Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Another Trip To the Gym

In the gym changing rooms today it was really quite gloomy when I was trying to use my slightly broken locker. The lights in the changing room were all on bar the ones in this row of lockers.

I did try asking the attendant if they were broken and, if not, could they turn them on. To which he responded that they only turn them on after 4:30pm.

It took me fully 30 seconds of 'I guess that seems reasonable' before I got to 'hang on, there aren't ANY windows in here so there's no natural light to worry about'.

Rules is rules, I guess. No-one says they have to make any sense.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Why Remote IT Support is So Hard

Extract from a recent MSN conversation. Names changed to spare some blushes but the text is untouched:

"User":tell me how to bookmark
Me:In your web browser, do you have a word on the toolbar (at the top) like 'favourites' or 'bookmarks'?
"User":What is my web browser
Me:What do you use to 'browse' the 'web'
"User":my mouse

Sunday, May 28, 2006

World Leisure Expo

The coming of the World Leisure Expo has been trumpeted since I first came to Hangzhou and, from their website this is the "first of three mega-events to be hosted by China in this decade. The other two: The Beijing Olympics in 2008 and the Shanghai World Exposition in 2010". That doesn't bode too well for the others.

I went with J and YW to the main expo site (I'm pretty sure it's the right place but the website neglects to include a map). It opened with a big TV spectacular in April and it runs until October. The site is divided into two sections: a Venice-like section which hosts the 100-cities exhibition and the 'World Carnival' - a combination of a fun-fair and a half-built theme-park.

The 100-cities exhibition is tremendously uninspiring - of the ones we looked at, each section consisted simply of a room with pictures on the wall and a brief blurb about some aspect of leisure in the city. The number of visitors to this area was probably about 30 at any time and I imagine most of them, like us, were hoping that the carnival would be good enough to begin to justify the enormous 120 RMB entry price. Despite of being incomplete, the area must have cost a fortune (they say the whole site cost 1 billion USD) and it could probably be replaced with a pamphlet instead.

Clearly this money will be recouped after the event (if it hasn't been already) as the buildings have all been developed as residential buildings so I assume the site will become a full community after the event finishes.

On to the carnival and at last we found the occupants of the other vehicles in the car park - there were probably 1-2000 people there. There were a modest number of rides. We walked past the small log flume and lots of fairground games of skill and headed straight for the double-loop roller-coaster.

As we started to get closer we became concerned at the lack of action on the coaster but I could hear that the lifts were running. When we got there though we were turned away - the roller-coaster isn't finished.

We found a very short and wet boat ride (one ramp up, one slide down) that was reasonably entertaining - more so for us because we refused the rain wear. It seems a bit mad to me that you go on a water ride and then put on an all-covering plastic coat and shoe-covers! Clearly we got soaked but that seems to me to be the point.

There was (we think) a free-fall platform - non-operational, a few whirly-twirly nauseating rides and, at the back of the site, a pirate ship.

Closer inspection of the double-pirate-ship revealed that it was occupied by a team of carpenters who appeared to be assembling the ships. No chance that it's going to move for a couple of weeks at least.

We were simply astounded by the number of major attractions at a park that has a lifespan of April to October 2006 that aren't yet finished. Having said that, visitor numbers were such that I'm surprised that they hadn't just decided to abandon the projects part-way through.

There were signs pointing to 'Ultraman' all over the carnival site so we eventually followed them to their destination - what looked like a full-scale model of a small part of Felixstowe docks and a large model of Ultraman that you could view through some trees. The whole area was fenced off and had 'Restricted Access' signs around it. I don't know who Ultraman is or why he hangs round the docks but they'd gone to a lot of effort to half-finish the Ultraman display.

On to International Food Street on the way out and the street of restaurants starts well with a flamboyant Turkish ice-cream shop, but as you walk down the street, you realise that there's only actually three restaurants down there - and only one set of customers in each. The restaurants further down - locked and closed. Presumably the people running them decided it would cost them less money to close than stay open as they probably had no customers getting that far down the street.

Overall, I have to say, I found the whole thing tremendously disappointing. I, and clearly everyone else, couldn't see the point of the 100-cities bit. It only has any visitors because it's in between the carnival and the car-park. The carnival is only half-built and is actually quite expensive but hardly attracted any visitors (we didn't have to queue to get on any of the rides we went on). If I could do it again, I wouldn't have one of J's only two days in Hangzhou by visiting the Expo, nor would I go back. What a terrible shame. I hope the sales of apartments fare better.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

What do you do?

When you have a visitor coming for only two days who's never been to Hangzhou before. Answer: Everything!

Morning: West Lake - Despite the impending rain, we managed to avoid being rained on entirely. Walked round part of Beishan Lu and Gu Shan (the soldiers were back and ran past us in formation to add to the experience) then got a boat across to 'Three Pools Mirroring the Moon' island and back to shore.

Lunch: Tea House (with advice to avoid the boiled eggs - they don't contain egg)

Afternoon: Linying Temple (for the first time our visit coincided with a ceremony with lots of chanting - makes the experience much more real).

Fei Lai Feng
- trekking round the (slippery) hills looking at carved buddhas on the hillside and in caves.

Evening: He Fang Jie for some souvenir shopping.

Meal out at 'Grandma's Kitchen' to experience some real Hangzhou cuisine and a foot massage at Qian Zi Lian.

I think that about covers all the bases and I don't think you could get much more into the day. Finally back to bed about midnight. Whew!

Friday, May 26, 2006

The Joys of Golf

My cousin, J, has arrived from Canada. Well, actually he arrived from Hong Kong but he is from Canada.

