A Blogger's Guide to Beijing

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Friday, November 25, 2011

“I love talking about nothing. It is the only thing I know anything about.” (Oscar Wilde)

I don't know if you have ever had one of those moments when your response to being asked if you could do someone a favour is: "The answer's Yes! Now, what's the question?"?

Your favourite blogger had just such a moment a couple of weeks back when out of the blue he was asked if he would be willing to give a lecture to some students at Beijing's Renmin University. Now, I know this will totally faze some of my best friends, who won't believe this for a moment knowing the shy and retiring sort of person I am; but I have to admit to being one of those guys who just loves the sound of his own voice. (Yes, yes I know. Incredible, but true!)

So before I even knew what it was they wanted me to talk about, I heard myself saying "Yes of course; I'd be delighted" – or words to that effect.

Naturally I assumed they wouldn't be expecting the lecture to be in Chinese. And I was right on that score. What I hadn't been expecting, though, was that they would be wanting to hear my loquacious tones for a full three hours… and more!

It appears they knew I had been in the BBC for more years than I cared to remember. Would I talk about the independence of the BBC and how the BBC earned its enviable reputation over the years?

A simple request, of course; but for three hours? I mean I could say what I wanted to say about the BBC's independence in – what? – five minutes? How was I going to fill the remaining 2 hours and 55 minutes?

They wanted me to deliver the speech in two weeks' time. And the killer: because my "day job" was from 1330 to 2300, they could "squeeze me in" at 8 o'clock in the morning, "which would give me plenty of time to get in to work before the allotted hour".

8 o'clock? That would mean that if I had to be there by, say 7.45, I'd need to leave home at around 6.45 just to make sure I wasn't late. … which meant getting up at 5.45 …. Oh Lord! What had I got myself into?

Too late to worry about that now. I feverishly set about seeing what Mr Google's henchmen could dig out for me in the way of FACTS.

I look up Wikipedia; I search the BBC's web site; I trawl YouTube (through a proxy server, of course); I find web sites set up by geeks and web sites set up by radio amateurs; pictures of car stickers and of QSLs, not to mention transmitter masts and defunct pieces of studio equipment. And before long it is no more a case of how am I going to fill the time, but what on earth can I possibly cut to allow me to squeeze in everything I want to say.

The fortnight's preparation is pure bliss; going down memory lane; revelling in nostalgia (though I still maintain that nostalgia just isn't what it used to be). And finally the big day approaches. I decide to have an early night and set my alarm clock to 5.45 just in case.

But what happens if I sleep through my alarm? Or the dratted thing fails to go off (it has been known for me to set the alarm to a pm setting rather than am, you might be surprised to hear).

So I set another alarm to 5.40 and climb into bed; and worry that even with two alarms set to wake me up, I might keep on sleeping through them at such an ungodly hour. So just for good measure I set a third alarm to 5.30 which will allow me to hit the snooze button and then not be so fast asleep that I don't hear the following two alarms.

I wake up at 5.25.

Outside it is pitch black. Outside it is also minus five degrees. I crawl into the shower and soak under a jet of hot water deciding what shirt I can wear for maximum impact. My blue, turquoise and black one today I think.

I wrap up really well and creep out into the freezing night air and make my way to the subway station to catch one of the first trains of the day. Of course, this being Beijing, there are absolutely no seats to be had (despite the early hour) until three stations before I have to get out.

Any lesser mortal might have thought the obvious station to go to is the one for Renmin University (on Line 4).


But not being of the lesser mortal brigade, I take it upon myself to find out where the school of journalism is located. "To the right of the west gate" I am told in an eMail, seeking to confirm that I haven't forgotten my appointment, nor that I am thinking of doing a runner.

A quick check of my trusty Beijing map, courtesy of my Samsung Galaxy Tab confirms that the western gate is actually nearer another station on Line 10 – the same line that I am already travelling on,


which in some ways is a pity as it means I won't be going past one of my favourite Pi Yas located within spitting distance of Renmin Uni station.

But to make up for it, Renmin Universty itself has a lovely pair of Pi Xiu right in front of its Admin block and I snap away at the cute beasties in order to add them to my web site..


