A Blogger's Guide to Beijing

You've read the blog... now get the book. The Blogger's Guide to Beijing is now available in eBook format in five volumes from Amazon. Click here for more details...

Friday, January 27, 2012

Enter the Dragon Part 2

One thing that the Chinese absolutely love without a doubt is making noises and letting off fireworks. Oh, OK – that’s two things they love, but they go hand in hand.

Throughout New Year’s Eve the sound of firecrackers being let off in the street is punctuated by larger mortar-style bangs. It frightens away the evil spirits, you see; I know if I was an evil spirit, it would certainly frighten me!

Come the arrival of dusk, Beijing goes totally ballistic. Talk about World War 3! From my apartment windows I can see maybe 30 or 40 different firework venues. As most people here live in high rise apartment blocks it would appear that one family lets off its fireworks in the street or courtyard outside, followed by the next family and so on. 

So at 5.30 the reign of fire begins and it goes on… and on… and on… and as midnight approaches it increases in intensity such that there surely cannot be any evil spirits left in the entire country, let alone Beijing. By 1am the intensity lessens, but the building is still being rocked by mortar blasts until maybe 2.30 when some kind of sanity begins to take over.

Think about it. 5.30 pm until 2.30 am. That’s nine hours! I fall into bed and wake up the next morning to the sun shining through my window with the sound of swish swish swish outside.

Despite the fact that it is New Year’s Day, there is a veritable army of street cleaners outside clearing up the debris from the night before.

I down a strong coffee, made by my delectable espresso/cappuccino maker that I was given just a couple of weeks back, and head out for some fresh air. It’s time for another Temple Fair methinks – but this time I’m off to Chaoyang Park situated near the embassy quarter.

My web guide tells me that this particular fair is known as the Chaoyang International Fengqing Festival since there aren’t actually any temples in this park. Also, it adds rather ominously, it caters principally to the laowai crowd. (Laowai / 老外 is one of several Chinese words for foreigner, literally translated as old/lao/老 foreigner/wai/外.)

But when I arrive, there is not a foreigner in sight, save for some Russians making fools of themselves – literally – on the stage set …

and some Czechs/Hungarians/Bulgarians/Greeks giving out some tourist brochures to curious passers-by.

Unlike yesterday’s jaunt to Ditan Park, this outing reminds me much more of a European fair with 101 different ways of winning (or not!) a horrid stuffed animal that you could probably buy cheaper than forking out for a lucky couple of balls/darts/hoops/pop-guns with which to win these wretched animals.

Many of the stall holders have that look about their chops that gives their innermost thoughts away. Why am I here in the freezing cold, rather than lying in a nice warm bed at home they obviously think.

But the Beijingers are out in force. They are determined to enjoy themselves come what may and appear happy to part with their well earned kwai.

Everywhere there are hawthorn candy sellers – that most popular street candy, made by sticking hawthorn fruit on sticks, dipping in boiling sugar solution and selling for around RMB4 a stick. (I have to admit to recently developing a taste for hawthorn juice in preference to my early morning orange juice.)

Other eateries are doing a roaring trade. If you want to know what it is they are selling, you’ll get a clue by identifying the carcass hung up over their counters. A few metres away from this dead pig, for instance, there are the remains of a sheep/goat hung up to tempt the visitors.

Naturally there are litter bins everywhere provided for the good burgers of Beijing, all clearly marked for what goes in which bin…

But I guess the world over, fairs appeal mostly to the kids (or maybe adults who have never really grown up). You could pretend for a short moment in time (well, about 75 seconds by my count) that you were Lord or Lady Muck and get carried around a circle inside a brightly painted palanquin.

All the while a band of musicians brave the cold to serenade the little blighters as they are carried around.

For the slightly older kids there are rides on dragon-decorated trains and roller coasters

and for the older still, you can get thrown through the air on dragon boats.

Safety is, of course, a number one priority and there are plenty of railings to keep back the crowds. Being the good citizens they are, I see no one trying to leap over anything, let alone a railing that I would have great difficulty climbing over, never mind leaping!

One of the most popular rides calls itself The Magic Sword Wheel. “It is a 20-meter-high dangling equipment,” we are told, “whose wheel dangles from the left to the right or circles clockwise or anticlockwise around the central pole with the maximum panning angle of plus or minus 110 degrees during the operation of the equip-ment. The passengers can strongly sense a gravity and fell as if they are riding the clouds”.

Hmmm. Somehow I am not tempted. But just to make sure, there is another notice beside the first which says that “those who are pregnant, drunk or weak or suffer from acrophobia, high blood pressure, heart disease, cerebral thrombosis, neurological disease or staggers are not allowed to take it.” Well I may not be pregnant, but I decide to give it a miss anyway.

Rather ominously, there is another stricture for the customers – “No smoking, littering or fighting” it warns. But those who stagger away from the contraption after the ride look in no mood for a fight, preferring instead to head for the public conveniences, which can be spotted a mile off in the shape of giant ladybirds.

