Thursday, December 18, 2008

Deck the Great Hall of The People

The novelty of Christmas in China is beginning to wear off. After about four of them it's all a blur of Chinese clerks in synthetic red and white elf hats, badly decorated fake trees, bizarro Christmas carol combinations on the PA systems (Feliz Navidad, or Mamacita, donde esta Santa Claus?, followed by Handel's Messiah - isn't that an Easter song? - Joan Jett's version of Little Drummer Boy, Herman's Hermits' Kind of a Hush (Big time wha..huh? for that) and the gawdawful Jingle Bells barking dawgs is a real life example.

Nothing much shocks me about it now, though I was shocked to learn that while all foreigners at my current place of employment will get New Year's Day off, Christmas Day will be bad business as usual. Nonetheless, in our grand lobby the other day the janitorial and "hot water jug hauling" girls were given a reprieve from their usual numbing duties to decorate the 8 foot faux tree.

It was kinda cute and funny. None had obviously done it before but they'd seen TV shows perhaps, had a step ladder and about 12 tons of decorations and lights all piled indiscriminately into two packing crates. Lights went on last, just after the decorations and the glittery garlands and tinsel. This caused some problems, most notably after they wrapped the base of the tree in what amounted to a small circular wall of garlands and tinsel that was so thick they couldn't get close enough to start putting up the bulbs from the bottom. So they began tossing ornaments up at random. Some stuck, some rolled off and a few bounced off and broke on the floor. "Hit the dirt! Incoming Santa!"

The guy on the stepladder was doing fine, though he worked pretty much on one side until the weight made the tree begin to tilt. All in all though it was a laudible effort though there's a troublesome bare patch that I'm almost physically itching to guerilla decorate everytime I pass it.

But I resisted the latest urge and going home now to listen to a homemade mix a pal sent me for my first Chrismas here. He entitled it "Merry Christmas from the Bottom of a Bottle." The title kinda says it all, lots of bittersweet stuff like Elvis' Blue Christmas, The Pretenders' 10,000 Miles, Joni Mitchell's River, John Lennon's Happy Christmas (War is Over) and my homegrown fave: Nitty Gritty Dirt Bands' Colorado Christmas.

Merry Christmas all.

Saturday, December 6, 2008


It's been a bad week to be overseas. First came the grim e-mail news that an old friend and fellow reporter Tom Fogarty,with whom I'd had my first fulltime news job at a Lincoln, Nebraska paper when the Pony Express was still operating, had died three weeks after he'd been diagnosed with cancer.

Heartbroken in Beijing doesn't begin to describe how I felt. Tom was one of the most honest people I've ever known and one of the funniest. As was noted so aptly in his Lincoln Journal-Star obit, "Fogarty told stories for a living. He told them when he wasn’t working, too, and very well, because he couldn’t help himself."
He was the original good guy; someone his friends and family felt would always be there and thoughts of seeing again in person when I return to the States were always there.

Grieving via email doesn't really cut it and as I sniffled, blew my nose and blubbered as quietly as I could at my desk as Chinese coworkers tried to pretend that nothing was wrong, I briefly considered hopping a plane back to the States for his memorial service in DC (he'd last worked at USA Today) or funeral in his hometown of Omaha. Friends here didn't know him, of course, and grieving alone made it all the lonelier as I read the several hundred tributes and memories others had posted on a website for him.

"Something is maybe wrong?" one reporter finally asked softly. "Maybe your health is not so good?" She meant well, but I mumbled something about bad news and kept my head down and the tissues coming. Then came an e-mail of what appears to be another death. The Rocky Mountain News in Denver, where I worked for about 14 years, is on the auction block with all signs that it will probably be shut down after it's sold.

It's no secret to all who knew me that my exit from there was not exactly amicable, but as I shuttled through a RMN online slide show of the staff getting the bad news I saw a few familiar faces and all looked like they'd been collectively kicked in the stomach. Though I was no fan of the paper's top management, that had nothing to do with the talents and just plain good souls who continued to work there. It's for them and the dying craft of American print journalism that I felt so sad.

"Hey, no news jobs in Denver? Got some openings here in China," I wanted to say. "Working for commie bureaucrats is not very different than Scripps Howard..." But what sane person would pack up to go halfway across the planet to a place where they don't speak or read the language to find work?

Photo: Lincoln Journal reporters Thomas A Fogarty (right) and Mitchel Benson smirk at the transparently underhanded shenanagans of the Nebraska State Legislature in Lincoln circa 1980.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Cold Turkey
Yesterday was my fifth Thanksgiving in Asia, and aside from one in Hong Kong that featured Chinese waiters and waitresses dressed like elementary school pageant Pilgrims and Indians, perhaps the most memorable.

I had an invitation from a British woman, a longtime China expat who often hosts a Thursday night spaghetti bolognese spread at her apartment, but I told her it would be my treat this time courtesy of take-out from a pretty damn fine eatery in Beijing called Steak and Eggs, an American style diner run by a Canadian from Florida. Or something like that... Others invited included two French guys, a Canadian woman, two Spanish women and an Austrian couple. All "pilgrims" to China, though I regretted the fact there was no one from India to be the token Indian or, for that matter, any Chinese.

I ordered the basics: a roast turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and a pumpkin pie with my hostess supplying wine, potatoes, veggies and a couple bottles of honest-to-gawd "Karl Marx Champagne." We marveled at the concept, a one of a kind find she said when asked where to get more. The bubbly was pretty much what you'd expect, though it did help us cast off our social chains after a few glasses, and the label alone with a fine drawing of Mr Das Kapital was worth it.

Struggling with an 18-pound bird and fixings and 16 oz can of Ocean Spray cranberry sauce in my leather jacket pocket into her 5th floor place, I greeted the guests: "On behalf of the United States of America, I bring you our national holiday feast! I give thanks to Pamela for hosting us and you for joining us."

Questions followed as the Canadian woman carved the bird. The origin, what we do in the US now, etc. "Then after hosting the Indians and giving thanks, the Pilgrims gave them smallpox infected blankets in gratitude ... Oh, it's usually a low key day to gather with family, eat, give thanks for the 15-year-old daughter not getting pregnant, get drunk, watch football on TV - no, not soccer! - and fight with relatives."

"It sounds very much like our Christmas," sighed a French guy. "The food, the drink, the fighting ..." He sounded almost homesick.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Wedding Bell Blues

I was at a western style Beijing cafe a few evenings ago with a 29 or 30 year old Chinese woman I'll call L who politely interrupted our conversation about editing her resume to take a cell phone call. A rather lengthy one it turned out, and in Chinese, but I could tell she wanted it to end long before it did.

"Do you mind if I ask who that was?" I asked.

"Oh, just some man asking me to marry him," L replied casually.

"Do a lot of guys propose over mobile phones here? No wonder there are 1.3 billion of you. So romantic!"

She laughed. "My parents' friend recommended he call me. I've never met him. Only on Internet. And I think I am not interested. I just want to be polite. I don't want to marry, but my parents are very worried."

Nearing 30, L has a lot of company here. Single, professional, educated, ambitious but with parents and relatives pulling as many strings as possible and putting the pressure on to get married and pop a grandchild. Now. Not later. I know four other women in similar situations - and it's not like there aren't a lot of men.

Men outnumber women due to China's one child policy, combined with a traditional preference for boys - something which has also contributed to its shadow export industry, baby girls. Know any American famiies with adopted Chinese babies? Odds are overwhelming that the children are girls; if it's the rare boy he was or is suffering from mental or physical disability.

But as a few picky and looking single Chinese women have explained to me it's akin to what a gal pal once said of the situation in Alaska. "The odds are good, but the goods are odd."

I explained that to L who laughed, repeated it twice slowly and then wrote it down with a Chinese character translation. She isn't looking but has friends who are but are equally frustrated.

"One says she has two, how-to-say. suitors. One is very nice but only wants to be a calligraphy teacher." She laughed again. "Very cultural but maybe not a good profession in the 21st century. The other has a good job but a mother who is like his queen. My friend does not want two mothers or bosses."

We talked some more then her text msg beeped. L flipped the phone open, scrutinized it and winced a little. "It is my 'new husband' again," she said. "His goods are maybe a little odd, I think."

Monday, November 10, 2008

And I Bring You Fire (safety)

Fire continues to flicker as a theme here at the mighty Chinese news compound where I labor. In June (see: Working Class Hero, 6/22) I recounted my "heroism" in dousing a motorcycle battery electrical fire with only three cans of 3.6% Yanjing beer and more recently we had another hot incident involving a first floor apartment occupied by a New Zealand intern who was at bar when a cell phone call alerted him to the fact that his first floor apartment was on fire.

Damage was confined to a lot of smoke damage after a plugged in, but empty, unused water cooler that had been in his living room since he arrived had zapped, undoubtedly due to substandard electrical wiring. The cooler and a back pack next to it melted down and many of his clothers were uncleanable after the fire department arrived, broke a window and sprayed the place down.

