Diving for luck

Cities that host the Olympic Games typically have a series of events in their facilities during the months leading up to the big event, and Beijing is no exception. In the industry, we call these “test events” because they are like a shakedown cruise for the venues, seeing how they function with real use and training staff, from technical people to ushers to security to box office. For whatever reason, the exclusive ticketing supplier of the Olympic Games has nothing whatsoever to do with these events, so we’ll get our shakedown on the opening day of the Games, I guess.

The whole series of test events here have been dubbed “Good Luck Beijing” (Hao Yun Beijing) events. I think this name (in English at least) has a different sort of feeling to it than they intended, or than it apparently has in Chinese.

Many of these test events are real competitions. Currently the National Aquatics Center is hosting the Diving World Cup.
This amazing new building has been nicknamed the Water Cube (Shui Lifang) for obvious reasons. I was very happy to get hold of a couple of tickets for an event there, and I really didn’t care what it was. It turned out to be women’s 3m synchronized diving, a sport I never really paid attention to before.
It is right across the road from the other landmark venue of the Olympic Green, the National Stadium, nicknamed the Bird’s Nest (Niao Chao), again for obvious reasons.
The grounds are still far from finished.

Across the street on the opposite side from the Bird’s Nest is this multi-use complex, slated to open this summer.
The top of that building is going to be quite interesting.
Also nearby is this dark, imposing structure. Note the resemblance to a printed circuit board. If I remember right, this will be the electronic nerve center of the games, and will have some elaborate lighting displays on its surfaces.
The Water Cube is pretty interesting inside too.
We sat at the end where the diving pool is located.
Down at the other end is where they’ll have swimming events.
Synchronized diving is pretty much what you’d expect from the name.
Two women do the same dive at the same time from adjacent boards.
They are scored by the judges on the quality of their dives.
They are also scored on their synchronization – how close the two dives are to each other.

I think there were 19 countries participating. China won the competition handily, with the USA trailing a distant second.
Afterwards, we discovered that there are shuttle buses to take people to two of the closer subway lines. This made it much easier to get out of there than it was arriving.

And as a side note, a cold front has moved in, so it’s back to the long underwear.

Update: I forgot to mention one of the more amusing things about the diving match. Before each team would do their thing, a little snip of music was played. At first it seemed the music was supposed to represent the country. We hear ABBA for the Swedish team, and a Chinese pop tune for the Chinese team. But what was I to make of the Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Bop"? And there was a bit of music that was unmistakably Irish, a jig with bodhran and fiddle, but Ireland didn't even have a team. And Madonna doing "La Isla Bonita"...?

If I were a rich man

Well, it’s the middle of the night, but I just awoke from a very interesting dream, and felt the need to write about it before it slips further from my memory.

I’ve read a few science fiction stories in which the development of miraculous medical technology prompts people to engage in potentially fatal activities for the thrills, secure in the knowledge that no matter what happens, they can be saved, even from death itself. The most recent one was Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (a wonderful book, by the way, though I was less than satisfied by the ending).

I’ll get it down in as much detail as I can, freely making up bits to fill it out where I can’t remember the dream itself.

In my dream, I am visiting a decadent super-rich future tycoon. I’m pretty sure it was in Japan. A distinguished middle-aged gentleman took me to his display room, which was like an art museum. The room was dimly lit with a series of pedestals illuminated by spotlights. On each pedestal was a bottle of amber liquid. Each bottle was different; some had labels, others did not.

He took me to a number of bottles, each with a history. There were all different kinds of alcohol, from brandy, whisky, gin and rum to sake and moutai, as well as other exotic liquors from around the world, all of them handmade by amateur brewers or distillers, many of them quite old.

“This cognac was made in 1857 by a farmer in France. It was recovered from his estate after he died, allegedly from drinking his own creation. Maybe it was the cognac that killed him, maybe not. No one has tasted it since. I paid over a hundred thousand dollars for this bottle.” He called the medical emergency number on his mobile phone and said, “I am about to do something very risky. Please send help.”

Then he very carefully took the bottle from its place and took it to a fancy table, where he ceremoniously poured into a number of glasses. I found that a number of the man’s friends were there, kind of a little club. Each of them took a glass and did the things connoisseurs do: they examined the color in the light; they swirled the liquid in the glasses; they sniffed the aroma. They commented on their observations.

“Very earthy scent.”

