Wednesday, August 30, 2006

It's a Girl!

Well, apparently.

As I may have mentioned, Chinese hospitals aren't supposed to tell you the gender of your child for fear that you may see a girl as unwelcome. This is almost certainly a good thing when most city folk are only allowed to have one child and a girl neither passes on the family name nor ensures someone to look after you into old age. I assume, on the grounds that our children will be British and, technically, unlimited in number that the doctor didn't mind letting slip that she is almost certain it's a girl. Not from ultrasound or anything like that but from external prodding only.

This has now been confirmed by YY dreaming that we had a large, white snake (steady - this isn't a euphemism!) in the house. Apparently a white snake is the key indicator so, it's definitely a girl...

This might sound unlikely, but that's probably if you don't put it in the context of seemingly less plausible superstitions such as Korean Fan Death. It seemed a bit implausible when I first read about it here but even has it's own website at

Monday, August 28, 2006

Pop Idol

There is a suggestion bubbling about that the company I work for, and a neighbouring firm should have a 'Pop Idol' competition.

Now, we've had a singing competition before, with the results being decided by anonymous voting but this suggestion was to do the whole 'Idol' thing. Now, I've no problem doling out criticism where it's due (possibly my Mother's assertion that we are related to Simon Cowell is true...) but to do Idol properly means being nasty and, in China, I'm not sure that's going to work.

There's an American program called 'Famous for 30 Seconds', not unlike the old 'Gong Show'. People come on and do their party pieces - singing, dancing, juggling, acrobatics, etc. and the odd lame act, animal impersonations, poor comedians. Part of the gig is for the audience to vote these guys off.

There's a Chinese equivalent and it doesn't quite work the same way. Oh, there's the singing, dancing, juggling, acrobatics - all the 'real' acts, but the joke acts - people that can't sing, an old lady that came on stage and danced about like someone's drunken auntie at Christmas - they got the full on audience support. Support for the underdog, appears therefore to be a given.

I was actually prompted to write this after YY was going mad with panic that her favourite star (she likes him because he has a long face) wasn't going to win in some talent show or other on Shanghai TV. I watched the final round - longface sang a passable rendition of one of the dozen or so songs that Chinese bar singers always sing - his competition was in the form of a guy who came on in traditional costume and twirled around waving a flag. Apparently this was marvellous because he's deaf. Fortunately longface won the day (after an impressive build up where both candidates disappeared into the floor, a fountain sprang up to obscure the sage from view, the hosts counted down from 10 to 0 and then, nothing happened. Whilst the unlikely-looking presenters chatted amongst themselves, longface suddenly appeared from the stage. Hopefully the stage manager was swiftly dispatched...).

Unfortunately (!) I missed 'Supergirl' but have seen other singing talent shows in China and it seemed very much that people would come on, wail out some tuneless dirge, and then 3 out of 4 judges would give them the green light to the next round and tell them how beautiful they were, lovely hair, etc. and avoid mentioning that their singing made a noise like a kitten stuck in a garbage disposal.

If that's the way people like it, then the idea of doing a competion like this with one's own employees sounds incredibly dangerous. I can only imagine trying to play the Simon Cowell role and telling someone that "I can't imagine why they ever thought they could sing as they sounded like a wounded seal walking over hot coals" only for the whole audience to be looking at me open mouthed thinking "She was trying her best and he's said these horrible things. What a total git!".

Unlike Simon Cowell, the worst thing that could happen to me is that 50 people resign the next day because of the combined loss-of-face and loss-of-faith in me and the company. That wouldn't happen to Simon Cowell! Although I guess the possibility of being stalked and shot by a disgruntled singer is worse for him.

Think I'll stick to our Softball competition!

Sunday, August 27, 2006


昨天晚上我们家停电了.是很奇怪因为停电以前我们听见了个很大声音的警报.我找到了.我的手电筒然后开了大门.外面没有停电!我们的领主也停电了因为他们都在外面.一个六岁的小男孩子赶快跑到我们门口了, 对我的老婆说"阿姨.噢.你的家也停电了.我们没有空调. 我们快热死了!".笑死我了.那么小的孩儿会这样说是特别中国的!

100th Post

In celebration of my 100th post, I thought I'd take a trip down memory lane to the worst Airport experience I've ever had. Unfortunately, it came the day after I got married (to clarify, as the date that you get married, is not at all clear in China, this is when we technically got married and got a marriage certificate).

