Saturday, November 11, 2006

Just finished reading this book. The 223 pages took me just three days (which is fast for me, though I know there will be some who scoff). Truly gripping stuff. If I knew that economics could be this interesting, I might have actually bothered to read the business pages all these years.

On one level, the book provides an account of China's mammoth influence on the global economy and the threat it poses to cherished European and American notion's of free-market capitalism (predicting the end of globalisation while it's at it). But of more interest to me were the beautifully written little snapshots of situations, cities and people that really capture what it is like to live in China today.

Probably my favourite passage in the book runs as follows...

[In modern China] trust is a commodity constantly under siege. Poverty and the competition for scarce resources impinge upon it. The ideological vacuum that replaced Communism undermines it. The daily diet of propaganda disorientates it. The venality of officials devalues it. The ascendancy of a value system dominated by money hollows it out. What is left is a society in which describing someone as ‘honest’ can just as easily be a gentle criticism as a compliment.” [China Shakes The World, Ch.7, pp153-154]

...I like it because it's so bloody true.

China Shakes The World was written by one James Kygne, former Beijing Bureau Chief for the Financial Times newspaper. The book is his first, apparently. It's a stunning work. Buy it. Now.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Fong's Wedding

For the first time in two and a half weeks, I wake up under the dreary concrete-coloured skies of south China. It’s as if someone has gone up in a fleet of helicopters and unloaded several tones of concrete powder into the atmosphere. It’s humid, it’s sweaty and, worst of all, today I must work. It’s good work, though. Today is my friend Fong’s wedding day. And by virtue of the fact that I own a camera and a flashgun, I am designated photographer.

Chinese weddings are a bit different to what one goes through back in the West. The most obvious discrepancy is in the fact that Fong, and his bride, Fei, officially tied the knot several months ago. The legal part of wedlock is completely separated from the ceremonial stuff. At that time, Fong and Fei would have gone down to the local registrar and signed a form or two, had a couple of bits and bobs checked and with purity ensured, walked away ‘married’. I understand getting divorced is similarly straightforward.

The ceremonial, and celebratory bit, normally comes later, often, a long, long time later. In China, it’s not that uncommon for a married couple of wait a couple of years before they invite family and friends to share their joy, happiness and cash. The tacit understanding is that one normally has the big day before the belly gets too big. Indeed, with Fei five months along now, Fong is arguably cutting it fine.

When the Chinese celebrate, they do it with food. The day begins with ‘Yum Cha’ – the classic Cantonese steam-basket breakfast with Fong’s nuclear family and friends. Actually, I had no idea this was part of the day until I turned up in shorts and t-shirt to find Fong welcoming us wearing a shirt and tie. ‘Have you bought the camera?’ he asks, quite reasonably in the circumstances. I had not. I turn to Ling. You didn’t tell me the wedding starts now, I point out in a mildly accusing manner. She didn’t know either. For all this country’s energy, endeavour and spirit, clear communication can still sometimes be a problem in China, even among friends. This is one wedding that I sense is not going to run with Swiss precision.

We all pile into a fleet of cars and go on a roam of the city, remembering to pick Fei up from the hairdressers on the way. There’s zero ceremony when the young lovers set eyes on each other for the first time. Fong gets out of the car, at least, but I sense it’s more to marshall the cars behind than it is to complement his wife on her hair-do. Having driven around for fifteen minutes or so, we head to Fei’s hometown, way over in Gao Yao, on the far side of the Xijiang River. The place is surprisingly beautiful. It’s like a citadel, with a wall on the outside and clusters of densely packed houses, separated by narrow alleys, within. Fong and Fei go hand in hand, walking around these alleys now. They head off in front, with friends and family trailing, carrying great big baskets stuffed with live chickens and rice wine. For the moment, the chickens are alive though that won’t last long. If they had any sense, they’d peck the top off the rice wine and really enjoy their last half hour of life.