Coincidentally, my friend, J (potential confusion alert) who is an ardent businessman, and therefore golfer, has been trying to convince me for some time that Golf is a better game than Samuel Langhorne Clemens makes it out to be. J called and invited me to the local driving range - ostensibly to see if there was any chance that I could get to grips with the game. J, who has played before, also willingly agreed to go so indeed we did.

I was relieved to find that my rather plain attire wasn't completely out of place (I always feel that I don't have many clothes that are suitably garish enough for a proper golf course). It was pretty humid and even a bit foggy. Not that that bothered me but J's drives were just vanishing into the mist.

J spent some time showing me how to 'shake hands' with the club, stand and make the shot. After the first real attempt to hit the ball, I realised the error of not twisting my body after the shot as it left me with terrible pain in my left wrist. Worse, I only clipped the ball so it thudded into the ball-dispenser with a loud thump and only slight chuckling from J and J. Things did pick up though after the first 50 balls or so and some of the shots actually went where I expected them to go.

It got more challenging when the little tractor that picks up the balls came onto the range - I'm told the objective at this point is always to hit the tractor if possible. Even after some more pointers from J my shots (with a 7 iron) weren't particularly accurate and could just make 150 yards and the tractor eluded me (I thought I had him but he turned and my ball missed him).

I felt a lot better about my standard of playing when someone else (down the other end, thankfully) managed to lose hold of their club whilst playing so it crashed into the ceiling and club and bits of fluorescent tube fell noisily to the ground. I might have hooked, sliced and mis-hit loads (not to mention hitting the carpet or thin air on a number of occasions) but nothing that embarrassing!

You know, this golf thing might just have something to it. I'm looking forward to going again, even if 24 hours later my fingers don't work and my arms feel like lead! Hopefully after a few goes I might get somewhere near the range of the 7-year-old kid who was playing when we arrived!

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Gas Price Shocker II

I must have been asleep when the gas prices went up last because they've just gone up again by about 5% to 4.86 RMB/litre.

That's 0.325 GBP/litre or 2.29 USD/US Gallon.

Taxi drivers, particularly, are up in arms and are talking about giving up in large numbers. They have had a rise in prices recently as 10RMB now gets you 3km, not 4 but I'm not sure how that stacks up against their costs.

In Guangzhou recently we were charged a fuel surcharge of 5 RMB on journeys to the airport (I only noticed because they gave me a bunch of 0.9 RMB fa piao invoices to cover it).

Wednesday, May 24, 2006


The satellite TV is on the blink again. There is hardly anything that I actively watch but I do miss it when it's gone.

Chinese TV has a bewildering array of channels which all appear to show news or the same three dramas. I've verified this with a number of Chinese people who seem to agree that dramas fall into one of three categories:
  1. Far and away the most popular - The Lives and Times of Former Emperors
  2. Police/crime stories
  3. How the Japanese did terrible things to the Chinese in the past
There are some bland, old foreign films dubbed into Chinese and a number of foreign soap-opera type dramas (one of the most popular being a Korean drama documenting the Lives and Times of Former Korean Emperors) .

There seems to be nothing like the array of genres available on non-Chinese TV - for example, there's no science fiction, no medical dramas, no Simpsons, etc., etc.

Like most foreigners who want to watch non-Chinese TV the choices are fairly limited. Whilst DVDs can get you so far, there are some things that only TV can give you. News for instance. Trashy TV fit to unwind to for another.

Allegedly you are allowed, as a foreigner, to legitimately have a satellite dish to receive the broadcasting from your own country but for most people this would mean getting a dish that is wider than your apartment is tall, and it would be so heavy that it would rip your apartment wall out if a light breeze were to strike up. So, dodgy Filipino Satellite TV it is.

Most of the time it's American fayre with access to some British shows (including 30 minutes of Sky news at 6:30am). The ads and links are Filipino though and it confuses me as to whether Filipinos speak English or Tagalog or Engalog. The two seem to be completely interchangeable. This is from 2 minutes of TV last week:

Need Fast Relief From Body Pain? Wicky wicky wicky wicky. Only P7.95 per capsule
Wicky wicky KFC Bargain Bucket wicky
All day free texting for 5 wicky wicky and only wicky
Wicky wicky American Idol Season 5
The worldwide phenomenon is finally here wicky! Wicky wicky wicky wicky...

There about 60 channels of which a quarter are international TV - with news, sport and movies - the remainder are a mix of Filipino, other foreign (French, German, Japanese, Korean) channels. As I see the UK is about to start broadcasting regular programming as HDTV I struggle to understand how people can bear to watch the Filipino movies - they're invariably copies you would imagine that people would have thrown away - dark, scratched films with fuzzy pictures and booming sound. I've seen many a black-and-white western film from the 50s in vastly better quality - regardless of the content, I just couldn't enjoy watching such poor quality films.

Hopefully my dodgy card-replacement salesman will be round today and I'll be back in business - sadly I'm only left with the four religious channels when the card expires so I've been watching the first series of Deadwood on DVD.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

CO2 - Pollution or life?

Thanks to John Biesnecker's blog for highlighting this one.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute are, apparently, called “the best environmental think tank in the country” by The Wall Street Journal.

Their goal, if I'm reading this correctly (their website is broken as I type so some of this is from memory) is to stop governments from legislating in what they believe to be the best interests of the people, on the grounds that people are better placed to make decisions for themselves. As they put it:

"We believe that individuals are best helped not by government intervention, but by making their own choices in a free marketplace."

One can only imagine that the final point above means that they want individuals, not governments, to make these decisions because big businesses are more successful at manipulating the actions of individuals than governments.