Renmin University, otherwise known as the People's University of China (中国人民大学 or Zhōngguó Rénmín Dàxué), was officially established in 1950, the first national university of the People's Republic. Its predecessor, established in 1937 during the Second Sino-Japanese War, was Shan Bei Public School (陕北公学), and this accounts for the 1937 date prominently displayed around the campus.

Naturally I find I have arrived half an hour too early, but this gives me plenty of time to wander around the place and get my bearings. The large map at the entrance, alas, does not prove to be that useful to me as I stupidly forgot to look up the Chinese for Journalism School. But having been told that it is located to the right of the West gate I head off in that direction.

There's no sign of anything remotely looking like a journalism school, but instead I get to see some of the 22 other schools, 13 research institutes and the graduate school.

They say that one of the university's most famous quirks is something called The English Corner where, every Friday evening, people gather at the Qiushi Garden near the east gate to practise their English.

It being only 7.30 in the morning I am surprised to find a group of students shivering in the morning cold, shouting out lines from a play in English. Perhaps they are getting themselves ready for an evening performance?

Just a little further on there is another group warming up for the day with a spot of Tai Chi. Don't you think anybody normal would just stay in bed for an extra half hour rather than face the bitter cold that has been gripping Beijing for the past two weeks?


The campus itself, though, is quite charming. With ponds and trees and sitting areas, someone has gone to quite a bit of trouble to make the place welcoming and attractive.


They even seem to have taken a leaf out of the Beijing Olympics area with their "witty" notices…

… but I fear that yet again Google Translate has let them down somewhat. (I worry that Mr Google's translation machine has a lot to answer for in this country!)

Wikipedia tells me this area is a good place to "meet and communicate with the students of the university and the common people of China"; but there aren't that many common people around at this early hour, let alone any of the "1,165 international students, many of them from South Korea". (In fact there are apparently so many South Korean students that the International Students Dining Room has a separate Korean menu aside from the traditional Chinese one.)

Renmin University is a popular destination for visiting foreign dignitaries too. During his state visit to China in January 2008, the then-British Prime Minister Gordon Brown visited Renmin with Premier Wen Jiabao to talk with students, scholars, sportsmen and entrepreneurs. Thank God I arrived in Beijing 30 months too late. What a dreadful thought to have bumped into that Scottish moron. I pity the Chinese students who were probably hand picked to feign politeness to old Gordie.

I am awoken from my reveries as I walk past a sculpture of immaculately dressed students hanging onto every utterance of their wise old lecturer; and for a moment I imagine myself pronouncing to the masses from my vast store of locked up wisdom…


But the dream soon fades back again into reality as I mentally clock up another lamppost to add to my database of the world's best lampposts.


Time marches on, though; and with no sign of a journalism school anywhere remotely near the right of the western gate, I am glad that I have already agreed to be met by a student who goes by the name of Da Wei.

I've hardly had time to text him that I have arrived before I am greeted by a smiling face and escorted from the west gate in a leftwards direction. The School of Journalism is ahead of us, but we veer off into another building, walk up two flights of stairs and find our way to Room 307 immediately opposite the communal loos.

Amazingly my little laptop works straight away when plugged into the A-V system of Room 307 and I am told how cute my bright orange loudspeakers look protruding out from behind my red PC.

The students stifle yawns as they drift in to find a seat and I feel positively sorry for them – to think I am responsible for disturbing their beauty sleep. But I guess if it hadn't been me, they would still have had to haul themselves out of bed to listen to somebody else. Amazingly they are smiling; all 25-30 of them; and they continue to smile, even when I open my mouth and they realise they have to cope with an English accent, rather than an American drawl that Chinese have been brought up to believe is the "real English".


I tell them about Marconi. I play them an extract of Jeremy Paxman bullying Michael Howard; I play them an extract of Robin Day bullying Sir John Nott. I play them extracts of Maggie Thatcher being bullied by a common person whose name she forgets; of Dame Nellie Melba (still clutching her handbag as she warbles), of Radio Normandie, of 2MT, of Lord Haw Haw, of Caroline and 270 and Big L and Veronica; of Capital and LBC, and of course of the Empire and General Forces and World Services.

And before I know it my three hours are up before I have even got to the end of my beloved PowerPoint Presentation.