Thanks to the arcane Hukou system in China, this meant having to fly to Lanzhou where YY's Hukou is based, as you're not allowed to get married anywhere else. Lanzhou is 1900km west of Hangzhou where we live so that meant the hassle and expense of a 2.5 hour flight and, thanks to the flight times, two nights in a hotel just to spend 15 minutes in a government official's smoke filled office to get our marriage certificate.

On the way to Lanzhou, I'd had an example of just how well-thought-through the newly introduced airline e-ticket system is in China.

Old system (paper ticket)
  • Queue at check-in desk
  • Give them ticket and passport
  • Receive boarding pass
New system (e-ticket)
  • Queue at check-in desk
  • Be told 'Ah, you have an e-Ticket. You need to go there (points at throng of people) to pick up a voucher'.
  • Join throng of people, get sick of people barging in front to be served and eventually barge to front yourself
  • Get voucher
  • Queue at check-in desk
  • Give them voucher and passport
  • Receive boarding pass
So, I'm not a fan of the Chinese e-ticket system (this is only for internal flights - for international flights, common sense prevails as with e-ticket use elsewhere).

The way back from Lanzhou was much worse though.

We arrived at the airport, fresh from the 60km drive from Lanzhou, with two hours to go before the flight. We queued briefly at the check-in and then handed over the faxed confirmation from the travel agent, which is where it went horribly wrong.

They checked all of the vouchers and there were none for us. They checked the computer and there was no record. Even with the booking references and so forth on the fax, they couldn't find us. A quick call to our company managed to get us in touch with the travel agent who booked the tickets for us and they confirmed the ticket was set up correctly in the computer. Unfortunately, the airline disagreed.

Eventually (40 minutes before take-off) everyone conceded that we'd need to buy new tickets if we were going to get on the flight so off we rushed to the Lanzhou International Airport ticket desk where bad quickly became worse.

The tickets were 1600 RMB (just over 100 GBP). We only had 1000 RMB in RMB on us.

Who would guess that anything claiming to be an International Airport would only accept cash in the local currency and nothing else.
  • Chinese Debit Cards? No
  • Foreign Credit Cards? No
  • US Dollars? No
So we looked for other options?
  • ATM in the airport? No
  • Foreign Exchange Facilities? No
  • Ability to pay at the far end? No
Even trying to persuade one of them to take the 100 USD (worth 826 RMB) and coughing up the 600RMB we needed and keeping the 226 RMB for themselves met with a shaking of heads.

One helpful chap did chip in "Well, you'll just have to get the next flight... tomorrow" which was the last straw. Given that we've bought and paid for two tickets, and have the evidence to prove it, and have enough cash in different currencies, and all the bases covered with credit cards, and still don't have seats on the plane, we were not happy at all!

Suddenly the check-in girl appeared and had a solution to the problem. The last people to check-in had agreed to loan us the money. With less than 10 minutes to go we got our tickets, I managed to get a quick telephone call off to arrange our company driver to meet us in Hangzhou with cash to repay them, and we leapt onto the plane.

Once the plane took off I realised that I didn't even have any clue who the people were who'd lent us the cash so YY asked the stewardess who said she'd go and find out. Just to round off the perfect wedding experience, 60 seconds later the tannoy boomed with "Can the people who lent money to buy tickets to the couple sitting in seats 17 A and B please make themselves known". Fortunately the silence and mass turning of heads (and I'm easy to spot on an internal flight as I'm the tallest person by far...) was broken by our saviour coming forward.

In all, it was quite a show of trust and helpfulness (which I'm not convinced anyone in the UK would have done for us). Then again, the problem would never have risen either as I can't believe the UK has any international airports that only take cash!

Saturday, August 26, 2006

You might want stop eating before you read this

But in order to fully savour some of the true horrors that are public-use toilets in China you should read this article and subsequent comments from Talk Talk China.

For an appetite whetter, this is my favourite so far:

"Without wishing to put people off their lunch, I feel I must share my own “favourite” public defecation experience. Whilst in Carrefour one afternoon, looking to purchase a baguette or two, I wandered into the bakery section of the store and came across a woman holding a plastic bag, the type you put loose produce into before it’s weighed and purchased, under her son, as he proceeded to shit into it. In the store. Next to the bread. And no-one said anything either."

