Beijing, 31 March 2013

On this Easter Sunday, the newspapers (the English-speaking ones at least) have been afroth with articles about various Easter traditions. One of these is of course the Easter egg. I was particularly struck by an article on the BBC site about an Indian restaurant in the UK having made a series of chocolate Easter eggs with a mix of chocolate and three hideously hot chilli peppers: a ghost chilli, a scotch bonnet and a habanera chilli.


The makers boasted that the resulting chocolate registered 1 million on the Scoville scale of hotness.  I have written a previous post on the use of hot spices; the readers of that post can imagine my horror when I read this article. But as I read and mentally shook my head, my mind drifted back to one of my earliest memories. I am a small child, back in Africa, it is Easter Sunday, we are in the garden. I am tugging desperately on my mother’s hand, I want to follow my older brother and sisters who are running through the garden looking for Easter eggs hidden by my parents. I guess she wanted to guide me to where they had hidden my eggs. I suppose she eventually was able to drag me in the right direction and I “found” the eggs, but that part didn’t imprint itself in my memory.

We weren’t looking for chocolate eggs. We were looking for real eggs, boiled hard and painted by us children. This was the family tradition; we children painted a couple of eggs each, and then our parents hid them for us to find. A trawl through the internet shows that the painting of Easter eggs is not a dead art.

painted easter eggs-2

although  I think the following pictures give a better idea of what our eggs no doubt looked like and how they were painted.

Children painting eggs-1revised

Children painting eggs-2

Once we left Africa, we no longer had a garden in which to hide the eggs. Anyway, I think we adopted the new ways of doing things and bought chocolate eggs. One could buy very fancy chocolate eggsChocolate-Easter-Egg-fancy

along with fancy chocolate rabbits


But our Easter eggs tended to be the more modest-sized ones wrapped in coloured silver paper. My mother would pile them up on a plate at the centre of the table and we would nibble on them during Easter and for days (and days …) thereafter.

Easter Eggs

I have to say, I’m not terribly, terribly fond of chocolate. I’ve never eaten very much of it. I don’t eat it at Easter any more. Apart from dutifully accepting chocolate sweets when someone hands them around, I sometimes eat a bar of chocolate with hazelnuts; I like the nut and chocolate combination.chocolate-bar-with-hazelnuts-1

And from time to time, when I’m in France and have baguettes at hand I will eat a piece of chocolate and baguette.

baguette and chocolate-1

It’s really delicious, by the way. When my French grandmother was feeling somewhat flush, she would buy a bar of chocolate and give it to us grandchildren with bread at teatime. Mm-mm, good!

Luckily, my wife is also not a great eater of chocolate, although she is definitely fonder of chocolate cake than I am. When we go to a restaurant and chocolate cake is on the menu she will sometimes crack and order it.

chocolate cake

She also often ate the Italian equivalent of chocolate and baguette when she was young: Nutella spread on a piece of bread. Like my grandmother, her mother would serve it as a snack at teatime.

nutella and bread

About 15-20 years ago, we began to notice growing chatter in the media about going back to the fundamentals. We were told we should move closer to the way the Mesoamericans consumed chocolate before the Spaniards arrived, as a whipped-up drink of water, chocolate, spices and vanilla:


We didn’t necessarily have to go the whole way, we were informed, but we could eat chocolate without all the things Europeans had added over the centuries: sugar, milk, nuts and who knows what else. We read that it was much better for you that way. It has delicate tastes which linger on the tongue. It also contains chemicals which make you happy, which are good for the heart, which give you more sex drive. Well! After listening to a lot of this kind of hype we noticed one day in a shop in Vienna some very smartly packaged “modern” chocolate produced by Lindt, the luxury Swiss chocolate and confectionery company.


On an impulse, we bought a bar. After some debate, we decided not to go for the 100% pure chocolate, but rather to start with a 70% mix. We took this precious material back home, we opened it reverentially, and tried it.

I have to say, it was no great shakes. We didn’t feel our mouths being overcome by delicately intoxicating tastes, we didn’t feel any happier, we didn’t … Maybe our tickers worked better but we couldn’t tell. For those interested readers there is another BBC article reviewing the state of play on the topic.

I think we’ll just eat our chocolate the way we always have. Perhaps the Europeans were on to something when they added all those other things.



