Burning dreams at New Year’s end

Living in Beijing, it’s sometimes hard to see the effects of the economic crisis here, but in the past few days I feel there’s been a shift in atmosphere.

As you may have already read, a large part of one of Beijing’s signature architectural complexes burned down on Lantern Festival, the last night of Chinese New Year. The Mandarin Oriental Hotel, which was part of the CCTV complex housing the famed Underpants Building, was to open in a month’s time, and the entire complex has been a source of Beijing pride for a good year ahead of its completion.

The circumstances of the fire were a little unclear at first. Although fireworks, which are let off hyperbolically even in dense downtown areas, were an obvious suspect, officials were strangely mum for about a day. CCTV, which owns the complex, later took responsibilty for the fire, claiming their own fireworks show from the roof of the unfinished building caused the fire.

But it all seems a little — I don’t know — convenient. As one of my friends pointed out today, they were unlikely to make money on a luxury hotel in these economic conditions, and insurance money can only be recouped in accidents. It was just too poetic for the building to burn down on the last night of Chinese New Year after 15 uneventful days of fireworks all around it. Regardless of the true cause of the fire, it’s a little uncanny how completely expected and unexpected the destruction of the hotel was — after all, something was bound to burn down with so many fireworks set off in the city by amateurs. But it’s still hard to believe that this iconic building was the one that burned down; imagine the Trans-America building burning to the ground and you’ll see what I mean.

I fear that the fire is a powerful metaphor for the chaotic times China is facing, and unsettling omen of Beijing’s future. Last year we saw a boom for China in many ways. National pride was soaring, construction around Beijing was racing to keep up with Olympic demand for hotels, restaurants and attractions, old buildings were being torn down to make room for luxury condos for the new generation of business owners and expatriats. Although there were concerns about a world economic downturn, many felt as if China was invincible.

Especially during the Olympics, it was impossible to imagine China tumbling down off of its pedestal along with the rest of the world. Beijing was in a dream world, and we, as witnesses to the Olympics, were privy to a view of China’s future. It was modern, clean, polite and above all, luxurious. The Olympic venues were without blemish, and the Olympics had spurred a flurry of new buildings, including one of the world’s few seven-star hotels.

Six months later, I’m wondering if “one world, one dream” was just a lie, and Beijing will soon discover the cruelty of reality after enjoying such a sweet reverie. The Olympic venues, which symbolized so much, have even fallen into disrepair a scant four months after the games’ closing. When I visited the Olympic Green recently, I tried hard to ignore the fact that the Bird’s Nest stadium was covered in dirt, that the water cube bubbles were wrinkled, that lamps were falling off of lampposts. However, recent events have brought the scene of desolation at the Olympic Green to my mind.

Last week Citigroup announced that in order to finance the maintenance of  the iconic Bird’s Nest stadium — a cost of $8.82 million USD annually — it would turn the complex into a shopping plaza in the next few years. It’s sad to see a symbol that really meant something to so many people seemingly get thrown aside by its owners and the Chinese government. Initially, the stadium was to house Beijing’s soccer team, but they have pulled out of the deal. Currently, the Olympic Green is open to tourists, an alleged average of 20,000 to 30,000 per day according to the tourist authorities. Take this figure with a heaping truckload of salt — Beijing authorities release misleading numbers often, and the two separate times I’ve visited the Olympic Green since the Olympics I may have seen 100 tourists, combined.

Strolling through the empty Olympic Green, it was somehow impossible to recapture the feeling of harmony and hope I felt while I was attending the games. Now, bereft of the crowds that it was meant for, the green feels like an empty mockery of China’s hopes. It speaks only to an excess of ambition and a disregard for pragmatism. How could they tear down homes and businesses to build this gigantic park without a fool-proof plan for its preservation and continued usefulness? How could something once so great now be so empty, falling apart and covered in dirt?

I suppose time will tell if this is truly the beginning of the end, if the destruction of these iconic Beijing landmarks really is an omen. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it feels like the paralyzingly fast destruction of the Olympic Green and Mandarin Oriental Hotel buildings are inextricably intertwined the the economic problems China is facing — or not facing, depending on how you look at it.

The government continues to deny and downplay the economic situation here, but there are signs if you look for them. Construction, which was buzzing all about the city before the Olympics has come to a standstill — many buildings stand as empty shells, paralyzed now for months. Estimates put unemployment at about 20 million people nationally right now, but estimates are usually low. In addition, the government puts growth at about 6.8 percent, while independent analysts from other countries put it at zero to 1 percent. I’ve seen a lot of people on the streets recently with “seeking employment” signs, and friends have commented on a distinct tenseness in the atmosphere. One friend has seen several fistfights break out over nothing, and recent shutdowns of stalls at the horrid Silk Market have caused near riots by sellers. In the South, which depends more on exports and manufacturing, riots have become increasingly common.