Fei’s home is a hive of activity. The family has gathered. Some are in the kitchen, hacking the hell out of the chickens; others are sitting around drinking tea. The happy couple loiters, chatting. Before long, Fong is summoned to the village temple. It may be the family temple. According to Ling, the village is essentially just one big family anyway, so either description will do. The place is stunner. It’s been cleaned for the occasion and there’s a real historic ambiance within the four walls. Natural light floods in from a gap in the roof. The architecture is fabulous. I didn’t know this kind of thing still existed. It’s invisible from the main roads that I normally use. I must remember to get away from the main road more often.

The ceremony is an oddity. Fong essentially has to make sacrifices to Fei’s ancestors. ‘They already know Fei, but they don’t know me,’ Fong explains. ‘I must introduce myself.’ He does this with the aid of a bound, stuffed and – presumably – recently killed – chicken. As Fong moves around the temple, so does the chicken. There’s also a pre-packaged pig and a basket of fresh bread. Fong lights some incense, burns some paper, throws three cups of rice wine over the ground and bows solemnly. He repeats the process outside the temple.

The fun and games then really begin. The huge belt of firecrackers that had been slung over a wooden beam within the temple is, suddenly, ignited. The designation fire-starter comes pegging it out of the temple doors with ears firmly clamped in his two hands. Inside it looks like all hell is breaking loose. A thick black pall of smoke is growing in volume by the second and tens of explosions rock the building’s foundations. The process is repeated a short while later. The shot below shows our resident pyro, once again, running away from the scene.

Then it’s back to the village hall for a big feast. The dishes just don’t stop coming. Fong tells me he’s paid 5,000 RMB for all of the morning’s activities. That’s a major sum of cash. Given that we’ve only eaten breakfast two hours prior, it’s an utterly impossible amount of food to digest. It’s the same story on every one of the twenty or so tables. Maybe a third of the food that was bought out is eaten. I am assured that, out here in ‘the village’, wastage isn’t permitted. The food will be recycled. When I see the chef coming round and dumping all the leftovers into one massive dog bowl, I pity the poor sucker who has to eat it tomorrow.

While we are eating, Fei’s uncle lets off a massive firecracker immediately outside the front door of the dining hall. During the cacophony, one lady has the courage to get up and close the door, frantically wafting smoke away from her nose and eyes as she does so. Nevertheless, the blast still fills the dining hall with putrid smoke and possibly renders a few people deaf. I am in hysterics. It is such a seemingly improper thing to do. Just as people are tucking into their food, this elderly and respectable member of the community goes nuts with the gunpowder. And yet there’s not a trace of admonishment for him. Not one person enjoyed what we just went through. Not one person is enjoying the smoke in their mouths and eyes now. Nobody is smiling, or obviously celebrating, and yet nobody looks angry or upset or disapproving. My friend Eric asks me what on earth I am laughing about. Nobody else finds it in the least bit funny. ‘No!’ Eric says. ‘This is part of the programme. It’s normal. Just nobody knows when it’s going to happen.’ I can’t help think that waiting until we had finished eating would have been a better idea, but nobody seems to agree. After laughing for a few minutes, I need to leave the building. The smoke has got into my lungs and I am in fits.

Across the way, this elderly lady looks on. She’s smoking a pipe the size of a small submarine and is weaving baskets between her withered fingers. I try to speak a little Mandarin to her. Unsurprisingly, she hasn’t a clue what I am on about.

We step back out through the red debris and get back into the cars for the return journey to Zhaoqing. We are allowed a few hours off before the evening festivities begin. My break time is cut short when Fong telephones at 5.30pm to say that we are needed immediately at the entrance to the hotel when the banquet will take place. We rush down. The guests have been told to arrive at 6pm but protocol dictates that the bride and groom – mother and father standing at their side – should wait around for an hour so as to greet each and everyone personally, whether they are late or not. Nearly everyone is late. Each group that arrives hands either Fong, or Fong’s father a red packet stuffed with cash, which is then passed over to Fong’s sister who tucks it away in a big bag.

