Friday, January 31, 2014


Watched CBGB tonight, with an improbable Alan Rickman as Hilly Kristal, the founder of the legendary NY club which ran from 1973-2006. 
Although CBGB actually stood for Country Blue Grass & Blues plus the bizarre suffix, Other Music For Uplifting Gormandizers, it was the Other Music that made its name. Basically, Kristal and his club introduced punk to the world: Television, Patti Smith, The Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads, The Dead Boys (whom Kristal also managed) and hundreds more.
I saw Suicide play there in '86. It was just as I imagined it: tiny, smokey and claustrophobic, with terrible loos. I wondered if a Chinese band had ever graced its stage. The nearest thing I could find was a (US) band called, inexplicably, Chinese Forehead who played there in '79, didn't release any records and then disappeared without trace - the same fate as hundreds of others. 
The film's overly romanticised, and there's probably a better straight-forward documentary waiting to be made, but it was a fun, easy-going, middle-aged trip down memory lane. 

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Year of the Horse

Chinese New Year: a time for being with family. Happily we didn't have to travel 17 hours standing up in a train loo, although with no taxis around we did have to squash ourselves into a silver rickshaw in order to make it over to cousin David and Oddveig's place for dinner. 
At midnight Beijing bubbled with fireworks, ushering in the Year of the Horse. That's Alyssa's year. Apparently she will offend Taisui, the god in charge of fortune, so her finances may be a bit wobbly. But for the rest of us, the year will bring health and prosperity. And it will be an excellent time to travel, which is reassuring...

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

It's All Greek to Me

My girls are obsessed with Percy Jackson, the teenage demi-god. That's the fictitious son of Poseidon in Rick Riordan's series of books, not some pop star. Actually, they're still of an age when they prefer his female chum Annabeth Chase, but boy are they hooked. Mind you, I'm not complaining. It's as good a way as any to learn about Greek mythology - they know everything: gods & goddesses, demi-gods and demi-goddesses, heroes & heroines, fawns & furies, the Roman equivalents, who's son or second-cousin-twice-removed of whom, who has what powers, and of course who's cool and who isn't. And they genuinely prefer the books to the follow-up films. Me? I know who Zeus is and that's about it.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road?

A truck carrying 3,000 chickens overturned on a motorway in China today, with several hundred making a successful dash for freedom. Quoted one policeman, trying to corner some escapees on the hard shoulder: "I didn't sign up for this".

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Up the Yangtze

Tonight Liz and I watched what sounds like a Carry On film, but was pretty much the opposite: a good but somewhat depressing documentary of a poor, uneducated family living on the banks of the Yangtze who send their 16-year old daughter to work on a cruise ship which plies China's longest river. It's also about how the reservoir formed by the Three Gorges Dam swallowed up towns, villages and livelihoods, including the family's ramshackle home. 
I don't know which was more depressing: the plight of the family or the big fat western tourists on the ship. Or the other new recruit whose only motivation was to secure as much tip money as possible, or the drab scenery. 
It was directed by Chinese-Canadian, Yung Chang. He 's also directed a film about Chinese boxers called China Heavyweight.

Saturday, January 25, 2014


Lunch at a Yunnan restaurant with our neighbours & landlords. Mr Jia's main piece of news is that he's now the China rep for a German biogas company, having switched from solar energy. Germany has nearly 6,000 biogas plants, producing energy from crop waste and manure. Mr Jia is introducing the know-how and equipment to China. 
Bio-gas has been used in China for many years but it's really taken off in the last decade. In the poor province of Guangxi, for example,  2.73 million biogas tanks have been built in villages, benefiting about a third of rural households. It is estimated that this has saved 7.65 million tons of coal and 13.40 million tons of firewood annually.
It wasn't used to cook our lunch.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Midwinter Night's Dream

A family outing to see Northern Ballet's quirky version of A Midsummer Night's Dream. It's a 10-year-old production but still seems bright and surprising. David Nixon, NB's Artistic Director, turns the story into a dance company (within a dance company) travelling by sleeper train from London to Edinburgh to perform, ironically, Romeo and Juliet. The stage designs are clever but simple, making full use of the train theme, and the dream-sequence middle Act - all technicolour sic-fi complete with upside down suspended Flying Scotsman - contrasts nicely with the monochrome Acts on either side.
The only distraction was Naomi's constant questions: What's going on? Why doesn't he like her? Who's that? Why is he wearing a donkey's head? Exhausting.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014


