The mice are taking over

It’s quite apparent when going anywhere in Beijing that the Chinese New Year, also known as the Lunar New Year or the Spring Festival, is coming up soon. The basic decoration strategy seems to be to leave up the Christmas decorations and add Chinese symbols into the mix. So Santa and the reindeer and the sparkly trees are still hanging around, and the good luck characters and mice have been added. The upcoming year is generally called the Year of the Rat, but as it happens, Mandarin doesn’t really distinguish between rats and mice (laoshu or haozi for both), and mice are cuter, so from the looks of things, it will be the Year of the Mouse.

Last night we had our company New Year’s party. I’ve looked back through last year’s blog posts, and it seems I didn’t really say much about that party. Well, we were a much smaller company then, and it was a pretty minimal affair. We took an afternoon off and walked to a nearby party facility, where we had a meal and some karaoke.

This year’s party was bigger in all respects. I think the planning committee had some difficulties, because the event was rescheduled twice from other days due to the unavailability of any decent facilities. So we ended up on a Sunday late afternoon at The Sixth Club. It’s one of thousands of party venues around town. And remember that in a city this big, saying “thousands” is not an exaggeration. It’s a whole industry that hardly exists in American cities.

TG, SJ, and I ended up being the last ones to arrive, and everyone else was already eating and drinking when we walked in. We found some seats and hit the buffet. It was decent if not outstanding, with the roast duck being the standout. No surprise, this being Beijing and all.
Each table was labeled with a famous mouse character.
I’ve been trying to get over a nasty cold for a couple weeks now, so I only had a few sips of beer, but some of my coworkers were having a great time with their beverages. No embarrassing breaches of etiquette I’m happy to report.
People were encouraged to participate in the festivities, and somehow TG and I got talked into take part. RR was supposed to join us, but he was stuck back at the office all evening and didn’t make it. There were several karaoke performances, one of which was preceded by some sort of skit that I didn’t understand at all, but got lots of laughs.
And we had a dance routine, complete with costumes.
There were a number of games, including this one that I never caught the rules to. The men sat in the chairs with baby bibs, and the women bonked them on the heads from time to time. I think it was part “Simon Says” with some strange domestic overtones. There was a second part where the women gave the men baby bottles full of beer and the winner was the one to suck it down fastest.
There was also a round of Musical Chairs and a Three-People-Four-Legs race that nearly resulted in serious injuries.
I am seriously out of order here, but what the heck. TG and I took the stage for a painful take on “Hotel California” with lyrics I rewrote to fit our company, full of in-jokes and Olympic references. I called it “Hotel 2008” (“Hotel Er-Ling-Ling-Ba”). It got off to kind of a slow start, but once someone stuck a mic in JW’s face and got him to sing, it improved a lot.

There were some very nice prize drawings, including a Wii and a digital camera and a bunch of portable game systems and iPods. I didn’t win anything.

At least not in the drawings. TG and I got an award for The Best Courage for our performance. Which translates as being really bad but sticking it out to the end, I suppose. There were also two other trophies, one for the dancers and one for the IT department for the skit and song. And everyone got a big stuffed mouse to take home.
Now, I suppose all of this might sound kind of silly. It’s definitely different from any office parties I’ve been to over the last ten years in the US. I hope I’m not inadvertently echoing some kind of stereotype, but what it comes down to is the fact that my colleagues here are not as cynical and jaded as most Americans. Most of us hate to participate in silly games, hate to risk looking foolish, and would rather stay home than play Musical Chairs. But as far as I could tell, everyone had a great time. Perhaps the lure of prizes and the free-flowing beer helped, but for each game, there were people eager to play. Our modern “sophistication” seems to come with a price: we can’t relax and act like kids for a few hours with our coworkers.


Just a quick snake for me, thanks

It seems to be the solemn duty of all native English speakers who spend any time in China to compile a list of Horrid Examples. Well, maybe not so solemn, as it’s usually pretty amusing, and really, we just can’t help ourselves. And I promise my purpose is not to ridicule those who come up with these bizarre linguistic oddities. Given the goofy pseudo-Chinese that comes out of my mouth, I’m sure that native Chinese speakers who know me can compile their own lists of Horrid Examples in the opposite direction.
I believe I’ve mentioned the fact that some restaurants have opened in our building. The most popular one is Dongfangjinghu Chacanting on the first floor. I’m pretty sure chacanting just means café (the first syllable cha means tea), and I’ll have to find out what the first word means. I am absolutely sure that they got the pinyin wrong when they printed the menu. The third character is very clearly listed as jing (not jin) in the character lists and online dictionaries I’ve checked.
I’ve eaten there quite a few times, and most of what I had was pretty decent. However, the menu is a wonderful source of Horrid Examples. I had a chocolate milk shark one day, and it was very tasty. It had no teeth, fins or other fishy features whatsoever.
There’s a lot of snake on the menu – two whole sections, in fact.
I’ve had the “four treasures” balls with seaweed, and it’s actually about the best dish I’ve had there: little wonton wrappers stuffed with shrimp and ground pork in a bowl of broth.