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Random Questions of the Day

  • Why do most female stealth-bike riders here have the wing mirrors angled so they can see their face rather then the road behind them?
  • Why do stealth-bike riders think it’s both big and clever to appear smug when they overtake cyclists on a hill?
  • Why do construction projects hang the phrase ‘安全第一’ (quite literally ‘Safety First’) everywhere when clearly no-on knows what it means?
  • Why do they fit ventilation systems in road tunnels and underground car parks but don’t switch them on?
  • Why do all buildings have Security Guards when clearly they’re only ornamental?
  • Why do shops and restaurants keep all the lights turned off when there are no customers inside, thus creating the impression that they’re closed?
  • Why do people not react in any way to you ringing your bicycle bell/hooting/shouting at them when they’re in the middle of the road/bike lane?
  • Why, when tackling pollution is getting some serious attention, do the police set up endless road blocks to check bicycles and let stinking trucks pumping thick black smoke go untouched?
  • Why do cars drive with their high-beam lights, fog lights and driving lights on when it’s raining? (I’d suggest that it’s to blind people coming the other way but that just seems gratuitous)
  • Why, oh why, don’t people USE THEIR EYES before walking, cycling or driving onto a more major road?

I could go on, and indeed, on. I guess the answer to all of these questions is simply going to be ‘Why not?’ as that’s the only answer to so many questions here…

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Goddamn' Pedestrians

Get out of the damned way!

One of the things you get used to here is people shouting "Laowai" or "Hello" at you as you're going about your daily business. It's no fun and by and large there are enough foreigners in Hangzhou that people don't get too freaked out by us.

I know it's not just me that gets riled but, today really took my cake/biscuit.

Normally pedestrians know the rules (keep moving at a constant speed ignoring all visual and auditory stimuli and the traffic will move round you) but not today. Not once, but twice whilst cycling to the office, a random pedestrian started to cross the road in front of me - assuming they'd stick to the rules I kept going (a bit like Days of Thunder - you drive towards the car that's crashing in front of you assuming momentum will take it somewhere else) only for them to go all "There's a laowai" on me and stop dead in front of me. Even shouting 'Argh!' as my wheels locked and I slid up the road towards the first old goat didn't get a flinch out of him.

So - anyone in Hangzhou who sees me coming (foreigner, wearing light coloured clothes at night, moving faster than 99% of non-e-Bikes, can't miss me) please remember to Get out of the damned way!

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Social Stigmata

Of the many thousands of spam mails I receive each year (and if anyone from my company reading this can help, please can we get spam filtering already!) they rarely make me laugh out loud.

One of today's, selling an as-seen-on-Oprah slimming drug said:

"Did you know obesity kills more and more people every year? We know you hate the extra pounds, the ugly look and the social stigmata attached to fat people. Moreover, you can barely do anything about the terrible eating habits of yours. This all sounds familiar? Then we have something for you!"

Ignoring the bland and unverifiable nonsense in the first sentence, the question I want answering is "Do people go round attaching social stigmata to fat people?" If so, does this only apply to fat Catholics? Possibly there's someone hiding under the counter at an all-you-can-eat buffet near you with a claw hammer and some six-inch-nails just waiting to pounce.

Sadly, a quick Google shows that it's not just Fat people that need beware but also snorers and parents could be affected as "parents fear the horrendously negative social stigmata that comes along with being gay or having a gay son or daughter".

Fat, Catholic snorers with a gay child must be in constant fear of their lives through exsanguination!

Monday, August 21, 2006

Lack of a Suitable Gesture

While Chinese as a language has plenty of scope for pouring scorn on people verbally, visually it is a different story.

Now, China also is no stranger to hand gestures as this Sinosplice article about counting on one hand relates (personally, I've always assumed that this developed not to vercome the language barrier with so many regional dialects but simply because bars and restaurants are so noisy with everyone shouting all the time that people can't hear each other across the table when they're playing the dice game).

Chinese body language can be incredibly unintelligible. One of my early trips to Hangzhou took me to a shop with an interpreter who spent twenty minutes with the shopkeeper yelling at her with his face an inch from hers (close enough for her to need a tissue when the conversation was over...) and it was only when they reached a conclusion and I heard him yell "谢谢.没问题!" (Thank you. No problem") at her did I realise that it was simply his manner, rather than him actually being livid.

So, with a litany of swear words, a familiarity with hang gestures and hard to read body language, why is it that no common Chinese hand gesture exists that conveys the notion that you are somehow displeased with another person or as pete has suggested, that you have no way of conveying to another driver the sense of "I, personally, disapprove of your most recent manouevre".

I lost control briefly whilst driving to work this morning and found the (two-way) road completely blocked with cars coming towards me and my attempt to convey displeasure at the driver coming directly at me left him with a puzzled look on his face which I interpreted as "Two? Why is he saying two?" (hint - I'm British - if I was American he'd undoubtedly have assumed I was saying one). Definitely time for a Chinese standard gesture...

Sunday, August 20, 2006

The Customer as an Inconvenience

So, I get my new apartment, that I paid for 2 years ago, in 6 weeks time and have started the process of looking at kitchens, bathrooms, etc., etc. in earnest this weekend.