“Reminds me of the Nobukazu sake.”

“I beg to differ.”

“Do I detect a chemical note?”

And so on. The host explains to me, “We relish the exquisite uncertainty of this act. The cognac may be the finest ever tasted by a human palate, or it may be horrid and undrinkable. It may be perfectly safe; it may kill us. This uncertainty is the essence of our pleasure.”

Then the host stands and offers a toast. By this time, a paramedic robot is hovering in the shadows, ready to rescue anyone that needs it.

The participants raise their glasses and take a sip together. Afterwards, each reacts in his or her own way, lost in private thoughts.

The host speaks first. “None of us appears to have died. Thoughts?”

And they all provide reviews of the experience, sometimes taking another sip to gather further evidence. The general consensus is that it is a thoroughly middle of the road cognac, a little unusual, but not outstanding. All of this trouble, and over a hundred thousand dollars, for a mediocre cognac.

How’s that for an odd little dream? The human brain is an odd and fascinating thing. I can identify the sources for a few of the ideas, like maybe the previously mentioned Doctorow book. And not long ago I read a murder mystery set in the exclusive world of rich art connoisseurs. I don’t recall ever coming across anything closer, but I have read thousands of science fiction books and stories over the years, and forgotten most of them, at least consciously – they’re probably still lurking in the nether reaches of my brain, ready to rise up as background material for dreams like this. And add in the experience of having eaten fugu, which is potentially risky.

Now it’s after 4am, and I’m going to try to get some sleep before the night is completely gone.


Olympic update: 169 days to go

We’ve just got word that in response to citizen protests in the outlying provinces of China, the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games have been cancelled. The protesters said the money should be spent on improving the lot of China’s people, and the government did an about face, essentially saying, “You know – you’re right.”

Just kidding. That’s about as likely as a Chinese New Year without fireworks.

And speaking of fireworks, today is Yuanxiaojie, or Lantern Festival, which marks the end of the Spring Festival that started with the Lunar New Year two weeks ago. The Lantern Festival falls on the first full moon of the new year, and is yet another occasion for lunatic pyromaniacal excess. With the added bonus of a golden orange full moon up above. I’d post more pictures, but I’m sure everyone is tired of them by now.

It is traditional on this day to eat a particular kind of dumpling called yuanxiao, but I went to the store a bit ago and they were all out. That’s what I get for staying at the office until almost seven. I’ll have to make do with something less traditional.

In actual Olympic news, they revealed a few weeks ago what the staff uniforms will look like.
The red ones are for staff, presumably ticketing staff included. I’m not sure why they bothered designing long sleeve versions, given the average temperature in August here. I presume these are what we’ll get, but nobody tells me anything. See also here.

And just as an aside, it seems the uniforms were presented as part of the “200 Days to Go” event. As you can see, it was quite a production.
I figure if they do something like this for every little arbitrary milestone, they’re bound to come up with something really spectacular (in the truest sense of the word) for the Opening Ceremonies, with or without prissy American consultants (if you take my meaning).

And here’s something I’ve been wanting to see for quite a while. It was inevitable, given how pervasive the mascots are. Fuwa parodies!
I came across these on a web site quite by accident. (None of the artists are credited.) There were a bunch more that I couldn’t recognize – probably Chinese celebrities. Now all we need is the Revolutionary Fuwa with Chinese Characteristics, featuring Mao, Deng, Hu, and whatever other two most fit the bill, which might be difficult because two of the mascots are supposed to be female. But that needn’t hold back a true artist. Other suggestions: Disney Fuwa, Beatle Fuwa, Looney Tunes Fuwa, Anne Geddes Baby Fuwa, Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (+1) Fuwa, Aardman (Wallace and Gromit) Fuwa, Muppet Fuwa, Hello Kitty Fuwa, Harry Potter Fuwa, Hentai Fuwa – the possibilities are endless. And let’s not forget the Famous Artists Series: Fuwa done in the style of Rembrandt, da Vinci, Bosch, Monet, Picasso, Warhol, Audubon, Pollack, Mapplethorpe... Come on, you Photoshop experts, get busy! (On further thought, forget I mentioned Hentai Fuwa.)

Maybe that last picture can’t really be called a parody, and is just one of the entries from an art contest for primary school kids.