But they want me to go on. They demand that I go on. I am not to be allowed to stop.

I continue spouting forth, filling the room with pithy insight into the independence of the BBC. I answer their questions.

They want more.

I tell them about being arrested in Saudi Arabia after broadcasting on Saudi TV.

They still want more.

I tell them about smellavision, about foldable video screens, about thought transference experiments.

Finally the dinner bell goes; I am already into my fourth hour of performance. But these are students through and through. Food beckons. Finally the dulcet tones of your favourite blogger start to lose their appeal when weighed up against the thought of lunch.

These are Chinese students, though, through and through. No rushing off the way British students would undoubtedly have done. They clap, they thank me (while looking at their watches) and edge out of the room leaving behind a hard core of half a dozen who have obviously been hand picked to ensure that I am able to find my way off the campus.

But first I must pose for the obligatory photographs with the professor who has originally invited me.
I tell the hard core six that I will be unlikely to lose my way over the 150 metre walk in a straight line to the west gate; and bless their cotton socks you can see the cogs turning over in their brains that on the one hand this foreign devil probably speaks the truth, but on the other hand they were volunteered to escort me out. But reason finally prevails. They don't want to find their portion of chow has been dolloped out to someone less deserving, and as I accelerate my pace to put distance between me and them, they wave goodbye and turn on their heels toward the canteen block.

On the sports track, a whole load of students are already warming themselves up for a marathon afternoon session of study as I slope off to the subway station and head for home. It's been a good morning. I've decided I like Renmin University and I like its students.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Summer Palace – Best viewed in autumn

I've already been to Beijing's Summer Palace on three previous occasions – last time it was pouring with rain – but it has to be one of my favourite places in the northern capital.

The Summer Palace (颐和园) or Yíhé Yuán, which literally means "Gardens of Nurtured Harmony", covers an expanse of 2.9 square kilometres, three quarters of which is water.

Line 4 of the subway system takes you virtually there. From Xiyuan 西苑 station, it's a 10 minute lope past loads of street food stalls and fighting your way through the army of rickshaw drivers who are intent on parting you from your well earned renminbi to drive you the length of the street.

But within minutes you'll know you have arrived. What hits the eye is a grand paifang not doing a very good job of hiding a bus terminus.

But what visitors often fail to notice, is that there is a little museum, otherwise known as a Visitors' Centre right by the paifang which is free to enter and actually remarkably good in telling you practically everything you ever wanted to know about the Summer Palace but were afraid to ask.

It also has what must be one of the most beautifully constructed loos, which is actually clean inside and well worth walking through the museum just to try out its facilities before venturing into the park.

In December 1998, UNESCO included the Summer Palace on its World Heritage List, declaring it "a masterpiece of Chinese landscape garden design. The natural landscape of hills and open water is combined with artificial features such as pavilions, halls, palaces, temples and bridges to form a harmonious ensemble of outstanding aesthetic value," it said. And quite right too!

The Summer Palace started life as the 'Garden of Clear Ripples' (清漪园or Qīngyī Yuán) in 1750. Artisans reproduced the garden architectural styles of various palaces across the Middle Kingdom.

The first thing you see when you enter the Summer Palace gardens is a lovely bronze Qilin statue standing guard over the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity. It's a great way to start your tour of the massive park, albeit that you normally have to fight your way through the hoards of visitors who have the same idea as you in what they want to see.

Apart from the Qilin, there are other statues around, such as stalks, lions and dragons, all of which will have attracted loads of Kodak Brownie camera owners in their day.

One thing that many visitors are unaware of, though, are the railings that have been specially constructed to keep their grimy mitts off the said statues. The Chinese obviously hold these in very high esteem, though in my ignorance I had never realised their importance until I saw a notice pointing this fact out to me.

For me, though, the main attraction of the Summer Palace is not the railings, but the central Kunming Lake which covers 2.2 square kilometres. It is entirely man made and the excavated soil was used to build the so-called Longevity Hill with its variety of palaces, gardens, and other classical-style architectural structures.