Of course, it being the New Year, everyone is looking for a bit of good luck to see them through the coming year. Never ones to miss a trick, you’ll see the Chinese have planted good luck trees around the place. You pays your money, you bash away on a drum to get rid of the evil demons who might be lurking there, and then you pin your lucky ribbon onto the tree and voilà – you are guaranteed good luck ahead. What could be simpler?

Naturally there are cheapskates everywhere; and if you don’t feel like parting with the readies purely to bash a drum before hanging up your good luck prayer you can do it on the cheap at another tree without a drum bash for half the price!

Probably the best thing at Chaoyang – for me at any rate – was a collection of ice carvings that had been made, featuring an eagle, dragons, fish, rabbit, and various other animals. They were a definite hit with the kids too.

But don’t you just know it that when you look at ice carvings, with the outside air temperature well below zero, the first thing you start worrying about is where can you go to have a pee! I guess it is time to go in search of a ladybird once again…

Enter the Dragon

New Year’s Eve in China is one of those in-between days. You know. Just about everyone has left for the Spring Festival holiday in the world’s biggest annual migration, but the shops are still semi-open and everyone is waiting for the big day tomorrow.

Some of the shops, though seem to be lacking in any kind of business – such as the train ticret office, since presumably everyone has bought their ticrets by now and if they haven’t, there aren’t any more ticrets to be had anyway…

Others seem also to be getting few customers, perhaps because today the temperature is a heady minus 16 degrees Celsius, and there isn’t much of a market for iced water…

As with many public holidays around the world, Beijing has its fair share of fairs – normally referred to here as Temple Fairs, which have been a part of daily life for many hundreds of years. You can find them all over the city selling tat that you would not normally be seen dead with. There are displays of acrobats and musicians, cross-talk (a kind of mix between stand up comedy and rapping, which became popular in the Qing dynasty) and of course food stalls everywhere.

But your favourite blogger is ahead of the game. Unlike most of the Temple Fairs in Beijing which open tomorrow on New Year’s Day, there are a couple of fairs that are actually open today; so I head for Ditan Park, otherwise known as the Temple of the Earth Park, just up the road from the Yonghe Gong Lama Temple.

The Temple of Earth, otherwise known as the Temple of Fang Ze, was once the place where emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties offered sacrifices to the God of Earth. This temple complex is now the largest of its kind in China, covering over 37 hectares and dates back to 1530.
It reflects the beliefs of the time that:
1. heaven is round and the earth is square (so it was built square-shaped)
2. heaven is blue and the earth is yellowish (so guess what colour it is!)
3. heaven is in the south and the earth is in the north (so of course this lies north of the Temple of Heaven)
But I doubt anyone really gives that a second thought as they make their way past the bored looking Mr Plod at the entrance…

and rush to have their photograph taken with something that purports to be a dragon, since of course we are entering the dragon year – one of the most propitious times in the Chinese calendar.

Others who are not so tat-minded decide to have their pictures taken under an arch of red and gold lanterns.

and then everyone heads for the tat stalls selling everything from dragons and silly hats to toys and puzzles and plastic 100-ton-mallets (for hitting people over the head with of course!).

But wait… what have we here? A group of emperor’s flunkies standing around with an old cart? What’s up?

What’s up, of course, is a re-enactment of the imperial family’s traditional prayers for good harvests originally held here in the summer months. So you see, it’s actually quite educational coming here too!

Re-enactments aside, the park is also filled with musicians of varying standards, freezing their little fingers off while performing to the crowds. I feel quite sorry for this girl playing the er-hu who appears to be in the first stages of hyperthermia (well I can only assume that explains the standard of her playing).

On another stage round the corner, a magician is performing the cutting-a-woman-in-little-bits act, although the woman is actually a very gay man, whose fingers that are sticking out from a hole in the cabinet are turning blue with frostbite.

Red lanterns are everywhere, of course; and the grid section of streets, making up the park, are all lined with colourful banners and stalls.

One range of merchandise that I notice is doing particularly well, are smurfs – presumably because their recent film has been a huge success at the box office.

But a stall that attracts little interest displays house signs, which presumably fell off their allocated positions during a storm or whatever. Are these really collectables? Well, with my eBay experience I know all too well that one can sell practically anything to the masses!

As I approach food alley, the cookers are warming up nicely and already attracting a small amount of passing interest; though soon it will be packed as the Chinese love to nibble in the street.

The local fire brigade is also there, proudly showing off its latest equipment; but practically no one gives them a second glance and when I snap a photo of them there is a look of thank-goodness-we’re-not-entirely-invisible written all over their faces.

A small crowd gathers round some girls spinning plates on sticks. With perfect timing they twist their bodies and contort themselves into silly positions, all the while keeping those plates from falling to the ground. The crowd murmurs in awe. Amazing!

Or is it? One girl gives the game away as she leaves the stage. The plates are attached to the sticks! All they need to do is wiggle the sticks and it looks like they are in perfect control. The crowd, realizing it has been fooled, turn their backs and head off for other amusements.