You probably can’t tell from reading, but I just paused to watch a particularly cool bunch of fireworks going off across the street. A sparkling fairy-dust trail shot up into the sky in a tight spiral to a height of 12 stories or so, then exploded into a midair pinwheel throwing off sparks in a rapid circle. There was a whole series of them, maybe a dozen from the whole box. Cool.

And now for today’s Mandarin lesson. I was telling some of my Chinese coworkers about the huge crowd of people at Ditan Park on New Year’s Day, and I asked how you say crowded in Chinese. The answer is ren duo, which means literally people many. You say ren tai duo for too crowded (people too many).

Later on, one of them taught me another way to say it: ren shan ren hai. Word for word, this means people mountain people sea. I’m not sure exactly how such an expression might have developed, as it’s pretty telegraphic, like many Chinese expressions. There are some obvious (and probably wrong) possibilities: people from mountain to sea; or just the fact that both mountains and the sea are big; or maybe something like we use in English – a mountain of people, a sea of people.

In other, completely unrelated, news, today I booked a flight to Shanghai next week to see Björk. I’ve been a big fan for many years but never seen her live, so it seems like a chance I shouldn’t pass up. Once again I find myself revisiting a place I’ve been before rather than going somewhere new, but Shanghai gets the concerts, not Chengdu. It will be a quick trip; fly there the morning of the show, stay one night, back the next day. It’s awkwardly scheduled on a Sunday night, but mei banfa (nothing can be done).

It mostly seems like this “Spring” Festival is a bit premature. Consider the ice chair pictures a couple of posts back. But this week it’s warmed up to the point where I put the long underwear in the drawer instead of wearing them as drawers (sorry). Maybe spring is coming after all.


Deconstructing Beijing

Note: I wrote this on 17 February, but couldn’t get to the web site to post it. I was afraid my access to that had gone the way of my access to viewing it, but it seems to be back today.

And now for something more like my typical posts. Yesterday I walked a few blocks to a store I go to occasionally, and on the way back home I passed the construction site just over the fence from Season Park. I posted this picture a little while ago:
The view interested me enough that I hurried home, put away my groceries and ran back out with my camera. I really should just carry the thing with me all the time.

They've made a bit more progress since then, with the building on the left almost completely gone, and yesterday it looked like this.
At the right side you can see the same gate that was in the previous picture.

Here's another angle on it.
And I took a little video to post on YouTube.

Moving along from there, I came across a recycling truck that's been decorated for the Lunar New Year.
And along the street, where one year ago looked like this:
Now looks like this:
It will be interesting to see just what a "European Mansion" might be.


Of Steven Spielberg and Jesse Owens

The news that Steven Spielberg has ended his association with the Beijing Olympics seems to be all over the international news, though not surprisingly hasn’t got much attention in the Chinese media as far as I can tell.

Certainly Mr. Spielberg is a free human being and allowed to choose his business and artistic endeavors by whatever criteria he wants. And it is also certainly true that the situation in Sudan is a monumental human tragedy. It is also true that China has many ties with Sudan, though it is far from certain whether China’s connection is a help or hindrance to the situation in Darfur. It is also far from certain whether China could do anything different that would improve things; if external factors like that were effective, surely the words and actions of dozens of other countries would have done some good by now – which doesn’t appear to be the case.

I know that historically, the modern Olympics have been used for political purposes. We’ve had countries boycotting the competition because of attitudes toward the host country quite a few times, but did the USSR pull out of Afghanistan because some countries wouldn’t go to Moscow in 1980? I think other factors caused their retreat, and the main result of the boycott was to deny worthy athletes their chance on the world stage. If Jesse Owens had refused to go to Germany because of the Nazis’ racist views, the world would have been denied the far more powerful statement he made by winning there.

But just because politics has intersected with the Olympics in the past doesn’t mean it should continue to do so. The whole ideal of the Olympic movement is that when it comes to sporting competition, everyone can come together without regard to relations between their homelands. Of course this may be an impossible ideal, but that doesn’t mean it should be abandoned. And let’s face it: if there was a boycott by every person and every nation that had a grievance with another nation participating, there would be no one on the fields at all. The world is far from a harmonious place. And I firmly believe that you gain more by engagement than by silence – when did “we refuse to talk to you until you agree with us on everything” ever solve an issue?

The Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games is an actual government agency here, so I can’t argue that dealing with BOCOG is not the same as dealing with the country’s leadership. But I would be dreaming if I felt that BOCOG has any influence over China’s foreign policy. Spielberg’s statements perhaps embarrass China’s leaders a little (very little, I’m guessing, in spite of what Western media say), but it would be still more dreaming to think that a little embarrassment is going to change their policies. They’re so used to Western media badmouthing them on any number of issues that they’ve developed pretty thick skin. Spielberg could make just as powerful a statement without quitting; he would put China in the position of continuing to deal with him in spite of his statements or the embarrassment of firing him (which might be greater than that caused by his quitting). His withdrawal makes it easy for China and BOCOG to take the high ground:
"Some people are attempting to link the Darfur issue with Chinese government policies in Sudan, even with the organisation of the Olympics. If they don't know the Chinese policy, I can understand. But if they have got some objectives, especially political objectives, we cannot accept that." – Liu Jianchao, Foreign Ministry spokesman. Read more.
The bottom line, of course, is that none of this makes one whit of difference. The Opening Ceremonies will start on August 8, 2008 at 8:08pm with or without their famous American consultant, and will no doubt be spectacular. Putting on an impressive show is something they know how to do in this country. Spielberg’s statements will not change China’s policy and will not help ease any suffering in Darfur. Maybe it will assuage his own conscience a bit, but in the world outside of his head, nothing is accomplished.

OK, that’s enough ranting for now. I sincerely hope someone can come up with words and actions that really do matter.


Skating into the new year

Shortly after I managed to roll out of bed this morning, I got an email from TG that he and SJ were going to check out Houhai and see what it was like on New Year’s Day. I had no plans, so I decided to join them.

We caught a taxi a little after noon and headed to one of the most popular entertainment districts in town, which strangely I’ve never visited before. When we got out of the taxi, the first thing we saw was how Beijingers make use of their lakes in the winter time.
This is Qianhai, one of a series of lakes west of the Forbidden City. It’s just north of Beihai, which I wrote about a while ago. They have chairs mounted on rails, and propel themselves with metal poles.
There are also ice skates for rent. I like the tricycles parked on the ice. Off in the distance, straight beyond the skate vendor in the chair, you can see that even the ice chairs can be tricky to control. That’s a woman down on the ice with a man helping her.
This part of town is highly commercialized, with old-style hutong buildings renovated into trendy restaurants and night clubs.
Here you can see one of the ice chairs better, as well as one of the other contraptions they rent, a pedal-powered ice cycle.
The north end of Qianhai turns into a little channel that connects to the next lake in the chain, Houhai. The banks of the channel are crowded with shops, restaurants and bars.
I saw these decorations in the window of one of the restaurants.
We came across these guys, who had just finished with a swim in Houhai.
From the end of the lake you can see all the way to the China World Trade Center Tower that’s being built.
I am going to have to come back to this place when it’s warmer. You’ve got Aladdin, Nilotic Monkey, and the Water Nymph Café, and some nifty Egyptian style decorations.
And here are the namesakes for the little island in the background, Wild Duck Island.

After completing our circuit of Qianhai and Houhai, we found a taxi to take us to Ditan Park, which held the big festival I visited last year. SJ is heading back to the US tomorrow, so I suggested it as a good place to get a real look at China celebrating their biggest holiday.

For the most part, it looked very similar to last year, so you can just go back to the old post for pictures. This time we arrived earlier in the day than last year, so there were a few things I missed last time round.
Like people burning incense at an old religious site. Ditan was the Temple of Earth opposite the more famous Temple of Heaven. There are also temples of the Sun and Moon to complete the four sides.
We were in time to catch some of the entertainment. This group played traditional instruments along with an electronic backing track. And to be honest, they could have been playing along with the whole arrangement for all I could tell.
And here’s a little emperor being conveyed around by his loyal servants.

I took this standing at the intersection of two major paths in the park.

That made for a pretty tiring day, so I came home and threw some veggies in a pot with water and chicken bouillon to make a soup. I watched a bit of the CCTV Gala rerun and started organizing the day’s pictures.