Chocolate and chilies:
Painted Easter eggs:
Children painting eggs-1:
Children painting eggs-2:
Chocolate Easter egg-fancy:
Chocolate rabbit:
Chocolate Easter eggs-typical:
Chocolate bar with hazelnuts:
Baguette with chocolate:×449/2/90/63/97/Autrefois-./Chocolat/Le-Bon-Chocolat–13-.JPG
Chocolate cake:
Nutella on bread:
Lindt excellence:
Cocoa pods:


Beijing, 30 March 2013

There is a famous photo of Chairman Mao swimming across the Yangtze River at Wuhan in the summer of 1966.


He joined the annual Cross-Yangtze swimming competition, which had been going since the 1930s (and continues to this day). Actually, he had already taken part in this competition twice before, in 1956 and in 1958. But this time, the locals really pulled out the stops for the Chairman, dragging this huge picture of him across the river along with a placard wishing him 10,000 years of life (I wonder if they made it to the other side or if they sank like a stone halfway across):


The photo is famous because it signaled the start of that national catastrophe that was the Cultural Revolution. With this swim, Mao was signaling that even though he was 72 he was still strong and healthy enough to lead the country. After it, he went up to Beijing and unleashed the Revolutionary Guards.

This photo came to my mind last weekend, when my wife and I went for a walk, which after several random turns to the left and right brought us to Qianhai lake, one of the string of small lakes that lie to the north-west of the Forbidden City. There, we came across a group of pensioners (it always seems to be pensioners; I have never seen young people doing it) who were swimming to an island in the middle of the lake and back. The poor fellows were having to contend with pesky pedalos – these in the hands of young people; much more fun than swimming – which swarm over these lakes during weekends.

Qianhai lake swimmer 001

We joined the curious crowds watching the swimmers, and I followed their progress with horrified fascination. Professional deformation made me mentally compute all the pollutants that were probably in the water and what they could be doing to the swimmers. But the waters in these lakes are actually much cleaner than the water in that stretch of canal near our apartment which I’ve written about several times in previous posts. The water there is often of a dubious hue, and the sight of dead fish floating on its surface is common. Yet even here, once the ice has gone and the weather gets a little warmer, a group of pensioners emerge from the nearby housing estate and go for stately swims in the canal.

swimmers in canal summer 2013 004

I usually avert my eyes when I see them, since their fate is too terrible for me to contemplate. On this point, I am moved to insert a photo from the summer of a few years ago in Qingdao when there was a terrible algal bloom. Even the Chinese thought this was a bit much.

chinese boy with algae

Yet the pensioners seem to survive. Come to think of it, when I was a young lad and accompanied my English grandmother on her boat on the Norfolk Broads (I have written an earlier post on this), we used to happily swim in lakes and rivers which were uniformly a brown peaty colour and into which all the boats would discharge their … well, you understand where I’m going with this one. My grandmother lived to a ripe old age and I am still alive to tell the tale.

Even so, I would not swim in the canal or in the Beijing lakes for all the money in Christendom. Not because of the pollution but because of the temperature. The Chinese – again, the older folk, as far as I can tell, not the young – feel that cold water is invigorating. The ice is barely broken that they are swimming. In fact, in the north they take a pride in swimming even when there is ice!

chinese swimming Harbin-1

This is definitely not for me. I am, I freely admit it, a wimp when it comes to cold water. Cold water and I do not mix. I have two memories from my youth, seared into my brain. One is swimming in the outdoor swimming pool at primary school. It had just opened, so it must have been early May. I was among the first to go in. I could hardly breathe it was so cold, and by the time I got to the other end of the pool I could not feel anything in any part of my body. The second memory is of a trip to the North Sea beaches of Norfolk with my grandmother – a day off from sailing on the Broads. Entering the water was like being flailed alive. Years later, watching the film Titanic I could viscerally empathize with those poor people who landed in the icy waters of the Atlantic and lasted no more than a few minutes.

titanic sinking

I find even the waters of the Mediterranean in August cold. My children would mock my skittishness about entering the water during our summer holidays in Liguria. The only time I have ever felt really relaxed in seawater was during a trip many, many years ago to Mexico with my wife and mother-in-law, when we went to Isla Mujeres, an island just off the coast from Cancún.

isla muheres-2

isla muheres-1

My knees go weak just thinking about that deliciously warm water. It was just like taking a bath. Wonderful.


