop with an array of mugs outside and one of them had a picture of a different class from her school from the previous year.  So we went inside and gave them the date of Alyssa's visit and they found it on the computer. Ten minutes later she had a new mug.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Shanghai > Pingyao

A mostly frustrating day in the Shanghai office for various reasons, but then off to the airport to catch a flight to Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi province, where I rendezvous'd with Liz & the girls and our Australian friends Colin & Vanessa and their two children. From there we had a 2-hour drive south in a minibus on a motorway chocabloc of trucks (never seen so many in my life - a sure sign of a booming economy), arriving Pingyao 11pm. Our courtyard hotel - comfortable but basic - looked like it was straight out of Raise the Red Lantern. Particularly odd were the dimensions of the bed: wide enough to accommodate six but very short so that my legs dangled over the end. 

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Burmese Days

Last day of constructive naval-gazing, if that’s not a contradiction in terms. Meanwhile, Alan, ‘our man in Burma’, had to stay put in Rangoon because of all the goings-on there this week. Amazing changes, seemingly happening overnight. Is this irreversible reform or temporary gamesmanship?  It’s easy to be skeptical but actually I think it really is pointing to the former.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Shanghai Four

Today it’s a wider bunch of people, with senior colleagues joining from the East Asia region, most of whom I know from my previous posting. We have a set agenda this time, and we go through planning for next year for our core activities - English, Education and the Arts. I get to do my bit on UK Now which goes down well I think. In the restaurant at the end of the day we find to our surprise that the last 10 years of Directors East China (which covers Shanghai) are all in the room. Here they are: Matt (present incumbent), Gavin (now in KL), Jeff (Tokyo) and Joanna (Beijing).

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Cartoon Espionage

More discussions about key issues and by the end of it I’ve got some useful action points to take away with me. A quick teleconference with London and then jumped in a cab to Markus & Caroline’s home in the French Concession. Lovely, as always, to see them.

Markus has been going on about Blake & Mortimer, the Belgian cartoon adventure series, created by Edgar Jacobs. Think Tintin & Haddock and 1950s espionage, only B&M are British. Like Herge, Jacobs was Belgian, and they’re in a very similar style. Why hadn’t I come across them before? Probably because they’ve only recently been published in English? Anyway, I’ve borrowed one of Markus’s original French language ones, L’Affaire Francis Blake, and hope that my comical French will be up to comic book standards.

Meanwhile, Caroline served up a fabulous dinner from a Gordon Ramsay cookbook but poor Markus got called away for a 2-hour work teleconference and I didn’t get to say goodbye to him.

Monday, November 14, 2011

A Long Drink in a Long Bar

Off to Shanghai for some internal strategizing: a day & a half about China, two days about a wider East Asia. It’s ‘Open Space’ style which means we make up our own agenda which works OK. Afterwards, Martin, Stuart and I go for a drink at The Long Bar in what used to be the Shanghai Club on the Bund. It’s a gorgeous, dark-panelled affair, recently restored to its 20s-and-30s heyday. We are very tempted to order cigars along with the cocktails. By rights, Martin and I should not have been allowed in. We are wearing jumpers.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

King Spacey

Liz and I went to see Richard III at The Egg tonight: the one that begins with "Now is the winter of our discontent" and ends with "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse". But this wasn't just any Shakespeare, this was Sam Mendes & Kevin Spacey's celebrated production, and lived up to expectations. Spacey was evil incarnate, with fabulous limp and hunchbank; the set & lighting were wonderful too, but not so much that they detracted; and there were surprises (the odd but highly effective video section halfway through). It's one of the Bard's longest plays, but it fair flashed by. 

Saturday, November 12, 2011


This afternoon we met up with an old Chinese friend whom we'd not seen for over 15 years. Liu Bincheng is married to a British woman, Nicola, who Liz used to work with. He splits his time between London (where Nicola works) and Beijing (where he's pursuing various projects). He has one of those tough but incredibly interesting backgrounds. Born in around 1950 to a respected, intellectual family in Gangsu province but then slowly moving westwards as his father worked on extending the railway into Xinkiang, he ended up in Urumqir.

His teenage years were interrupted by the Cultural Revolution but he made it through and met Nicola in 1981. She was one of the first Western students of Chinese to arrive following Deng Xiaoping reforms - and the fact that she came to Urumqir made her an object of fascination. They fell in love, got married in China and then moved more or less permanently to the UK. We had lunch in a nice Chinese restaurant near the Purple Bambook Park where he's bought a flat and caught up on the intervening years. Good to re-connect. 

Friday, November 11, 2011

1111hrs 11/11/11

This happens every now and again I suppose - famously when the Beijing Olympics opened at 8 minutes past 8 on the 8th of August 2008 - but the array of ones this morning was hard to beat. I mentioned it to a few colleagues in advance but no-one seemed that interested, so when the moment came, I 'celebrated' quietly with a muffin at my desk.

