Category Archives: Places

Sovereign territory

Or when in Rome?

Reports about the interview between Gavin Esler and the Chinese ambassador to Britain on Newsnight say that (not surprisingly) censorship of the Internet got mentioned. That got me thinking.

Embassies are a piece of foreign soil. Since that’s the case, is Internet access from Chinese embassies around the world subject to the same levels of paranoia to which it is subject in China, or are such blocks blithely ignored by the Empire’s representatives? If I searched, would I find the Chinese embassy in the UK has a Facebook page? A Twitter account? A WordPress or Facebook blog? Videos on YouTube of Vimeo of the office Christmas party?

I hate to think what an office Christmas party with Chinese characteristics would be like. I’ve never heard of an office Spring Festival party. The closest they probably get is some sort of enforced, state-regulated, rigidly structured “fun”.

Greenhouse Days

Heat gets in.

Temperatures have been back in the mid 30s again, but unlike the second half of July, the sky is partially overcast, which means that the heat gets in, but doesn’t get out, and the resulting humidity is stifling. These are the days which keep me at home for as much as possible because even just standing outside has me sweating profusely.

News that long-time fugitive, Zhou Kehua, has been killed by the police has me wondering how it’s possible for anyone to remain under the radar for so long in a country where everyone’s lives are public theatre. Perhaps they head out into the countryside where they have friends.

There was a story in the South China Morning Post a few years ago about some crime boss in Guangdong who had operated with impunity for years before he was finally tried and convicted. I could only imagine he was able to do that because he had friends in high places, and I could only suspect that his downfall came from losing those friends.

There’s been a bit of chatter in the expat blogosphere about various long-term expat celebrity 宝贝 departing, and whether this is merely a blip or a trend. It perhaps depends on what you do here, and what your prospects are like in the Real World™ (in spite of the dire state of the economy). I assume that most foreigners still don’t last more than a year or two in China; few last five; and very few last as long as I’ve been here. But even those expats who have managed to survive for ten or more years may suddenly go stir crazy and find that their patience is exhausted. They’ve tolerated conditions here, but decide that enough is enough.

I’ve put together a list of things which might have expats running for the hills. I won’t pretend this is exhaustive or informed, but it’s what comes to mind.

  1. Environment. Bloody dreadful, of course, and you can’t go to Hong Kong to escape it. When I lived just outside of Beijing, the air quality was much better than I was expecting, but I hear that since the Olympics ended, it’s got much worse. This is likely to get expats with children fleeing.
  2. The climate. Roughly speaking, five months of the year it’s too hot; five months it’s too cold (in spite of the latitude), and for the remaining two months, it’s about tolerable.
  3. Culture. There’s a whole range of stuff here such as conspicuous consumption; noise; spitting; disorderliness (e.g. pushing in at the front of queues to make enquiries instead of waiting; lack of traffic courtesy); a lack of consideration; a lack of attention; chicken coop culture; and I’m sure there are other things as well.
  4. Pests. Here we have people who stare or expect that foreigners are a source of amusement and entertainment. How bad it gets depends on where you go. This may not have expats scarpering, but it’s one thing they won’t miss, and it reflects badly on the locals, exposing their utterly lack of sophistication.
  5. Internet censorship. As I’ve said before, this almost certainly affects expats more than it affects the Chinese. It’s bloody annoying to have to fire up Freegate to see some harmless YouTube video, or visit some harmless WordPress blog, or visit any number of innocuous sites online. We don’t really give a damn about those things which make Nanny hot and sweaty, and most of the natives don’t care either.
  6. Medicine. I am a little sceptical about the quality of medical care in China. I also know that hospitals will take you for a financial ride if they can although it’s not just foreigners who might find themselves gouged. This is another one of those things which probably isn’t uppermost in the minds of expats, but could be if they have some sort of long-term illness.
  7. Education. Really one for expats with kids, but if I had a Chinese wife, and we had children, I wouldn’t let my imaginary children near the Chinese education system because of the length of the school day, the length of the school term, and the dubious curriculum. (Hongkongers, beware! You should be worried about the nonsense the Mainland is trying to peddle through your education system.)
  8. Government. This may be where expats trying to run businesses in China come to grief as they try to negotiate their way through an opaque system where the rules will be applied rigorously to you. You, in turn, may not use the rules in the same way.

Ultimately, I don’t think we are seeing anything but a coincidence. A few celebrity expats have decided they’ve had enough at about the same time, but they’re hardly a representative sample.

The money vacuum cleaner

AKA, The Chinese Empire.