Now, from what I've read, there are some sensible ideas in the mix - regardless of what I've said about Health and Safety Legislation/Practice in China (clearly underdeveloped) there is a real danger that Health and Safety legislation is becoming overdeveloped in Western countries and is becoming tremendously restrictive and preventing people from taking even reasonable risks that they are happy to take.

The advertising campaign that they're publishing re: global warming is promoting the production of carbon dioxide emissions in their advertisements (They call it pollution, we call it life - you can find transcripts here if you don't want to watch the vids). How can this be anything but blatant lobbying from the oil companies to try to keep people on the track of buying their 12-cylinder 6 litre trucks? Despite my tongue-in-cheek dig at oil prices earlier, surely being economical with our use of energy for the potential benefit to the environment can't be a bad thing?

Even more worrying are the number of people that will probably subscribe to this thought just so that they can 'stick it to the government'.

I'd like to see the follow-up ads promoting an increase in carbon monoxide emissions.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Gas Price Shocker

Refuelled the car last night for the first time in ages and notice that the price of petrol has gone up to 4.44 RMB/litre (that's up over 5% since I bought the car in December).

To save people doing the mathematics, that's 0.29 GBP/litre or 2.09 USD/US Gallon.

You can see why people here are reeling at the price rises.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Matters of Taste

Part of the day was spent with an inspector of some sorts arriving at the apartment to make sure that our residency permits, visas and the alike were all correct and above-board, which made a nice change.

This afternoon I went with YY to 第六空间, allegedly the finest furniture store in town. I was actually just looking for a footstool but discussion soon turned to the new apartment and what we should buy in order to furnish it.

Unfortunately, matters of taste between Chinese people and non-Chinese people seem to differ completely. YY was taken with a wide variety of items in the store whereas I hated 99% of the items intensely. It's not just a question of not liking them a little bit, it's a question of not being able to remotely consider the prospect of having to look at these items every day. I'll show you YY's favourite dining suite (that they reluctantly agreed to let me photograph) and you'll see what I mean.

Dining Room

You can see the matching living room here. I'm told that such a living room would be, to paraphrase, the Mercedes S600 of living rooms. People coming to the apartment would think that we were extremely tasteful and well to do to have such a well-appointed apartment. My point was that any friends or family visiting the apartment would think that we had taken leave of our senses - particularly eyesight.

We did visit an imported Italian sofa showroom (the sofas, not the showroom) where the manager kept insisting on answering both mine and YY's questions in English, despite them being asked in Chinese. They had the simplest and most-tasteful furniture - albeit most of the furniture was white leather, which doesn't appeal either (surely it gets dirty quickly?).

Saturday, May 20, 2006

A Quiet Walk Round the Lake

This morning seemed like an ideal time to go for a stroll round West Lake - it's still very clear at the moment after the recent rain.

I actually started off in a recently opened camera shop trying to get a UV filter for my 70-300mm Image Stabilising lens. I started off asking for a '紫外的' filter which was getting me nowhere, then tried asking for 'UV' which worked at once. I'm told (and am open to correction) that China used to diligently avoid even abbreviations using letters, preferring a transliteration into Chinese characters up until the time China joined the WTO, which it did in 2001. Now the use of English acronyms is fairly common.

The walk was more eventful than I was expecting.

Ballroom Dancing at West Lake
There were people enthusiastically ballroom dancing in one pavilion, the next pavilion there was a lady singing whilst someone played an erhu (on the street it typically sounds a bit like someone playing a saw, but I've heard professionals play it beautifully). These things are not that unexpected.

Troops at West Lake
Walking around Solitary Hill (孤山) I spotted a load of soldiers on the edge of the lake, down on one knee, staring down rifle barrels trained across the lake towards the Shangri-la Hotel. There were still tourists sitting on benches amongst them and wandering along the path so I pressed on, only to suddenly realise that there was a second unit of soldiers half way up a grassy bank, all lying down and that I was staring down the barrels of their rifles! The whole thing seemed a bit odd - there were some soldiers just milling about and some sitting on park benches whilst others were holding their positions and with water bottles hanging from the end of the rifles to make it more difficult.

Troops at West Lake
I sneaked off a couple of photos as best I could, concerned that if they were real troops that it's probably not something that's exactly encouraged, although they did seem to have their own official photographer. Round the next corner and there were yet more. As there was one soldier on the path I asked him to confirm that they were soldiers, not actors (as they had a photographer) and he did confirm that they were real soldiers and, presumably, had real guns. I then became more concerned that they might also have real rounds in the real guns). He did agree to me taking a close-up shot of them as long as it was only a single shot.

The rest of the walk was very pleasant. I passed a large group of parents and their small children - some of whom were engaged in a three-legged race while a larger group seemed to be standing in a large circle (children in an inner circle, parents outer) with the parents taking photographs of the children on the other side of the circle. I also managed to add to my (very short) China Bird List as I spotted several Little Heron.

Back to the camera shop I dropped off the films that I'd shot - it's been so long that I'd forgotten the anticipation of how they're going to come out, and the fact you take much longer composing the shots because you can't just keep taking and retaking if it doesn't come out right. The people in the shop managed to irritate briefly by not listening to me speaking Chinese so I had to repeat myself, then they had a brief conversation in Hangzhou dialect so I couldn't follow it, only to give me a long, drawn-out 'Tom. Tomorrow....... after...the...noon' when '明天下午' would have been fine. Sinosplice has a very good entry describing this phenomenon in detail. Fortunately another assistant wandered over and we quickly concluded things.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Guess What's in the Basket

Hopefully even my lurkers will have a go at this one. I'll give you the answer tomorrow. Winner doesn't get some stinky tofu in the post.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Stormtrooper Season

As predicted, Typhoon Chanchun failed to come anywhere near us. It did rain for the last two days though and as a result, the weather today is simply glorious. The sky is actually blue (as the stuff that normally makes it grey has been dissolved into the rain).