Finally, at 7pm, we head inside. With everyone seated, Fong and Fei enter the room to applause and a chorus of a Canto-version of Here Comes the Bride from a bunch of Fong’s mates. The cutting of the cake takes place immediately and I am barely finished checking the pictures before I am summed to the front to give me speech.

Ling, bless her, has helped me prepare. In between taking pictures of Fong’s guest arriving, I paced back and forth memorizing my lines. Despite the fact that I didn’t expect to have to speak this early, the work pays off. Thing go well. It is, however, a bit unsettling to get the loudest round of applause merely for introducing myself. My flowing prose and heart felt words of pride and affection couldn’t match the sheer novelty value thrill of seeing a ‘foreigner’ speak Chinese. It was all downhill from there.

Fong then gives a speech. Ling later tells me it was a very formal promise to care for Fei as long as he lives. She said that it was a bit stilted and stuffy, but I guess that’s what a wedding should be about – a formal, sincere promise to your bride, made in front of heaps of family and friends who will – hopefully – apply the necessary pressure to keep you to your word.

Then the feast, then the rounds of toasts and party games (the groom’s friends have an absolute obligation to tease the bride and groom with little tricks like the one the West, I guess this kind of principle applies during the stag/hen dos, in China, it’s during the banquet). Unlimited alcohol is part and parcel of every hotel’s wedding banquet deal. With the relief of having completed my speech, I try to single-handedly ensure that whoever is paying gets full value in this respect. I even leave with a barely started bottle of red wine under my arm.

And so, an hour or so later, it suddenly ends and everyone gets up and leaves. The Chinese have a great knack and finishing things clinically, and with little sentimentality. Weddings are no exception.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

A Golden Day?

Today is National Day. It was 57 years ago to the day that Chairman Mao ascended those steps at Tiananmen and proclaimed the creation of the People's Republic of China. A three day public holiday has always been in place to mark the occasion but, since 1999, the government has manipulated the peripheral days to ensure that labourers and workers across the country have seven consecutive days off. They do this by combining a weekend, with the three days, adding two extra days on, and then forcing you to work the next available weekend to make up for this time off. The original idea was economic., the intention to increase the people's willingness to get out, travel, shop and (generally) spend. It's worked a treat. In fact, it's worked too well. For this 'Golden Week' as it is known generally means frenzied crowds, noisy, littered walkways and a ruthless price increase. In a tourist town like Zhaoqing, the effects are intensified.

These were the scenes a few minutes ago at Zhaoqing's busiest crossroads. There is a traffic light somewhere in the middle of the melee above. The traffic had long since given up obeying the reds and greens. It was chaos, and the repercussion were felt for several kilometres in either direction. We walked the three kilometres home from a friends house (where we have just eaten some amazing dumplings!) far quicker than we would have done in a bus or taxi. It seems every one of the several thousands new car owners in this city has chosen tonight to go out for a cruise with the extended familiy. Nearly every car has a small child standing up in the front windscreen, marvelling at the view. Car ownership is this country is perhaps one of the most obvious empirical markers of the emergence of a new middle-class, very much in love with shiny new things and consumer products that might mark them out has 'having made it.' Plenty have made it, and they all want to show off on days like National Day when families are likely to gather. It is, frankly, a nightmare.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

A Sorry, Sorry Tale

The Great Wall’s latest extension (see blog of February 12) has been destroyed in an avalanche of ineptitude. The 999-brick 'fake' Love Wall - erected earlier this year - was said to represent salvation for the heavily-graffitied 'real' Great Wall, next to which it was built. The structure was, apparently, intended to provide an outlet for lovers who can't resist scrawling romantic odes that - owing to the Wall's longevity - they reckon will last an 'eternity'. The stunt, organised by the local management authority for this section of the Wall, received massive publicity in the run-up to Valentine’s Day, garnering headlines across the world. Sadly the PR exercise proved a little too successful as the wall came to the attention of the Beijing Cultural Relics Bureau who, apparently having not been consulted on this, suddenly decided that building a tacky pile of rubbish next to one of the world’s greatest manmade wonders was not really on. The project was 'halted' on February 24 and, earlier this month, the structure was torn down. The four couples who paid RMB 999 to make their 'eternal' mark will apparently be getting a refund.