At a meeting with China Film Co-Production Corporation today, I asked if they had a list of past UK-China 'co-pros' (as they're called in the business). No surprise which was the first: The Last Emperor in 1986, produced by Jeremy Thomas. But the 24 which have followed over the years (mostly very recently) I've barely heard of. In fact, I struggled to find a UK connection with the majority of them: Zhang Yimou's Under the Hawthorn Tree? Let the Bullets Fly
How does one really classify what country a film comes from? Are the Harry Potters British films?  You'd think with author, script, director, all the actors, production crew and shot on-location in the UK and in Pinewood Studios would make it such, but it was made with Warner Bros money, so technically you could say it was a Hollywood movie. 
Anyway, back to the co-pros. The latest is Legendary: Tomb of the Dragon, directed by Welshman Eric Styles, shot in China with Chinese crew and starring Dolph Lundgren, Scott Adkins and Yi Huang. I haven't seen it, but IMDb says semi-reassuringly: "The good part is that the film is not boring". 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Yet More Museums

Good day in Shanghai visiting three new private museums: Aurora, HOW and Yuz. 
The Aurora Museum is on the east bank of the Huangpo River in the shadow of Shanghai's cluster of mega-skycrapers. It's owned by the Taiwan office equipment company of the same name, the Chairman of which, Cheng Yongtai, collects Chinese antiquities. So next to the shiny gold tower that is Aurora's China HQ, is a museum filled with jade, Buddhist images, ceramics and illustrated stones. It's an amazing collection but what's particularly impressive is the way it's displayed. The exterior of the building is nothing special but the interior is designed by Tadao Ando. So of course less is more, exquisite pinpoint lighting, succinct captioning, super-tasteful. Next to it they're opening another gallery for contemporary international art, so that's what I was there for.
From there to the new Free Trade Zone out in Pudong's suburbia. The HOW Art Museum is owned by real estate tycoon Zeng Hao and his passion is for contemporary art, mostly Chinese but he has a few Damien Hirsts, Yayoi Kusama and a particularly strong collection of Joseph Beuys. The museum (as building) doesn't exist yet but the designs look amazing and it will open in 2017. The museum as entity, collection and curatorial team (headed up by Korean Director, Yun Cheagab) does exist, however, and they've already presented exhibitions in other venues, which is an interesting concept.
And finally, the Yuz Museum, owned by Chinese-Indonesian agribusiness billionaire and art patron, Budi Tek. It's a former aircraft hanger, transformed by Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto, on the west bank of the Huangpo (and part of the West Bund Cultural Corridor - see this post). Tek, a fun, friendly guy, shows me round the cavernous space which had a soft opening last month but will formally open in May with its first exhibition. He has a huge collection of contemporary art, some of which gets shown in his smaller Yuz Foundation Museum in Jakarta which opened in 2008 or leant to other museums, but the majority sits in storage - hence the need for this new space. 

Monday, January 20, 2014

Culture Vultures

In Shanghai with Matthew Springford, BBC Producer of The Culture Show, who's here advising us on our arts website plans and another 'top secret' project. TCS (as it's not called in the business) is one of the few programmes I'd probably watch religiously if we were back home. It is on BBC World, but at weird times. And a few episodes are on iPlayer, if it would only work in China. Still, we manage to survive without it, and think of all the rubbish that would otherwise tempt us.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

So Close, Yet So Far

To Shanghai. Strange to think that my good friend Wolfgang has also just flown in, from San Diego on business, but we won't have time to meet up. 

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Handball Hijinks

While Liz took Alyssa to a swimathon, at which she swam like a fish to raise money for a school in Tanzania, I took Naomi to a schools handball competition. I'd never seen or played the sport before so was quite intrigued. Eight international schools took part, with a boys tournament in the morning and a girls' in the afternoon, both for 8-10 year olds. And guess what, Naomi's team won! She played really well. I longed for her to score a goal but she's more of a defender and passer. It was funny watching the parents, rooting for their children, punching the air when a goal went in, and contesting the decisions. In the final it got quite ugly. A few accidental knocks prompted a sour-grapes member of the opposition's coaching team to square up to 'our' coach: "You taught them to do that". If it wasn't so preposterous, I'd have laughed, but instead had to intervene to keep them apart. 