As it's lovely and bright, the first of the unique local cycling accoutrements (at least, I've never seen them in any other country) has appeared. Stormtroopers. You can see what I mean...

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

China Hand

It's official - I'm now a China Hand

Yesterday we were visited by a group of executives and business people from a variety of countries and industries who are on an organised fact-finding tour of China. I think this proves my theory about China Business Knowledge, and that these people sensibly subscribe to it. I can show this best on a graph.
Doing Business in China is such a complex beast in terms of the rules, the people, the culture, the geography, the infrastructure, etc., etc. that there is simply a vast amount of potential knowledge out there. Most people who've never been to China simply don't understand - there have been numerous attempts by people who think it's going to be easy to crack China who've then fallen flat on their faces. Big-time wheeler-dealers must read Mr. China because it's fascinating and hilarious how two men managed to lose sooo much money.

The best way for anyone thinking about doing business in China is to talk to as many people who are doing business in China as you can. The reason for this is that: Many people, like myself, who know something about 'our bit of China' and the way we interract with it know some of the right ways of doing things and some of the wrong ways. As is clearly demonstrated from the above graph, I don't know much about anything but to most outsiders, it's still something they can benefit from.

Many of the people who are much more into it than I am (10-20%ers - there are probably very few people that could argue they're truly over 20%) are likely to fall into one of two cagegories:
  1. Old China Hands - they've been there, done that. They've also had 1000 sets of people eagerly trying to find out what makes China tick and to learn from their experience. This has left them somewhat jaded of passing this information on, in many instances only for China newbies to think that they know better and to ignore this advice.
  2. Consultants - people think they know so much about China that this knowledge has now become a saleable product in itself. The problem with many consultants (and we've come across a number) is that their advice will generally be that you should either follow a course of actions that matches the core competency of the consultancy (failing to mention that it's not the best course of action for you) or you should follow a course of action that the consultancy has no experience in at all (but they'll not mention that to you and assure that, of course they can help you with that) .
So - people are left with the option of talking to people like me. Still enthusiastic to share experiences and bring other people along but happy to be honest and pragmatic about it. I guess its easier for me to be open with the people in the 'Know nothing about China but want to know' category because they're so much more pleasant and interesting than people in the 'I've been doing x business for years and do see why China would be any different' people. One thing they learn quickly is that it's themselves that need to adapt, not China.

Yesterday was the first time I've been asked to be the panellist on a discussion about China and, surprisingly, it wasn't that daunting. Probably because to some of the people there you could have said pretty much anything and they wouldn't have known better but then again, whilst there were China virgins, they were a pretty seasoned bunch of businesspeople. It was also nice that my, er, observations about doing business in China and managing Chinese staff were backed up by the two experienced Chinese managers in the room.

I'm actually looking forward to the opportunity to do it again!

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

History Elephant

I would like to welcome History Elephant to the world of blogging. Colleagues of mine will undoubtedly be able to recognise the combination of a passing interest in China, an affiliation with history, a large dose of skepticism all topped off with heavy sarcasm and recognise the History Elephant immediately.

To make life doubly certain for me, I recognised the pile of money (China being the cash-based society that it is).

To the History Elephant I say 欢迎您到博客世界来!

Sonic Summer

I lie - I do have news. We're going to Summer Sonic! I've just had email confirmation that the tickets are in hand so We're going to Summer Sonic!

You don't get an awful lot of rock bands coming to China but, apparently, you do in Japan. So I'm going with P to see, what for this part of the world, looks like a pretty fine line-up of bands:

I'm pretty excited about this (probably not quite as excited as Troubled Diva at Eurovision but excited all the same). Hopefully this will be the first festival I've been to where I should have a pretty good view of the stage, no matter how far back I'm standing.

More Motoring Madness

I don't want this blog to simply become the Health and Safety Foibles/Motoring Madness blog that it seems to be becoming but I'm afraid that my scant readership will have to put up with this for the time being.

Hopefully a lighter workload (hah!) and soon-to-be-fully functioning leg will enable a greater degree of out-and-aboutness and more correspondingly multi-dimensional blogging.

Until then, it's mostly about getting to/from work and the myriad of minor disasters - most narrowly avoided - some less so than others.

This morning, I got a lift in to work with the company driver. He's generally a cheerful soul and has no regard whatsoever for other road users, unless they irritate or amuse him. He tsk'd irritatedly at the taxi that was refusing to heed his persistent beeping and get out of our way so we could illegally set off up the pavement. As the taxi driver wasn't budging he eventually gave up and lunged into the traffic flow, neither glancing nor flinching, as other drivers testing their horns and ABS brakes and wiped the nose marks off their windscreens.

There was a wag of the finger at some people daring to cross the road at a zebra crossing with the green man in their favour (this, in China, means nothing), and a hearty chuckle as a Honda Accord changed lanes and knocked a man's electric bike flying. The biker (who wasn't actually on the bike at the time) ran round to the driver's side door and flung the door open just as we drove too far so I couldn't see. Still - it made me glad for the automatic door locks on my car!

Monday, May 15, 2006

Dispute Resolution

We just went to lunch with one of our clients and, as we were leaving the building chanced upon a fight that was already in progress. Now I've got this new camera, I really need to develop the habit of keeping it on my person at all times.

My guess would be this started a few minutes earlier because the crowd that had gathered to watch was only about 25 people. I'm sure it would have been at least twice that size if it had been going for 10 minutes.