The group responsible for foreigners here, though, would have none of the "substandard wiring" explanations and grilled him mightily about the cooler. It was unauthorized.
When had he bought it? Never bought one. It was here when he arrived. Was he sure he hadn't bought it? Yes. Trick question - how much did you pay for it? I DIDN'T BUY ONE. YOU DON'T PAY ME ENOUGH. Did he use it regularly? Never used it once. Why was it plugged in? It was like that when he arrived. Etc, etc.

Nonetheless, though he wasn't booted or punished, an awkwardly written email and paper copy along with photos of the smoke damaged apartment and warnings in Chinese were posted throughout the area warning that "due to extreme carelessness by a foreigner a fire becoming danger to life" and reminded us to unplug all our appliances before leaving the rooms.

More worrisome was the fact that another foreigner on the 9th floor had smelled smoke and begun running throughout the halls breaking all the fire alarms and looking for extinguishers. The alarms didn't work, nor did others he tried on lower floors before realizing the fire truck was arriving (alerted, we learned later by a security guard returning from a long noodle and tea break). And there are no smoke alarms in any of the apartments. An email to this effect was sent to our Foreign Affairs department which replied that the pyrowhining barbarian was simply wrong.
1. All alarms work.
2. Fire extinguishers are working and plentiful
3. A special unit of the Beijing Fire Department is on vigilant watch to deal specifically with fires at the aparmtment complex and will respond quickly in each and every incident.
4. A "fire safety" demonstration will be held at an uspecified time and place to further reassure us.
Not mentioned were the lack of smoke alarms in our rooms. That's harder to deal with because they can't pretend they work or exist so - obviously from their point of view - it's not an issue.

The whole thing was more or less forgotten until late last week when we were summoned to the front parking and entrance area for the demonstration. It was held entirely in Chinese, though rough translations were available for those who couldn't get the idea of the term "Chinese fire drill."

About 12 extinguishers were lined up beside seven men in blue jump suits and white hard hats. We listened for about 20 minutes of unintelligible safety yammer and watched in awe as the lecturer pointed at one junior fire safety cadet in safety goggles who ceremoniously removed a manhole cover with a crow bar, gingerly picked up an extinguisher, pointed it down into the manhole, slowly pulled the extinguisher pin, looked away and squeezed gently.

'Pfffft!' went the foam. A very short, soft burst and the extinguisher was whipped back and handed to another guy in goggles and a hard hat.

"Ahhhhh!" went the Chinese onlookers. "Giggle" went the foreigners. The process was repeated several times as a photographer documented it. Then a foreigner was selected. Me, in fact, perhaps due to my past rep as a fire extinguishing hero. Lacking three beers, however, I donned the glasses as instructed, pointed the extinguisher down pulled the lever hard, yelling "Yaaahhhh! Die fire" as the foam spewed like berserk cotton candy.

"AHHHHHHH!" went the Chinese. "Nice one, dude" said an American coworker. The extinguisher was taken from my grasp rather quickly and the lecture was over.

The lesson? "In case of fire, remove manhole cover..."

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


Chinese reaction to Barack Obama's historic US presidential victory went from mildly curious to ecstatic in two offices on the third floor of China Daily newspaper Wednesdy noon after the lone American employee on the floor went to the Holiland pastry shop on Huixin Dongjie street and bought two 64 yuan (US$9.35) victory cakes.

"Here," he said smiling and distributing tiny plastic forks and paper plates as CNN's election coverage boomed in the background from a TV hanging from the ceiling. "From Obama! My new president."

The Chinese staff laughed, grinned, looking up from the rice, pork and spinach dumplings, fish heads and "Jew's ear fungus" lunches they'd been scarfing from their tin and plastic lunch pails and clustered around the cakes.

"Really? From Obama? He won? Your new president? Thank you! Thank Obama!" one said.

"Well, not really from him. Me. But I pay American icome taxes with my Chinese salary, so it's kind of my tax dollars at work for you," I said. "Consider it my part to futher international relations and do my part to help stem the global financial meltdown."

Meanwhile my cell phone text message alert was beeping non-stop. Victory bonding messages from one Canadian, two English citizens, three Chinese and two other Americans from Beijing to Shanghai and Shenzhen on the Hong Kong border were flowing in. "Yabbadabba doo!" "PARTEEE!" "He won! He won!" "Congratulations on your country's good sense!"

"It's cool and weird," another American pal in Jakarta, Indonesia texted me via Skype. He'd been watching CNN too. "How could this have happened?. It's like an unbelievable dream watching people celebrate a black American president."

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

" a beggar going door to door"

Sunday morning brunch in a north Beijing dumpling restaurant. "Road," my quirky Chinese pal who calls herself that because "life is a journey" has been helping me find a new charger for my cell phone in between badgering me to let her tutor me in Chinese lessons.

"Be the best person you can be, professor!" Road commands between bites. She knows nothing of the old US Army recruiting ad, but she's a natural and always on a self-improvement kick, mostly for herself but often for me whenever she gets the chance. "I hope you can understand China better from learning Chinese. And I can teach you because, because ... I am how-to-say? How-to-say? A genius!" She grins and laughs self consciously. No lack of self esteem there. "Yes. I think. Am I?"

I smile, nod and look outside, attention drawn to the sunny, autumn sidewalk where a tall, weathered, and solemn looking extremely weather-baked old man with a large high quality brown leather satchel and a nice black leather jacket met my eyes, then opened his mouth wide and pointed emphatically twice inside it. An elderly woman dressed in a tasteful modest embroidered black and white dress, with silver hair pulled back tight in a bun - obviously his wife - sits on the pavement beside him in a near-fetal position, rocking back and forth and wailing, though I can't hear through the glass.

"Road, look. Beggars? But their nice. Too nice."

Most Chinese beggars look the part, sometimes with a maimed baby or child or their own limb to emphasize their plight. These two look as if they'd come straight from CCTV central casting as a dignified country couple. A middle aged woman stops, drawn by the old man's plea, looks at his keening wife and gives him about 10 yuan.

That is rare too. I've given to beggars but rarely recalled seeing any Chinese do the same. Road's response explained why.

"They are maybe, how-to-say, not true? False. False beggars. I see TV and newspaper stories, many beggars have much money and are not poor."

I wonder, while trying to avoid the old man's gaze as he stops panhandling and comes to the restaurant door where a manager approaches him. I think he is going to be thrown out, but the manager listens to whatever the pitch is and heads for the kitchen while the man shoots me another pleading look and rejoins his wailing wife outside.

"Where are their children?" Road asks. "If they are not false beggars, maybe their children can help?" I wondertoo, thinking about another Chinese friend who'd recently confessed to me that she was frequently short of money because she was paying off her father's constant gambling debts. "Why?" I asked her at the time. "Just stop." "Because it is my duty," she told me. "I must."

Another passerby doles out a few yuan and then the manager comes with a plastic bag containing about eight dumplings for the old man who bows slightly in gratitude and takes it to his wife who has stood up and stopped her sobbing.

"If they are fake, it's a good act," I say. "You know Oscars, Road. Movie awards?" She nods. "They should get one."

The begging couple has apparently left, and Road and I exit heading for a pedestrian overpass when I hear sobbing on my left and see they'd only relocated out of my sightline. I can't bear it anymore. "Ask him what is wrong, please, Road."

A short exchange follows as the wife keeps moaning. "He says his son died in the (May 12) big Sichuan earthquake and these are almost only clothes," Road says soberly. "No home. It is gone too. No family."

I open my wallet and gave him 12 yuan, nod at the wife, turn with Road and leave. "You give too much money, I think, professor. Too much," she says scolding me a little. "Maybe not true."

"Yeah, probably, But if it is true ... who knows?"

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Safe as Milk

This one goes out to a reader in Iowa whose been bugging me to update. There've been a lot of problems with Blogspot and combined with my chronic slothdom, it's been a near-fatal combo.

So, I was drinking a cold refreshing glass of Chinese milk the other day as I watched continous reruns of China's first space walk and flag waving along with 24/7 flag waving repeats of the same Beijing Olympic highlights and I began to feel a little queasy.

"Can we change the channel?" I whined to C. "I'm not feeling so good and I don't know if it's the milk or what we're watching. Doesn't China know the Olympics are over and that space walks have been routine for decades? If I didn't know better I'd say this was a calculated government effort to divert attention from the bad milk deal. It hasn't been a great year here overall."

I was back in Shenzhen at our apartment for the country's week long October 1 National Day holiday.

"That milk is safe," she assured me. "I saw it on the Internet. The Chinese government and scientists say it is."

Or maybe one of the astronauts brought some back. One Internet comment I'd seen translated concerning the milk disaster wished them well and asked them to bring back some "moon milk."

"Oh, then it must be true," I replied trying desperately to quash any hint of sarcasm in an attempt to keep the love light flickering. "Especially if Chinese officials and scientists say so. Tell me again what Chinese scientists have done lately, or in the last 100 years?"

