Sunday, June 8, 2014

I Tawt I Taw a Puddy Tat!

 
I have to say that as a rule I’m not really a cartoon aficionado. The sight of Tom chasing Jerry round and round to exhaustion, or the Simpsons (which frankly bores the pants off me with its American “humour”), or even the “cartoonisation” of real people – such as the animated version of Mr Bean – all leave me cold.
 
But there are notable exceptions. I used to love Snagglepuss the lion (‘Exit, Stage right!’ was his catch phrase) whilst Bugs Bunny (“Err what’s up Doc?”) was always cute. And the third animation? Sylvester the Cat. Of all the pussycat cartoon characters, he was always the most lovable and was a feline with attitude!
 
Even his arch nemesis, Tweety Pie, though he got on my nerves something rotten, wasn’t enough to dampen this fan’s enthusiasm, who agreed with Sylvester that Tweety was totally " dethpicable", just as Tweety was always opining “I Tawt I Taw a Puddy Tat”.
 
 
Alas, it is not recorded if Tweety Pie ever came to Beijing. But if he did, there is one restaurant that he would surely have had to flutter past pretty quickly.
 
I am referring to Meow Hotpot (猫抓火锅 – Mao Zhua Huo Guo, which translates as Cat Scratch Hotpot) at 2 Haihu Xili, Majiabao Dong Lu, just off the south west Third Ring (nearest station JiaoMenXi on Lines 4 and 10).
 
 
This restaurant knows a thing or three about marketing. No matter whether you love or hate cats, you cannot fail to be captivated by the overall theme of the place. Cats are everywhere. Most of the cats are the lucky Chinese waving cats (a take off of the original Japanese idea, one has to admit) …
 
 
… but there are also cutesy furry felines greeting you near reception…
 
 
… (even if some of them do look more like sheep!) …
 
 
… and many are doing what cats do best of all … sleeping!
 
 
Not that the marketing department have got everything right, mind you. Their branding is liberally covered with their web site address – www.meowhotpot.com. But try to look that up and all you’ll get is a 403. (I actually did a whois-lookup and found that this address was registered on June 29 2012, and is due to expire very shortly.) Instead, head on over to http://weibo.com/meowhotpot for a web site that is boring to look at in the extreme and gives almost no information.
 
Despite its name, the MeowHotpot doesn’t do just hotpots. In fact the restaurant is split across two floors with hotpots being served downstairs and barbecues upstairs.
 
 
My friend Yan, who is a definite dog lover and really isn’t into cats, thinks my culinary knowledge needs raising, and she leads me to the barbecue floor.
 
 
Cats are everywhere. Not a single piece of wall space is allowed to escape unblemished…
 
 
“Go to the rest room and wash your hands” I am commanded, only to discover the playful pussies never leave you for a moment.
 
 
Before we have even begun, it is clear that this is going to be a messy affair. Aprons are handed out to protect shirts, dresses, or whatever, from flying food…
 
 
On the table is a charcoal burner which is regularly topped up by a charcoal-wallah doing the rounds.
 
 
Naturally you expect the (plastic) plates to be pussy-cat themed, and you are not disappointed…
 
 
And soon the raw materials arrive – pork, beef, greenery, various spices, ……
 
 
Not to mention something which probably originated at one time from a cow…
 
 
All of it goes in stages onto the sizzling barbecue plate…
 
 
while extra side dishes of cold beans, something gelatinous soaked in orange juice, nuts and various other odds and sods keep the palate keyed up as the meat is cooking…
 
 
Each table has its own air filtration unit to suck away all the smoke being given off by the barbecues..
 
 
… while lest you forget where you are for just one moment, an array of furry felines stare down at you from the mirrors and walls.
 
 
The marketing department has come up with another wheeze… If you just happen to mention the fact that you are in this restaurant on WeChat or Weibo (and show your posting to one of the waiters) you will get a free badge!
 
 
Yan duly obliges, and then cons the fuwuyuan into bringing a couple more badges for her laowai guest. He duly obliges…
 
 
Another nice touch is that once the bill has been paid, they mark your table with a bottle of “table art” and you are left to sit there for as long as you wish with no one hassling you to move on.
 