Not surprisingly it seemed to have been sparked by an incident involving at least one, if not two, electric bicycles. Clearly the 'guy in the red' was upset with the 'guy in the brown' as he kept lunging for him and at one point, chased him about 20 metres up the street.

There was momentary calm as a policeman arrived, followed by some renewed fighting when they realised the guy with a blue uniform and a white crash helment was a Pizze Hut delivery guy, followed by more calm when a real policeman arrived. Sensing a good time to move it, the building security guy who'd been standing next to us watching decided it was safe to move in too.

We didn't watch the next bit but I've seen this a number of times before, the most blatant exhibition I've seen was outside our first office.

The protagonists, lets call them Y and Z, had clearly had some sort of minor incident. I believe one was a pedestrian and the other driving a taxi. As we arrived, Y and Z were standing in the middle of the street yelling at each other. As the yelling intensified, Y removed his shoe and started waving it at Z. After a little while, probably no more than three minutes about 15 people had gathered around so Y and Z stopped yelling at each other and started yelling at the audience. Even without much Chinese it was pretty clear that they were informing the swelling throng what had happened, why it wasn't their fault and why the other party was in the wrong.

By the time the policeman turned up (delayed by the fact that after any accident, people have to leave their vehicles exactly where they where when the accident occurred until told they can move by a policeman) about 50 people were involved and were busy listening to depositions from Y and Z and discussing the relative merits of their case. The policemen then starting talking to Y, Z and the crowd to determine what had happened, even though none of the crowd had seen the accident!

So, if you're ever in an accident here, don't forget that whilst the facts may be the facts, your case will be helped if you put on a good show and get the sympathies of the audience behind you.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Early in the Year

Hmm. This is a rather worrying trend and probably lends more weight to the Global Warming theorists.

Typhoon Chanchu is on its way towards the China mainland by way of Hong Kong. Last year, the first typhoon to hit China wasn't until late July so having one in late May seems extremely early in the season. Helpfully the Tropical Storm Risk forecast says "TSR raises its forecast and anticipates the 2006 Northwest Pacific typhoon season will see activity slightly above average."

Typhoon Chanchu is already a pretty nasty one - it's already hit the Philippines as a Cat 2 and TSR is predicting it will be a Cat 4 by the time it gets to Hong Kong. It's currently showing as coming at Hangzhou in about 6 days time which would usually mean that it's going to miss us by a mile - not sure how they predict the track but last year, every storm that they said was going to hit us in 5 days time missed us by a long way. It's the ones they say are going to miss us by a long way that you need to worry about.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

More Car Madness

I have just taken the car for its first oil change and inspection. This mostly involved sitting and waiting but it provided a good opportunity for people watching - so something interesting is always bound to turn up.

My reaction on going back to the showroom was one of horror, not at the selection of cars but at the abuse the poor cars had received at the hands of the showroom staff.

On the main display podium was a sky blue Hyundai Accent - a horrible car anyway but they had, er, enhanced it with a large design on the bonnet (that's the hood for my occasional American reader) and cartoon pictures of Dalmations on the doors.

Next to that was a black Hyundai Elantra - it looked OK (for a saloon car) from the front but they had stuck on (not quite straight) a silver fuel-filler cover that now stood proud from the body, a silver bumper protector below the boot (trunk) lid and, the biggest travesty of all - they had replaced the front seats with leather but not the back seats! Has anyone ever seen a car with half leather and half cloth seats?

Even the Tucson that they had (that's what I've got) had running boards and a replacement front bumper (fender) that's significantly larger than the original.

Bad Body Kit
Even with these, to my mind, tasteless transformations applied to the cars, I didn't perceive any negative impact on the flow of people looking at and sitting in each car. I am sure that people are generally far less critical of detail than I am. For example – last time I sold a house in the UK, I went to great pains to ensure it was presented at its very best a la House Doctor. When I've been flat-hunting in the past here, people have shown me round filthy apartments with disgusting kitchens and broken aircon and assured me that it would all be fine by the time we moved in. I can’t see through the visual appearance to the possible flat underneath. Clearly I'm the odd one out here - the Hyundai dealer said they are currently selling 400 cars per month.

Car Dongxi
I couldn't quite work out what was going on outside. There was another saloon car parked outside and for the first hour we were there which had 5 people sitting inside it and another 20 people crowded round it for the whole time.

People here certainly do enjoy embellishing their cars, inside and outside. Sure there are yoofs in the UK who would be attracted by the horrible body kit like the car above but many more cars have fins, decals, stickers, pretend BMW 5-series antennae and so on stuck on the outside. Most have dangly things hanging from the mirror (usually the only purpose that the mirror serves), a pot of something smelly on the dashboard, seat covers (I've seen black leather seats with telly tubbies seat covers), steering wheel covers (some so thick that the driver can barely hold the wheel) and all sorts in the back window. The parcel shelf seems to be seen as a convenient storage place for cushions or a display for all the cuddly toys that you can find - oddly a back window like the one here doesn't mean that the owner/driver of the car is female - again, it's not such a big issue as the driving style really doesn't take into account what's behind you, only what's in front.

LED Exhaust

Clearly a number of people have seem The Fast and The Furious and have decided that adding blue neons to the underside of their local equivalent of an old style Nissan Micra would look cool.

Similarly, I spotted this guy who had added blue LEDs to the exhaust pipe of his mini-MPV so that they came on when he braked.

They did try to hard sell me on tinted window film - as summer is coming. I can see why other people are happy with the film to keep out the worst of the sun in the summer as it is pretty intense – (I've seen temperatures of 43 here) and in fact most cars here have tinted windows all round (and certainly much, much darker than would be remotely legal in the UK).