When I was at university, I did the Age of Discovery paper which, I’m sure, included a lecture on the trade across the Pacific in which silver from South America poured into China. I can’t recall whether we were told what happened to the silver after that, but did it ever benefit anyone outside of the Chinese Empire? I’ve always had the impression that the Empire is like a money vacuum cleaner, sucking up all that it can get, but only ever spending a minuscule proportion of that.

Now Europe needs money, and has come begging to about the only country which has any cash going spare. I was reading about some of the local reactions to that, which also raised the question why the vast amount of money the imperial government has should not be used on the people of China first. I think it’s a good point. In addition to that, my question would be why the Empire is also wasting huge amounts of money on some space programme, which isn’t really achieving anything beyond the stroking of the imperial ego. There are more important things here on Earth which need to be dealt with.

And if the Empire does agree to help Europe, what’s it going to want in return? One suggestion was that Europe would have to STFU about Tibet, Taiwan etc., and start letting China have some of the better hi-tech toys among other things. If there is some agreement, I can’t help but feel that it is a pact with the devil. It cannot be a good idea to allow a country with such an appalling record (not just over the past 60 years, but all too often during the past 2,500) to have some sort of control over the few countries on the planet where there are democracy, freedom of speech, and the rule of law. (Well, in theory, at least.)

Perhaps history will eventually show that it was all for the best, but I’m straining to see how a paranoid tyranny, which is devoid of ethics, which is accountable to no one (except through violent revolt), and which is so avaricious, can possibly benefit the world. (And have I just described America for the past two centuries?)

9 Glorious Years

Well, maybe not.

It’s nine years today since I first arrived in China. The weather that day was about the same as today – sunshine and 33°. I was braced to be whisked to Third-World squalor as we passed through the grubby villages between Beijing Airport and Tongzhou. But Tongzhou was a relatively well-appointed satellite town outside the capital, which was to be my home for the next three years.

I soon learnt a few things. When asked when we would start teaching, it seemed quite reasonable to be allowed a couple of days to recover from travelling to China. The correct answer was, “Immediately”. Mrs Wu promised to take us to see the sites, but she was too busy appearing to be busy to ever do that; but it was also the custom.

And so here I was with no experience of teaching school children, or EFL, or the faintest idea of what an intermediate-level imbecile learner was, or a curriculum, or anything much. I made a right mess of the first term because being an egalitarian sort when it comes to knowledge, I expected everyone to complete the exercises. With the arrival of the second term, I abandoned that for ploughing my way through the textbook regardless of whatever progress my students might be making. (Answer: none.)

I’m trying to think how things have changed over the past nine years. There are the obvious ones like the size of the economy (quite ignoring the Namibian levels of income), and the current administration, which having come in my time is about to leave in my time. The Internet has been increasingly abused since the Olympic Games even although very little of what is blocked is of interest to a domestic audience. (Recent figures I saw claimed that only 4% of Internet traffic ever strays outside the prison walls; that’ll be the expats and students applying to foreign universities.) People who can think for themselves have become even less popular. I’m sure there are a lot of other things which have changed since I’ve been here although after moving from one place to another, I have a fragmentary picture at best.

But how different is China after all this time? I don’t believe it is that different from the time of my arrival in 2002. The infrastructure may have changed with new buildings there and roads here, but the people don’t seem to be different, and they’re what counts. The population may still be a Third-World pyramid, but the youth of today ends up being the parents of tomorrow, and the world stays the same because no one has time or energy for children and social change. (Not counting callous megalomaniac dictators. You know who I mean.)

Meanwhile, when Bruce is sent round to find out who has a bike (me, John the Maths Teacher, Rob and Michelle, Fred), I wonder what the school is up to. I’m predicting a pointless and unnecessary lecture on road safety from someone who isn’t qualified to speak on the subject. Mr Bamboo’s advice: go when it’s safe to go; expect traffic from the other direction; and pay attention because no one else is paying attention.

And now I’m wet

I also have a stack of books.

Today is a complete contrast from yesterday with grey skies and some quite heavy rain dominating the day so far. There’s been quite a bit of surface flooding where the drains have got clogged by detritus coming down from trees, but since about 2pm, the rain has diminished and we might even get some sunshine as the weather forecast predicted. It seems a little lighter than it has been and earlier I thought I saw a thin slice of blue sky to the south. I think I might’ve been mistaken about that, though.