China movie night again tonight. We watched Still Life (2006). It's a typically slow Jia Zhangke film, set in the Three Gorges Dam area of central China: two separate stories about a man and a woman looking for their estranged partners amidst the literal disappearance of a town, soon to be submerged by the rising waters caused by the dam. There are some nice surreal moments like when a UFO flies by, or an astonishingly bleak building takes off like a rocket, or three men in full Peking Opera costumes sit down for dinner in an otherwise totally unconnected scene... but all in all, a bit too slow for us. Or maybe it's just we were knackered.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Hamster is a He

The girls have a new hamster. It - or rather she (we'll come on to that later) - is a gift from our gallery-owner friend who teaches them drawing once a week and, as an aside, got them into hamsters. Liz went out and bought a duplex cage complete with slide, wheel and bedroom - the height of luxury. The hamster's name is Xiao Bao, or Little Treasure, but the girls call her Snowy. Actually, the girls call her him, since they think all hamsters are boys. Not that you can tell. In fact, we've hardly seen him. So far, he spends all his time in the bedroom, which proves he's a girl. So here's a photo of the cage sans Snowy.   

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Patriotic cabbages

On my way to work this morning I passed this truck piled high with cabbages. So?  Well, this means winter's coming. Traditionally, the first week is when this staple of winter foods is bulk-delivered to Beijingers, for storage in gardens or on balconies. Up until recently, it was one of the last vegetables the state still subsidized and many older people still eat it out of a sort of nostalgic civic duty. The young are less enamoured. Nevertheless, it's still a mainstay of northern China's winter home-cooking. In addition to using cabbage in soups, salads, stir-fried dishes, Mongolian hot pots and dumpling fillings, it's  converted it into kimchi and sauerkraut, which are easier to store.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Fave films: 1940s

Mostly wartime or recovering from wartime, so a strange decade - although only four of my choice 15 are about the war. Lots of good stuff, particularly Bogart and Noir, Hitchcock, and the beginnings of Ealing. Here they are, in chronological order:

- Pinocchio (Disney)
- The Maltese Falcon (Huston)
- Casablanca (Curtiz)
- Double Indemnity (Wilder)
- Spellbound (Hitchcock)
- Les Enfants du Paradis (Carne)
- Rome, Open City (Rosselini)
- The Lost Weekend (Wilder)
- Brief Encounter or Great Expectations (both Lean)
- It's a Wonderful Life (Capra)
- The Bicycle Thief (de Sica)
- The Red Shoes (Powell & Pressburger)
- Passport to Pimlico (Cornelius)
- Kind Hearts and Coronets (Balcon & Relph)
- Jour de Fete (Tati)

They're all fairly obvious. Could have gone for three other Disneys - Fantasia, Bambi and Dumbo - but I think Pinocchio's the best of them. And there are plenty more Bogeys, eg. High Sierra, or with Bacall in The Big Sleep and To Have and Have Not. And which Hitchcock? Suspicion, Rope and Notorious are all great too.

Of the European offerings, Les Enfants is a no-brainer, and Jour de Fete qualifies although I prefer his later ones. I saw Rome, Open City and The Bicycle Thief only recently - both wonderful. Have to be in the right mood for Cocteau's La Belle et la Bete and Orphee.

And the also-rans... Laurence Olivier in Henry V, or with Vivien Leigh in Lady Hamilton or with Joan Fontaine in Rebecca, all classic Sunday matinee stuff;  Ingrid Bergman in both Gaslight and Black Narcissus; Whisky Galore, Sinatra & Kelly in On the Town; The Third Man, Cat People, The Grapes of Wrath, The Thief of Baghdad; Jane Russell in The Outlaw; Chaplin's Great Dictator, The Killers (Burt Lancaster's screen debut)... And on the weirder side there's also P&P's The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp; and Fei Mu's Spring in a Small Town - one of China's last pre-Communist era films.

The glaring omission is of course Citizen Kane, 'The Best Film In The World Ever'. I saw it as a teen and more recently, but try as I might, I still don't know what all the fuss is about.

Monday, November 7, 2011


Did a PechaKucha tonight. For those of you who've been living on Mars, PechaKucha was devised by architects Mark Dytham, Astrid Klein and friends in Tokyo in February 2003 as an event for young designers to meet, network, and show their work in public.  The name comes from the Japanese term for "chit chat" and the way it works is simple: you can talk about virtually anything with 20 images and 20 seconds per image. It's a good discipline and keeps things moving.

I took part in an early one, in 2003 or 4, at Mark & Astrid's studio, an old taxi depot which they called Deluxe (and where I celebrated my 40th birthday), in central Tokyo. As both their practise and PechaKucha grew, they opened a gallery-cum-cafe called Super Deluxe and that's where they continue to host PechaKucha nights once a month. But to their great surprise, it's turned into a global phenomenon with events happening in hundreds of cities around the world - up to 449 now. Nobody's driving it - it's just happening. 