Yes, you’ve probably caught on: snake = snack, spelled in some strange near-phonetic system.
They have an interesting selection of desserts. Sago is almost identical to tapioca, but I’m not sure what to make of the mythic fungus cream.
And moving on to a different establishment… This one is located here in the Seasons Park compound. I am curious to know how they make signboards edible.
And speaking of Seasons Park, this is the plaque at the main gate. I’ll type it in so you know what you’re reading:

Seasons park is a private resience
Any unauthorized person don’t enter
Visitors please regiser in the guard house

I feel so secure.


Meandering. Pointless? You make the call

Procedural note: I’ve added one photo to a previous post. Nifty, huh?

Soundtrack music for writing: Sun Ra – Disco 3000

Today’s post will have neither theme nor coherent narrative. I’ve just got a few pictures I feel like posting.

Here’s one from a long time ago that I never got around to finding a place for. I’ve been in Starbucks stores in at least four countries. Can you guess which country has this one?
It should come as no surprise to me that construction happens all the time here, but when I saw this the other day, I was stunned.
To give you an idea why I was surprised, here’s what it looked like a while ago, in a shot from an old post:

I’ve eaten at this place quite a few times, and like it a lot. It’s Xinjiang food, from the far west of China, and it’s quite popular. I hope they’re just remodeling and don’t feel the need to mess with the menu too much.
Last weekend I was feeling a little bored, so I hopped on the subway and got off at a stop I’d never visited just to wander around. Jishuitan is three stops directly west of my office. The canal follows the same path, though it ends just up ahead there. It’s safe to say this stretch is non-navigable. Yes, the upper part is frozen over – the temperature has been consistently below freezing for a couple weeks. Not solid enough for skating, however.
I guess the guy who took this bird out for a walk was having a rest somewhere.
This was taken a little further along looking towards the end of the water.

Here’s something I came across on the way to work this morning.
It’s recycling, Chinese style. They pull the garbage truck into our street (that’s our building behind them) and go through the trash to find recyclable items. If you think this is a worse system than having tidy color-coded bins like many American cities, you’re forgetting that in China, labor is cheaper than goods; it’s more cost-efficient to have people sort through the trash than to distribute containers. And people would throw recyclables into the trash anyway, either through inattention or lack of concern. So this gets the job done and provides employment, a win-win situation. Aside from the smell, that is.

Our building, Gehua Tower, is run by the media conglomerate called Gehua, and as befits their artsy focus, the lobby is often host to works of art or design.
There’s also an art museum up on the 13th floor which I have not visited.

After lunch today, I went out to a local store to buy some groceries (lately I’ve been leaving the office too late to make it to the store), and when I passed a newsstand, something caught my eye.
It’s a Chinese science fiction magazine. Back when I was getting ready to go to the Worldcon I had read about its existence, but every time I checked at a stand or store, they didn’t have it. It’s only ¥5 (less than a dollar), so even if I can’t read it, it’s worth the price.
Part of the inside is glossy, and this seems to be an article about cutting edge neuroscience.
And I’m pretty sure this is a translation of a story by David Brin – there’s a picture of him at the end of it.

And that’s enough for now. Catch you later!

Soundtrack for finishing: Robyn Hitchcock & the Venus 3 – “Adventure Rocket Ship” (really!)


Rocking the Outside Boy

I came across an item online the other day about the term laowai. This is a common Chinese term used for foreigners. It literally means “old outsider” – and remember that “old” is a term of respect in this culture. Certain segments of foreigners here have embraced the term and proudly use it, but others seem to think it is derogatory. Apparently, it is sometimes used in a derogatory way, which seems ironic for a term of respect. I have not personally had it applied to me in that way. The closest I’ve noticed was one time when I left my office and walked home. I passed a group of guys in hardhats sitting along the sidewalk on a break, and I could understand a couple of phrases: laowai and bu hui shuo hanyu (“can’t speak Chinese”). One of these days I’ll be fluent enough to stop and say, “Oh, but you are mistaken.” Oddly enough, I have searched in vain to find the original story that brought this up – it seems to have disappeared.