I went to the University Bookshop this morning to have a look round. In spite of knowing that I have more than enough books already, I ended up with three more – Unseen Academicals, the latest Artemis Fowl book (but I now suspect that I actually have that I bought it in Hong Kong, and the more I think about it, the more certain I am that I’ve already read it), and the sequel to the Bartimaeus Trilogy. I wasn’t planning to buy them, but happened to find myself in the right place at the right time.

When I got back here, I did a test pack of my suitcase. I can get everything in and I’m fairly certain that I’m within the weight limit in spite of having 21 books altogether. The real problem is fitting everything comfortably into the suitcase.

I also got my credit card this morning and can finally pretend to be an adult. I learnt, though, that they’ll dish credit cards out to 14-year-olds, which seems to be about as sensible as asking a known arsonist to look after a box of matches and a can of petrol. Anyway, now that I have one, what am I going to buy? I’ve got so used to not having one that I’ll probably never use the thing.

Right, time to continue reading The Girl who Played with Fire.

I’m hot

But not in that way. (Well, all right in that way as well.)

Yesterday morning, the cloud sat overheard and did little or nothing apart from a dribble of drizzle at one stage. It eventually broke up around lunchtime, but returned with drizzle later in the day. This morning started hot and sticky and has got hotter.

I took a wander around my old university this morning. The library is still cordoned off and it was possible to see at least one broken window. There was also evidence that chunks of masonry which had fallen off the building during the earthquake had been replaced. I expect that a lot of work needs to be done inside to put books back on the shelves because they got thrown everywhere, and probably some of the shelves played dominoes.

I’m used to Sunday being much the same as every other day of the week because the weekend is only a weakly articulated concept in the Empire. Ironically, the car park of a Chinese (Christian) church was full as we passed it by, but there were also other people in churches as well, which I find most peculiar myself. (That is, the latter part, but I suppose all societies have weak-minded, credulous individuals even among the allegedly less gullible sections of the population.) Thus, some shops are closed, and the banks certainly aren’t open.

There’s also bustle of the sort which is just not seen in the Empire, where dull, zombie-like plodding is the norm. I’ve never understood that indifference to the amount of time which gets wasted by shambling along. It’s certainly not exercise because none of them ever achieve a brisk enough pace. Perhaps it’s because their lives lack imagination, they’re insensible to the time they spend on actions during which nothing is achieved. It probably has something to do with their inability to be punctual.

Oh well, the Empire and its inane behaviour remain a few days away, but it’d be nice not to have to go back.

Clear skies and sunshine

Blue seas.

After lunch, we went to the beach, a narrow cove called Te Oka on the south side of Banks Peninsula. The sand is dark-coloured from the volcanic rock of the peninsula, but is mingled with lighter streaks which are probably ground-up shells, although the beach was littered with very few.

The hills which overlook Te Oka are covered in very dry, yellow tussock grass, which forms a complementary contrast with the blue of the sea and the sky. Close to the land, the sea was that lighter green-blue and then further out, a deeper blue which, from our perspective, formed a narrow strip setting a border between the realms of Zeus and Poseidon.

There are rocks at the base of the ridges which thrust out into the sea, and at the far end on the west side is a phallic-looking rock which stands apart from the small cliff. I wouldn’t be surprised if Te Oka means “The Knob” (in its more colloquial sense).

The locals were a small flock of seagulls, a paradise duck, and three oyster catchers. The last of these were rather bullying, chasing away the seagulls and harassing the paradise duck as they made their way self-importantly up the beach, acting like disdainful Puritans. The seagulls were more interested in the stream flowing down from the valley in which they would sit for a time and then start washing themselves before finishing their baths with a drink.

The tide was turning while we were there, and I took the opportunity to go paddling, which I’ve done so rarely over the past twenty to twenty-five years that the number of times doesn’t exhaust the fingers on one hand.

Behind us, we heard something coming down the beach, namely a piece of dried kelp in the shape of a small walking stick being blown along by the wind, whose passage was leaving a trail in the sand. It eventually got blown into the sea which carried the stick further out as the tide ebbed and flowed. The kelp would bob over the approaching waves, which would bring it back a little way, but it seemed to be taking two steps forward and only one step back. I assume that the water will deposit it back up the beach, and the wind will then blow it back down again tomorrow.