This is the first car I've ever had with manufacturer-tinted windows in the back and it makes reversing in poor light quite hard. Whilst I have adapted my driving style to some extent to match the local style, I'm still accustomed to using my mirrors before manoeuvring and I don’t think I could do that at night with tinted side windows. Some people without film install special curtains and taxi-drivers often trap a towel in the top of the driver's side window as a sun-shade - obviously they then can’t see anything at all out of the window then.

Still, my car was serviced in reasonable time. They even washed it. Unfortunately, the guy that drove the car from point to point didn't think to wash his hands so now the outside is clean and the inside is covered in oily-black fingerprints. Sigh.

Friday, May 12, 2006

They've Killed Kitty

They've Killed Kitty

I thought this was more entertaining that just posting a copy of the Test Card while I'm struggling to find the time to blog. OK, only slightly more entertaining.

If you'd prefer some humorous Health and Safety related pictures, some of these are pretty impressive.

Normal service will be resumed.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006


Lunch yesterday consisted of going to the "Best Buffet in Town" (TM) at the Hyatt - not remarkable in itself except for a conversation that I overheard. A plump (by Chinese standards) lady was about to help herself to something from the buffet when another woman sitting at a table nearby called out "You shouldn't have that - you're too fat!" at which point the woman stopped and walked away - to a completely different table.

I can just imagine the response in the UK to an incident like that and I'm pretty sure it would begin with the phrase "Are you talking to me?" and end much less pleasantly. The lack of embarassment about confronting complete strangers with things is quite amazing (particularly if you're English and your DNA tells you that you would be best served not risking confrontation of any sort).

After lunch we went outside to find the car only to find the dancing fountains in full swing, again. I guess we must have impeccable timing because, just like last time I was there, a song I really hate was booming out over the speakers. Thanks to the power of Google, I have just learned that this is Take Me to Your Heart by Michael Learns to Rock. I'll admit that I've never even heard of the band before this morning, which is hardly surprising as they seem to produce sappy, poppy love-songs. The reason I hate this song comes from shooting the Wedding Photographs - a 17 hours ordeal at the photographers which, except for an excursion to West Lake for some photographs on, around and occasionally in the lake, was done entirely in their studios in Hangzhou. They had one, single CD with 6 tracks that came round again, and again, and again in a kind of Chinese Pop Torture. Unfortunately that leaves me with a sort of Pavlovian conditioning that means I only need to hear "Love is now or never" and am left with the urge to rend the speakers from their mountings and hurl them into the lake.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The March of Globalisation

Starbucks - Hangda Lu
Globalisation can, of course, be a good thing. We've got a new Starbucks and, even better, it's half way between my home and the office. Yay!

It's also the first new Starbucks in town in the 3 years I've been here so hopefully this means that they're going to open some more in other parts of town which should have the benefit of encouraging higher standards amongst the opposition (clearly a good thing) as opposed to trying to smother them and force them out of business.

Cat Mutilation.

Argh. I have spent the afternoon on the computer whilst YY is watching CCTV-11, an entire television channel dedicated to cat mutilation. Or at least that's what it sounds like.

OK, the subject of this piece doesn't actually involve cats but it does sound like them. And the subject is... Beijing Opera.

Now of all of the aspects of Chinese culture, I think this is the one of only two things that all expats truly agree on - and that is that Beijing Opera sucks.

Now people who like western opera are often derided by outsiders for its high-brow form, silly stories and unintelligible dialogue but Beijing Opera takes this onto a whole new level.

The protagonists - always male - have painted faces, dress up as women and wail away like cats in the process of being boiled, flailed, crushed and skinned. The accompaniment to this is a group of, er, musicians. The instruments resemble the bits of metal that Stomp decided had no musical value. There's the misshapen oil drums that they like to beat excitedly, at the same time as people rattle dischordant tambourines. Every so often when someone is really excited they twang what sounds like a piece of fence wire.

It is truly, truly dreadful.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Luxury Bicycle

Air Conditioned Bicycle

How, er, cool is this. Spotted on the way home after a lovely meal - a bicycle with its own air-conditioning.


Evening Meal

Duck Tongues

We went to the Good Sunshine Restaurant (OK, a Good Sunshine restaurant - it's a very popular name) last night. I actually quite enjoyed my half of the meal - beef with spicy peppers, eggy pumpkin and some fried noodles with Pork.

I thought you might like me to share the other, er, dishes.

Drunken Shrimp

The photographs all had to be snapped sneakily for fear that the restaurant thought that I was trying to photograph the dishes so that I could recreate them.

First up was the ever popular starter, duck tongues. They look worse than they sound because they come with the tendons that used to attach them to the duck still intact. It makes them easier to hold. Apparently.


Next up were drunken shrimp. A movie would have been better because you could then see that the shrimp are still moving in the sauce because they've not become sufficiently drunk. 15 minutes later and they're still enough to have their innards sucked out.

This was all topped off with a big plate of juicy snails. Yum.

Sunday, May 07, 2006


As much as I'd like to think I could, I'm pretty sure that I'm going to struggle designing this new apartment. Every Chinese apartment I've ever seen has a variety of faults (by my standards) that I'm keen not to replicate:

Socket in Shower

Safety - my number one concern is that the standard of wiring sucks. Most wiring is done the very old-fashioned way of twisting wires together and wrapping with a bit of tape. I've also got a plug socket in the shower, which I'm not too keen on.

Attention to detail - my current rented apartment has wobbly taps, light switches that do nothing, rusting fittings, peeling plasterwork, doors that swing open on their own. My biggest complaint in my office is that the kitchen worktops are made from porous granite. Who knew porous granite existed but this is - spill a drink on it and you can't wipe it all up!