We got off to a flying start by going to see the apartment - something that I haven't yet been able to do (as it didn't exist when I bought it) and , in the best spirit of customer service, was told 'No'. Apparently I have to wait until the flat is mine before I can see the inside or let designers in. Great.

We went to loads of different shops this weekend and the customer service is, in 95% of shops here, astonishingly bad - but for two opposing reasons.

B&Q is an interesting example - in the UK, whenever you seek a member of staff you'll find that stalking the shelves for an assistant has the overtures of a horror film. You might just catch a fleeting glimpse of an orange apron at the end of an aisle but when you get there you can just hear the paint colour charts rustling gently in an otherwise empty aisle.

B&Q in China has flocks of staff that wheel around the aisles like vultures in search of their next meal. When you're just going there for inspiration rather than to buy something specific, you have to maintain a certain speed or they catch up with you and start to help you with a rapid explanation of the random thing you happened to be looking at the second you got there. Stop altogether and they can start circling round you and at that point, you've obviously had it.

The kitchen shops we went to today varied from the sublime (a couple of disinterested old biddies who told us that the kitchens they had were all old and out-of-date) to the ridiculous (a pair of shop assistants who appeared behind YY like the twins from Matrix Reloaded).

Customer service in China generally sucks very, very badly.

Restaurants typically have enormous numbers of staff (compared to the west) but their main preoccupation is miserably milling around just out of sensible calling distance and deliberately avoiding looking at the customers lest they might try to attract their attention.

Department stores are massively overstaffed but the level of knowledge is low and the level of customer care, lower.

Clearly some businesses are getting it (9 out of 10 for Wellbom kitchens who, apart from struggling to find the prices of some items, gave a very good level of service). Clearly there's effort and training gone into this:
  • Neatly presented staff
  • Welcomed into the store but not followed round the store and hassled
  • Good product range, well presented
  • Staff knowledgeable about the products (and not just "making stuff up")
  • Brochures (i.e. they haven't "Just run out")
It's NOT ROCKET SCIENCE. There are hundreds of books about customer service out there (that could be translated into Chinese if they're not) and yet a tiny percentage of places provide anything like decent service. OK, there are always going to be industries where the low margins force people to hire anyone that has a pulse (mentioning no hamburger dispensing establishments by name) and that's the same the world over but kitchens are a pretty expensive proposition and should get better staff.

You could hope that the likely outcome would be that companies like Wellbom will do very well and the others will struggle to survive but, unfortunately, most Chinese consumers are probably so used to poor customer service that they're already accustomed to it and won't vote with their feet like I will.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Don't Forget the Tears

Have just travelled with P by Shinkansen from Kyoto to Tokyo on, as it happens, the anniversary of Japan surrendering the Second World War, which had already been marked with further controversy about Koizumi and the Yasukuni Shrine. As we went past Mt Fuji, a very brief conversation, mostly about food and the Lonely Planet Guide, in broken English took place with the lady sitting opposite. Not that I wish to knock her English - I learned most of my Japanese from the televisation of James Clavell's Shogun in 1980.

Shortly before she got off we saw her write a note and leave it on her seat. It read:

We are peaceful. It was the time with you and I to see Mt Fuji

But you and I

Don't forget the tears in the world by war

Don't forget the day

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Typhoon Season

So, Typhoon Season is well and truly upon us.

Normally I just rely on Tropical Storm Risk to track the many typhoons that seem to be headed our way, although history tells us that any typhoon on a westerly track that is predicted to hit Hangzhou in 3 or more days time will actually veer to the south and hit Taiwan instead before going to Fujian province.

So, a couple of years ago (not having a lot of typhoon experience growing up in the UK) I'd have been concerned that the forecast was for Typhoon Saomai to hit just below Hangzhou and Typhoon (only just) Maria to hit Osaka. Given that I'm going from Hangzhou to Osaka for Summer Sonic on Friday that would have been bad!

As it was many times last year, so it is with Typhoon Saomai which was supposed to hit Ningbo (just south of Hangzhou) but has now veered south and is going to clip Taiwan before hitting Fujian. Worryingly, they were predicting it as a Cat 2/3 yesterday and it's now already a Cat 5.

Looking for a decent photo to post I came across this NASA Earth Observatory website which has a wide variety of beautiful satellite shots of the Earth, with annotations, including this one of the three active typhoon systems in the Pacific:

Looks pretty from above...

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

As if Dieting wasn't Bad Enough...

Someone in the office has just brought a tin of Quality Street over from the UK.