It’s going to be an interesting year, that’s for sure. As always in China, this could be a time of incredible social unrest, unlike anything China has seen in many years — or, it could be nothing. Only time will tell.

Oh, that conniving government

Even if you don’t know your garlic press from your pasta maker, you can probably recognize this brand as a leader in knife sales. But you may be surprised to know that Henckels does not always sell knives, at least not in Beijing.

Let me draw up a time line for you, and we can see understand this problem with more clarity.

August 8, the Beijing Olympics begin

August 9, an American tourist is stabbed in Beijing, incurring increased security measures

August 16, I move into my new apartment

August 24, Beijing Olympic games close

September 17, Beijing Paralympic games close

Like most people, I began shopping for needed household items as soon as I moved into my apartment. One of the most important things to me was to get my kitchen up and running, so I began buying all my pots, pans and the like. Unlike grocery stores in the U.S., most stores in China are more like Costco — they sell virtually everything you need for your house. So, I began what would become a long and tiresome search for a knife at Wu Mart, the giant chain grocery store near my house that sells everything from lingerie to kitchen stoves to fresh-cut fish. I cruised down the silverware and kitchen utensils aisle, looking desperately for a kitchen knife, to no avail. Thinking it was a fluke, I asked an employee, only to get a terse “no knives” answer. So a few days later, I went to Bonjour, a competing large supermarket. Again, “no knives.”

Figuring I must just not know where Chinese people buy knives, I started asking around. Most people seemed bewildered that I couldn’t find one. So, I visited several malls and went to their home wares sections, only to continually get the “no knives” response. Weeks passed, Jeff and I went traveling, and I arrived back with the Olympics over and a renewed hope in my heart that I would be able to find a knife. The shelves at Wu Mart remained empty, and the local malls had nothing for me.

This is where Henckels comes in. While out with Jeff and my parents in mid to late September, we went to the most upscale mall district in Beijing. Jeff marched me into a Henckels store, almost demanding that knives be sold. We went to the salesgirl, and I asked her whether they had any knives for sale. Her embarrassed reply was “not right now.”

I’m sorry, “not right now?” What does that mean?! Also, this is Henckels. They shouldn’t sell anything but knives! But the store shelves were devoid of anything sharp. I asked the other stores there, and got basically the same answer. Finally, I started a new strategy: “When will you be selling knives?”

“September 20th”

Now, often when something inconvenient or sort of stupid happens in Beijing, it is blamed on the Olympics. This time, it really was the Olympics’ fault. As it turns out, stores across the city were banned from selling knives. Most people never noticed, because you only need to buy kitchen knives a few years at the most. I, however, spent over a month unable to really cook anything or eat fruit that required chopping, all because the government is crazy paranoid. Let the record also show that to get into the games and all subway stations, you have to go through screening, so a knife wouldn’t get anywhere anyway. But let’s not get fooled by logic.

On September 20, I tried again to get a knife, only to get the same responses from salespeople — no knives. Annoyed, I put forward the claim that it was September 20, and I knew knives were allowed. But, the salespeople said they hadn’t gotten the official OK yet.

So, finally on Sept. 28 or so, I finally found a knife at an upscale store. It was more expensive than any knife I’ve ever owned — over 200 kuai, or about $40 USD — but I decided to just get the dang thing.

A few days ago — as in early October — Wu Mart started selling knife sets with cutting boards and honers for 35 kuai. I was rather upset considering that the cheap knives were put back on the market way later than the expensive ones, but bought the set anyway since it was useful, and I had this nagging compulsion to stock up on knives.

Beijing bureacracy really does something to your psyche sometimes.

I guess the lesson is: the government can stop you from cutting up veggies for dinner, but it won’t go out of it’s way to prevent you getting kidney stones at breakfast. What a safe Olympics!

Getting Home

The Olympics tend to draw large crowds from around the world, so it was inevitable that there would be someone I knew in the city.  As it turns out, I knew a couple of people, one of whom we actually decided to have dinner with.

Dinner was lengthy and enjoyable, and beforehand we even got to see the Beijing equivalent of Fremont street:

It turns out my friend was one of 300 international Olympic volunteers.  To put things in perspective, there were 100,000 volunteers of her category.  We had noticed there were different classes of volunteers, so we asked about the old people who sit around on every street doing pretty much exactly what they do every single other day, only wearing the Olympic shirt, and she explained that they’re there just in case someone needs a question answered.  Also, since there could potentially be a lot of questions, they are the largest class.  To quote our source, “There are a million of them.  Literally.”