Mao swimming-1:
Mao swimming-2:
Swimmer in Qianhai lake: my pic
Swimmer in canal: my pic
Chinese boy with algae:
Chinese swimming Harbin:
Titanic sinking:
Isla muheres-1:,%20Isla%20Mujeres,%20Beach,%20Playa%20Norte,%20view%20-%20Photo%20by%20Fideicomiso%20Isla%20Mujeres.jpg
Isla muheres-2:


Beijing, 24 March 2013

I mentioned in a recent posting that I had just come back from a business trip. This was to Dali, in the province of Yunnan, or to give it its full name the Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture. My first day was spent in the city of Dali, which sits on the southern shore of Lake Erhai. I was there to hold discussions with the local government. I was pleased to be back in Dali, which is a pleasant city, in contrast to most Chinese cities. For one thing, the site is really quite spectacular.

Erhai Lake-3

There’s also a nice old city, which hasn’t been swept away by revolution or later by capitalism. It’s been considerably prettified for the tourists, but it’s still a nice place to walk around. I didn’t go there this time, but I had seen it during my last visit to Dali. There are some well-known old pagodas


and nice “old” roads and buildings – with, of course, lots of shops for tourists.



What was really nice this time was that, like in this photo, the fruit trees were in bloom: a sight for sore eyes after cold and dreary Beijing. It will be at least a month, possibly a month and a half, before we see the same thing in Beijing.

Last, but not least, this area of China is one of the few, perhaps the only one, where there is a local tradition of eating cheese! They have always had cow and goat herds here and they routinely drink and eat dairy products. The cheese is a bit odd, and they tend to eat it fried, but it is still cheese.


The local government has a good eye for location. They built the prefecture’s government complex on top of a hill which drops steeply into the lake. So the buildings have a beautiful view of the lake. This is what you see from the car park in front of the buildings.

Dali-visit-march 002

It was the same view I had sitting in the government banquet hall that evening. The hall has been built with a huge window giving onto the lake, and so as I and my host carried on a stilted conversation I could watch the night slowly steal over the lake.

But I had not gone down to Yunnan to admire Erhai lake and Dali. I was there to talk … walnuts. It may surprise the reader to know that China is the largest producer of walnuts in the world. A good portion of these are grown in Yunnan, and a good portion of these are grown in Dali prefecture. So the next day, I was driven to a valley on the other side of these mountains

Erhai Lake-1

to visit a walnut orchard and a walnut processing facility. From the discussions I had held the previous day and from further explanations I received on the way, I had a handle on the basic problem. The government had encouraged the local farmers to plant walnut trees, as a way to increase their incomes but also to reforest the prefecture’s hills.

walnut orchards-1

Now, as more and more trees reached maturity – it takes about ten years for a tree to produce walnuts – the government realized they had to find something to do with all the walnuts which were about to flood on the market and depress prices. They were asking our help to find markets outside China.

To reach the walnut orchard, we climbed up, up, up the steep hills enclosing the valley, through one switchback after another. When we reached the top, I gazed around me and was terribly reminded of Liguria in Italy. I was seeing walnut trees rather than olive trees, and instead of the glint of the Mediterranean Sea far down below me I was seeing rich valley bottomland planted in vegetables. But the feel was very much the same, the feeling of being perched on an edge and risking to tumble down at any moment.

After a few moments, Farmer Liu arrived. He immediately opened a red packet of cigarettes – still the official sign of welcome in rural China – and offered a cigarette to all and sundry. I felt rather bad for him that all us city slickers, Chinese included, politely refused. Before coming, and knowing roughly what the Dali authorities wanted to talk to me about, I had phoned a colleague who knew about walnuts and had him coach me. So I was now able to pepper Farmer Liu with some not-too-stupid questions and understand his answers. After some ten minutes of this, Farmer Liu invited us to enter a small show room where we sat down and ate some of his walnuts. I was struck by how much more pitted the walnut shells were, almost as if they had been dunked in acid

walnuts in shell-1

I think this will be a problem outside of China, where people are used to relatively smooth shells. But the flesh was delicious.

walnuts partially unshelled-1

As I ate, I looked around at the various products on show, wondering which of these could find larger markets if suitably produced. I mentally nixed this product made from sliced walnut shells.


