Zooming back and forth

The last couple of weeks have involved a lot in the way of air travel and family visits. Once again, I flew Air Canada to Seattle by way of Vancouver, and once again I had an incredibly uncomfortable seat in an older plane. I left Beijing at around 6pm on Friday, and got to Vancouver around 1pm the same day, nearly an hour late, but I managed to make the connection to my next flight. I got to Seattle a couple hours before leaving Beijing. Gotta love those time zones.

In my continuing chronicles of Things No One Is Interested In, I got a new digital camera, a Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ3. I picked it because it’s reasonably priced and has a really good lens with 10x zoom. I also made substantial raids involving used books and CDs.
On Tuesday the 18th, I took a quick flight to Spokane to visit my parents and brother.
Here’s one of the new areas at SeaTac. If you look closely, you can see a grand piano off in the distance. There was someone playing Christmas tunes on it.

It was quite a bit colder in Spokane, and snowing. Here are a couple of pictures taken on the drive between Spokane and St. John.
That evening we returned to Spokane and had dinner with my brother at the Applebee’s near his house. And after that, it was back to St. John for the night.
The next day, my parents took me back up to Spokane for my flight back to Seattle. On the way, we saw this pair of elk run across the road and into a field.

Here are a few shots taken around Seattle.
This is a view of the downtown area taken from an angle you don’t often see.
We went shopping at the big Uwajimaya market. It’s more Japanese than Chinese, but there are lots of familiar items.
One night we accidentally wandered into the Christmas Dimension.
An obligatory cat picture: Baby with her holiday bell.

And so soon it seemed like I’d been in the US only a couple days, it was time to return to China, again by way of Vancouver.
Like SeaTac, the Vancouver airport has undergone some remodeling since the last time I passed through (when going through US Customs at YVR, you don't pass by here). Nifty fish tank.
Luckily I was on a newer plane for the long flight this time, with a better seat and an individual entertainment screen. I took advantage of that and watched Ratatouille (wonderful) and The Simpsons Movie (lots of fun). After making an attempt at sleep, I watched a German film called Eden that was another take on the idea found in Like Water for Chocolate and Chocolat: a chef can cook food that transfers strong erotic feelings to those who eat it. He meets a waitress who is married to a frustrated, unhappy man and has a handicapped daughter. The woman becomes friends with the chef, her husband gets needlessly jealous, and catastrophe ensues, though not necessarily in the ways you expect. It was an enjoyable little film. I also watched a Hong Kong movie called Ming Ming that seemed like a kind of avant-garde martial arts experiment.

And returning, I of course encountered the flip side of the time zone shift, leaving Seattle Friday morning and arriving in Beijing late Saturday afternoon after about 14 hours of travel.

From what I’ve read, I just missed a couple of really horrid air quality days in Beijing. On Saturday when I arrived, it was pretty decent, and today is sunny and clear. Temperatures have been hanging just below freezing, and there is often a biting wind. Ah, winter in the capital!


How long is it?

If I make a statement like, “The Chinese really like dragons,” I don’t think I’m being a promoter of stereotypes. I’m sure there are people here who don’t care one way or the other about mythical flying lizards, but there’s no arguing the fact that dragon symbols are very common.

The basic Mandarin word I’ve learned for dragon is long, and it shows up in two interesting places. First is longxia, which means lobster. The xia part means shrimp, so there you have dragon shrimplobster!

Another long is the huolongguo, or dragon fruit. The non-dragon parts are huo (fire) and guo (fruit), so the English name is a pretty direct translation of the Chinese. “What is a dragon fruit?” you might ask. Well, I’ll show you.
You see them pretty commonly at fruit stands. Being a science fiction fan, my first thought is they look alien. From a more earthbound viewpoint, they maybe look a little cactus-y. which makes sense since they grow on a tree that resembles a cactus in many ways.

Apparently the plants are native to Mexico and Central America, but they seem to be more popular here than anyplace else I’ve been.
When you cut it open, the inside looks like this. It’s not too sweet and has a nice texture, a little slippery and firm enough to hold together on a fork if you’re not too rough. It shows up in fruit salads a lot. I like it a lot just in chunks.