Each PechaKucha night is run by a city organizer or 'steward' who look after the PechaKucha spirit in each city. All organizers must have a regular day job and they run PechaKucha nights only for the inspiration, love and fun of it.

Beijing has been hosting them for a while now, but tonight was special as we got involved and invited Mark over to introduce it - and he's also going on to Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong. It was great to see him again and catch up. Mark did a 20x20 on how Japan is recovering from the 3/11 earthquake, I did one on UK Now, someone else did a piece on Penguin book covers, etc. All good fun and a nice dinner afterwards where I chatted with the other speakers - and that's what it's about really. 

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Gainsbourg, Geldof and Gitanes

Finally got around to watching Joann Sfar's Gainsborg biopic, released last year. Never been a big fan of the French songwriter but this was very engaging. Sfarr is a well-known comic book artist but this was his first film and he brings a very visual, not to say surreal, take on what could otherwise have been a straightforward film dominated by the music.

The film is a homage to wine, women (Juliette Greco, Brigitte Bardot, Jane Birkin etc) and song, but most of all smoking. There is not a moment in its 130 minutes when Gainsbourg is without a Gitanes - even as a child. It tails off at the end as he descends into a perpetual drunken, self-destructive stupor, looking more and more like a cross-between Bob Geldof and Shane MacGowan, and simply fizzles out in the 80s (he died in 1991). Hadn't realised that Je t'aime... Moi non Plus was written for Bardot, although it was Birkin of course who ended up being the other half of the duet.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Remember Remember

The school organized a Guy Fawkes night out at their Shunyi campus. I'm pretty sure it's the first time we've celebrated the event overseas. There were hot dogs, beer, corn-on-the-cob, toffee apples and marshmallows-on-sticks which you could toast over a fire (bit isn't that Hallowe'en?). Sadly, the bonfire was tiddly and the fireworks underwhelming, but the children had a great time running around in the dark.

I have vague but fond memories of standing in a muddy field near Chichester listening to the oooo's and aaaah's as a few pathetic rockets went up into a damp, chilly sky. I also recall a rather sinister Guy Fawkes night in Lewes, the biggest in Britain, just down the road from where I was at college. It not only commemorates the uncovering of the Gunpowder Plot, but also the martyrdom of 17 protestants during the Marian Persecutions, 50 years earlier. So along with Mr Fawkes, an effigy of the Pope also gets burnt to a crisp. The year I went, 1982, they also exploded an effigy of General Galtieri in an orgy of post-Falklands War jingoism. Not nice.

By the way, the Scottish band Remember Remember are well worth investigating.

Friday, November 4, 2011

A French take on China

Chinese movie night. Liz recently read the Paris-based Dai Sijie's Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress novel so we decided to watch the film he made of it in 2002. Dai is of the generation who grew up during the Cultural Revolution and was sent to be re-educated in the countryside during the early 70s. Both the book and the film recreate that difficult time, but switch the action to two young city boys who woo a local peasant girl by reading foreign literature to her - a dangerous act at the time. 

Dai moved to France in the 80s and made three films there before shooting this one, with a French film-crew, back in China. The Hunan scenery is gorgeous, although it's supposed to be in the Three Gorges area of Sichuan. A nice, unassuming film which plays its politics deftly and lyrically.  

Thursday, November 3, 2011


Great to get home in time to catch A finishing off a beautiful poster about the travel writer Isabella Bird and learn that she'd been appointed Playground Buddy, as well as to hear that that N had won a poetry competition. Feel very proud of them - and puts work very much into perspective.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A day in the office

What do I actually do at work? Here's a fairly typical day:
0700 - breakfast
0730 - cycle to work
0745 - started looking at overnight emails
0900 - car to Embassy 
0930 - meeting with UK Trade & investment aout their creative industries plans for 2012
1030 - UK Now update for Ambassador and department heads
1130 - car back to BC
1200 - sandwich & emails
1330 - UK Now update to arts team
1400 - meeting with Ogilvy re UK Now PR
1500 - taxi to an office in central Beijing
1530 - meeting with CCTV (equivalent of BBC) about Cultural Olympiad next year 
1600 - meeting with Jackie Chan's agents (don't ask)
1700 - taxi back
1730 - arts budget teleconf with London
1800 - teleconf with UK, Shanghai & Chonqing about an event
1845 - emails
2000 - leave.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Risky Business

Another 12 hours in the office, 6 of which were a Risk Workshop. All organizations have risk, but it was interesting going through our long list. There's all the usual things like employment law, tax, contracts, health & safety, data protection, cyber attacks, IP, envirionmental laws... And then there's stuff like duty of care to people we invite to China and of course some major local issues like (Chinese) Government policy & permissions.  But funnily enough, the most awkward is our status - we're a charity and a Non Departmental Public Body in UK and diplomatic here in China (the 'ands' complicate things to say the least). At the end of the session, we walked back to our desks with huge weights on our collective shoulders.