Anyway, that is merely a tangential introduction to the real subject of this post, which involves an experience that really made me feel like an outsider – old or otherwise.

Back in a previous post, I wrote about seeing Cui Jian at the Beijing Pop Festival. Excuse me while I pop back there and refresh my memory about what I wrote…

OK, I guess I didn’t say much. At that big outdoor show, there were 10,000 people or more singing along with his songs, which was pretty impressive. Tonight’s show was indoors, the inaugural concert event of the refurbished Workers Gymnasium, and again it was about 10,000 people. But when that many people are singing the same song inside a building, it’s really something.

But let me back up a bit. At around 4 this afternoon, RR and I walked a few blocks to the office of Piao.com (piao means “ticket”). They’re on the 7th floor of an unassuming building and we just sort of wandered in by dumb luck, since the location was not very clearly marked. They do have a pretty spiffy system set up where there is a color screen facing the customer with a map of the venue. The seller can navigate around and highlight the desired seats on the map, then print them out. It’s definitely more sophisticated than the Emma system I encountered when buying Women’s World Cup tickets.

This being China, there was a large security presence at the venue, with guards of various kinds all over the place. There were metal detectors to walk through, and of course they beeped for virtually every person passing through, sine everyone has a mobile phone. When it beeped on me, a female officer had me hold out my arms as she ran a wand over me. It went off pretty much constantly, for my phone, by Blueberry, my camera and probably the magnetic key card in my pocket. But she went through the motions and said “Thank you” without asking to see what had set it off. I saw many other people going through the same thing.

We walked into the venue right at about 7:30, and we shouldn’t have been surprised that the show started right on time, unlike American concerts which always run late. Workers Gymnasium is where the Olympic boxing sessions will take place, and it’s ideal for that, as it’s perfectly round, with no obvious “front” or “back” and they had the stage set up in a strange variation of “in the round.” It was essentially two complete stage arrangements back to back. Our seats were at about a 45 degree angle to the main half of the stage.
When we came in, there was a drum corps playing a kind of samba beat along with the band, for a big rhythmic sound that was quite infectious. There were also some dancers dressed in costumes resembling Chinese army uniforms at the sides and back of the stage. At the end of the song, the samba club scurried out and left the band to carry on. The stage setup was very professional, and the sound was clear and not too loud.
He even played his trumpet a bit (it was his first instrument, before he took up guitar). Note the percussion setup behind him. It added quite a bit to the sound.
After 45 minutes or so, the samba club appeared over on one side of the stage, and the band took the opportunity to switch sides. They played the next bunch of songs facing the “back” of the house with a somewhat more acoustic set of instruments, and all we could see was their backs. There was a big video screen above the stage, but from our angle the speakers blocked it. It was funny how all the empty seats on that half of the arena suddenly filled up.

After a number of songs on that side, the lights went down and the samba club returned.
This time Cui Jian and company were taking a longer break. The crowd actually seemed to get a little impatient after more than five minutes of the drum corps, chanting “Cui Jian! Cui Jian! Cui Jian!”
When the drummers finished, the spotlight turned to the side of the stage where a woman played a very impressionistic solo on an instrument I didn’t recognize. It’s a little like a guqin, but not quite. Gradually the rest of the band returned to the stage and joined her for what was to me one of the show’s musical highlights.

I think it was the very next song that featured these dancers:
I’m not sure what the symbolism was. They started out wearing strange costumes and slowly worked their way from the side of the stage to the front. A single dancer in a similar outfit started at the other side. While they writhed in a mass, they pulled off the outer coverings of two dancers who made their way away from the group wearing dust-colored leatards.
After a few more songs, the band retired from the stage, and the crowd chanted his name. Eventually they returned and played “Yi Wu Sou You (Nothing to My Name)” – which is the 1989 hit that made him an icon among China’s dissatisfied students at the time. One more song after that and they were done. It was 10pm precisely.

