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Life on the back streets of Beijing

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Written by Thorsten

April 1, 2009 at 4:54 am

Posted in china, observations

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Beijing bric à brac

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Old market seller at Panjiayuan fleamarketWhen grandpa Zhang in Beijng cleans out his attic, he’s likely to find different stuff than grandpa Smith in Smalltown, USA.

No tacky 1950’s coffee pots, no freaky 1960’s hippy outfit, no funky 1970’s rugs.

Instead, your average Chinese might find propaganda pamphlets from the Cultural Revolution, some creaky old chairs that could have belonged to an imperial concubine or blue-and-white pottgery that may just be from the Ming dynasty.

You can find all of these things at Beijing’s Panjiayuan fleamarket. It’s open every weekend and it’s Beijing’s best place to look for antiques and handicrafts.

Some 3000 sellers offer anything from embroydered silk to stone buddhas and from ancient chinese porcellain to Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book.

Panjiayuan fleamarket is a treasure trove for collectors of Asian antiques and for souvenir hunters.

But what always amazes me is how different the buying and browsing behavior of the Chinese is from that of the Westerners.

You’ll often see old Chinese men huddled over pottery sherds that look like they were just picked from a trash heap.

Yet these Chinese connoisseurs closely examine the sherds with magnifying glasses, they hold them against the light, weigh them, discuss their artistic value. I guess they’re hoping to find real Ming or Qing Dynasty treasures.

Did Mao really drink Coke?Westerners, on the other hand, are mostly fascinated by the colorful handicrafts from remote Chinese provinces, by Ming-style paintings and revolutionary kitsch from the Mao era.

But beware:  at Panjiayuan not everything that looks antique is really old.

Something tells me that many of the things on offer were definitely made after the revolution.

But who cares – Panjiayuan is a great place to browse, to bargain and to buy.

Written by Thorsten

March 29, 2009 at 4:29 am

Talking taxi in Beijing

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in a Beijing taxiTaking a taxi in Beijing is fascinating. I’ve never been to another city where all the taxi drivers listen to talk programs on their car radios. None of them has the radio tuned to a music station or is listening to a CD.

Enter any Beijing taxi, and you’ll most likely be catapulted into a Chinese radio play or story.

These stories are told by actors with wonderful voices. Voices that can go from gentle to thunderous within a few seconds. Voices that can express fear, joy, or rage. Voices that you’ll love listening to even if you don’t understand a word of Chinese.

I wonder how many of these radio plays an average Beijing taxi driver will hear during his career.

And I wonder how the Chinese passengers feel who reach their destination just when the story is approaching its climax. Will they pay more so they can hear the end of the story?

Written by Thorsten

March 24, 2009 at 3:41 pm

Posted in china, observations, travel

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What comes after the Olympic fever in China?

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Chinese students helping Olympic visitors

Chinese students helping Olympic visitors at the airport

If you arrive at Beijing’s brand new Capital Airport these days, you’re immediately confronted with China’s enthusiasm about the Olympics.

And that feeling of excitement is going to stay with you every step that you take in China.

At the airport, you’re likely to see groups of young Chinese all decked out in blue and white track suits, ready to help the arriving Olympic athletes and guests.

The airport itself is covered with billboards advertising anything and everything with the Olympic logo. Even McDonalds tries to get in on the action, although I can’t imagine any serious athlete sustaining a diet of Big Macs, fries and Cokes…

Driving into Beijing, you’ll see Olympic flags lining the highway. And once you’re in town, the games are even more omni-present.

The Olympic logo is everywhere

In our hotel, the Olympic rings graced the breakfast buffet.

coffee, tea, or the Olympic rings?

Coffee, tea, or the Olympic rings?

Large flat-screen TVs in the hotel restaurant broadcast a continuous loop of the greatest Chinese triumphs during the 2004 Olympics.

(It seemed to me like I’d seen that same TV footage over and over again when I was in China late in 2004. Long after the Athens games were over, Chinese television was still celebrating every Chinese gold medal and showing every flag-raising.)

Brainwashed or happy to see me?

If you wanted to be mean, you could say that the people in China have been brainwashed. They’ve been subjected to displays of Chinese triumphs, national symbols and Chinese achievements over and over again (e.g. all the spectacular new buildings erected for the Olympic games).

A special Olympic hairstyle

A special Olympic hairstyle

But I think the enthusiasm in China for the games is real. Most Chinese are extremely proud that their country will be hosting the games this year.

They want to be good hosts.They want to make sure that these games will be a success and that the international community will be impressed.

The Chinese want to be liked – and what’s wrong with that.

For decades now, the Chinese have been looking forward to these games. They’ve put years of hard work and incredible sums of money into the preparations. And knowing their talent for machine-like precision when it comes to organising big events, everything should run smoothly once the games begin.

O.K.,  you never know whether some protesters will be successful in making their voices heard during the Olympics (Tibetans? The Uighurs? Falun Gong? Environmentalists? Human Rights activists? Come to think of it: there are a lot of discontented groups in China)

From the point of view of the Chinese government, such demonstrations would, of course, add a nasty dissonance to the desired harmony of the games.

But what I’m really wondering about is what comes after the games?

What effect will it have on the Chinese psychologically, when they realize some time later this fall that the games are over.