I'd noticed that since the tainted milk scandal that has killed at least 4 children and brought one major dairy manufacturer to the brink of bankruptcy and is threatening more than 20 other poison moo juice firms, that the once suddenly bare dairy shelves are slowly being refilled with brands I'd never seen before ("Pink Fun Milk Monkey!"). These strange brands were all presumably cleared by the same authorities who'd so expertly dealt with a similar bad milk problem that sickened more than 200 infants two years ago.

"This Pink Fun Milk Monkey stuff isn't bad, though, except for the 'funky flavor chunks'. What's up with these?"

"Tofu, all natural," she reassured me. Here try some of this Wild Jew's Ear fungus! It was on sale at Jusco! All natural!"

Monday, September 15, 2008


"Gee, but it's good to be back home," I mumbled to myself like some half-wit Paul Simon imitator marveling a little at the irony of coming "home" to Shenzhen where I'd spent a considerable portion of three years after first arriving in China. In a combination of impulse and romantic gesture, I'd flown south 1,200 or so miles from Beijing to Shenzhen to be with C during the Mid-Autumn or "Mooncake" Festival over the weekend.

Lovers are supposed to gaze at the full moon on the 15th of September to see a princess, Chang'e, and her jade rabbit who've been exiled there waiting for Chang'e's husband/lover to visit once a year from the sun. There are multiple versions of a somewhat incomprehensible legend and a plethora of mooncakes, China's version of the fruitcake, to mark it.

The myth - which explains why the Chinese see a rabbit on the moon, rather than the man westerners see - involves Chang'e stealing a pill for eternal life from her husband. She is then either exiled or flees to the moon with a rabbit. Questions to Chinese friends about why she ripped off her husband (they are ''happily married'' in the versions I read) and why she took the rabbit with her and what happened to the magic pill were met with shrugs.

"I had a pet rabbit when I was a little girl,'' one told me in a sort of non-sequitor. "But my uncle ate him.'' One version of the story has the rabbit pounding out herbs to remake the eternal life medicine immortalized by mooncakes.

Much like the Halloween and Christmas geegaws that begin slithering into the US supermarkets in early September, stacks of elaborately packaged and sometimes outrageously expensive mooncake gift boxes began filling Chinese grocery aisles in early August.

Mooncakes are a culinary atrocity - as dense as iridium, usually the size and shape of hockey pucks, greasy and fried in pork lard and often stuffed with as many as four duck egg yolks, red bean paste and lotus seeds. They also have the half life of plutonium, approximately 2,400 years. (One I choked down for a Mooncake festival two years ago is still lodged in my upper colon, according to X-rays that continue to baffle researchers at the Mayo Clinic and the US Food and Drug Association.)People give them but rarely eat them which was the quandry C found herself in as we prepared to go to a Sunday Mid Autumn Festival barbecue hosted by a friend of hers.

C had an enormous promo gift box from a gazillion star Shenzhen hotel stacked with glitzy wrapped mooncakes. Neither one of us wanted any of the mooncakes or the tiny ceramic tea pot that came with it and she was anguishing over whether to take it as a "gift" or give it to someone else.

"No one you know eats them," I said. "Why bother giving them? Or if we must at least let's take a bottle of wine."

"You cannot bring mooncakes and a bottle of wine to a Chinese party," she said firmly as if explaining to a cretin why it's impolite to urinate on your grandmother's shoes. Though tempted, I didn't go there. We haven't survived four years together with long separations by niggling over obscure points of Chinese party etiquette.

Suffice to say we were drinking the wine several hours later at the party, a rooftop affair that kind of encapsulated the State of Modern Urban China. The hostess was a divorced single mother living on the ninth floor of an apartment with no elevator. We should have hired sherpas to stagger to her door. She was throwing the party with her ex-husband with whom she's still close, and her job as a marketing manager for an Chinese-Australian alligator meat company apparently pays her enough to afford the flat screen plasma TV covering her living room wall.

Her parents and ex-in laws were playing mah jong in one room as the rest of us ate barbecued meat, vegetables and fish (no gator meat, though) and listened to remixed old school hip-hop - (Who Let the Dogs Out melded with Chinese pop - an unholy though amusing combo) and watched the little kids shoot each other with plastic guns that screamed, "FIRE" when the trigger was pulled.

I was still wondering how the hell someone makes a living selling alligator meat to Chinese (though they'll famously eat "anything", I've never seen it here) when C nudged me.

"See the moon? See Chang'e and the rabbit?" she said. Sure enough, through Shenzhen's polluted skies it glowed until a cloud covered it.

"Oh, no...She's hidden now," I said.

"Her lover is visiting now," she said. "They need some privacy."

I took the hint, we thanked China's 'gator meat empress and left.

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Bargain Store

Part of China's obsessive effort to put its best face forward for the Olympics(or what it assumed to be its 'best face') was, in addition to closing down select live music clubs, installing air-to-ground missiles outside the Bird's Nest and Water Cube and "security watch" retiree block captains on every street corner, evicting the homeless etc, was a crackdown on vendors pushing pirate merchandise.

It was remarkably successful. My trusty local counterfeit DVD mom n pop shop was torn down overnight with the owners gone as if they'd never existed. Ditto for elsewhere throughout many parts of Beijing. My son in Denver had been extolling the glories of Dark Knight and Iron Man, neither of which has been released here, though I knew I'd normally have been able to score copies easily so we could bond. So much for family values. Ditto for pirated Olympics merchandise which was seemingly non-existent also, to the dismay of many visitors who'd hoped to save a few bucks on souvenirs.

But last Sunday it was clear to me that Beijing is slowly getting back to normal. I was near the old American Embassy area, outside a French bakery and a Friendship Store when an elderly woman with a stuffed rucksack approached me and began her hustle.

"You want Olympic watch? Hat? Olympic sock?" She began pulling a treasure trove of bogus Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (BOCOG) merchandise out of the sack. An Olympics "Rolex" commemorative pocket watch, "Nike" Olympics socks in four colors, enameled pins, baseball caps in three colors, phony fuwa (Smurfs on mescaline) mascots, DVDs of the opening and closing ceremonies ... everything but Michael Phelps autographed Speedos.

I eyed the merchandise, especially the baseball caps, and asked about more DVDs. She signaled to a guy I assumed was her husband who hustled over with copies of, yes, Dark Knight and Iron Man.

Praise jeebus and all the fake Fuwa! The Pirate Olympics Closeout Sale had begun. Some intense bargaining followed and I left with five hats and my desired DVDs for 60 yuan, or about $8.75, went home and slid Dark Knight, to find it had been seemingly shot underwater by a palsy victim with a North Korean Super 8 camera. Buyer beware. But Iron Man rocked and I've got some friends who'll look spiffy in the caps.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Just the Two of Us

Western musical acts are no longer novel in China since a bouffanted George Michael and Andrew Ridgley of Wham! (Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go)baffled 15,000 Beijing youth and their connected cadre parents in 1985, so when I happened to see an ad last week for an Al Jarreau, George Benson "Just The Two of Us" concert, it just kinda came and went with me.

Though I once faked admiration for Benson in a telephone interview with him about 25 years go, I was never a fan and usually slept through or threw a shoe at whatever device was playing Masquerade or Greatest Love of All. Al Jarreau I respected, but not enough to pay to hear him.

Then I was offered four free tickets to their show by my curious Chinese editor who'd received them from the concert hall, the Beijing Exhibition Theater. "They are famous?" she asked.

"Oh, yeah," I assured her sounding like Voice of America. "American jazz and soul legends. In fact, I interviewed George Benson once."

"Oh!" she gushed. "Perhaps again? Today? For our paper? He will remember you, of course!"

"Mmm, no, unfortunately," I said. "It doesn't really work like that and it was a long, long time ago. (Pause) But thanks for the tickets!"

I found an musically opened minded US expat pal, Dave, to accompany me and gave the other two to a young Chinese reporter I'll call Wang who'd once asked me for a primer on American jazz and blues.

The best I could do at the time was hand him a stack of CDs, write down some names and pray the CDs got back to me undamaged. Not like when I did the same for another novice Western rock Chinese fan who'd returned my Zeppelin, Neil Young, Beatles, Stones and Nirvana discs 6 months later looking and sounding as if they'd been used as chew toys for weasels. To add unintended insult to indifference he told me the only songs he'd liked were Heart of Gold, Yesterday and As Tears Go By. "All others are too CRAZY! ... Do you have California Hotel and Every Shing-a-Ling?" (His decomposed unidentified remains were found 8 months later with a Carpenter's Greatest Hits disc jammed up what remained of his left nostril ....)

But I digress. Wang, a somber, wry fellow who rarely shows emotion, thanked me sincerely and I promised to check back with him after the show to see how he'd fared. Dave and I found the hall and joined a crush of mostly young and middle aged Chinese being squeezed through one of about 20 entrances and a security check.

"What's with the metal detectors?" I asked. "It's not like we're going to an East Coast vs West Coast, 2Pac vs Suge Knight kinda deal."