Incidentally, this one fruit cost more than a whole bag of fresh vegetables at my neighborhood produce stand.

Photos by D.

The Art Warehouse

I was stuck at the office tonight until 10:30 and when I got home I found I was not terribly sleepy, so I started going through my picture files to see what hasn’t made it to the blog yet. And there it was: October 28.

It was a Sunday, and I had planned a little trip with a coworker to a park outside of town to look at the fall leaves. For some reason, the trees in Beijing stay green until the leaves drop, never changing color regardless of the kind of tree. But that morning, my friend called and said that some workers had showed up to replace all the windows in her apartment – with double-pane glass I think. Anyway, she couldn’t make it, so I was at loose ends.

I got out my city map and looked for a potential site I hadn’t been to that was near a subway station. I settled on the Beijing International Sculpture Park, west of downtown.
Since it was a clear day, there was a particular building I wanted to take a picture of, and it was kind of on the way.
OK, so maybe I’m a bit of an architecture geek. As if I wasn’t enough kinds of geek already. But I think it’s a cool building.
Like many things in Beijing, the Sculpture Park is really big. In the course of the afternoon I covered about half of it, and as you can see, it was pretty much empty. Maybe the temperature had something to do with that. It was breezy and not warm at all in spite of the sunshine.
In fact there were more people in the park flying kites than looking at the sculptures. I particularly liked this group. Beijing is not terribly friendly to people in wheelchairs, with the majority of buildings having accessibility issues, so it’s nice to see a family taking care of each other.
The artwork is a broad mixture of modern...
More traditional...
And, um, whimsical. There is also the intriguing bubble-on-the-water attraction, which is probably more popular in the summer.
There were some I didn’t care for, and some I liked a lot. Here’s one I liked, by an American artist if I remember correctly.
And an alternate view to show what kind of difference the viewing angle makes, especially late in the day.
These girls seemed really fascinated by this piece, and took dozens of pictures of it from different angles. Artist from either Hong Kong or Taiwan.
I also like this one a lot. It’s like the aftermath of a Borg visit to Xi’an. Artist almost certainly Chinese.
I’m more than a little partial to a light touch with art. This one was called something like “The Dancing Philosopher” and was by a Swedish artist. I probably should have taken pictures of all the stones with the artist names, but they were almost impossible to read and wouldn’t have photographed legibly at all.
This one was “Camel in a Mirage” or something similar. Neat
OK, maybe this one is just a pile of bricks that workers left sitting around. I didn’t see a credit stone, but I'm pretty sure the artist was from Mainland China.
And in what I’m coming to regard as typical Beijing fashion, the mundane sometimes overwhelms the sublime. Though I’ll admit this particular piece of art may not actually qualify as “sublime”…

There were a bunch more, but I won’t take up more space with them right now. I’ll just leave you with an image of this really cool kite.
Yeah, it’s a giant red flying squid.


Willkommen in Deutschland

No, I haven’t made a sudden trip to Europe, though in some ways it seemed like it. On the first Saturday of December every year, the German Embassy in Beijing holds a holiday celebration. I missed it last year, but not this time.

I had to go to the office for a while in the morning, but finished what I had to do around 12:30 or so and took off. After dropping off my computer at home, I walked to Germany, which isn’t far from Seasons Park. It was hard to miss – it was the place with the big line of people waiting to get in.
I emailed JW that I was waiting in line, since I didn’t know if he was inside yet. I knew KW had been there for a while. When I was about halfway to the entrance, JW arrived. He called his wife, and she said she was waiting in the bratwurst line. He told her to get a couple extra, mustard only.
When we got to the gate, we could see KW waiting with our sausages. Embassy staff glanced at our passports (we were entering foreign soil after all) and we came in. The sausages were still warm. KW led us toward the beer stand.
For ¥50, you get a German beer in a logo mug that you can take home with you, or you can get the ¥25 deposit back by returning the mug. We all kept them.
Vegetarians beware!
CL showed up after a while, and we greeted him at the gate with more bratwurst. Here they are in the courtyard after a visit to the dessert table. Note JW’s bulging coat. He’s got about a half dozen beer mugs stashed in various pockets.
In the lobby – the warmest part of the whole place that we were allowed to go – there was a woman playing an organ. I suppose it must have been Christmas music, but I honestly couldn’t tell.
Say hi to the girls at the Getränke stand. As we walked past one time, they all started singing “Jingle Bells” in English. They didn’t seem to know the verses, only the chorus, which was fine by me.