During the course of dinner, I made it known that I had been wanting the Olympic polo shirt worn by the 100,000. I had even devised a plan to attack a lone Chinese girl, beating her up to steal the shirt. Fortunately, my lone American friend was so sick of the uniform, she offered the whole thing to me.

Unfortunately, this involved going to her place to pick it up, which wouldn’t be so bad, but Caitlin had to go back to her place to get ready to welcome a friend who would be staying the night. That meant I would have to get home by myself.

Getting across town was easy. I had a two-month local to take me on the trains, even mapping out my return to familiarity. As we were switching lines, however, we hit a bump in our plan. Waiting for the train to arrive, we watched it go right past us. More Chinese people collected, all looking confused:

It turns out the station was closing, but there was another train that stopped before we were out of luck.

We got to the right district, I got a new outfit (including the issued elastic-waisted pants and sock set), got shoved into a pre-informed taxi, and somehow made it back safely.  In fact, aside from the fact that I said nothing the entire time aside from “xie xie” when departing, I’m not sure the driver knew I didn’t speak Chinese.

Anyway, I did something in China without Caitlin!

Meeting the Athletes

On our wanderings through the Forbidden City, we noticed that many of the Olympic people (minus the volunteers) were still wandering around wearing their laminated badges.  On one of our many people-watching breaks, I discovered what sort of information was available.  Directly beneath the photo comes the name, then role, then country.  In the Forbidden City, we were only able to read JOURNALIST, HEAD COACH, and something else longer and unintelligable.

In our wanderings in the more allowed land, we came across two tall men trying to learn where the best place to catch a taxi was.  As they wandered away from a Chinese off-duty taxi driver with mildly confused faces, I mentioned to Caitlin that we should ask if they need help.

Since Caitlin is the “local,” I let her do the talking while I examined the badge I could see.  I wrote down the name to look up later, then did so.  I am such a stalker.

Well, it turns out one of our lost boys was Ben Rutleridge, a gold medalist Canadian rower.  Stalking is awesome.

I am so special.

Olympic Baseball redux

While Caitlin’s favorite part of the Olympics was the fans, mine was the music.  The day before I left for China, I read an interesting article about some of the weird little things that were happening at the Olympics, so I had my eyes and ears open.

Sure enough, the musical tastes spanned across ethnicities and genres.  Among my favorites:

  • Baseball organ rendition of “If you’re happy and you know it
  • Hava Nagila
  • The theme from Beverly Hills Cop

They also had a weird assortment of pop songs, both English and Chinese, but I think that since neither the Cubans nor Koreans are known for their large support of either Jews or Eddie Murphy, someone controlling the PA system must either have a pretty good sense of humor or have transferred the general understanding of Engrish to music tastes.

An unwelcome new “friend”

So, I graduated from our summer program, and it was the best graduation ever. The whole thing took about half an hour, speeches in all. *Jeff Lee objects, as at his graduation he got to speak, so I will concede on this point* My friend actually had me start a timer on my phone to see how long it would be before he got bored, but that point never arrived.

As part of graduation, we received an Olympic Fuwa doll, a diploma and a group picture of the whole program. Of course, I got the scariest Olympic doll, the souless blue-hued Beibei.

As you can see from the picture, Beibei has a creepy, pupil-less, soul-sucking eyes, and his? pose seems to say “join us, join us…

Admittedly, there is an active debate in Beijing over which doll is scarier, Beibei (blue) or Huanhuan (red). Beibei has the above-mentioned terror-inducing characteristics, but Huanhuan is a small fire demon — also a formidable enemy. Notice, however, Huanhuan’s active and lively stance, in comparison to Beibei’s zombie-like stupor. Also, Beibei has a weird Pied Piper hat — what’s up with that?

Note also that Yingying (yellow) is the undisputed lamest mascot, while Jingjing (panda) is the cutest. I guess nobody really has an opinion on Nini (green), and that may be the worst fate of all.

Olympic (birthday) baseball

On Tuesday, I “surprised” Jeff with tickets to the Olympic Korea vs. Cuba baseball game. Sadly, Jeff doesn’t like baseball, but these were the best tickets I could get to celebrate his 22nd birthday. The game was pretty much like any minor league game in the US, meaning that most of the fans didn’t really care who won, the game was poorly attended and the outcome more or less meaningless to me.

It was about 2 billion degrees out (scientific measurements were taken by proper authorities, I assure you). Because of these dumb pollution-reduction measures, the sun was fully visible and directly shown down on us. In addition, the stadium radiated heat, creating a miserable setting for the game. The family behind us lasted exactly one inning before succumbing to heat and leaving.

Of course, we all had to suffer because obviously the shaded seats were completely full.

Probably the best part of the game was watching the fans. Our section was mostly Koreans, who did actually care about the game. They had a lot of songs and organized cheers, which were fun to watch.