"I dunno," Dave mused. "I hear Benson and Jarreau been dissing (sickingly cute mainland China female pop idol) Han Xue, saying she puts out for Tibet separatists...This could get ugly."

The show was pretty damn good, though I can still die perfectly happy if I never hear Summer Breeze or Greatest Love of All again. Still Jarreau and Benson (when he bothered to play guitar rather than croon) had the hall jumping, such as usually undemonstrative Chinese audience do, unless commanded and then about half a beat off the rhythm.

I spotted Wang as we left to beat the post-encore rush. He was sweating and grinning, clapping happily off rhythm and ectastic. I leaned into his ear and said: "Well? How is it? You like it?"

His grin got larger. "F..F..F-f-fu###ing GREAT!" he yelled.

I smiled and clapped him on the shoulder. My job was done.

Friday, August 29, 2008

The rockets' red glare...

Feeling pretty good at seeing The Home of the Denver Broncos, Invesco Field/old Mile High Stadium on CNN's Obamapalooza coverage in my Chinese Communist Party subsidized apartment this morning, I got to work a little early and asked my Chinese colleagues if they'd mind if I watched The Speech on the office TV.

"I have to listen to your boring leaders and bureaucrats on TV in the office all the time," I (only half-)joked. "Give me an hour or so of American TV with a charismatic, young politician who doesn't lecture in a shrill incomprehensible monotone ... please?" I also lied and said I wanted to spot my son in the crowd (he couldn't score a ticket) and when I noted that I have a cousin who works for the Obama campaign (true) who I had seen (blatant lie) on CNN already. I haven't seen her, but did see her father in the Pepsi Center on Tuesday briefly in a crowd behind Wolf Blitzer, so maybe it was kind of a half-truth. But family comes first in China and the TV set was activated.

"Is he the president yet?" one asked me. I sighed a little, after having gone through the US Presidential Election Process for Dummies Exercise with another coworker earlier, but skipped the tutorial and said, "No, maybe after the election in November."

They laughed at the 27 or so times or so Obama thanked the 80,000 faithful when he hit the stage, especially when I finally added "enough with the xie-xie" (Chinese for thank you)and urged him to get on with it. Interest on their part, though, flagged noticeably shortly thereafter until the end when the fireworks and confetti flew.

"His daughters?" said one. "We never see our leaders' children."

"So, what did you think," I asked her. She'd shown a modicum of interest in the LoveFest. She was silent and then said something in Chinese to a friend that drew some giggles.

"What? What did you say? So what did you think?" I repeated.

"I said I thought the fireworks were only so-so," she replied. "Not as good as the Olympic ceremonies."

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Whole Lotta Love

Just a distinct sense of relief that the Beijing Olympics are finally over last night, coupled with a spasm of joy at seeing Jimmy Page's wizened visage wailing on his Gibson atop a double decker bus as I watched the closing ceremonies on a large flat screen beamed outdoors in a small, sweaty hutong (alley neighborhood) with a gaggle of Chinese and sprinking of foreigners.

"Who is that old man playing a guitar?" asked a 20something Chinese woman standing next to me as we sipped lukewarm Tsingtao beers, batted mosquitos and ate watermelon slices.

"Jimmy Page," I said. "A famous English rock musician. Sort of like your Cui Jian (the first Chinese guy to play homegrown rock here, circa 1986). But older, and more controversial and popular in his time, perhaps."

"Nobody listens to Cui Jan anymore," she said.

"Too bad. I bet he knows this song, though," I replied as Page ripped through an 8-minute lyrically neutered version of Whole Lotta Love to the joy of rockin' foreign fossils like me and the bafflement and indifference of most of the Chinese around me. A camera shot panned a group of high level Chinese bureaucrats - including former president Jiang Zemin in his clownish oversized spectacles - trying their best to look like they comprended Jimmy Page. David Beckham, who was also prancing atop the Magic Bus, yeah, but a former Satan-worshipping, druggie, multi millionaire white bearded guitar player? Who let him into the country?

"Yeah! Zep RULES!" shouted a Canadian. I dropped a watermelon rind high fiving him and started talking to an ABC (American Born Chinese) woman who was hosting the block party.

"I'm glad to see this," I said. "You know London has enough self confidence and style to host Games without worrying about controversy and micro-managing every detail. No worries about blocking the Internet or boasting that they've installed air-to-ground missles next to Buckingham Palace or Wembley." She agreed, but added that the edge of tension that had accompanied the Beijing Games had also made them what they were.

"All part of the mix," she said. "It's what keeps me here. You, too, I bet."

I couldn't disagree.

Thursday, August 21, 2008


I was leaving work when one of the Chinese women in our "Foreign Affairs Department" (i.e. glorified babysitters for foreigner employees) passing me in the hall, stopped, took a breath and said, " Justin! Congratulations!"

"Uh...oh, thank you, I think," I replied, trying to sort through my shattered memory files (What had I done? The last time I was congratulated by anyone from Foreign Affairs it was for putting out a motorcycle fire with three cans of beer about 3 months ago, surely this wasn't about that again). "For what?"

"Obama is your new president!" she said, beaming at me.

"He is? What? No, no," I said. "The election isn't until November."

She was puzzled. I was even more, and thought perhaps she'd mistaken some news about the Democratic National Convention for Obama winning the election. But the convention doesn't begin until Monday. Maybe he'd made a veep pick? Who knows? He and McCain are non-news here, anyway, during the Olympics and most Chinese I've talked with about the election still think Hillary is in race.

As succinctly as I could I gave her a American Presidential Election Process for Dummies 101 explanation, skipping the part about the Electoral College - which I understand about as well as string theory - and repeated that November would be when the next US president is selected. I resisted the urge to say something like "The Party's Standing Central Committee will select him based on the harmonious will of the proletariat.." and thanked her again.

She nodded, clearly only slightly less confused than she'd been when I'd told her he wasn't president yet and left, presumably to go tell her colleagues that the weird Americans clearly have no idea who their new leader is.

Monday, August 18, 2008

A 110-meter trail of tears

Work, such as it is, came wheezing halt Monday morning as the staff and one "foreign expert" (me) gathered in front of a TV to watch the 110 meter hurdles competition in the Bird's Nest at 11.40am. The draw was Athens gold medalist Liu Xiang, on whose buff shoulders rested the weight of 1.3 billion Chinese (of which almost 91,000 were in the stadium) not already satisfied with China's nearly 40 golds.

It was obvious as Liu - whose image is plastered throughout the nation endorsing seemngly everything from tea to appliances -gingerly warmed up and stalled as long as he could before settling into the starting blocks that he was one badly hurting puppy - something I commented on a couple times in a concerned tone. My remarks were met with silence until one staffer said rather curtly: "Nothing is wrong! He will win. He must!"

Face is all in China and I diplomatically gave my coworker some by shutting my barbarian yap until seconds after the starter's gun went off twice signaling a false start (not by Liu) and he tore off his competitor's tag and slowly limped off the track.

"F%%er!" yelled the fellow who'd assured me of Liu's victory. That was extreemely uncharacteristic - unlike their foul mouthed foreign expert, my office mates rarely swear and when they do it's in Chinese. Meanwhile the TV cameras were following Liu's disgraced trail behind the scenes in the Bird's Nest where he sat down, head in hands. The Chinese blogosphere exploded shortly thereafter, many defending him buit others calling a "coward" and worse. "I will slit the throat of him and his coach!" read one translation. "He has disgraced the Motherland."

You'd have thought he'd urinated on the Chinese flag and wiped it on President Hu Jintao's face.. When tempers had cooled and the tearful press conferences concluded, I asked the coworker who'd cursed Liu what the deal was. China has so much talent to be proud of - lithesome diver Guo Jingjing, some hunky badminton guy I'd never heard of, but who'd also been a media darling for 15 minutes the day before, and many others. Why put it all on Liu? In the end it's all only a game - not life and death.

"If Michael Phelps had not won eight gold medals, people in the United States might be disappointed, but they wouldn't threaten to kill him," I explained. "Liu did his best. He was hurting badly. Why further injure his leg only to lose anyway?"

"Some people lost a lot of money," he said. "Some paid 10,000 yuan (nearly $1,500) for a ticket to watch him. Now maybe a ticket is worth 100 yuan." It wasn't just about money, though. He continued.

"Many Chinese think the Olympics this time is a chance to show their abilities and new wealth to the whole world. That's why we put so much money and preparing to the opening and are trying to win many, many medals. So they put on even more pressure than usual.. Ater you have been poor for decades or more than a century, you have to prove everyone you are no longer weak.."

Liu was not weak, I said. He was injured, it happens to many athletes. My coworker nodded.

"China is getting better," he said and went on to tell me about a Chinese Olympic athlete who had "only" won 3rd place in a previous Olympics in the 1980s or early 90s. "When he returned, some people had thrown rubbish and garbage at his home. I do not think that will happen to Liu."