 
Oh, and did I tell you that today is a Tuesday? It appears that on Tuesdays you get a 15 per cent reduction on the bill. Perfect timing!
 
 
We wander down the stairs, where on yet another wall there are good luck notices stuck up there by happy customers, a bit like you see in temples with prayer notes.
 
 
A portly pussy waves us goodnight as we stagger out into the night air.
 
 
Even the illuminated sign over the entrance seems to be waiving us goodbye.
 
 
It’s not long, however, before the inevitable question arises… if the barbecue was as good as it was, what about the hotpot portion of the restaurant?
 
Another date is fixed and this time Yan brings along her “leetle seester” to accompany us. I have long ago stopped wondering how many big sisters, little sisters and other sisters Yan has. Some are cousins; some are friends of friends; some are daughters of parents’ friends. NanNan is in the latter category, I believe.
 
We head for the downstairs restaurant which has an almost identical layout to the one upstairs.
 
 
Once again the marketing department has come up with yet another idea. This time if you send in a picture of a pussycat you can get a free badge.
 
 
Many people have done just that, and their offerings grace yet another wall in the establishment…
 
 
The aprons handed out this time are classier than the ones upstairs.
 
 
and they even give out phone condoms (branded of course) as everyone knows you cannot sit through a meal without checking your social apps on a regular basis – and heaven forbid that your smartphone might get spattered with hotpot broth…
 
 
Now, most hotpot restaurants I have been to provide two-sided cooking pots – creamy and spicy. But Meow doesn’t do things by halves – and we have the option of mushroom, spicy, tomato and normal pork broth to cook things in.
 
 
Of course, there is the normal sesame paste to which you can add a variety of additives to make it taste just the way you like it before dipping in your carefully cooked titbits, while attempting not to burn the inside of your mouth by rushing the process.
 
 
Beef and lamb, of course, are obligatory…
 
 
and pigs’ intestines make an interesting alternative…
 
 
You can also order tinned luncheon meat which goes well in this kind of hotpot
 
 
not to mention a plateload of mushrooms which are yummy in the extreme
 
 
If you’re into tofu, then try slices of tofu straight from the freezer, which stops the stuff falling apart in the broth and gives you a reasonable chance of being able to pick it up with chopsticks.
 
 
The tofu comes in a variety of shapes and sizes… such as these worm-like objects that come in a cold salad…
 
 
All the vegetables are locally sourced (except for the chillies which are imported from Sichuan) and look pretty fresh. Sliced courgette and pieces of lettuce go well in the hotpot, as does “Popeye’s vegetable”, as Yan refers to the spinach.
 
 
And all the while, flasks of multicoloured broths are standing by to top up our hot pot.
 
 
If I’m strictly honest, this hotpot isn’t the best I’ve ever had, and certainly isn’t up to the standard of the upstairs barbecues, but it’s good all the same, and the atmosphere in the restaurant is a joy to behold.
 
We once again stagger out into the night air, having eaten far too much as usual. A pussycat reclining on a spoon knows just how we feel.
 
 
I tawt I taw a putty tat??? More like 100 of them, I think. Tweety Pie would have flipped.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory – Not just a British Phenomenon!

There are some expressions in popular everyday use that I think don’t actually deserve the bad press they often tend to get. Take the saying ‘watching grass grow’ or, perhaps better still, ‘watching paint dry’
 
I have come across something that trumps both these expressions into the dust. Yes, really! And it’s so simple, albeit that you would probably have to be a Beijinger to understand its full horror and significance. Let me explain…
 
Every year, the powers that be stage what is beautifully translated into ‘English’ as the ‘China Beijing International Fair for Trade in Services’ – or CIFTIS for short. (Why they can’t just call it the Beijing International Trade Show, I have no idea.) It appears that I have been volunteered to go this year – the third edition of the show – to cover a presentation put on by the China-Britain Business Council, the thinking being, I suspect, that as I originally hail from the UK, I might be in a better position to write something slightly less inane than some of my other colleagues might come up with. So I set off… like a lamb to the slaughter…
 
 
It’s an overcast day – a Saturday at the start of the long Dragon Boat Festival holiday weekend. The China National Convention Centre is housed within spitting distance of the Birds Nest within the Olympic Green (OK, admittedly it would be quite a long spit, though seeing how much practice the Beijingers put into this ‘sport’ I wouldn’t put it past them to elevate it to Olympic status at some time in the future).
 