In the past I have always headed straight off to Longevity Hill along with the millions of other tourists; but this time I turned left through the Wenchang Tower (built in 1750 and the largest of the Palace Garden's six gate forts)…

and along the banks of the lake, which was actually created to imitate the West Lake in Hangzhou. The palace complex suffered two major attacks—during the Anglo-French allied invasion of 1860 and during the Boxer Rebellion, in an attack by the eight allied powers in 1900.

The garden survived and was rebuilt in 1886 and 1902. In 1888, it was given its current name, Yíhé Yuán. It served as a summer resort for the naughty Empress Dowager Cixi, who diverted 30 million taels of silver, said to be originally designated for the Chinese navy, into the reconstruction and enlargement of the Summer Palace. But I guess everyone is now pretty pleased she did and far from having her wrists slapped for what nowadays would be considered fraud, not to mention grand larceny, she must surely be the toast of the Beijing Tourism Bureau.

All around the lake you get fabulous views of the Longevity Hill as boats criss-cross their way over the water. A little further on you reach the Seventeen-Arch Bridge which is packed with people crossing over to Nanhu Island on the other side... and probably wondering why they bothered.

OK, maybe that isn't really fair. Nanhu Island covers 2.5 acres and is the largest one among the three islands in Kunming Lake. Seen from a distance, the island together with the Seventeen-Arch Bridge is said to look like a tortoise stretching his neck. As the tortoise is a symbol of longevity in Chinese culture, the similarity in shape justly satisfied Emperor Qianlong, who, being the mummy's boy that he was, built this garden to celebrate his mother's sixtieth birthday.

The island has a little temple poetically called the Temple of Timely Rains and Extensive Moisture, though it used to be called the Dragon King Temple. The pavilion-style Hanxu Hall is the shelter where Empress Dowager Cixi inspected the navy drill. In ancient times, the Dragon King was deemed as a mythical divine master of the rain. Every time Cixi came to the Summer Palace by waterway, she made a stop-over for the set purpose of worshiping at the temple.

From the island you get even better views of Longevity Hill – well you do if you have a telephoto lens at any rate!

Throughout the park hawkers sell their wares in the time honoured way. Yi kwai Yi kwai (one yuan) shrieked this annoying woman, ruining any possibility of a quiet afternoon spent enjoying the beauties of nature. The false plastic glasses and moustache were too irresistible to miss for all the naughty little boys who would harass their parents into parting with their cash and then jumping out from behind trees shouting the Chinese equivalent of "boo!" at anyone who was passing by.

I managed to resist the urge to get myself some plastic glasses and moustache. To be honest, shyness prevailed; that, plus I wasn't really sure how the Chinese would react to your favourite blogger jumping out from behind a tree shouting "boo!"

Some of the girls, on the other hand, who wanted to be topped out with a large red flower, looked much cuter than their male counterparts.


Of course, there were the usual street musicians, including this guy who had been playing at this self same spot every time I had previously made it out to this park. His female companion tried all the while to sell a CD of his best tracks, but not all tourists are gullible enough to fork out the required 80 kwai when you can probably get a much better CD rendition in a downtown shop for between 15 and 20¥.

And in contrast to the more "modern" attractions of Beijing such as the Olympic Park - where Mickey Mouse and his fellow rodents want payment for being photographed with you (note: I am led to believe it isn't the real Mickey Mouse who probably suffers from arthritis by now anyway, but an impostor masquerading as M.M.) – here you are more likely to be approached by someone masquerading as an emperor, or emperor's flunky at least, and wanting similar payment.

Back in the "civilised" end of the park, it was time to walk along the Long Corridor towards the many buildings that are the main draw for the visitors.

The Long Corridor ( 长廊 or Cháng Láng) is a covered walkway erected in the middle of the 18th century, and famous not only for its length (728 m) but also its more than 14,000 richly painted decorations, which depict episodes from Chinese classical literature, folk tales, both historical and legendary figures, and famous Chinese buildings and landscapes along with flowers, birds, fish and insects.. It leads from the Gate for Greeting the Moon in the east along the northern shore of Kunming Lake.

It was constructed so that the emperor's mother could enjoy a walk through the gardens protected from the elements. Like most of the Summer Palace, the Long Corridor was severely damaged by fire which the Anglo-French allied forces laid in 1860 during the Second Opium War. It was rebuilt in 1886.