How about life-size dolls performing for the kids? Huh! In minus 16 degrees? You’re kidding. I count maybe half a dozen brave souls standing around to watch this pedestrian performance.

But parades are a different matter and over-the-top colourful floats are the very stuff of such fairs.

Even equestrian ladies with bright pink cheeks are a hit – though whether their cheeks are pink from the cold or from their makeup is debatable.

Dance troupes, too, are all the rage; and I watch for a couple of minutes before the cold forces me to continue on my way.

It’s been a fun-filled morning, but if I stay out here much longer I will turn into an icicle. It’s time to head for home and leave the park for others to enjoy.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Santa Jostles with the Dragon

It’s January 22nd and still it appears that Christmas is more than just a passing memory. Although the Chinese New Year – referred to here as the Spring Festival – is almost upon us, Santa and his merry reindeer are still to be seen around town wishing us all a Merry Christmas from shop windows, hotels and in doorways, although it has to be said that I have noticed fewer Christmas trees in the past week…

No doubt this is because Mr Claus is wrestling for space with the dragons and New Year greetings that are fast taking over his territory, though this morning in my street alone I counted 14 santas and 13 dragons.

As well as dragons, many establishments are hanging up red diamond-shaped fu (福) characters which literally mean "blessings and happiness". This sign is usually seen hanging upside down, since the Chinese word for "upside down" (倒) is homophonous with "arrive" (到) and so it symbolises the arrival of luck, happiness, and prosperity.

 Of course the shops have been gearing themselves up for weeks now targeting shoppers with New Year cheer, such that it is impossible to escape this festival in any way whatsoever.

At work, we were given a hong bao (红包) or little red envelope with two store credit cards inside – to the tune of 500 kwai (approx ₤50) for one upmarket store, and another RMB 100 for a bakery chain.

Not being one to miss a bargain I have been tempted into the shops like everyone else, searching for must-buy items that I would normally never even consider purchasing!

Most shops have been doing a very brisk trade – and even normally sedate stores (if a Chinese supermarket could ever be called “sedate”) work on the principle of pile-em-high-sell-em-cheap.

Of course, while inside, who can resist buying some kitsch to decorate their apartments from the kitsch corners that have sprung up everywhere? (Actually.. I can!)

Anyone wanting just to buy their normal groceries has to work twice as hard fighting against the crush of eager Chinese. Thank goodness for the signs that can still be found everywhere guiding you to your chosen products.

OK, I have still to work out what is meant by “Nourish Food” – maybe it is the opposite of junk food? But it is a universally accepted term here – as can be seen in a similar sign in another supermarket.

As for “Expanded Foods” – don’t even ask! It’s about as clear to me as a “Functional Drink”. I’m dying to know what a dysfunctional drink is all about!

I am happy to see that my favourite sign in Wu Mart is still there to guide me to the toilet rolls. I mean, I never actually buy my bum fodder from there, but it still gives me a smile every time I pass it.

China, of course, is renowned for its Chinglish signs. Want to try your luck on the state lottery? Look no further…

Feel like playing with the overhead wires? Don’t even think about it!

Afraid lest you might miss out on an all important sign? Well I guess it is possible to suffer from sign withdrawal symptoms, so the lovely Chinese take it upon themselves to put up a sign telling you where to find another sign!

I guess too that the Chinese must have been the originators of mission statements – those grand sounding slogans that western corporations were so keen to introduce in the 80s and 90s to their work forces – albeit that I have never met a single person who could ever tell me what the mission statement of their company actually was. But true to form, the Chinese stick them up everywhere, even on their pedestrian bridges.

Even when you go to the loo, you cannot escape the signs. Do they really mean you should lock the door OF your convenience? Or FOR your convenience? Hmmm… the jury is out on that one I think.

One of my favourite signs can be found close to the Sanlitun area which is so heavily frequented by westerners. So it is not surprising that they make a special effort with their signs in this area. Thank the Lord for Google Translate!

But I digress. As the New Year approaches, many shops and even more houses decorate their entrances with rhyming couplets called du lian (对联) - a pair of lines of poetry which adhere to certain rules and that express happy and hopeful thoughts for the coming year.

A couplet must adhere to strict rules. For instance both lines must have the same number of Chinese characters; the tone pattern of one line must be the inverse of the other; the meaning of the two lines needs to be related, with each pair of corresponding characters having related meanings too. Oh, and there is a “headline” section at the top which is meant to sum up what it is all about!

As almost everything is shut during the Spring Festival, the markets have been having a very busy time offloading all their produce to the customers who buy up box-loads of meat, vegetables and fruit…

… while just in case there is anyone (such as me!) who still hasn’t bought a dragon or a fu or a du lian for his door, they’d better hurry up as stocks are limited. Or not, as the case may be.

Roll on the Spring Festival.

Gong xi fa cai! 恭喜发财! Happy New Year!