 
It’s ever-so high-tech getting in. Laser readers spot my badge a mile off and my mug shot appears on screens all around me (all the better for others to appreciate my rugged western features, I guess!) as I enter through a scanning arch and place my bag on an X-ray machine conveyor, only then to have a uniformed floozy run her hands over my rippling muscled torso in search of whatever it is that unformed floosies are trained to search for.
 
 
There are four halls (or one hall with four zones, if one wants to be pedantic) featuring stands from regions all over China as well as stands from some overseas countries (including GB, naturally, which gives Vince Cable – the British Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills since 2010 – a good reason to go off on yet another publicly funded junket).
 
It is midday and the place is hardly heaving at the seams, which perhaps makes a nice change from other trade exhibitions where you have to fight for your own piece of real estate. I have two hours before the British presentation starts. Plenty of time to give the place the once over…
 
I find myself in front of the Qinghai stand where there are endless Buddhist pictures stacked up attracting zero attention from the few passers by. Qinghai, BTW, for those who are as ignorant as your favourite blogger, is a province in the northwest of China that for centuries was part of Tibet, and was incorporated into China at the beginning of the 18th century, only becoming a Chinese province in 1928.
 
 
Just around the corner is the HuBei stand which features a grand piano and a few posters. But perhaps the pianist has stage fright; or maybe he is afraid of waking anyone up. Either way he desists from tickling the ivories for the entire afternoon – which is a pity given the overall lack of almost anything worth while to look at in the exhibition hall.
 
 
Shandong hovers next into view. “Open, innovative, pragmatic and for the people” screams a slogan on the far wall. But with no one on the stand and some boring looking posters hardly inviting one to take the trouble to find out more, I remain in my blissful state of ignorance and quickly move on.

 
“Chengdu, Can do” is the next snappy slogan to catch my eye. But alas the only Can-do activity on display is a bored looking official, yacking away into his phone. I decide that Chengdu, like Shandong, can also remain on my list of places I remain blissfully ignorant about.
 
 
And then suddenly there is activity everywhere. Well, everywhere in a 5 metre radius at any rate. I have arrived at the Beijing stand no less. You’ve got to hand it to the Beijingers – what an inspired idea to have loads of plastic blossom stuck onto plastic trees where there’s a steady stream of people queuing up to have their photograph taken. And not just that, but they have also provided loads of seating for the poor visitors to rest their weary feet. And to think it took a trade exhibition to educate this poor ignoramus that if you are looking for plastic blossom, then BJ is the place to be. Inspirational!
 
 
It’s also good to see that they take Health and Safety so seriously here. Cables strewn across the floor all have black and yellow striped tape stuck over them so that visitors can look back and instantly see what they tripped over. Steps onto stands also have blue lights to highlight where previous visitors have tripped and broken the plastic covering of the warning lights.
 
 
I do a double take. There on the UK stand is a board showing a number of university logos together with valued sponsors. There’s even one from my former alma mater – Reading Uni. How little did I imagine all those centuries ago that I would one day be gazing at their logo on the other side of the world!
 
 
From the UK I find myself magically transported to Hong Kong – well to their blue and green stand which has to be one of the best in the entire exhibition; except there are only three people on the stand, and they are all working …on the stand!
 
 
New South Wales, too, has also rented a large amount of space. The 'new state of business' may well be open for business, but the lady manning the stand is so engrossed in her novella that a visitor (yes there actually are a few visitors!) tip toes quietly past, for fear of disturbing her.
 