I've just been eyeing up the orange and strawberry creams, trying to tell myself that, although I would really like to eat one or indeed all (how do you think I got to be so overweight in the first place) of them, that it's not worth it. My justification is this:

1) Whilst I will, on the face of it, enjoy eating them I know probably don't actually like them that much (not as much as, say, Maltesers or for that matter, cheese) so I could be eating something I prefer instead.
2) Eating that many High-GI carbs will send my blood sugar through the roof, given my current diet, meaning that I'll feel rubbish in a couple of hours and eat far too much later.
3) I only really want one because I've eaten so many, and everyone else eats them, that I'm kinda programmed to respond in a 'I want one' way. It's just habit, not need.

I guess even with the logic I'm not really convinced and the only argument that's going to win is "You've been doing so well, don't spoil it now" - I'm down 4 more pounds since the last report so 'only' 22 pounds (10kg) to go.... Hmm, that sounds like a lot. Best get to the gym.

The only saving grace with the chocolates is that an open box of chocolates in the office here will last as long as a bottle of full-cream milk at a Blue Tit convention so it's probably just turned into a pile of wrappers as I type...

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Back again

Well here we are again, back in Hangzhou.

It's been a lovely week in Singapore - would have been even nicer without pesky work getting in the way - but now I'm back and am compelled to write on the Dilberry just because I missed one important piece of information out last week on the way home.

I am again in the company of our driver (indeed, Mr. Leaf). It's 11.30pm on Saturday night and the plane has just got back late - presumably still catching up fro Hong Kong airport being out of action with the typhoon (there are photos in all the papers of the 70,000 people who were stuck there after hundreds of flights were cancelled just the day before yesterday so a one hour delay, put into that context, doesn't seem too bad!). There are just the two of us in the car and aside from the clicking of thumbs on keyboard, the only other sound is Mr Leaf sniffing. And sniffing. And sniffing. This is his natural state - I don't believe he has a cold. I make it 28 seconds on average between sniffs which makes even drug crazed coke fiends like JP seem entirely non-sniffy. Yuk.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006


what little boys are made of
Originally uploaded by jurvetson.
I thought this was a pretty good photo on Flickr but it reminded me on something...

One of the things YY found fascinating in England this time was that we came across a slug whilst walking in Ashdown Forest. She says she's never seen a slug before and that China doesn't have any.

On return, this has been sufficiently interesting to her to remember to tell other people, who have come from a variety of different parts of China, but they also have "never heard of such a thing in China".

I have to say I assumed slugs were pretty much universal and I'm still not convinced that they're not.

YY comes from Gansu province which in fairly recent geological time was clearly an area of desert. It's mostly sandstone now but you can see that the mountains are all in the patterns of dunes from the air. It's clearly dry, thin, sandy soil so I can well imagine that slugs would have a very hard time penetrating this area but Zhejiang (green, fertile, wet) would seem very easy territory for slugs?

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Hey Baby!

Well, I'm sorry it's taken so long (this blog entry that is...). I wanted to make sure that I'd told my family this news before I wrote anything and I held onto that until YY and I were in the UK, wanting to be a surprise. Unfortunately, the rumour mill at my company had done a superb job of ruining my surprise and somehow managing to get to my family before I did so - if you're reading this and decided my personal life was something you thought you ought to tell my family before this - thanks very much. Still, bitterness over. Onto the fun stuff.

YY and I are having a baby (which, in case you don't know, is a first for both of us). YY is currently 5 and a bit months pregnant which, by my calculations puts us online for a mid-late November baby. It will be born in the year of the dog which, I'm told, is a good thing, dogs being sturdy and dependable - hopefully that doesn't mean it will chew the couch and poop on the lawn.

This the most recent pic that I've got on the computer but that's from fairly early on - the others don't show it anything like as clearly. Worryingly it does seem to resemble JP but I imagine most babies do.

Baby FAQ so far:

1) The baby when born will have both a Chinese name and an English name (although the English name will be the one in it's passport).
2) We don't know whether it's a boy or a girl - Chinese hospitals are banned from telling you. Sadly, because most people can only have one child, girls are not highly sought-after so doctors won't tell you for fear or your subsequent actions (that have already lead to a large imbalance in the male and female populations).
3) Pregnancy so far has been without major incident although YY has had large bouts of nausea on and off since the start of the whole thing (the recent flight to the UK was punctuated every 90 mins or so with her disappearing at roadrunner speeds to the loos).
4) Checkup today went well. Heartbeat loud and clear. Very disappointing that I'm in Singapore and missed it!
5) It started kicking this week