Never has ‘eternity’ been so short-lived. And never has such crass ineptitude and cynicism been shown up on such a grand scale. Everyone involved in this sorry tale should be utterly ashamed of themselves.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Natural Urges

The Great Wall has survived great trials to be with us today. The Mongol hordes went out of their way to bash it down, for example. Some time later it became the stage for bold experiments in private property as the masses armed themselves with chisels and got hacking. Time, weather and gravity have, of course, been ceaseless in their efforts to wipe the wall off the map. The most recent addition to this list of adversaries are the 'graffiti artists' - a curious umbrella organisation of deluded lovers, bored teenagers and bloody idiots.

As any visitor to the wall will testify, China's heritage officials have been fighting a largely losing battle against the juvenile (and sometimes not-so-juvenile) delinquents over the last 40 years. Month after month, cretins of the local and foreign variety have willfully defaced the wall - often with sentiments of scarcely believable banality (see photo...and, apologies if this was actually written by well-meaning tourist officials). It's fair to say most of these renegade engravers belong to the 'deluded lovers' sub-section. A colleague who went to the Badaling section of the wall 10 years ago told me that nearly every brick she saw had been inscribed by romantics who reckoned that by writing 'Qing 4 Ming, 1996,' they were recording their love for all of eternity. These young poets clearly didn't reckon on the government rebuilding the majority of the wall shortly thereafter.

Regardless, vandalism has continued to be a problem. Against this backdrop, the authorities in one Great Wall locale have announced they will finally be sanctioning such activity - with a rather large cash caveat. The management office of Juyongguang - a section close to Badaling - have built a 80-metre long, 7.5-metre high marble structure, dubbed the 'Love Wall'. For a modest fee of RMB 999, visitors can now etch 'Baz Luvs Shaz' or somesuch into one of the 9.999 bricks. Juyongguan says the new scheme will satisfy the desire of visiting romantics to leave their mark without damaging the real deal. Others, of course, say that exploiting the name of China's best known cultural relic in such a manner is cynical, shameful and a wee bit sad.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Scent of Spring

Day 27 of the torturous 40-day Spring Festival Travel Period. As if conditions weren't already bad enough on China's overcrowded trains, travellers heading back to work or university may be noticing a peculiar pong permeating their packed carriages. As reported in the China Daily, sales of incontinence nappies in Guangdong supermarkets rocketed just prior to the beginning of the holidays due to massive demand from passengers anticipating trouble getting to the loo on their journey home. "In this period, a common train has to transit 2,000 passengers, with only around 1,000 seating tickets," Guangzhou Railway Group officer Zhang Dazhi told the newspaper.

This news - and shocking quote - was rapidly syndicated across the world. Such is the level of interest in this story that it cropped up in all kinds of unlikely places. The issue was discussed by British comedian Ricky Gervais on his weekly Guardian podcast last Sunday (though the team were under the erroneous impression that Chinese trains didn't have any toilets), I received a 'Oh-my-God-just-seen-the-tv' kind of letter from an ex-girlfriend, appalled and utterly incomprehending of what the devil was going on in my chosen country of residence. From top to bottom, it seems the world's media wants their piece of the (poo) pie (Disclaimer: what's a good story to the western media is good for us too....we couldn't resist making a little mention in the mag too).

The China Daily ended its absorbing report on the issue by stating that, during the peak travel period last year, some passengers became so deranged by their conditions that they jumped out of the carriages. The tally of people lost to temporary insanity this year is as yet unknown. The madness, for 13 more days at least, goes on. I'm just glad I took the plane.