Along its entire length, it keeps to the transitional zone between the lake shore and the foot of the Longevity Hill, passing in a southward bend around the central building complex on the lake side of Longevity Hill.

On its southern slope, Longevity Hill is adorned with an ensemble of grand buildings: The Cloud-Dispelling Hall, the Temple of Buddhist Virtue, and the Sea of Wisdom Temple, flanked by various other buildings. In the centre of the Temple of Buddhist Virtue stands the Tower of Buddhist Incense, which forms the focal point for the buildings on the southern slope of Longevity Hill.

Visitors can climb the tower for a panoramic view of the area. As an imperial worshipping tower, it enshrines a Buddha made in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) known as the Buddha with One Thousand Hands and Eyes (although in reality it only has twelve heads and twenty-four arms). Empress Dowager Cixi, workaholic that she obviously was, burned incense and prayed in the tower on the first and fifteenth days of every lunar month.

Despite the size of the park and the myriad buildings that you will want to see, the park authorities have gone out of their way to offer helpful advice as to the best route to take …

and you can be sure that where there is a special vista, there will usually be a sign board pointing this out for you, just so you can't possibly miss it.

You can tell at a glance that safety is a high priority …

which is just as well as there is quite a bit of walking up and down steep stone staircases to some of the buildings perched on the side of the hill..

As you would expect, there are fabulous views to be had from the top as you survey the splendour of the lake below.

Or casting your eyes a little nearer, you get a wonderful bird's eye view of the buildings below.

But sooner or later, what goes up must come down. So, continuing one's stroll along the side of the lake leads one to The Marble Boat (石舫 or Shí Fǎng), also known as the Boat of Purity and Ease (who one earth thought up these pretentious, but lovely names, I wonder?).

This is a lakeside pavilion, 36 meters long, erected in 1755 during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor. In 1860, during the Second Opium War, the pavilion was destroyed by those dratted Anglo-French forces, who have a lot to answer for, IMHO. But it was restored in 1893 on the orders of the Empress Dowager Cixi (who I reckon enjoyed a bit of retail therapy now and then).

In this restoration, a new two-storey superstructure was designed which incorporated elements of European architecture. Like its predecessor, the new superstructure is made out of wood but it was painted to imitate marble. On each "deck", there is a large mirror to reflect the waters of the lake and give an impression of total immersion in the aquatic environment. Imitation paddle-wheels on each side of the pavilion makes it look like a paddle steamer. I even heard one American couple wondering how often it sets sail into the lake!

From here on around the rest of the lake it gets pretty quiet as most people like yours truly eventually run out of steam to go any further. I'm sure that is something I will have to rectify one day as there are a whole load of cute bridges like this one that you can see in the distance (bless my telephoto lens!) to discover…

So instead, I crossed one final bridge before heading out of the grounds to Beigongmen station to begin the long trek home.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Being single on 11.11.11 is not all it's cracked up to be

Last month I met a Chinese lady who, it turns out, is 28 years old. (Let's call her 'Miss E' for the sake of anonymity in this blog.) I have met Miss E on only three occasions all told, together with two or three eMails on a work-related topic travelling back and forth over the ether. Each time we talk, one of the main topics of "conversation", apart from work, has been her asking me if I knew of any single guys who were looking for a girlfriend. Perhaps nothing unusual in that, except she told me it was imperative that she finds someone – anyone – before the second week of November.

Why the hurry, I ask her. You're still young; your biological time-clock still has plenty of shelf life; what's the big deal? OK, so I'm still relatively new to China – you can tell. Otherwise I would be all clued up as to that special date in the singles' calendar – 11th November. Singles Day. 光棍节 – guāng gùn jié.

The name of the 'festival', for want of a better word, can roughly be translated as 'bare branch' – a tree with no leaves representing a person with no better (?) half. And for many, this is regarded as a single day of shame for singles. Certainly my new acquaintance was mortified that at 28 years old, she was already 'on the shelf', likely to spend the rest of her life as a lonely old maid – or so her parents would have her believe.

This year, having six '1's in the date – 11/11/11 - is likely to see a larger-than-usual 'celebration' – Super Singles Day, as some are calling it. Not, as some might suggest, a day of fun and friendship, but in reality, a day of pity, emptiness and a search for romance.