Plumbing - typically this is done without the use of that fine, Victorian, invention - the U bend.

Built-in-furniture - fitted furniture is the standard for bathrooms, kitchens and the like. The only issue is that it's typically built on-site from plywood and fairly low quality. The use of standard units from specialist suppliers is definitely not the norm.

Funky features - It's fairly standard in the UK for people's houses and apartments to be intrinsically fairly plain and accentuated with furniture and accessories. Here people employ a wide variety of infrastructural devices, for example - rope lights - in some cases, set into the floor with a (hopefully) plate glass panel over the top, twiddly bits built into ceilings and walls, etc.

I kind-of have an image in my head as to what it's going to look like when it's finished but I don't know if it's a pipe-dream (because it's going to cost more than I can afford) or achievable (because my dreams are more tasteful than my planning). I'm tending towards a modern design with simple, clean lines.

I also need to bear in mind that if I come to sell it, 99.8% of all potential buyers will be local and, therefore, will neither want some of the features I want (an oven is the most obvious example - most Chinese homes don't have one) nor will they perceive the value in the quality of the features that I want to install.

The one thing that the jury is still out on is YY's desire to have a fireplace. Obviously (as it's a 15th floor apartment) there's no flue, and I find the idea of flueless gas fires to be pretty scary - particularly as there's no regulation of gas-fitters in China.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Haircut day.

Today was haircut day. This is both a cheaper and a much more involved experience than in the UK. So we went to The New Love Story.

The experience starts with hair-washing, which is done seated in a chair with a small amount of water and a large amount of scalp massage. Unfortunately, I’m typically the same height as the hair-washer when I’m sitting down and they’re standing up which makes it a bit harder for them. The finale from the hair washing is a good-and-soapy ear washing.

After that it’s off to the rinsing chair. It starts off with a rinse as you would expect but moves on to a full face-washing and facial massage and more scalp massage. Today’s face washing actually concluded with a nostril-cleaning…

Back to your seat and the next thing is probably the most controversial part – ear-cleaning. I actually quite like it but I know most of the foreigners don't. It's just a gentle twirling of cotton buds down the lug-hole. Occasionally, as today, it can be a tad uncomfortable – usually if they’ve sprayed water in my ears during the rinsing.

After that, it's more massage. Fingers, hands, arms and shoulders then neck and back.

It's really quite therapeutic and, given the cost of 25 RMB (less than 2 GBP) it's well worth it. Overall this usually takes about 45 minutes - far longer than the haircut that follows. It’s usually a pretty reliable service – of all the people I’ve taken there I think the only real casualty was A who tried to signify “please only take this tiny amount of hair off’ and managed to convey “please cut my hair this long”.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Damn Bugs

Not sure if the insect population is trying to seek revenge for the slaughter of innocent moths yesterday...

We have a new client in town and went out for lunch. On the way back I to the office in a taxi I put my phone in my pocket and seconds later realised that there was something in my left hand between my thumb and middle finger. First thought was that it was a ringpull or something like that that I had pulled out of my pocket. A quick look down revealed that a large, round, hard-shelled insect was clinging to my finger. After a quick yelp of surprise (and gales of laughter from the taxi driver) the insect was flung to the floor and dispatched with a size 49.5 boot. I could have hoped that a first meeting with a new client contact might have been done with a bit more decorum.

This morning woke up at 5am scratching my right ring finger and suddenly realised that I'd been bitten by a mosquito. Lights on and 10 minutes prowling round the room later I still hadn't found it but I had discovered that the damned thing had been treating me as a buffet. I had been bitten on both hands, the backs of both legs, my right foot and my, er, seat. There was nothing for it but to quickly decamp to the spare bedroom and to deliver justice to the mosquito, Raid style.

Has anyone got any antihistimine?

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Moths. Grim.

The moths are back. I have just been to the larder and it's full of small, black and grey moths. This happened last year as well.

Now, I was aware of the concept of people putting moth balls in clothes from the UK but I've always considered this to be anachronistic. So, when I saw a moth in the larder last year I didn't think anything of it. Then over time I saw another, and another, and another, until I came to realise that we had a problem.

The biggest problem is that my larder mostly contains special, imported foods. Boxes of Shreddies and other breakfast cereals, Barilla pasta, Sainsbury's mashed potato powder, imported bread flour, Paxo and so on. Last year by the time we realised we had a problem because we'd seen a few moths and cleared the cupboard out, we found that the cupboard had become a veritable nest. Caterpillars had eaten through most of the boxes to get inside and, in the case of the cereals, they'd even managed to eat through the plasic bags so there were caterpillars and coccoons throughout the food. Grim indeed so, a cupboard full of imported delights had to go.

This year I thought we'd been vigilant, wiping out moths the second we saw them as opposed to assuming they were harmless as I've always done. The result? I've just killed three moths in the larder now. And enjoyed a nice bowl of Shreddies. I guess more protein means less carbs which is better for you in the long run...

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Buying an Apartment

Apartment - late 2004

I am buying an apartment.

Actually no, that's not right, I have bought an apartment. Only I don't have an apartment. Yet.

It's confusing, I know, so I'll try to explain.

Apartment - early 2006

I agreed to purchase a brand new apartment in October 2004. The first picture is what the apartment looked like then. Pretty, eh? What I wasn't really expecting when I came to make the deal was that they wanted payment, in full, before they would sign a contract. If I were Chinese I would be able to get a mortgage with the one bank that you were allowed to use to buy an apartment on this complex. But I'm not. And I couldn't.