I don’t see this catching on outside of China, or even outside of Yunnan …

Walnut oil?

walnut oil-2

Possible, although it can’t be used for cooking, which would be the big market; when heated it takes on a slightly bitter taste. It can be used in cosmetics, though, which could be a good market


or in suntanning agents

walnut-tanning agent

There’s also walnut milk, which – like almond milk – is really a mix of very finely ground walnut and water.


Maybe this should be left to the national market. It’s becoming increasingly popular here, and I’m not sure how easily exportable it is.

How about walnut butter, cousin to the better-known peanut butter?walnut-butter-1

Definitely for the export markets. The Chinese don’t eat nut butters.

And so my eyes wandered around the shelves, while my hand dipped the walnut pieces into a delicious honey dip. The honey was creamy thick and pale yellow, really, really lovely. And then my mind began to wander, as I sat there enjoying the spring sun and the blossoming fruit trees outside the showroom.

We’ll find solutions, but not right now.



Erhai Lake-1:
Erhai Lake-2: my photo
Erhai Lake-3:
Walnut orchard:
Walnuts in shell:
Walnuts partially unshelled:
Walnut handicraft:
Walnut oil:
Walnut tanning oil:—Dark.jpg
Walnut milk:×576.jpg
Walnut butter:
Walnut on the tree:


Beijing, 23 March 2013

One of the first stories that you hear when you move to China is that the North gets central heating during the winter while the South doesn’t, the line between North and South running along the Huai River. The decision is normally attributed to Mao Zedong himself, taken in the early days of the “New China” (post-1949). This is normally followed by a shake of the head at such simplistic policies and war stories about winters spent in “the South” where the storyteller spent the whole winter, night and day, indoors and out, wearing multiple layers. I can empathize. I once went on a business trip in February to Morocco, where there is also no central heating, and I still remember the highly unpleasant meetings in these damply cold rooms where my internal warmth slowly but steadily leaked out into the surrounding room leaving me a block of ice by the end of the meetings.  I suppose there was a time when the Chinese endured, but with rising wealth and expectations there is now a fair amount of grumbling about this policy. I remember being struck by a story reported in the China Daily where a man originally from Shanghai but now living in Beijing told the reporter that he had decided not to spend the Chinese New Year with his parents because he found their apartment so unpleasantly cold. It might be colder in Beijing but at least he had heating, he said. For a country where spending the New Year with parents is still sacrosanct, that was quite a statement.

In all of this, one tends to forget that the rules for central heating in the North are quite rigid and are rigidly applied. By some mysterious calculus known only to the denizens of the Ministry of Central Heating (or whatever Ministry it is that made this decision), 15 November is the date on which the heating is turned on and 15 March the date on which it is turned off. Never mind what the actual temperatures might be; that is irrelevant. The first year my wife and I were here, on November 1 it snowed – artificially induced, by the way; the Minister of Meteorology decided that Beijing needed precipitation and so seeded the clouds. But she told no one of her decision, consequently throwing all the surrounding airports into chaos since none of them were expecting snow. But I digress. Beijingers, faced with 15 days with no heating, started to complain louder and louder; eventually, the Beijing municipal authorities decided to throw the switch early.

This year, as March 15 drew closer my wife and I scanned the meteorological prognostications to know whether or not the switching-off of the heating this year would be a prelude to an unpleasant several weeks of cold in the apartment. It was looking good; outside temperatures were quite acceptable even though the smog levels were disagreeably high. March 15 came and went, the heating went off, the temperatures inside the apartment stayed pleasant. We were congratulating ourselves when this sight greeted us on the morning of the 20th.

march-20-morning 002

It was actually very pretty, really just like a Christmas card. When I walked to work later, it seemed that every person on the street had their camera out, from super-duper machines to mere phones, and were busily photographing the magical effects. I joined in with my phone. Here are a couple of photos I took.

march-20-morning 003

march-20-morning 006

But even as I walked, the snow was steadily raining down off the trees (as it were) and melting rapidly. By evening, the snow was gone.

But the cold remained. So for the last few days, come nightfall my wife and I throw on thick sweaters and huddle around the electric radiator which we bought for this purpose soon after we arrived. When it comes to bedtime we throw off our clothes and throw on our pajamas in frenzied speed, dive under our duvets, and lie there shivering for a while until out body warmth heats up the space around us. When it’s time to get up, we poke our noses out from under the duvets, groan at the still-low temperatures, and make a dash for the shower. That and a hot cuppa sort of prepares us for the day.