The symbolism of the six lonely 1's needs no further explanation. Pity the millions of poor bare branches who are forced to receive Singles Day cards from their paired-up friends, attend Singles Day dances with hundreds of other desperate love-seekers or listen to their parents, for the umpteenth time, telling them that it is high time they found a partner.

It is said that Singles Day was started down south in Nanjing by some single college students around 15 years ago. Tradition has it that you eat four fried dough sticks to represent the four ones, and one steamed bun to represent the dot in 11.11 and all being well you might just be lucky enough not to be celebrating Singles Day next year. Presumably, then, our single friends will need to eat six dough sticks and two steamed buns this year, (and hope that it doesn't go straight to their hips?).

While relatively obscure in most other countries, Singles Day is likely to increase in prominence as more single men in China are unable to find female partners. According to a recent study by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, more than 24 million Chinese men could find themselves without spouses by 2020; whilst the Beijing Statistics Bureau estimates that there are already 104 men for every 100 women in the capital. The number of one-person households in China has gone up a staggering 29% in the last five years alone. The one child policy and the tendencies of many couples to prefer to have a boy rather than a girl haven't helped matters here either; and it's instructive to note that there have recently been a number of discussion programmes on state-run CCTV about the negative impacts of this one child policy.

In an online survey, 35 percent of respondents said the main reason why people are single in Beijing is the narrow social networks they are able to build up. With education being viewed so highly (something that many westerners could learn from?) the pursuit of academic advancement comes at a cost; and with many dormitory rooms having eight or more pupils in one suite, it is not conducive to having one's soul mate round for the night.

Similarly, dating in restaurants can be expensive. And this is just one of the reasons that on any night of the year you will see couples sitting together – sometimes shivering together – on park benches as they build a virtual protective wall around their common oneness. As one commentator noted: "Western couples drink and dance together. But in China, we study together."

Of course, there are two sides to every coin; and profitable business opportunities seem to be everywhere around this time. Indeed, if anything, this holiday proves to be a fine example of modern day 'capitalist' China. All sorts of featured gifts for Singles Day have swept the internet shopping stores, such as T-shirts with the characters 不孤独 (I'm not lonely) printed on them. Taobao, China's largest online retail platform, reported a transaction volume of 900 million yuan during last year's 'Singles Day' promotion and many more online shops have joined the campaign this year.

There is also Beijing's first 'love supermarket' (爱情超市) in Xi Zhi Men where singles can pay 99 RMB to hang their photo on a wall for other singles to view, along with vital statistics such as age, salary, occupation, hometown and height – all of which must be verified.

Trawling the Internet, almost every click on 11/11/11 takes you to a dating site, one of which - http://www.jiayuan.com/ - boasts over 26 million users, and holds an annual party for singles with an entry price of 111 RMB.

Of course, some actually do strike lucky on this day. And some actually hold their wedding on November 11th because the four (or six) '1's of the date can also be read as 'you are my special one' or 'you are the only one for me'. In fact, in Hong Kong the date is special for lovey-dovey couples, as the two elevens are spelled out as one by one, side by side. (I wonder if this year's six ones means that someone is going to be saddled with an interfering mother in law as well?)

We all know, however, that the grass is always greener on the other side. Which probably explains why Singles Day is not only applicable to single people, but for married people too. Some couples choose to divorce on this day and turn back to being single. In fact in a recent survey, some 70 per cent of married office workers in the capital said that they miss their single days. The online survey, which was conducted during a two-week period among 1,000 office workers from Beijing and 2,000 white-collar workers from other big cities, shows that nearly 58 percent of married respondents miss being single, a fifth of these saying they miss the old days frequently.

As Wikipedia wryly points out, Romeo and Juliet dated, but it did not end well!

I was somewhat taken aback, though, when I read in a newspaper report that was headlined 'Ten famous single men in history' that third position was taken by Queen Elizabeth 1st, and 7th place was held by Jane Austen. This might have explained why they remained single all their lives. I think someone might have told them, don't you?