Indeed not. A day after his fall from national grace, a creative marketing whiz at Nike - with whom Liu is signed - engineered a quick turnaround. A full page newspaper ad in China Daily shows a somber, half-shadowed but powerful looking Liu with the slogan: "Love sport even when it breaks your heart."

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

All Along the Watch Tower

About 8 hours after it happened I went to Beijing's 13th Century Drum Tower, next to another popular tourist/historical site Bell Tower, with a female British freelance journalist pal who speaks fluent Chinese to try to get some more info on the fatal stabbing of Todd Bachman, the Olympics US volleyball-related tourist killed over the weekend during a visit to a popular Beijing tourist sites.

The Bell and Drum towers are magnificent nearly identical watch towers still in an area of Beijing not demolished in favor of shopping malls or apartment complexes. Either raised a question, however. The knife-welding murderer was described by Chinese press as a depressed, divorced, unemployed sort-of lone gun, er, lone knife man who supposedly jumped from the top of the Bell Tower in a suicide dive after killing Todd Bachman, wounding Bachman's wife and their Chinese tour guide. Looking at the towers, though, begs the question that due to the overhanging Chinese swallow roofs jumping from one roof would take you perhaps 8-10 feet to the next one. Unless the killer was an an off-duty Chinese Olympic swan diver able to leap over the lower roofs or acrobat who rolled over the first roof to the next and down again, it wouldn't be an exactly easy fall to your death. Conspiracy freaks, have fun!

One of my favorite BJ hangouts after dark is the Bell and Drum bar and cafe, a small and intimate spot very near the new death zone with the finest, largest hamburgers in the Middle Kingdom with a rooftop view. Watch your step, though, descending after burgers and beer...a very steep staircase under the influence.

Todd Bachman's death shocked the bjeezuz outta me when I first saw the crawl on CNN Intl TV a few hours after it happened: "American murdered at Beijing Olympics." China is nothing if not safe, expecially for foreign barbarians. I've felt more threatened going a block or two from my old Colfax Avenue work site at the downtown Denver Rocky Mountain News at midnight to a public parking lot then lost in translation and location in Beijing at gawd knows where at the same time or later.

Calling a pal on-duty at the largest Chinese, English-language newspaper for which we work for more info did little good. The paper is on currently on unrelenting full-court press "One World, China's Dream" coverage and had naturally sent no one to do any first-hand reporting, instead reluctantly relying on the brief and incomplete, also State-owned Xinhua press service report that was buried on page 5. (Meanwhile, three days later a story about the murders of 2 Chinese grad students in Newcastle, England was part of our front page news. Subtle Message? It's all safe and glorious in China, but you venture outside and are Chinese you're doomed!)

Here's a small sample of what I heard through translation when I arrived with my Brit friend to poke around at the Drum Tower hours after the death. A Chinese crowd was plentiful and talking amongst itself, but not easily to outsiders. No trace of splatter from the supposed sucide killer. Meanwhile a group of drunk German Olympic tourists were videotaping themselves singing Happy German Ubermench Soccer and Beer Songs in the plaza between the towers.

British journalist Chinese-speaking pal to neighborhood old guy: "Excuse me, uncle, did you see or hear anything about the foreigner killed today?'

Old Chinese neighborhood guy: "Nothing happened, except what you see on TV. Why do you ask? What country are you from?"

Fluent Chinese Speaking Brit pal : "I am from England, I am just curious if you or anyone here saw or heard anything and might tell me more."

Old Chinese neighborhood guy : "You are from England? Why do you care? The dead man was an American."

One World, One Dream, indeed...

Saturday, August 9, 2008

One World, One Dream, Many Beers

Lacking a ticket to the Olympics opening ceremony didn't mean one couldn't get into the spirit and Beijing had plenty of choices last night - from home TVs to packed parks with giant screens.

I chose something in between at the invitation of a Chinese-American conceptual video artist named Elaine W. Ho, who is, oddly enough, originally from the bleached blonde Wonder Bread Dallas suburb of Plano ("I couldn't wait to get out of there," she told me when I expressed shock and awe at her roots.) The outdoor hutong (traditional Beijing alley community) where she held the viewing party was tens of thousands of miles and several cultural light years away from Dallas, of course, though it had a certain universal community spirit where even language barriers melted away as the warm beer, Coke, herbal tea, watermelon and China's Olympic pride flowed.

"Hang out with Granpa Wang and the neighbors in the fresh air, enjoy drinks, snacks and a sporty sized LED projection from a store window front," her invite read. Granpa Wang turned out to be a jovial real guy - not, as I'd originally imagined, an Elaine W. Ho artistic concept; he is perhaps in his early 50s, pot bellied in a sleeveless T-shirt, shorts and the unofficial hutong godfather/community leader/fixer and as it turned out something of a gambler. Granpa Wang was delighted to welcome the four white guy foreigners who joined the 18 or so locals to watch the 3-hour broadcast seated on tiny stools or on magazines and newspapers on the alley way.

The only drawback was the inability to see the fireworks exploding all over the city, our view obscured as it was by the roof tops and rather removed location, though we could hear them and cheer as we watched the broadcast pyrotechnics. screen. Grandpa Wang was particulary impressed at our Canadian pride. At least two of the foreigners were Canadian and several of the Chinese were either Canadian citizens or had gone to school there. When the Canadian team finally strode waving into the Bird's Nest procession, one of our number whipped out a giant Canadian Maple Leaf flag and began waving it to our cheers. "Go Canada! Go Tim Horton's! (a popular Canadian coffee house chain)," I screamed, wondering also what kind of person happens to have a large national flag on him. "Got the American one?" I asked. He laughed. "No, just Chile and Estonia," he replied.

George W Bush was seen on the screen and I began booing. Grandpa Wang asked through a bilingual Chinese woman why I was being disrespectful to my president. "Oh, just because I can," I replied and then asked what he thought of Obama. He wasn't exactly sure about him - or even who he is - though he did say he admired Hillary Clinton and wondered if she might be our next president. Not wanting to explain the whole American primary system in the middle of a Chinese alley Olympics party after three large Tsingtao beers, I simply said she'd withdrawn and left it at that.

We left after the torch was lit by what appeared to be a Chinese quasi-Spider-Man athlete and Granpa Wang pressed my hand and invited me back anytime. I'd lost a bet with him on who would light the torch. I'd put 30 yuan (roughly $3.50) on the idea that one of the Sichuan earthquake orphans would do it and Granpa Wang had said it would be the Spider guy. I forked over the money as unseen fireworks exploded above and he thanked me, grinning and shaking my hand. "He says come back he will make soup and duck and have many beers with you," my temporary translator told me. "He also wants to bet that China will win more gold medals than the USA."

"Tell him 'thank you, xie xie '" I said. "I am happy to lose to Granpa Wang once already. Two times would be too much happiness."

Note: Top left photo by Elaine W Ho from her website at

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Games People Play
The 2008 Beijing Olympics begin tomorrow with the gala opening ceremony scheduled for the auspicious time of 8.08pm on the eighth day of the eighth month. No, I don't have a ticket for - they're very hard and expensive to come by, though I have a $50 ticket for the bronze medal men's volleyball final on virtually the last day of the Games. I came by it through sheer chance and paid face value and am expecting what? Perhaps a nail-biter between Ecuador and East Timor ...

Otherwise, Beijing seems slightly hyper, almost edgy as the big day approaches though not as the New York Times recently reported it in inflamatory tones as being like a "fortress" and drawing absurd comparisons to the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution when describing the elderly retirees in their red and yellow "Security Volunteer" armbands sitting on curbside stools presumably looking for potential troublemaker, dissidents and "splittists". The ones in my neighborhood barely glance up from their playing cards and newspapers as the foreigners walk by.

Incidents getting major play on CNN and BBC such as the two Brits and two Americans who have been booted out of the country after climbing up two light poles near the Bird's Nest stadium and attaching two enormous "Free Tibet" banners yesterday afternoon have received minimal attention here aside from a stern short account about their expulsion in the rag for which I toil. That's more than I expected when two pals from work and I were out last night talking about it (we agreed that the protesters were morons, albeit athletic ones; "freeing" Tibet is a non-issue with 99.9% of Chinese) as the paper generally ignores anything remotely controversial and is instead fond of quoting officials saying with presumably straight faces that the smog enveloping the capital most days is "not pollution" but "natural conditions caused by excessive heat."

Two nights ago another group of coworkers and I went with a rumor that an opening ceremony dress rehearsal at the Bird's Nest stadium would include fireworks. Fueled by foolishness and perhaps a little beer, we took two taxis that found us stuck for nearly 25 minutes in a traffic jam seemingly miles from the Bird's Nest with only the faint blue glow of the other iconic structure, The Water Cube visible through the darkness and (non)pollution. We bailed from the taxis and joined crowds of mostly Chinese also milling about seeing how close they could get. Not far, as it turned out. Police guards and young, polite Olympic Volunteers barred any progress despite me flashing my press ID card. I might as well have shown them my Boulder Public Library Card or Sam's Club card.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

A few nights ago I was at a random birthday party for a person I don't know. Not uncommon in the relatively small China expat circle, though mostly I'd greeted and spaced out the birthday person as the night wore on.