The Chinese reaction to the Koreans was also entertaining:

Jeff and I ended up leaving around the seventh inning because we were too hot and miserable. Neither of us being baseball fans, it seemed logical. Please don’t be mad.

I got an Olympic-caliber beating

Today I went to the Olympics, which was totally exciting! I don’t have all the pictures yet, but I’ll put more up when others are uploaded.

It was surprisingly not crowded or difficult to get in. We came about 20 minutes early, waited on a short line and went through security in about five minutes. Security was pretty standard — metal detectors and wands and x-ray for bags. They had to search my purse extensively because my metal umbrella handle was suspicious, but that was just about the only time we spent waiting. When you scan your ticket, a little camera takes your picture, which is both creepy and cool. I’m not sure what they do with it, but I found it novel.

I’m not a boxing fan, but it’s the Olympics, and it was free! We had a hard time deciphering why boxers were awarded points, and in the end gave up figuring out what a “correct” hit is. It was also a little disappointing that nobody got knocked out.

I also realized that the Olympics on TV is really different from being there in person. Because everyone is from different countries, and there were so many countries participating in the matches, there wasn’t that “game” atmosphere. During each match it was mostly silent, with a few scattered cheers from the few people whose country was participating. Of course, those few people would be more than enough to fill a camera shot, but within the context of an entire stadium it seems a little lonely.

Probably the best part of the day was when the China boxer came in, because that really reversed the trend. The entire stadium was yelling 中国加油! and cheering wildly. It really made my hair stand on end.

Once inside the arena I discovered a few things:

1. Food and drinks at Olympic games are pretty much the same price as other places, sometimes even cheaper. I got kettle corn (yum!) for 5 RMB. Beer was 8 RMB, which is really good considering the same beer could cost 3 RMB at the grocery store or 15 to 35 RMB at a bar.

2. Their electricity bill must be huge, because it was freezing in there.

3. Boxing matches kind of all look the same after a short while.

Side note of interest:

A bird somehow got through security and into the indoor stadium, flew around madly, and crashed into the guy in front of me. It was both terrifying and hilarious.

There were lots of Jing Jing mascots, which are the least soul-less and terrifying of all the Olympic fuwa mascots.

There were two volunteers inside these inflatable Jing Jings. They took pictures with us, and then proceeded to box each other. Of course, their arms are too small to really do anything noticeable. In case you wondered, this is what panda-demon-Olympic mascots look like when boxing:

The inside of Worker’s Gymnasium:

Flags! Including the US way down there. We ended up sitting directly below the Chinese flag by coincidence, which was cool. Notice the huge block of empty seats. There were a lot of empty seats, and some were filled by Chinese volunteers who seem to have been commandeered by the government to cover up for empty spots.

For some reason, the Chinese call the wave the Mexican Wave. Nobody knows what’s Mexican about the wave…

The Chinese boxer after winning his match!

For more pictures, click here!

Viva la Internet!

As you may know, China likes to block websites. Some websites, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights in China, are banned for fairly obvious reasons. Others, such as Youtube and WordPress, are inexplicably banned.

The way that websites are blocked is fairly sneaky. Instead of telling you a site is blocked, sites just don’t load. For example:

Almost all Youtube clips look like this, regardless of content:

Amnesty International’s China site, along with most other banned websites, looks like this:

As for Wikipedia articles, sometimes pages will exist, but chunks of undesirable content will be missing. A few weeks ago, this Tiananmen Square protests article contained only the events and background, but all the information about politics and death had been removed. Now, I assume because of international pressure around the Olympics, it has been restored.

Today while stalking my boyfriend, I discovered that WordPress has been unblocked! Halleluah!

Now I can catch on missed hijinks, hunt puppies and Internet stalk various other persons of interest. Totally awesome.

The Opening Ceremony Revisited

Western media usually has a slant against China, and almost every story I read about Beijing feels like it was written by someone who doesn’t understand China and hasn’t lived here. Despite this usual slant, sometimes the news is dead-on.

In case you haven’t seen it, check out this NY Times article about the voice swapping of the little girl who sang the national anthem. The girl whose voice was actually heard was deemed not cute enough, so her voice was played while the cuter girl sang.

China has a massive inferiority complex, and sometimes it’s mildly funny to see the arbitrary measures it takes to assuage its insecurities. But taking ruthlessly using and abusing two young performers in this manner is not acceptable.

It was also revealed that the fireworks seen on TV were enhanced digitally.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that image has trumped truth yet again for the Olympics, but it’s hard to imagine looking at two little girls and making this kind of decision. Sometimes it seems that image is everything in China, and for the sake of the Olympics, the government has turned its back on the people. They have covered up every “blemish” they can, but in the end all it shows is an ugliness they still refuse to see.