Mind you, if you think that finding love is difficult in China, consider what a guy in the Nyangatom region of Ethiopia has to go through. First, he has to build his own house, store lots of tobacco and dry coffee leaves for the girl's parents and have a large number of cows and goats. Disaster if he falls for a girl from a wealthy family as the dowry given to her parents can be worth between 200 to 500 cows, about 1,000 sheep or goats, five camels and three rifles. Huh! These Chinese kids don't know they're born!

In modern times, it would seem that no matter what your status, happiness always appears to lie on the other side.

Meanwhile if anybody knows of any guy going spare, please let me know and I will pass on his details to Miss E. Just so long as he has personality, wit and charm; a modicum of money in the bank; and he isn't likely to do a runner at the first mention of the word marriage!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Judge Not Others Lest Ye Be Judged Yourself!

The invitation came unexpectedly out of the blue. Would I, your favourite blogger, care to participate as a judge in the forthcoming New Media New Future contest that is to be held in a month's time? Being a man of the world, maybe I know a thing or three about new media, Web 2.0, SNS and the like?

It sounds like fun, but being (relatively) new in China I wonder if the powers that be appreciate the fact that my Mandarin runs only as far as buying vegetables in the market and telling the taxi driver how to get me home.

No worries, I am told; the proceedings will be in English. I will be one of six judges of whom three will be Chinese, one American and another Brit. Well what do I have to lose? I sign up on the dotted line straight away.

What are the rules? What do I have to judge? We'll tell you about that nearer the time, I am told. I try to contain my excitement as the big day approaches.

Meanwhile I discover the contest is the offspring of China Daily's web site with a plethora of sponsors, not least the BBC who are taking an active role.

The day before the competition I go for a briefing in the China Daily offices where I meet my fellow judges. One of them is Raymond Li – the Head of the BBC's Chinese section who has flown in from London. Although he joined the Corporation three years after I left the Beeb, we find we have a number of mutual friends. As they say, once a Beeb man, always a Beeb man.

The "New Media, New Future" contest, the first English speaking competition to test participants' perception and operation of new media platforms in China, will provide the top three contestants with a free trip to study at the BBC in London and the Missouri School of Journalism in the US.

Come the next day my alarm goes off at the ungodly hour of 6am. 6am I ask you! I didn't know such a time exists until today. Outside it is still murkily dark as I stagger to the bathroom for a hot shower (actually I just love cold showers, but being the masochist I am, I always have a hot shower instead!).

Out comes my smart grey suit from the wardrobe, brought over in case I ever need to present myself in a respectable light. A double-cuffed black shirt with a stunning red and black tie complete the ensemble and I feel the very essence of suave sophistication as I set off for the University of International Business and Economics, where we are due to meet at 7.30.

The campus is easy to find…

… being right across the road from China Daily's main offices…

… but I am glad we are to meet up at the west gate as I wonder if I would ever be able to identify the right building to go to.

Inside the hall they are putting the finishing touches to the set. It looks like a game show on a TV channel, which in a way is exactly what it is.

The entire proceedings are to be broadcast live over CNLive mobile TV and on the Twitter-like micro blog site Sina Weibo. The equipment in use is the rival of any TV network's.

Excitement is at fever pitch. Tweats – or to be more precise – Weibos are filling the ether with live reports and pictures…

and the entire show is being hosted by two presenters who chatter away in a mix of Chinese and English, bouncing off one another in professional fashion.

All in all there are 30 contestants who have been whittled down from more than 2,000 students from nearly 100 universities and high schools across China, including Peking University, Sun Yat-Sen University and the high school affiliated to Renmin University.

Although they are being judged individually, they have been paired up into teams of five and given the task of working as a team where teamwork is as much a necessity as individual skills.

At the end of each team presentation, we judges have the opportunity to lay into the students with pithy questions designed to ferret out the good from the bad, the brilliant from the no-hopers, the quirky from the straight-down-the-middle.

Should I act the part of a Simon Cowell, I ask myself? But I guess I am too much Mr Nice Guy and instead I try to come up with a pithy, intelligent-sounding question or three.