Cut to a small cafe a few steps and a million cultural miles between the authentic Texas 'que spot where we'd been celebrating (lotsa worn Tejas cowboy boots, iconic Phillips 66, Lone Star, Route 66 signs nailed to the walls, plus great fajitas, burritos, margaritas etc) where I'm talking to a very young, small and stylish 20something Chinese guy who'd been with us who starts telling me how much he appreciates, Dylan, Hendrix, the Fabs, Stones, Doors and other prehistoric Western bands I've never heard a Chinese guy his age mention before.

"Jimi Hendrix wonderful," he said. "Play guitar with his tongue. I love to see Jimi Hendrix at Monterey California"
"His teeth," I corrected him. "Played with his teeth. Not tongue. But go on, please."

"Bob Dylan's voice, not so good, really. But his spirit very very good. 'How many times can a young man die...' Answering in wind, yes? Jim Morrison! Doors! 'The End'. 'Father, yes son, I want to kill you. Mother I want to fuuuuaaagh you'. Powerful. Too much. But good, I like. The Big Cat (Elvis) too. 'Love me tender..' "

As I urged him on - names like Pink Floyd, the Byrds, Gram Parsons, Bob Marley, Marvin Gaye, throwing them out like aged fading wrinkled confetti, I also noticed some waitresses eyeing him, pointing and tittering madly, hands reflexively across their mouths in traditional Asian style for females giggling. Then two women customers approached our table with paper and pens in hand.
They wanted his autograph which he signed quickly, politely and returned to our rock 'n roll seminar.

"Uh, are you famous or something?" I finally asked.
"I am in a band," he said simply. "We will be in the United States next month."
I know a small time promoter and publicist in LA and offered to hook him up.
"Thank you. No, we have okay."
Who is this guy, I thought? The answers in China were universal after only a few questions.

"You met HIM?" C screamed over the cell phone as if I'd met the Lord of the Universe. "Please, give me his phone number! I want to meet him when I come back to Beijing"
"You met HIM?" a coworker asked. "Congratulations! That is very good! Very, very good! Congratulations! We are proud of you!"

His English name is "Luke" - Chinese name Lu Gengxu - and he is one half of a duo popular with late 20s early 30s Chinese music fans. That's him on the left holding an award he and his singing partner received at a Chinese music award show. Kinda like I'd been shooting the shite with Justin Timberlake, perhaps, without knowing it. The duo is Shui Mu Nian Hua, or "Water & Wood" in rough translation.

Postscript: I was at a Chinese friend's home the next night and happened to mention I'd met half of Water & Wood and asked to hear any tunes she might have. She was thrilled and happily cranked up a song. I sighed inside as the middle of the road pap/pop Sino-syrup began flowing. I was about to go into diabetic collapse.
"Jimi, Jim, Mick, Bobs Dylan and Marley, and Floyd almighty forever forgive hin" I thought. "Luke, I have your number. But you need a career, not my stone age musical advice. I'll save my thoughts. Meanwhile, play on brother, play on."

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Night Moves
An element that never fails to delight me is watching Beijing after dark. It's a bit how I imagine American communities must have been before TV and the Internet and suburbia sealed us all inside, though of course China doesn't lack for the plug ins. Still, on a hot summer night one can easily walk slowly through a park or neighborhood and see people - young, old, fat, thin, and in-between strolling and talking, comparing notes, laughing, occasionally arguing, gossiping, flirting, eating, drinking and generally passing time. It's a mostly slow, gentle urban rhythm that pulses according to the humidity and heat (slower if it's steamy, slightly faster otherwise...)

There's even a resident crazy guy; a harmless middle aged, clean, casually dressed, short plump fellow with one of the ubquitious tiny snuffling long haired lap dogs that seem to be standard issue for most pet owners here. His is white and on a long leash.

The local loon keeps a regular schedule, I believe. At least he can be seen regularly between 7-8pm daily outside my favorite area grocery, next to the same light pole and across from a small food stall with a line of people eating and waiting to buy barbequed beef and chicken on wooden sticks. He talks loudly to himself, gesturing frequently and passionately and the passerbys and loiterers seem to pay him no mind, just letting him be. I've tried making eye contact and even greeted him in Chinese once or twice but the talking man just keeps on talking until it's time for him and his dog to go elsewhere.

Last night a group of us found another kind of community bond in a large park and bar area called Houhai, a ring of eateries, shops, tourist stands and nightclubs around a man-made lake, one end of which had at least 100 or so older and middle aged couples dancing to recorded tunes on a hot Thursday summer night. Foxtrots, waltz's, even some Bollywood tunes - a sweet festive scene. Some in finery, a few others like older men in wife beaters, shorts and sandals. On the sidelines younger men kicked a badminton shuttlecock around like a hackey sack, one adroitly doing behind-the-body kicks everytime, nailing it.

We watched for awhile and then a Bollywood mix got the best of me. I spotted an stout older woman - obviously a looker in her prime and still carrying herself with all the elegance she'd once had, dressed like a glitter gypsy in a ballroom gown. She began dancing by herself til I glided up in my flipflops, T-shirt and cargo pants and began spinning her gently around, guiding the best I could in my less-than-suave footwear. She didn't miss a beat the entire time and bowed, hands clasped together in the traditional Chinese way when the music ended.

My coworkers were flattering. "Nice white guy dance moves!" said 20-year-old, Z. "Way to bust 'em. Didn't know you had it in you." And a bald, older Chinese man who'd been watching came up and shook my hand. "Wonderful!" he told me. "Please join us tomorrow night. Thank you! You are a true egg!"

"An egg?" I was puzzled. Son of a turtle egg is a base insult in Cantonese and I wasn't sure how this was meant.

"Yes," he said. "White on the outside but yellow inside. Chinese yellow! You have a Chinese soul." Z - a Chinese-American woman - and I laughed. We knew "banana", for "white" Asians, but never the reverse.

"Yes, thank you," I told him. "I am the egg man."

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Do the Tighten Up
According to the large red countdown board outside my place of employment it's 30 days until the Olympics begin. Despite China's hopes for blue skies for the opening ceremonies and beyond and its loudly trumpeted anti-pollution measures (as well as rumored urban-mythical "weather control machines"), the last month has seen mostly rainy, smog-ridden, humid, phlegm colored days and starless nights, though Sunday night a group of us leaving a goodbye party looked up and gaped at a stunning sight. A star! Two stars! Well, maybe they were planets, nonetheless it was a welcome vision.

My neighborhood and areas elsewhere throughout Beijing are seeing a notable increase in police, albeit the unarmed variety, and foreigners with stories of being stopped for passport checks by both plainclothes and uniformed cops are becoming common. At the airport new "special police" armed with machine guns are roaming in twos throughout the three terminals in order to "enforce the existing security force's capacity to deal with emergencies in the airport," says an unnamed airport security droid. Most of the airport users, according to China Daily, feel happy and safer with black uniformed, nervous-looking 19 and 20-year-old acne-scarred males toting loaded machine guns in a crowded public venue, but somehow it doesn't make me feel anything but slightly queasy.

A Canadian software engineer who has been living in a largely foreign populated compound in north Beijing for several years told me that he and others there are now required to sign in and out. "It's a bit crazy," he says. "The guards and I know each other by sight - I've lived there longer than some have worked there. But we have to play the game. I generally sign something like "Mickey Mouse" "Osama Bin Laden" or "Tim Horton" (a popular Canadian coffee house chain). They can't read it anyway and it gives me a little lift."

It's not just foreigners. A 27-year-old Chinese woman surnamed Shen and who goes by the self-dubbed English name "Road" ("Because life is a journey," she says) is a front desk manager at a 3-star hotel about 2 kilometers from the Bird's Nest stadium. She said she and other employees in the area will be required to show newly issued Beijing Olympics-related ID cards as of July 15 in order to enter the area to come and go from work.

"I don't know what hotel guests will do," Road said. "We are not even fully booked. I took this job hoping to meet Olympic tourists. I enjoy talking with foreigners and practicing my English, I was hired because I am the only one who speaks English. But we have no foreign reservations and Chinese tourists are not so many now."

The visa situation for some foreigners already here or hoping to come also remains troublesome, despite repeated "assurances" by the foreign ministry that the visa restrictions are "unchanged" and "not designed to deter visitors or people doing business in China". Meanwhile, China's tourist numbers were down for the first 5 months of the year, though the official blame was put on factors other than the visa clampdown and the country's oldest trade fair, The Canton Trade Fair, reportedly saw its first decline in visitors and exhibitors in decades.

Like the USA in the post-911 era China is using the overreaching "terrorist" label and boogieman to include the "Dalai Lama clique/Tibetan separatists," so-called Islamic separatists in western China and just about anyone who might be suspected of putting a blemish on the Olympics.