It’s some kind of charity thing, with proceeds going to some Beijing area organizations. How’s that for a way to make people feel better about standing in the cold drinking beer?

As celebrations of Christmas go, this one beats last night. I went to a popular dim sum restaurant with a couple of coworkers, and the staff all wore Santa hats. For music they played “Here Comes Santa Claus” over and over and over. Good thing the place was so crowded and noisy, or it would have driven me to do something that might have got me kicked out of the country.


Randomly rebuilding underwater hedgehogs

After reading about Beijing’s music scene for a year, I’m finally starting to get out and see what the buzz is all about. Last weekend I caught Guaili, Hedgehog, Snapline and Carsick Cars at Yugong Yishan, and this weekend I headed out to 2 Kolegas for Random K(e), SUBS, Re-TROS and Hedgehog.

This time I managed to talk RR into going with me. I was pretty sure he would enjoy it, and he was such a concert-hound back in LA that he’s been showing symptoms of withdrawal in Beijing. Neither of us had been to this club before, and the address was kind of strange (which is nothing unusual in this town): inside the drive-in cinema on Liangmaqiao Road. Right.

We had the taxi driver drop us off in the middle on Liangmaqiao and started looking for street numbers. It took us a while to find it, but there it was, a drive-in cinema, closed for the season of course. There’s a collection of restaurants and bars inside around a little pond. I guess we looked like rockers, because a parking lot attendant asked me, “Jiuba ma?” Jiuba (joe-bah) is a very handy Mandarin word: bar. He pointed off to one side, and we saw the 2 Kolegas sign.

The word “dive” would be appropriate here. It’s a pretty small place, with walls mostly consisting of bare red brick. Graffiti on the outside, snapshots of bands taped on the walls on the inside, prices for food and beverages hand-written stuck all over the place. We paid our ¥40 each (about $5). Gin and tonics were ¥20 ($2.60) and beers ranged from ¥15 up. The place was left than half full at this point, and the crowd seemed to be mostly foreigners.

RR looked around and said, “Yeah, this is already my favorite club in Beijing.”

First up was the oddball band of the night in more ways than one. First, Random K(e) consists entirely of foreigners (Brits and Americans by the sound of the voices); second, it’s not a trio; and third, they’re all guys. The first tune was very good and reminded me a bit of Radiohead, but from there on they took on a variety of styles. Instrumentation was electric guitar, electric bass, drums, and a guy who played both upright electric bass and a laptop with a bank of effects devices. Refreshingly, the guitarist actually had a pretty decent singing voice. They played with a visual backdrop of various still and moving black and white images projected over them, making photography pointless with my camera.
Next up, SUBS. I saw them do a few tunes months ago at Star Live, and I found the female singer so annoying I had to flee. The three guys backing her this time started out with a spacey instrumental tune that was quite good, kind of a post-punk Pink Floyd. But then Kang Mao came out in her funny hat and started screaming. When she settles down and sings, she seems to have some talent (aside from her looks), but she never settles down for more than a few lines of lyrics at a time before returning to shredding her throat.
Totally blurry picture, but I kind of like it. I can’t help thinking this band would really be something if she would just tone it down a few dozen notches.

RR came up to me after being AWOL for a bit (just lost in the crowd). He said he’d seen Hedgehog’s drummer going to the bar and getting a bunch of cans of Coke. So that’s where she gets her energy!

By this time it was getting very crowded and hot inside. Of course everyone was bundled up in heavy coats and layers of sweaters and scarves, which makes for a really awkward situation when there’s no coat check.