 

Brazil has come up with the perfect solution for stirring up interest – it has the clever idea of a football theme with some pictures of Brazilian footballers over the years. It turns out that this is just as inspired as plastic blossom when it comes to getting people onto your stand…
 
 
… especially when they trump everyone else with their ‘pièce de resistance’ – dress up some local hotties in Brazilian colours and invite the punters to enter a free draw. Yes… it works … at least three more people are making their way over…
 
 
The poor girl on the Uruguay stand is obviously wishing her bosses had been as inspired. Full marks for not leaving her post, but she is destined to sit alone for the entire afternoon. Maybe if they had thought to put up even just a smattering of Chinese information in their ample space it wouldn’t have been a bad idea?
 
 
I come to the Carrefour stand. Carrefour, I should explain to my blog fans that live neither in China nor in the Middle East, is a French hypermarket chain that sets the standards for others to marvel at in the Middle East, but perversely is the epitome of everything that is BAD in China. Its food here is anything but fresh; it is regularly caught cheating its customers; and its service is abysmal.
 
A large sign proclaims ‘Export Direct Purchase to Carrefour contries’, and then adds ‘9548 tons exported’ – as if that says everything. FGS, they don’t even explain which Carrefour ‘contries’ are exported to.
 
 
At least they are honest in showing off their product range. Would you rush to a supermarket to buy your vegetables when they proudly show off these rotten specimens in an international exhibition?
 
 
Even their red peppers look like they gave up the will to live eons ago…
 
 
I give up, and decide to go up to the first floor, which after all is where the British conference is due to be held in a short while.
 
The Tianjin Chamber of Commerce for Import and Export has a stand filled with … nothing...
 
 
…though it is good to see they are ready and prepared to give the place a clean up at a moment’s notice. Maybe they will wipe the floor area tomorrow morning ready for the last day’s rush?
 
 
Chongqing does a lovely line in dead lilies, though there is precious little else to see on their stand…
 
 
As for Shanghai, this is obviously the right place to go if you are searching for waste services … or not as the case may be.
 
 
Finally I can feel that I am reaching my intended destination. Great Britain Ltd is represented by nothing less than the spectacular creation of Shaun the Sheep. Another stroke of genius, given its regular appearance on the TV screens of Beijing’s subway lines 10 and 1. Such a pity though that the Brits then go and spoil it all by demonstrating their abysmal use of the English language. Has no one in Team GB passed their GCSE exams in the Queen’s own vernacular?
 
 
By the entrance to the presentation room is a table (later to become two tables to cope with the demand!) which one notes is a ‘Sign Area’. Is this for deaf-dumb mutes? Is it where they make up the idiot boards to be used by the presenters? No. It’s where we will be expected to sign in – though by the time they get all the necessary bits of paper together, most people have entered the room unrecorded.
 
 
Inside there is a breathless hush. All the chairs already seem to be occupied; but never underestimate the power of the press. A posse of girls rushes over to me and I am escorted over to a VIP area at the very front, complete with my very own bottle of water and two mint chews. I am deeply touched.
 
From here I can get an uninterrupted view of the screen. I can rest assured I will miss nothing!
 
 
As we wait in awe for the spectacle to unfold, there is a series of slides showing some of the things that Britain invented. Dead impressive stuff if you ask me… even if the Chinese hack beside me has never heard of Concorde.
 
 
Of course everyone knows that the world wide web was dreamed up by the Brits (well, one Brit, but let’s not stop patting ourselves on the back, just because of that!); as indeed was the first motor racing track (1907), the discovery of DNA’s structure (1953), the first plane to land automatically with passengers on board (also 1953), the hydrogen fuel cell motorbike (2005) and, of course, the iPod! No? Yes!
 
 
But surely something is missing here? I mean, we’re talking about Great Britain aren’t we? For if ever a nation is expert at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, then we British are unbeatable in this respect. Surely everyone knows that?
 
I need not have worried. As sure as night follows day, the first set of speakers wheeled on to wow the Chinese audience comes, it turns out, from Northern Ireland. Now, for those of you who may not be familiar with a Belfast accent you need to understand that many English people have great difficulty understanding their Northern Irish neighbours. When you then get a pair of them who appear to think that a microphone is something you scratch your balls with, rather than ramming it down your throat, the simultaneous translator can be forgiven for not having the slightest idea what is being said – not to mention us Brits who are also struggling at times.
 