Still there is some levity amongst the muck. Witness Ou Zhihang, a southern China TV host and photographer who has posted a series of photographs on his blog at of him doing nude pushups in front of assorted Chinese landmarks, including the Bird's Nest. I don't know how he got that close without an ID, though ...

He calls himself the "Pushup King" and says: "I love my body and homeland. I use my small body to do pushups for exercise and to 'talk' with these large miraculous and world famous landmarks."

Comments on his au natural pfitness tourism campaign range from "You've f*cked every scenic resort, is that what you mean?" and "Good body, bad brain" to "Pictures are shocking, but we support you."

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Working Class Hero
Never underestimate the power of the Chinese gossip underground. Faster than the Internet, I got a taste of it recently as I was leaving the office.

"Justin! Justin!" yelled a woman I'll call S, who works the paper's "Foreign Affairs Office" - essentially a group of Chinese assigned to babysit newly arrived "foreign experts" and help any others (like myself) when we can't do something like mail a letter, blow our nose or tie our shoes.

I froze. Sometimes it's not an entirely good thing when Foreign Affairs comes to you instead of vice-versa.

"Yeah, how can I help?" I said turning on the charm offensive.
"You are the HERO!" she said.
"Huh? Why? What?"
"The fire! You extinguished the fire. With BEER!"

Oh, that. It had happened the early evening the day before. I'd stopped at a corner shop for three cans of beer for a guest arriving later and as I got to my apartment I saw a literal pillar of flame coming from the battery-engine compartment of a small motorbike parked with dozens of bicycles at a rack. Two Chinese guys were watching it dispassionately.

Ignoring them, I ran to the apartment's security office to find ... no one. Running back I recalled the beer cans in my backpack and began popping and pouring and jumping back from the flames until the cans were dry and the fire was a sputtering low sizzle. Then one of the Chinese men came over and made a half-hearted effort to spit it out.

Two expats appeared on the porch of an adjoining apartment and I yelled at them to get someone or something other than a 12 oz can of Yan Jing to help me douse it completely. One returned with a fire extinguisher and almost threw it at me.
"Here, dude," he said. "I have no idea how they work."

This was the fun part. I pulled the pin. squeezed the lever and began furiously hosing foam over the smoking bike. When the fire was out, I picked up my pack and wandered back to the store, wondering if the bike owner might reimburse me sometime for the beer.

Between then and S's "you are the HERO" gush, I wasn't aware of anyone I knew seeing me in action, but obviously word had spread quickly of the valiant beer-touting, fire fighting foreigner.

"Aw, it was nothing," I told S.
"No," she said. "It was very kind. Three beers for the fire! I will write a letter. Perhaps you will be a Model Worker!" (China Daily awards this honor every 3 months or so; it's sort of a hangover from the old Commie work unit model and one I occasionally mock light heartedly)

"A working class hero?" I asked her, quoting the old John Lennon song. "Cool. That's something to be. Do I get new beer?"

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

I Can See for Miles

I was with seven other work colleagues on a Sunday tourist excursion, gazing in awe and exhaustion from the heights of the Great Wall at the miles of forest below and beyond - all wrapped in the pollution gauze of greater Beijing - when one voice broke the spell.

"It smells like bathroom," she said. Well, yes, I guess the particular vantage point we were at did have a faint urine aroma, but though the Wall has been rebuilt repeatedly and the stretch we were on had some home grown tourist stops (including a live camel ride), Ming Dynasity restrmooms weren't part of the deal. Even the under-construction area our two hired drivers had parked in had prominent restroom signs which just proved to be a tease as the facilities themselves - pledged to be done by the Aug 8 Olympics - were still not done and we thought the whole area would be lucky to be done by the London Olympics in 2012.

But it was ultimately a good thing. It was my first time at China's premier tourist attraction and I'd been dubious after hearing tales of sections swarming with sweaty foreigners trudging and puffing in herds. The site we wound up at was virtually empty and still pristine enough despite the heavy machinery, mud, piles of yellowish dirt, trucks, Beijing Olympics signs and security goons to allow one to imagine it as it might have been in its heyday defending against dreaded Outsiders. Now it welcomed five barbarians and three more or less natives. We were like kind of motley UN group - a black guy from England; two white American dudes; four women: Korean-American, Canadian-Chinese, American-Chinese and China-Chinese; and an India Indian fellow.

Wimp and geriatric that I am, I fell back and chilled with three tourist-trap lady vendors in blue and white headscarfs and their camel after three very steep, long flights. The others including one in 4-inch heels (she'd come straight from a job interview) went into the clouds and returned and, like me, pay too much money to be photographed astride the two humped Mongolian camel. We declined the opportunity to pay more to dress as fake Mongols or PLA soldiers, though one of our group donned a faux Mongol helmet that made him look like a Star Wars extra. No picture of that immediately available, but seven of our group can be seen in our glory above.

We'd begun at the Ming Tombs, another historic area but one that has been so restored that it's sterile. Note to self: No more Ming Tombs. It's essentially an large cold, barren industrial gray basement down 87 zillion flights of steps in which rest several enormous red wooden packing crates.

The day ended on full stomachs of "nong jia fan," or farm-style food, for an early dinner. The family home cafe had virtually no running water, but included chickens pecking in the yard as the homegrown source for eggs and meat, and plenty of fresh vegetables from their garden. We tore through 10 dishes and five fried salty pancakes stuffed with green onions and bemoaned the fact that next year at this time Ma and Pa Wang's Diner will probably have been replaced by a McDonald's.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Watching the Detectives

My State-owned "foreign expert danwei" (work unit) apartment borders a large, affluent middle and high school, much like my Lucky Number flat did in Shenzhen. Monday-Saturday I'm usually awakened to the sounds of announcements, 1980s Jazzercise Lite calesthentics, the martial bombast of the Chinese national anthem (Mondays only, thankyoujeebus) and, if I'm looking down below with a can of cold "Mr Bond - I'm young ... I'm coffee!" from my ninth floor balcony, the sight of hundreds of students in blue and white track suit uniforms lined up in small-to-tall rows overseen by assorted teachers in street clothes.

I've watched them long enough to have picked out a few individuals - notably the miscreants or misfits, the slower fat kids, a few cliques who torment a nerd or two, and the ones who just listlessly go through half-hearted motions in the "naughty child" back rows as teachers circle making an equally half-hearted effort to correct them.

This weekend while C was visiting for the first time since I've arrived in Beijing, trained observer that I am, I saw that classes weren't appparently in session on Saturday. While returning with a load of groceries and passing the school I saw the entrance was blocked off with crime tape saying "Police" in English. Parents were gathered for about two blocks sitting on curbs and in chairs outside restaurants looking hot and stressed while chewing up thousands of sunflower seeds, swilling water and fanning themselves with advertising leaflets that had suddenly materialized thanks to pamphleteers taking advantage of the new concentration of humanity.

Cop cars blocked off the street for several blocks and from my balcony vantage point I noted another police vehicle in school grounds along with several other "official" looking autos and vans.

"Shit," I thought. "Someone's been killed." Thoughts of Columbine - on which I'd done some freelance reporting on in Colorado - came back, though no students here have access to even pellet guns, much less M16s. Most murders are knife or hatchet jobs, like the 7 people just killed in Tokyo, news of which was also on my CNN-Asia channel as I watched the school. My immediate response was to call someone at the paper to tip them off to mayhem in our backyard, but put it aside recalling how Chinese crimes usually aren't reported until the 'perp(s)are arrested, detained or sometimes until after they're executed.

With my imagination at full throttle, I awaited for C to return from an errand she'd also been running to see if we could hit the street to talk with some parents. About 5 minutes after she arrived, I looked out again and saw the children were all streaming out of the school, being greeted by what looked like very relieved parents.

"Look," I said. "They let the kids out. Cops must be done questioning them. Let's go down and see if anyone will tell us what happened."
She peered down and didn't reply for a minute.
"What is the date?" she finally asked.
"June 8," I replied. "Why?"
"There is no murder," she said, smiling a little at my ignorance. "It is the national college test day."

Oh. Yeah. Never mind. "Black June" is how a Chinese colleague in Shenzhen once described the annual nationwide test - a sort of mega Sino SAT that asks you everything you learned from K-12 and for which kids are primed beginning early in this rote education system. It often determines an entire future career and social path and the pressure to excell is enormous - so much so that the suicide rate reportedly skyrockets in China among students during this period.

"But why the police cars? Why do they block off the street?" I asked C.
"To preserve order," she said as she was explaining to a Certified Moron why it wasn't a good idea to stick your hand into a working blow torch.
"What? Why? Who is going to raise hell at an SAT test?"
"I don't know," she said. "It is always how it is done. Like with our teachers, we do not ask why."
Photo from AP Photo by Elizabeth Dalziel

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Fakin' It

"What did you think of the story in our section by Xiao Xing?" a reporter asked me. I drew an immediate blank. To my eternal shame and mortification after four years in China I still have the recall ability of a wilting house plant when it comes to remembering most Chinese names unless they have an "English name" attached to them. (One of the first tests C gave me after we'd more or less become an item was one day to casually ask me if I knew what her Chinese name was. Heh. I kinda mumbled a reply that sufficed, yet did not immediately inspire her confidence in my undying devotion and long-term memory capabilties.)