I’ve been looking forward to seeing Re-TROS (Rebuilding the Rights of Statues, which has got to be one of the oddest band names ever in any country) since I first heard about them. I’ve got their EP, and like it quite a bit.
They did not disappoint. In typical Beijing fashion, the band is a trio with a female member, in this case the bassist. She and the lead guitar player arranged their microphone stands to face each other, so they were both sideways to the audience. Can’t say I’ve seen that done.
The lead vocals are a bit like a snarly version of David Byrne, and the music reminded me a fair amount of Gang of Four, though not so funky (or is it pseudo-funky?).
They are known for English lyrics featuring social and political commentary, but in a live setting it’s kind of hard to get much of that. Aside from the almost scary intensity, meaning is mostly reserved for the studio versions.

This time, Hedgehog was the headliner.
Their performance was similar to the one I saw last week, just a slightly different set list and a different drum kit. It seems to be the standard at clubs here for there to be a house kit that all the bands use.
For the light show, a series of images of the band was projected onto them, again making photography difficult.
Near the end of the final song, the guitarist pulled his strap over his head and dropped his instrument to the floor, finishing out the tune on voice only. Then when the others finished off the song, he staggered backwards and fell to the ground.
He was still lying there as his bandmates headed backstage. Atom came over and shook him, but he didn’t appear to move.
She hurried over behind the drum kit and got one of her cans of Coke, then brought it back to him.
She lifted his head up to pour some in his mouth. Eventually he sat up enough to drink on his own.
Now that’s rock ‘n’ roll. Either that or a Coca-Cola endorsement.

Once the music was over, we headed out straightaway. Not much reason to hang out at 1am in an uncomfortably warm room filled with smelly smoke.


What a hoot!

I mentioned a while ago that there were plans for a bunch of us expats to go to Hooters. It was SJ’s idea of a birthday celebration for AL, who was in town for a few weeks for the intended Phase 2 launch. (Incidentally, I’m pretty sure SJ told us she had never been to a Hooters restaurant at all.)

Hooters Beijing is not far from Seasons Park, and since the weather was decent I decided to walk. The sky looked a little threatening so I took my umbrella just in case. As it turned out, I was the first one there. I told them I needed a table for nine, and they put me at a table by the back door. One of their little things is that whenever someone comes in, all the staff yells, “Welcome to Hooters!” Being next to the door, we were right in the thick of this.

BG and SJ showed up next with a cake in a box. A waitress asked whose birthday it was, and they went off to arrange things. KW was next, and the others trickled in. When AL arrived, the waitress came over with a balloon and tied it to his sweatshirt.
We got on with our business of eating and drinking. KW and I both ordered a Southwest Chicken Salad. The waitress never asked us what kind of dressing we wanted. At first I thought nothing of it – maybe it has a set dressing rather than a choice – but a little after the food arrived I realized there was no dressing on it at all. It took a while to flag her down and convey to her what we wanted, but we eventually got our dressing.
A couple of times during the evening, the staff got together and did a short dance routine. Next to the door, we got pretty used to the “Welcome to Hooters!” greeting, and eventually started joining in. By the end of the evening, the staff’s performance had diminished, and we found ourselves greeting guests on our own.

When we finished eating, they brought out the cake and it was time for the Hooters Beijing version of a birthday song.
They had AL stand up on his chair holding a menu in each hand. We sang a silly tune, something like, “It’s your birthday! It’s your birthday!” At the pauses in our singing, the birthday boy was supposed to flap the menus like wings and shout, “It’s my birthday!”
Or something like that. Eventually we got to eat the thing. Shengri dangao!

SJ has a hilarious movie of the birthday dance that she has been threatening to post on YouTube. I’ll post a link to it if she ever does.

When we left, JW couldn’t resist the merchandise and picked up some Hooters Beijing shot glasses.

There has been a Hooters in Shanghai for several years now, and my friend there told me an amusing story. She worked for a company that was part-owned by an Australian guy, and one time, he took some of the employees to Hooters. She said there were lots of foreigners there, and wondered why the restaurant was named after a bird. I explained the American slang meaning of “hooters” and she said, “Oh, I see. Maybe that’s why he took us there.”

Just as we left the restaurant, it started sprinkling. The others decided to go bowling, but I wasn’t feeling very well and headed for home. By the time I got there it was pouring and I was soaked through – cheap Chinese umbrella!