The aforementioned Chinese hack, whose English is so basic that it is all she can do to get my phone number and eMail address, looks at me for help; but I have to mime to her that I am none the wiser.
 
Result: the first ten minutes is what is known in these football-crazy times as an own-goal!
 
Luckily there is a Chinese speaker who soon takes over and not only does he know what to do with his microphone, but he also has some pretty impressive animations of dragons flying over the countryside.
 
 
But hold on! This is a British showcase isn’t it? Well, OK, it turns out that Jilin Yushuo Group hires the occasional Brit in its 800 employee empire.
 
But just in case we feel short changed, we soon have another Brit giving a presentation. All goes swimmingly well … at first… until such time as he wants to show off what China’s CCTV-9 TV channel used to use for its logo before his company stepped in to bring it into the 21st century. Except that no matter how often he pushes the start button on his remote control, the screen remains obstinately blank. Don’t you just hate it when that happens! (haha)
 
 
But this guy is a true Brit. They don’t teach us to keep a stiff upper lip for nothing in Old Blighty! Passing on as if this is but a minor irritation, we finally get to see a series of furry cubic animals that Innovation GB has come up with. How amazing is that!
 
 
I look at my watch. Can we only have got through a quarter of the afternoon’s presentation so far? Luckily enough, I have already got my two rent-a-quotes for my article, not to mention a backgrounder on the companies exhibiting, so during the next lull in proceedings I edge my way out of the hall and make for the wide open spaces once more.
 
This time the fickle finger of fate leads me to a publishing stand. Could this be the answer for all my Christmas presents in six months’ time?
 
‘China’s Army Dream: The Army Dream that Supports the China Dream’ appears to be one book they are pushing hard;
 
 
but I don’t see anyone actually holding a copy, and taking that to be an auspicious sign, I move on to the next must-have title.
 
This time I am beguiled by a book that extols the fact that the governing quintessence of President Xi JinPing can be summed up by the expression ‘Governing a Large Country is Like Frying a Small Fish’. Hmmm, perhaps not today…
 
 
But it just gets better. I have the chance now to purchase ‘China Dream: The Success of the Chinese Government and the Charm of China’s Ruling Communist Party’!
 
I kid you not. You surely couldn’t make this up, if you tried!
 
Alas, I fear my Christmas shopping list must wait for further ideas…
 
 
I wander along an upper corridor looking for fresh inspiration… and come across another interesting notice…
 
 
Well, it would be interesting if your English was good enough to know that the word ‘consumption’ is a somewhat-archaic name for pulmonary tuberculosis. But I somehow suspect the sign writers here at CIFTIS have never come across that useless bit of information. So I will forego forcing yet another joke at the expense of the burgers of Beijing.
 
I go downstairs once again. What’s this? Not one, but THREE happy people who actually have smiles on their faces? Have I suddenly stepped into an alternative parallel universe?
 
But it’s true! These three angels have finally found a purpose in life at this exhibition – to smile (professionally of course) when an equally bored visitor, no doubt, asks them to pose for a piccie.
 
OK thanks girls. Xie Xie. You don’t have to force that smile any more now. Photo opportunity is over. You can go back to looking bored.
 
 
Two volunteers have not been so lucky. No one is asking to take their photograph. But hey, isn’t this better than having to work for your living? And that desk does look so comfortable…
 
 
Mind you, not everyone is so lucky. The girls and boys ensuring the safety of the place are still on full alert, though by mid afternoon they are starting to outnumber the visitors actually inside the Convention Centre.
 
 
All this surely begs the question of which idiot decided to hold this exhibition at the start of a major holiday in the Chinese calendar. Or was the idea to get in as few visitors as possible to somehow make this event unique in the international calendar of exhibitions?
 
I am pondering this very question as I emerge from the hall in search of yet more new inspiration. Ahead of me is yet another poster containing four pictures of totally empty display and eating areas, with the catchy caption ‘Another successful year for CIFTIS at the CNCC in 2014’.
 
 
I guess that says it all.