Olympic mascots at a souvenir shop

Olympic mascots at a souvenir shop

How will they feel when all the international guests and athletes have packed their bags and left? When the stadiums are empty, the swimming pools deserted, the press center dismantled.

Everything the Chinese have been working so hard for will be over. No more fireworks, only the dark night sky.

How will they cope with that emptiness? No one has prepared them for it.

Is there such a thing as post-olympic-depression?

Chinese leaders will have to find some way give those patriotic feelings that they’ve fuelled a new goal. Something new that the Chinese people can strive for.

Otherwise, the big national hangover could turn into more than a headache for the leadership.

WordPress is blocked in China. Therefore I was only able to upload this post after having left the country.

Written by Thorsten

July 14, 2008 at 11:03 am

Sorry, we’re out of dog meat

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July 12 -13, 2008 edition of China Daily

July 12 -13, 2008 edition of China Daily

There will be no dog meat in Beijing restaurants during the Olympics.

According to this weekend’s edition of China Daily (the country’s English language newspaper), the city’s 112 officially designated Olympic restaurants have been banned from selling dog meat during the Olympics.

The paper continues that non-designated restaurants have also been encouraged not to serve the meat.

“Dog meat sales are being suspended as a mark of respect for foreigners and people from ethnic groups,” an anonymous official with the administration was quoted as saying by Beijing Daily on Friday.

Giving up cultural identity to please foreigners

Personally, I think it’s sad that the Chinese are bending over backwards to please their international guests. I wish they were as sensitive about international public opinion when it comes to Zimbabwe or Sudan.

If dog meat is a part of Chinese culture and cuisine, then why pretend that it isn’t to please the foreigners?

Why don’t the Chinese just say “yes, some people in our country do eat dog meat – if you don’t like it, you don’t have to order it.”

After all, restaurants in China serve many other things that are “hard to stomach” for Westerners: jellyfish, camel’s feet, shark fin soup or chicken claws. Yet all of these are considered delicacies in China.

Maybe dog meat touches a sensitive spot in Westerners. I remember that coming across a dog meat butcher in Vietnam definitely came as a mild shock to me when I was there a few weeks ago.

But still: if it’s part of their culture, why should they get rid of it just to please me?

WordPress is blocked in China. Therefore I was only able to upload this post after having left the country.

Written by Thorsten

July 13, 2008 at 8:31 am

Floored in Beijing

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Beijing is fascinating in a million ways. Aside from all the ancient palaces and temples, the shopping and the great dining, there’s one “little” thing that absolutely amazed me during this visit.

It’s a gigantic LED video screen covering a downtown shopping street called The Place. Images of life underwater are projected onto the screen.

The deep blue is up above. And I am absolutely floored.

WordPress is blocked in China. Therefore I was only able to upload this post after having left the country.

Written by Thorsten

July 13, 2008 at 7:54 am

Welcome to the Beijing Olympics – but not yet

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New CCTV headquarters in the smog

Smog envelops Beijing's new CCTV headquarter

The online weather forecast was for sun and blue skies in Beijing on Friday. But on the ground, things looked quite different.

It was so hazy when our plane touched down that I thought we were still high up in the clouds. I could only see the ground a few seconds before we touched down on the runway.

I wonder how they want to get rid of the air pollution here in time for the Olympics, which will begin in less than a month’s time.

Olympic sites fenced in

Bird's Nest Stadium in Beijing

Bird's Nest Stadium in Beijing

Right after we’d checked into our hotel in Beijing, we wanted to go out to the Olympic stadium. I’d driven by it last year and it looked fantastic even then. Much bigger than it did on pictures or on TV.

So this time, I wanted to see it up close. I was pretty sure we wouldn’t be able to go inside, but at least I thought I’d go around it once. Touch its steel beams that make it look like a bird’s nest.

The drive from downtown Beijing to the northern part of the city, where the Olympic sites are, is pretty far. The ride in the taxi wasn’t cheap for Chinese standards.

So you can imagine how disappointed we were when the taxi driver just dropped us off at a fence on the side of an eight-lane highway. The stadium was visible in the distance, but it was still pretty far off.

Unfortunately, however, that’s as close as anyone gets to the stadium and the other Olympic sports arenas at this point. The whole huge Olympic area is fenced in. And there are uniformed guards every 300 feet or so, making absolutely sure that no one dares climb the fence.

I was a little pissed off

The friend I’m travelling with rightly pointed out that anywhere in the West, the organizers would already make the construction site part of the spectacle: there’d be posters everywhere explaining what stage of the construction we’re in. People might even be invited to tour the new constructions – even if they’re not finished yet, because everyone would want to see the “work in progress”.

Here in China, however, the attitude seems to be a little different: keep the ordinary people out for now. Don’t let them see what those in charge are doing. Don’t let them interfere, don’t let them ask questions. Let them see everything when it’s finished and ready for the big party.

The Chinese seem to take this as a given. In front of the new Olympic stadium, they happily take pictures of each other in front of the metal fence. Never mind that the the Olympic arenas were merely visible as a hazy backdrop in the distance.

WordPress is blocked in China. Therefore I was only able to upload this post after having left the country.

Written by Thorsten

July 13, 2008 at 7:32 am

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