One major problem that none of us judges has thought about is the fact that it is already feeling like winter. But this being China, it is not yet officially switch-on-central-heating date yet (that's two weeks away, I gather). So the hall is icy; and despite the fact we are all wearing warm(ish) clothes, the combination of starting at 7.30, it being freezing cold and the fact that there are no breaks for the first four hours means that I am not the only one who is DESPERATE for a pee by around 10am, as I shiver to try to keep myself warm.
Our shivering is noted by the organisers (bless their cotton socks) who arrange for cups of hot coffee to be smuggled over to each of us. A lovely thought, but I am now in even more of a quandary. Do I warm up with coffee and feel my bladder complaining even more? Or do I carry on shivering and put up with my bladder complaining for another two hours?

Luckily the proceedings break into a spot of Chinese, and I grab the opportunity to climb over the judge beside me and make a dash up the aisle to the loo outside the hall. Oh… BLISS!!!

On my return I find I have started a trend as some of the others make a similar bee-line up the aisle. Finally we can enjoy the warm coffee and the next two hours fairly whiz by.

At midday there is an hour's break for lunch and we all traipse over to the university canteen. Despite the fact it is a Sunday, the place is almost overflowing with students. What on earth is it like on weekdays I ask myself.

We grab a tin tray and have tepid meat balls, rice, green veg and a pear dunked onto it together with a pair of metal chopsticks. I wonder if the army's catering corps is making a little extra money on the side.

The afternoon session runs through at an even faster pace and suddenly the competition itself is all but over as our mark sheets are collected and we make polite conversation while the marks are totted up.

I knock back a can of Red Bull to give my energies a boost and grab a couple of bites of chocolate – a rarity for me in China. And then the prize winners are announced as Yang Chunya, Managing Editor-in-Chief of China Daily Website, together with some other good-and-great make appropriate speeches to honour the occasion.

Each of us judges is asked to present some of the certificates and goody bags that each contestant receives, and we then all pose for a group photo.

As the event draws to a close, I have a bevy of – mainly female – contestants come up to me asking to have their photograph taken with me. I reckon it must be a combination of my stunning red-black tie and my British accent that is such a babe magnet. One of the girls even asks if I would like to attend a performance of Peking Opera at her college. Shame that I am (almost) old enough to be their grandfather!

To end the day in style, we are taken to a celebratory meal in a hotpot restaurant close to the university campus.

The meal is lovely and with a liberal amount of Baijiu (白酒), or "white liquor," flowing, the proceedings are lively to say the least. Now, Baijiu is a clear drink usually distilled from sorghum, and is normally around 80 to 120 proof, or 40-60% alcohol by volume.

At the table are nine Chinese who are determined to have some fun with these foreign devils and hardly a five minute interval passes before someone is making yet another toast. Little do they know that I am good at holding my liquor! (But little does your favourite blogger know that Baiju is lethal stuff!)

By the time I have finished off my fifth wine-glass I can feel the first indications that the time has come to call a halt to knocking back the clear liquid. I carry on with the toasts, drinking tea and I doubt anyone notices, as most have gone way past the point of no return long ago.

Eventually it is time to draw to a close and as I wander out into the cold night air, having made my fond farewells to all and sundry, I suddenly feel as if I have been smashed in the face. I also notice that during the time we have been inside enjoying the meal, someone mean and nasty has altered the curb of the pavement.

As it is quite dark, I have difficulty seeing the actual pavement itself and miss my footing a couple of times as I step onto where there should have been pavement, but which that mean and nasty person has actually removed.

My head feels as if it is about to explode, but I manfully stroll along the main road in a slightly circuitous route and safely make it back home before…

… I wake up at around 2am still in my smart suit sprawled across the bed. My head is pounding and I am so thirsty I stagger to the fridge and grab a bottle of ice cold water which I down in seconds.

I spend the night drinking water and feeling sorry for myself. By the time that dratted 6am comes around once more I am just nodding off to sleep when my alarm that I forgot to switch off yesterday wakes me up with a shrill blast.

I throw it across the room and bury my head once more into my pillow. But time waits for no man, and eventually I stagger out of bed to the kitchen, make a strong coffee and a large plate of porridge and dowse myself under the hot shower before being able to face another day.

Who on earth was it who said Judge not others, lest you be judged yourself!? I will know for next time. I may now be one day older, but I reckon I am certainly the wiser for it.