This notice in my building’s lobby is how the management office greeted us for the holiday:

All Occupants/Residents
Spring Festival is approaching, our property department officer send our best wishes to you!
Spring Festival period, strengthens the safe guard work, asks you to come in and out of the building on own initiative to carry access card. Regarding the visit visitor, like is unable to determine the concrete room number, the great hall security temporarily does not give the gate and informs the property department to carry on the inquiry, the relation. Holiday period like you egress, please close, the windows and doors, the engineering department can help you to closes the electric circuit, the closure water supply pipe valve, please leave your urgent telephone at the property department.
The weather in Beijing is dry and windy, so it is very easy for the plants in and around our mansion to catch fire if they meet spark. To ensure our owners/residents have a neat and safe living environment, our management office kindly advise you not to ignite firecracker when you celebrate the Spring Festival with you family. You can ignite firecracker at designated locations outside the south gate of the east gate.
Thanks for your cooperation
Wish you to have a happy and healthy holidays!

I’m guessing this was translated from the Chinese original by Google.

Unsafe and insane

Words just cannot capture the scene in Beijing for the Chinese New Year. So this time I took some videos and posted them on Youtube to give you an idea what it’s like.

The first one is right at the entrance to Seasons Park a few minutes before midnight, pretty close to the height of the madness.

The second one is about 20 minutes later. It’s a quick video panning across the area I could see right then.

I’ve got more, but I need to edit them down a bit – the files are too big for Youtube.


Further evidence

By yesterday, many offices were closed for Chunjie (Spring Festival), though our office was officially open until today. As with many other holidays, most of our staff, including the Americans, worked on Saturday and Sunday, basically trading those two days to have extra days off after the New Year. So the next regular work day is not until 13 February, though we have so many deadlines in the near future that most of the expats will be working most of the days, whether in the office or from our apartments.

Anyway, all that is just an introduction to this picture:
This is an office that shares the fifth floor with us. The company name, Juto (or jutou in proper pinyin), means Gigantic Head. I don’t really know anything about them, but it’s a great name for a media company. I hope they’re as cool as their name.

Are those mice or rats?

Okay, maybe I’m obsessing over the whole rat/mouse thing. I promise to stop. Unless I find any really interesting examples to share.

The other night I was invited out to dinner by one of the workers in the Olympic Committee’s ticketing office. He took me to a place that he used to go to a lot but hasn’t visited in a few years. It’s one of the restaurants along the famous Gui Jie (Ghost Street) which is between the office and Seasons Park. It’s a rather unassuming place that is known for this dish (the one on the right):
Spicy shrimp. Really spicy shrimp. They’re cooked whole in enough hot peppers to kill a whole colony of rats (oops!) along with whole cloves of garlic and a bunch of Sichuan pepper (huajiao or flower pepper). It was pretty tasty, with the only problem being the miniscule amount of meat on each shrimp. But those are the biggest they can get this time of year. I’m told that for the same price in the summer time you get the same number of shrimp, only they’re a lot larger. They give you plastic gloves to wear so you can pick the shrimp up and peel them without getting the sauce on your hands. If you happened to rub your eyes with traces of that stuff on your fingers, I bet you’d be in serious pain.

We also had a selection of cold vegetables with a dipping sauce (more or less the same sauce as you usually get with duck). Later on a crock of “special” tofu (doufu in Chinese) showed up, and later still, a big fish cooked in the same basic style as the shrimp. Mmm, my mouth is watering now from the memory. Good stuff, though not for the faint-tongued.
Yes, it’s another random shot of construction in Beijing. The tall buildings behind on the right side are Seasons Park. Notice the old restaurant front that they left intact. There’s actually still glass in those windows. Last summer and fall, that restaurant (which hasn’t been open since I moved here) housed a bunch of squatters and reeked most unpleasantly. It’s kind of nice that they left the old gateway standing. I’m pretty sure it will be more apartments going up here. This construction site is the noisiest one around nowadays, with crashing, crunching grinding and banging from early in the morning till late at night every day. I’m hoping it’ll quiet down a little for Chunjie, though if it does, I’m sure the fireworks will make up for the noise.


Mice in lights

As I was walking home from the office tonight (it was only just below freezing, and I can use a little exercise), I saw lots of Lunar New Year decorations. I was walking past a shopping/office/apartment complex called East Gate Plaza (“Rest easy, play hard at East Gate Plaza” – there’s also a bowling alley and a multiplex cinema that shows movies in English) when I saw a woman ahead of me stop and get out her camera. When I got a little closer, I saw what she was aiming at.
From a little further along, you can see more of the design in the back.
A few weeks ago, reindeer were pulling Santa’s sleigh in the place where the mice now romp.

And for comparison, here’s a picture of what this same location looked like back in September:
We call this sculpture/fountain thing Doc Oc.