So I had to borrow the money in the UK and then transfer it and convert it. As the Chinese currency isn't fully convertible I needed a certificate from the Foreign Exchange Bureau to convert the money and (and this is the important part) to be able to convert it back should I ever want to sell up. The one thing I needed to get the certificate to convert the money to buy the house was a signed purchase contract. The only thing I needed to get the signed contract was to have paid them the money. You can see where this is going...

Apartment Complex - South

Eventually it took the intervention of my company's accountant and lawyer to persuade the housing company that they would have to stump up a temporary contract in order for them to be able to get paid for an apartment that they hadn't built yet. So - pretty commonplace for here, really.

So here we are now, May 2006 and my apartment is... still not mine. Allegedly it will be mine from October this year. As you can see from the second pic, it's obviously moved on a fair way from the first time I saw it. As has the complex. The last two pics were taken standing on the same spot as pic 2. The complex up to my building is, pretty much, complete. The complex around my building looks like a battlefield. Still - I've got plenty of experience that tells me that they can still hit the deadline.

Apartment Complex - North

Some other points of interest when you buy an apartment, in cash, two years before it's going to be ready.

1) I discovered, not long after I bought the apartment, that I can't sell it. At least not until October 2006. Even though I've paid for it, in full. The reason for this, apparently, is because I don't have the certificate of ownership which I won't get until it's complete. This is, apparently, perfectly reasonable.

2) When I bought my car I tried to get a loan - nothing fancy, just 50%. Everywhere I tried I was turned down. I did enquire if I could get a loan because I owned an apartment and, again, was told that I could if I owned an apartment but, as I don't have a certficate of ownership (just a contract and a recipt for having paid for it) that I technically don't own an apartment.


Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Out in the Sticks

Quiet Cafe

Following on from the last post, I should tell the story of my first trip to YY's hometown in Gansu Province.

Whilst it's 2000km away in terms of distance it is, in reality, a lot further away than that in terms of life. Ox-drawn ploughs, donkey-drawn carts, the butchers walking the meat to market, and so on - there're more photos on Flickr.

Whilst having lunch of some sort of potato dish that had been mashed in a wooden bucket with a large pole until it had become quite gelatinous we came to the attention of the local primary school kids, pictured above. At first it was very good natured and they enjoyed seeing the photos that I took of them on the camera. I was very conscious of the fact that I'm probably the first foreigner that many of them have ever seen and felt like a kind-of-ambassador for all non-Chinese people.

This all went horribly wrong when YY decided she'd had enough and threw a saucepan full of water out of the door and into the waiting kids. We decided to make a hasty retreat shortly after this and were pursued by 80 primary-school kids chanting 'Laowai - laowai,laowai,laowai' to the tune of 'Ole - ole,ole,ole'. I fear a failed diplomatic mission...

Monday, May 01, 2006

International Labour Day

Labour Day

Happy International Labour Day (as opposed to Labor Day)...

After spending the morning at the hospital I was talked into lunch at the Hyatt for "The Best Buffet in Town" - as I've been mostly on the sofa for 5 days now this seemed like a good plan assuming I could get a taxi, which didn't actually take too long.

West Lake

Lunch was good although 'All I Could Eat' was hampered by not wanting to get up to eat more than twice. Afterwards we walked/hobbled the 100 metres to the edge of the lake, with the 'dancing fountains' in full swing. Not surprisingly, this being a national holiday, there were a simply staggering number of people by the lakeside (I was, of course, just staggering by the lakeside...).

Now Hangzhou is becoming a more and more cosmopolitan place with larger numbers of people from all over the world living and working here so the locals are much more used to seeing us about than they were a few years ago. These days you only get the occasional cry of 'Laowai!' (foreigner!) or 'Hello!' (although a couple of weeks ago I went out for a meal near my apartment and on the way someone shouted 'Sorry!' and on the way back someone else shouted 'Good Morning!' (at 8pm)).

West Lake

The tourists from other parts of China are clearly less used to us and today this was visibly evident. In the three minutes we were at lakeside we were sneakily photographed by 6 or 7 people, including this guy who then obliged by posing for me to take a reciprocal photo. We were also asked to participate in a group shot with another bunch. Sadly I missed my photo opportunity to capture an old guy wearing pyjamas, slippers and a suit jacket.

A Trip to the Hospital

I've just been to see the doc about my leg. As is fairly typical, a number of differences between Chinese hospitals and those in the UK were readily apparent.

1. You have to 'queue' and pay before you get to see a doc. People's actual adherence to The Way of The Queue is minimal. Even when the queue is only 1 person deep people will still try to cut in. Most Chinese people I speak to find this behavior irritating as well!

2. Smoking - there are many no smoking signs in hospitals but little adherence. You'll often see a group of people, even pregnant women, and sitting next them will be a bloke (invariably) smoking constantly.

3. Mobile Phones - everyone, even the doctors, use them all the time. Make you wonder if the rules in the UK that ban their use for fear of interfering with equipment serve any purpose other than to force people to use expensive payphone services.

4. Drips. You often see people wandering about with a bottle of saline attached. It's that much a part of the treatment regime that if you go to the Accident and Emergency section, there will be a hook over every seat in the waiting room.

5. Privacy. First doctor we went to see had 15 patients in the room with him. As I wanted a doctor to look at my leg I had no intention to drop my trousers with an audience so had to keep looking.

6. Blood tests - I don't know if they do this in other countries but most Chinese hospitals use a bank-teller type screen so you insert your arm through the window and they 'do their thing' - I've never encountered this elsewhere.

All in all, the hospitals in Hangzhou seem to be as well equipped as UK ones and the waiting times to see a doctor are a fraction of those in the UK. It's a diferent story out in the sticks though. Having been to the hospital in YY's home town I would have to be at death's door to let them treat me for anything.