Quake 2010

The exciting story from other sources.
The news via e-mail this morning from my parents was that a rather strong earthquake hit the South Island of New Zealand at 4.35am this morning. I’ve only seen the pictures on The Guardian, but the quake seems to have affected older buildings in Christchurch. Probably other buildings have cracked walls as they did in Chengdu as a consequence of the May quake two years ago.
It was fortunate that the quake struck when it did. If people had been out and about, there would have been many more casualties than the two who were injured. My parents’ principal fatality was a teapot shaped like a well (with a little bucket dangling over it) which I gave to them a few years ago. Some vases, which had been sitting on top of bookcases, fell and were completely undamaged, but unlike China, my parents’ house has carpet. Here, they would’ve shattered on the cosy tile floor.
My parents also temporarily acquired a real well of there own as subterranean water bubbled up from somewhere at the back of the house for a time before the earth probably settled again and sealed it off. The quake also seems to have caused liquefaction of the soil in places. Bit like a quicksand effect, I guess.
There have also been a lot of aftershocks, a lot more, it seems, than we had after the Chengdu earthquake, although those kept occurring for quite a few months after that.

Incident at Jinma

Conflagration at Corruption Towers!
Local twit burns washing.
Clothing retailers predict an increase in November profits.
wuxi_fire01 I got home for lunch to find a group of people, including two camera crews and a couple of policemen, standing around in the turning circle outside Building 36. They were looking up at some­thing, but I couldn’t tell what until I got up to my place and had a look out of the window. It appears that someone either on the 16th or 17th floor set fire to their washing. Whether it was done deliberately or was an accident, I don’t know, but I’d say the latter seems more likely since the police didn’t seem especially bothered when I entered the building. The charred remains of whatever caught fire are on the window ledges and the fire, it seems, was wholly external.
So there you are. A world exclusive from the Mr Bamboo News Agency (a wholly independent subsidiary of Mr Bamboo plc).
Intrepid local reporters cover the story.
© 2009 Mr Bamboo News Agency
No truth ever knowingly left unembellished.

Nouveau 古老 Wuxi

Local travels.

Out of my window I can not only see 江尖公园, but also the last remnants of the dilapidated houses which must’ve filled the area until not so long ago. Out of curiosity I thought I’d go and have a look at these last surviving pockets and also have a look at the development on the island.

wuxi_gulao01 wuxi_gulao02

The first picture looks across the canal to the south-east and apart from one building missing half a roof, the place doesn’t appear to be in any danger of being demolished – for the time being. In the second picture, the rubble in the foreground is new. When I had a look at one of the earlier pictures I took, I found that the building was still there. It wouldn’t surprise me if someone was actually living in the last surviving hovel. There was some guy snoozing on a sofa nearby and when I went to have a closer look from the other side, some dog barked at me in a proprietorial fashion.

wuxi_gulao03 wuxi_gulao04

This, on the other hand, is nouveau 古老, but doing it’s best to look as dilapidated and worth for demolition as any of the aging and decrepit parts of the town. When I went in, there were two people having a quiet snog near the door and, unexpectedly, flute music. On the left-hand side of the second picture was an area which looked like it might’ve been a stage. Some guy was there practising playing the flute, his music being quite suitable to the setting, I thought. The building on the right has some historical significance because there were a couple of stones on the other side, one of which gave the details about the place.

wuxi_gulao05 wuxi_gulao06

If I understand the sign on the left correctly, the building is the former site of some (state-owned?) paper company. It also gives a date of 2003, although the area doesn’t look neglected enough to have been abandoned six years ago. The other sign no doubt explains the significance of the place.

wuxi_gulao07 wuxi_gulao08

On the other side is this small branch of the canal which was mostly the preserve of this purple water flower, probably a species of water lily. At the far end is a lock which probably hasn’t been used in some time. The fisher­men might also actually catch something because in the water near the lock, I could see bubbles in the water and a shoal of little fishes. There was also something larger there because I heard a loud splash and looked down to see that something had violently agitated the water, although I don’t know what. The fishes themselves seem to be clustered beneath some drain per­haps waiting, as Dryden said in MacFlecknoe, for the morning toast.

[22.08.13. Much has changed since I took these pictures. The ancient street was eventually opened, but that took some time (and I ought to go back to see what’s there); the old houses were eventually demolished, but that also took some time; they’ve been being replaced by a cluster of high-rise buildings, but that’s also taken some time. Five years after I arrived in Wuxi, the project, called 县前三号, still has a long way to go.

23.09.14. Another year has passed and, as it turns out, the ancient street on the island is almost entirely deserted apart from a couple of restaurants. The high-rise buildings have risen, but as far as I can tell, they’ve stopped rising and, it seems, no work is being done behind the green gauze in which they’re wrapped like concrete mummies. The hoardings alongside 县前街 were removed a few months ago as if the project was about to enter some new phase, but I think that may be no more than prolonged decay.]