Friday, January 17, 2014

Travers versus Disney

Watched Saving Mr Banks this evening , the story of how PL Travers, the woman who wrote the Mary Poppins books, finally - after 20 years - agreed to give Walt Disney the rights to make a film version. (There she is on the right with Walt and Julie Andrews). 
It's actually two films: the story of her fortnight with the scriptwriters in Hollywood in April 1961, and the story of her unhappy childhood in pre-WW1 outback Australia, told in endless flashbacks.
Emma Thompson does a good job on the exasperating, incessantly negative Travers ("No music, no animation, and no colour red") and Tom Hanks is splendid as the smiling, incessantly positive WD ( "You. Cannot. Imagine. How. Delighted. I am. To finally meet you"). Of course, we all know who won out. 
And what about the title? They could have called the film something more obvious like Making Poppins, but instead they chose the rather more buried storyline of the emotionally-removed banker dad (played by David Tomlinson) who was sort of modelled on Travers's own banking father. Anyway, decent enough film.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Books To Go

15th wedding anniversary dinner at a nice new Japanese restaurant called Sake Manzo. It's just round the corner in the unlikeliest of places - on the edge of a housing estate - but very cool, full and good food. We went for Nagoya-style hotpot. The only downside was the handful of smokers. Yes, you can still smoke in restaurants here. 
Continuing the Japanese theme, we passed a new self-service library. There are getting on for 100 of them now in Beijing, each stocking around 100 titles on mainly fiction, biography, cooking and horticulture. They've done their research.
I was surprised to learn, through this article in the Huffington Post, that the first book-vending machine appeared in Britain as early as 1822. But selling books this way has never really caught on, even in Japan. Umbrellas, videos, magazines, flowers, coffee, beer, eggs, crepes, fruit, lobsters (!), and of course underwear, sure... but not books.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Reformed Mexicans?

The power of the internet... This evening I'd been listening to 1000 Mexicans, an overlooked band from London who made a series of fabulous singles and one corking album in the mid-80s, none of which charted. The injustice still bemuses me.
Wondering what had happened to them I struck upon a website which gave a contact address, sent off a quick missive and received a reply an hour later from one of the band who said they were about to reform. Not only that, he signed off saying he was about to take part in a tribute for a friend, Desmond Simmons. So, within an hour I learnt that, 37 years on, one of my favourite 80s bands is getting back together again, and another quasi-fave musician of mine died suddenly a year ago this week. And all from China.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Beijing Poll

Mildly interesting 2013 poll in City Weekend magazine, asking what locals & expats think about living in Beijing this past year. A few findings:
The worst thing: both sets said pollution, though it was a whopping 79% from expats, and only 44% from locals.
The most important thing in my life: locals said family (77%), lover (23%), myself (18.6%), then friends, work, money. Expats also put family first but at 38.4% it was half of what the Chinese said, and lover (35.6%) was only marginally behind. Interestingly money mattered more to expats than Chinese.
Where do you get the news?: no surprises that most (92% expats & 79% locals) get it from websites, but what surprised me was that 0% of expats get it from TV. Even if you don't speak Chinese, there's always CCTV News, BBC World, CNN, France24... 
Main mode of transport: for locals it was subway (43%), then car (20%), then bus (15%), then walking, bicycle (a desultory 7%), taxi and scooter. For expats the first choice was - somewhat surprisingly - bicycle (26%), then subway, taxi, scooter, bus, walk and - right at the bottom - car (at only 3%) which I find difficult to believe.
What 2013 event changed the world the most?: a difficult question so the poll gave some choices: Syrian conflict, Philippines typhoon, Boston Marathon bombing, birth of the royal baby, the new pope etc, but top by a mile, for both locals & expats, was Edward Snowden's disclosure of classified documents. 

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Got the T-Shirt

Watched Rush last night. Not the band (ha!), the film. (Terrible title btw). I'm not a big fan of F1, but the story of James Hunt and Niki Lauda's intense rivalry, focussing on the 1976 championship, is as good as you get (although Asif Kapadia's Senna is great too). 
The two were chalk and cheese: Hunt the hot-headed playboy, Lauda the cool, calculating introvert. Both, however, rebelled against privileged backgrounds. That season had everything, including of course Lauda's horrific crash. In the end Hunt won the Championship by one point in the farcical, rain-soaked, can't-count-the-laps last race in Japan.
He won it in a McLaren, but the film starts with his first team, Hesketh Racing, owned by the eccentric Lord Hesketh. The two were a perfect match. For some reason I used to have a Hesketh Racing T-shirt and for some other reason it featured a teddy bear in a crash helmet. 