"Uh...which story?" I asked, still flailing for a clue or cue. "It was by me," he said. I was still somewhat clueless as I couldn't remember his byline but now remembered one of his stories I'd edited. I waited for the punchline.

"Xiao Xing is not my name," he finally said, smiling.

"Er, yeah. Right," I said. "Anyway, it was a good job. Solid, flowed well, was easy to edit. No jargon. " I was honest there. He's one of our best reporters and is a second generation staffer. His father, now retired, was a chief editor.

"So, why the fake byline?" I asked. "You guys can do that?"

He's also modest and said he'd used a pseudonym because the story had been generated by a press release. "It was a rubbish story," he said. It wasn't apparent from the content, at least to me, and it had even had some less-than-positive things to say about an industry issue on his beat. Overall it was quite balanced, informative and not the usual sycophantic lick job some editors and reporters here regard as "journalism."

I told him I didn't think it was rubbish at all and said I didn't think a fake byline was needed. "You want to see a rubbish story?" I asked. "Look at this on page one."

It was a report about an issue here that's troubling many foreign barbarians. The Chinese government has cracked down on its visa regulations, essentially making business and tourist visas much more difficult and expensive to obtain. I have a half dozen friends or acquaintances currently in limbo wondering if they're still going to be here in the next month or two. Some have been working in China for several years and none can be remotely described as a "security risk."

The rubbish story I referred him to quoted a high level govt wanker at length as saying that the visa policy has not changed an iota. His quotes were completely unchallenged and whoever wrote it had essentially served as a stenographer. No foreigners were quoted, though a vague reference was made to the American Chamber of Commerce-Hong Kong's "allegations" that the policy has indeed changed and it's a problem.

"It's lies!" I said, beginning to froth a little. "Complete garbage."

He read it without comment and then laughed. "This reporter also knows it is rubbish," he said. "Look. This is a fake byline too."

Shore 'nuff. Same surname: Xiao, though the given name was different than what my friend had used. Then he explained the code to me. "Xiao" means young but it is essentially also the equivalent of America's "John (or Jane) Doe." He said reporters who feel they're reporting crapola will often use "Xiao-whatever" for stories they're not exactly thrilled to be writing or even feel are dishonest. It's not exactly a fullblown protest, but it's a statement nonetheless.

"We are not new to this," he said. "You know, my father's generation did it also and the press was much more controlled then. My father told me they used a term that means 'boring' for the same reasons."

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Sound of Silence
The Chinese government declared 3 days of official mourning, which included 3 minutes of silence across the nation today (Monday) beginning at 2.28pm - the time the quake began last week. Drivers were asked to to honk their horns at the same time and disaster sirens were also scheduled to wail, which I feared would jar the solemn mood and wouldn't sound too much different than a routine Beijing traffic jam .Nine people in our department stood before two TV sets ticking down the time towards the moment and silent footage of the disaster.

Out a window I could see construction workers in blue jump suits and yellow hard hats standing across the street atop office buildings, most also with hands folded and heads bowed. The horns began howling, while the sirens keened above them and it was as if the entire country was suddenly weeping simultaneously. Two female coworkers dabbed their eyes and I also began choking up.

Three minutes later it ended. True silence for a seconds except for sniffles and the televisions, then the jackhammers, saws and drills at the construction sites began their barrage again.

"So sad, too sad," one reporter whispered, a little embarrassed at her tears.

"It's okay." I said. "Everyone is sad."

Like the US post-911 much of China's Netizens have been trying to find meaning in what it is being called the worst year in the country's history - though none mention the famines in the late '50s or the Cultural Revolution years.

But with the crippling snowstorms of January, unrest in Tibet followed by what they perceive as international insults and humiliations as the "sacred flame" of the Olympic torch made its journey outside the Middle Kingdom, a horrific train crash and now the earthquake, and the Internet is abuzz with material that is familiar in its own way to those who've pondered the coincidences of JFK's and Lincoln's assassinations ("Lincoln had a secretary named Kennedy, Kennedy had a secretary named Lincoln; both had vice presidents from southern states named Johnson..."); the cryptic BS of a fake Nostradamus couplet foretelling the collapse of the Twin Towers, or the "holy cross" or "eagle" or "Satan" seen in smoke or cloud formations etc.

Here it's about numbers: add up the dates of the snowstorm (1-25), the Tibet riots (3-14) and earthquake (5-12) individually and you get "8" - normally an unusually auspicious number for Chinese and the reason the Olympics will kick off on 8-8-08 and why it costs more to get a phone number with multiple 8's.
The five tooth-achingly cute cartoon character Olympic mascots called "Fuwa" - sort of more exotic, colorful Smurfs - are also now seen by some to be harbingers of China's recent miseries. Representing a fish, panda, swallow, Tibetan antelope and Olympic flame those seeking significance in coincidence see the panda as an earthquake warning, as the ravaged area is also home to China's endangered giant panda population; the Tibetan antelope ... well, you can figure that out; ditto for the Olympic flame; the swallow is seen as emblematic for the "kite city" of Weifang in Shandong province where China experienced a deadly train crash last month.
The remaining one is a fish symbol or "water," which online doomsayers suggest could indicate pending horror in the Yangtze River.

Some Taiwan TV stations are also blaming the fengshui of Beijing's new "Bird Nest" Olympic stadium saying it has "interrupted the pulse" of a giant dragon said to lie beneath the country. And there are sincere efforts, saccharine - glurge, really - ways of finding some online comfort, like this poem which C translated for me and is choking people up throughout the country.

For the children of Wenchuan who have died in the earthquake

Hurry child, grab mommy's hands

Child, tightly grab mommy's hand

The way to heaven is too dark and mommy's afraid you'll hit your head

Hurry, tightly grab mommy's hands, let mom go with you

Mommy, I'm scared that the road to heaven is too dark

I can't see your hands since the fallen walls stole the sunshine away

I will never again see your loving gaze

Child, you can go to the road ahead

You will have no sadness, no endless homework, or your father's scolding

You must remember daddy's face and mine

In the next life we will walk together again

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

All Shook Up/I'm Still Standing

Lots of e-mail traffic lately about the recent China quake in Sichuan province, all from US pals wondering if I'm okay. I was in the mighty China Daily office in Beijing on MSN chat with C when she told me about it late Monday morning from her non-news related Shenzhen workplace. Meanwhile, in a major Chinese media nerve center, my coworkers were seemingly oblivious to it for about another hour until someone switched on a TV.

Reports that it was felt in Beijing were puzzling to me, until I realized that "Beijing" covers an area - urban and rural - of several hundred klicks. But, no, the earth did not move for me in Beijing and I guess it won't until C is able to get here. Unlike Burma where the aid is at best trickling in due to the xenophobia and paranoia of the country's military junta, China has responded openly and seemingly as best it can. Premier Wen Jiabao who has become China's go-to guy when it comes to showing up at disasters to publicly console victims and urge calm (several years ago he also was photographed and filmed "bravely" shaking hands with an HIV-postive Chinese citizen) has been busy being quoted as telling injured children that "Be brave, Grandfather Wen Jiabao is here" etc.

Yesterday the foreigners at China Daily got an in-house e-mail and paper memo about a "Memorial service" and aid donation opportunity in our lobby. We straggled down at 4.45 as we'd been asked to and found organizers still nailing up enormous blowups of our front pages for the last two days: "The day the earth moved" and "Race against time" in front of an oversized red metal donation box. Some went outside in the rain to smoke under overhangs and others milled about in the lobby waiting for something to happen. I'd imagined maybe some candles and at least a moment of silence and a speech of some sort followed by the opportunity to quietly slip some yuan into the box.

No candles, no moment of silence, no moving speech. Instead we were shepherded in front of the box to form a line as photogs gathered facing us. Then the China Daily honchos were photographed smiling and pushing 100 yuan bills (about $6) into the box. Next came the foreign staff, a bit embarrassed at the photo op. I slipped 100 in and later joked that I wondered how much of the cash would wind up in the Sichuan province officials' "Karaoeke, Massage and Maotai Relief Fund."

"Be careful what you say," one Chinese colleague said, laughing a little. "Because you will be on the front page tomorrow. They will want to show how China Daily foreigners care about Chinese people."
Well, it wasn't page one, but page six with the caption: "Staff from China Daily make donations yesterday. The newspaper collected 200,000 yuan." My boss was thrilled. I guess I'd made my section look good. Another coworker told me it was auspicious that I had worn a red shirt to do this, but noted a little gravely that the background behind me was black - a symbol in official Chinese govt photos that the person is no longer in favor.

I messaged C, who said she had also been photographed giving money at her workplace for a Chinese language paper in Shenzhen. A nice coincidence and while she looks a little stiff in her pic, she's easier on the eyes.