Now that I’ve covered the events (short of providing a set list), I’ll present a few observations, starting with audience participation. It’s become one of the clichés of rock concerts for artists to do the call-and-response thing, with the crowd (or sections of it) answering their phrases or doing simple background harmonies. Sometimes things like that happen spontaneously on the most well-known songs. And sometimes you will hear a crowd sing along with a whole song. At this show, the spontaneous full-length sing-along happened on about half of the selections, and the spontaneous backgrounds happened on every song that had a memorable backing part. The singing was loud, pretty much on key, and featured such a high percentage of the audience that it was quite impressive to experience, even not knowing the words. There was such passion in the voices that it was clear these songs were deeply important to everyone; this man’s music has touched hearts in ways that few artists I’ve ever seen can approach. I’ve seen a lot of concerts since Three Dog Night at the Spokane Coliseum back in the early 70s, and this one was moving on a level I’ve rarely experienced. This is shiver-down-the-spine territory.
And while RR and I could admire the craft involved in putting on the show, from both the musicians and the technical crew, we couldn’t help but be acutely aware that we were outsiders who could never really know the deeper meaning of the event. There were very few foreigners there, and only one song (the Olympics-inspired “Outside Girl”) featured any English lyrics. This was Chinese music written for the Chinese people, and while (as far as I can tell) Cui Jian’s music is still not played on radio, obviously the word – and the melody – has gotten out. I wonder if any of the songs are available on karaoke systems…


When you’re hot you’re hot

While I was back in Seattle I talked with several people about my blog. One interesting thing came of it: some readers complained that I haven’t written about any restaurants lately, and others seem to think I write about restaurants too much. If you’re in the latter group, feel free to skip this one.

I got a late start this morning but decided to walk to work since it was clear and sunny, even if the temperature was below freezing. You might remember previous pictures on Nanguan Park:
Naturally they can’t leave the water there all winter, so the lake was drained sometime last month. Now it looks like this:
A little further along on my walk, I noticed that things are changing even on our little street, Dongzhimen Beixiaojie (Dongzhimen North Small Street). All the shops along the west side are getting new fronts, and the entrances to the hutong alleys are getting refurbished.
And of course there’s our lovely Gehua Tower, which from this angle is the Backwards-G Box.

For lunch I went to the cafeteria on B1.
For ¥10 you get a big tray of food, including your choice of one of the three meat dishes on offer each day.
I picked the beef with green peppers, which was pretty decent, along with three vegetable dishes and one tofu dish, plus a couple of different bread items, soup and a little orange. Many people also pile on a big scoop of rice, but I almost always skip that.

After working until well after 6, I accompanied a coworker to dinner at one of the other options available in the building. On the second floor there’s a new hot pot place. When you step off the elevator, you know you’re headed someplace fancy. They’ve turned the elevator lobby into a circular wooden tunnel with indirect lighting. I’ll have to get a picture of it sometime.

Edit (15 January): Here it is.
Inside, it looks like this:
I got in trouble for taking that picture. Apparently they spent a lot of money on the design, and the artist doesn’t want photos taken. Or something like that.
The fish tank, while lovely, is not just for decoration. Its inhabitants are on the menu. That’s the kitchen behind the curved glass on the right side.

As some sort of grand opening special, each guest gets one of the fish for free.
They come whole, gutted, with the skin pulled off and the liver saved for you (the pink bits beside the fish). When the broth was hot enough, a server put the fish, the skin, and the organs into the pot. He said the skin takes two minutes, the liver five, and the fish ten. The broth we had was not spicy.
We also got mushrooms, lamb, and lettuce. There’s a variety of sauces for dipping: soy, sesame paste, and spiced oil. At this point, the fish are in the pot.

Here’s what my plate looked like fifteen minutes or so later:
The skin was interesting to eat, kind of slippery on the inside but scratchy on the outside. It was a challenge getting the meat off the bones with chopsticks. The fish was very mild in flavor, and I’m not sure what I can compare it to.

It’s a good thing the fish were free, or we never would have tried them. Apparently they cost ¥400 (I’m not sure if that’s for the pair or apiece – either way it’s really pricy, about $50). As it was, the meal came to ¥125 ($16) for two of us, which seemed expensive at the time even though it really isn’t.

Hot pot restaurants in a variety of styles are incredibly popular here. On my walk to the office this morning I passed at least a half dozen places. Several coworkers have promised to show me a real hot pot experience sometime. This place was on the posh side, where you pay for the fancy ambiance more than the food.

Hmm, all that, and I don’t even know the name of the place.

Update: The name of the fish in Chinese is hetunyu, in Japanese known as fugu, and in English as pufferfish or globefish. Since neither one of us seems to have died, I suppose it was prepared properly, though I suspect it might have been a variety of the species that is less toxic than the famous Japanese delicacy.