Wednesday, January 8, 2014


This evening we said goodbye to our Malaysian neighbours, Joshua, Casey and their two girls, Zen and Zar, over dinner at Beijing's favourite pizza franchise, Annie's. They're moving to Macao. We will miss them: squash with Joshua, notes under the door, movie nights... We couldn't have asked for nicer neighbours. It'll be us next.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

RIP Sir Run Run Shaw

The king of Hong Kong cinema - the wonderfully named Run Run Shaw - died today aged 106. What a life. Born plain Shao Yifu in Ningbo near Shanghai in 1907, he got into the industry with his three brothers during the silent era, first distributing, then producing films, then buying up cinemas - and not just in Shanghai but throughout South East Asia. 
It wasn't until he was 41 that he moved to Hong Kong to set up Shaw Brothers which in the 1960s became the biggest film production company in Asia, mainly concentrating on Chinese-language films. The most influential was probably The One-Armed Swordsman in 1967 which ushered in a whole genre of 'wuxia' (martial arts) action movies. However, after famously turning down Bruce Lee in the early 70s, he started to build up a TV empire (although still found time to co-produce some western movies, including Blade Runner; you can see the HK influence in the street scenes) and by 2006, his TV company controlled 80% of Hong Kong viewers. 
Despite his huge fame in east Asia, fabulous wealth and philanthropy, the thousand or so films he and his brothers made did not translate that well to western audiences (except of course Quentin Tarantino who was a big fan). I'm ashamed to say I've not knowingly seen a single film by him. And yet he was feted and knighted by the British establishment thanks to his philanthropy. He also gave generously to mainland China (both pre- and post-Mao), where he was equally respected. 

Monday, January 6, 2014

What China Thinks of Britain

When we asked 350 of our Weibo (Chinese Twitter) followers to come up with one word to describe the UK, here's the colourful result. It's not a big sample, and it's people who already have a reasonable knowledge of Britain, but it's kind of revealing. The usual clichés: Big Ben, fog, fish and chips, red phone booth etc; and the usual contradictions: traditional and modern; rainy and blue sky; humorous and serious; conservative and liberal; reserved and dramatic; modest and arrogant... The two surprises for me were the inclusion of 'dreamlike' (eh?) and the omission of Beckham.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Cola Bore

The girls and I were talking about Coke over lunch today. The drink… A likes it, N doesn’t. I like it once in a blue moon. 
When I was young, I drank it by the gallon, which probably explains the state of my teeth. But it wasn’t just Coke or Pepsi, it was a whole range of cola brands which seemed to be everywhere in 1970s UK. So much so that I used to collect them and still have a box up in the loft back home and, embarrassingly, a photo - see right. 
So let’s hear it for Woolworth’s (Winfield), Sainsbury’s and Tesco’s home brands, together with weird and probably short-lived names like Merry Maid, Pin-Hi and Coola.
Is there still such variety? Perhaps not in the UK these days, but globally – as a quick wiki search reveals - there seems to be a vast array: Afri-Cola and Fritz-kola (Germany), Parsi Cola (Iran), Big Cola (South America), Kiwi Cola (guess) and - my favourite - Cola Cola (Albania) are just a few of them. And what about China? Apparently there’s something called Future Cola, though I’ve not seen or tried it.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Passed (with Flying Colours)

Liz got the results of her Chinese exam today. She not only passed - she got 92%!  (98% for listening, 96% for reading, 83% for writing). Very proud of her.  

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Sherlock in Beijing

This afternoon I attended a promotional cinema screening of the first episode of the new Sherlock series. It's big in China, broadcast on-line on Youku (similar to YouTube) with its first six hours clocking 1.4m hits. The cinema was full of groupies so I thought I'd have a bit of fun. As I walked onstage to give an opening speech in front of the huge image of Cumberbatch & Freeman (right), I put my overcoat on and struck a pose. To my surprise, the audience went wild. Pah, there's nothing to this acting malarkey.
As for the episode: the terrorist plot was completely secondary to the explanation of Holmes's 'death' at the end of Series 2, his parents show up (played, interestingly, by Cumberbatch's real parents, both actors), and the whole thing was fun & stylish with slick production values. The Chinese I speak to are amazed that it's a TV programme. "It looks like a film"

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Remote Islands

One of my Christmas presents (thank you Gary!) is an elegant little book, Judith Schalansky's Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will. The author is also its designer and it's beautifully put together with simple maps and minimal text. 
It includes some quite well-known islands like St Helena in the Atlantic Ocean, where Napoleon was exiled; Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean, with its 120 million crabs; Iwo Jima in the Pacific, a turning point in the Second World War; and Robinson Crusoe Island, where the real-life Alexander Selkirk was marooned in 1704-7 and whose experiences there inspired Daniel Defoe to write his classic twelve years later. Most of the islands are tiny, and several remain uninhabited.
Some of the text is a bit ephemeral and there are at least two cases where she's got her facts wrong. I love the idea that no-one has ever set foot on Peter I Island near Antarctica, but it's not true. I also like the story of Marc Libin, a French boy who was 'taught a language in his dreams' which later turned out to be the native tongue of Rapa Iti, an island of 428 inhabitants smack in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, to which he emigrated and married a local. The second part is true but the first is almost certainly fantasy.