The big question now is, where can we go for lunch which will be warm?


19 March 2013

In a previous post, I have admitted to being a lapsed Catholic, to having fallen off the straight-and-narrow when I was a young man. But this does not stop me from taking an interest in moments of high Catholic drama such as papal elections. These are held against one of the world’s most beautiful backdrops (St. Peter’s square in Rome)


They have quaint customs like black and white smoke to announce the results of ballots (“is it white? is it black?”)


There are all these old, principally white, men wandering around in bright red and purple cassocks, surrounded by toy soldiers dressed in renaissance garb


There are the Latin pronouncements (“habemus papam” et cetera).

St. Peters Square, Pope Francesco

So when Benedict XVI made his surprise announcement about retiring, sending the world media into fibrillation (“first pope to retire in 600 years!”), I settled down to enjoy the show. My wife – also a lapsed Catholic although less militant about it than I – joined me on the sofa as we surfed around the international TV stations, dropping in on their twitterings about various aspects of popes, the papacy and papal elections.

I left for a business trip just as the cardinals were processing into the Sistine chapel, sure that they would still be at it when I got back two days later. I mean, there was that election back in the Middle Ages during which the cardinals had been balloting for ages without coming to an agreement; they were finally locked into the chapel by irritated guards and told they would get only bread and water until they had agreed on a candidate. So you can judge my surprise, and disappointment, when my wife announced to me as I walked in the door that the new pope had already been chosen. I had missed the smoke! The blessing from the window! The announcement of the papal name! My wife made sympathetic noises and then dropped a bomb. He had chosen the name Francis!

I suppose it can be considered a crime of lèse majesté for me to compare myself to the pope, but I have to tell you that many years ago, in the one time in my life that I got to choose a name for myself, I too had chosen the name Francis.

Before turning away irrevocably from the faith, I had been through all the rituals required of a good Catholic child. I had done my First Confession, my First Communion, and – critically for this story – my Confirmation.  I was 14 when I went through this last ritual, so getting towards an age when I more or less knew what I was doing. On the great day itself, which took place at school, my parents came; they had arranged to be in the country for the event. Our local bishop presided. He sat enthroned before the altar of the school’s church as each one of us (we were a group of some 20 boys) came up before him to be confirmed. My father came up to the altar with me as my sponsor, and stood solemnly behind me as I knelt before the bishop and his hovering acolytes and announced to him the confirmation name I had chosen: Francis.  The bishop read through the ritual words, anointed me, and then it was time to leave the place to the next boy.

Francis doesn’t appear on any official document of mine, but I am particularly proud of it since it is the only name I have ever gotten to choose. My parents chose all the others before I was even born: one to commemorate various fusty old ancestors, one to commemorate my godfather, and one to commemorate a fusty old saint that my mother particularly venerated. But Francis, that was my choice.

Like the pope, I chose Francis in memory of St. Francis of Assisi. I chose him because, as my children might have said some ten years ago, I thought he was a pretty cool dude.  I mean, here was a guy who had had everything – money, intelligence, friends, wit, all the women he could want, doting parents who let him do whatever he wished – and he turned away from it all, to live a life of complete poverty and simplicity, among the poorest of the poor and the outcasts of society. Without really trying to, he gathered around him hundreds and eventually thousands of followers and started a huge movement in Europe striving for a simpler life. In many ways he reminds me of the Buddha.


And he wrote a wonderful poem, one of the earliest in the Italian language, or rather in the Umbrian dialect spoken in his native Assisi: the canticle of the sun. Here are a few lines from the original:

Laudato sie, mi Signore cum tucte le Tue creature,
spetialmente messor lo frate Sole,
lo qual è iorno, et allumini noi per lui.
Et ellu è bellu e radiante cum grande splendore:
de Te, Altissimo, porta significatione.

Laudato si, mi Signore, per sora Luna e le stelle:
in celu l’ài formate clarite et pretiose et belle.

Let me continue with a translation:

Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and you give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendour!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars;
in the heavens you have made them bright, precious and beautiful.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
and clouds and storms, and all the weather,
through which you give your creatures sustenance.

Be praised, My Lord, through Sister Water;
she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom you brighten the night.
He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth,
who feeds us and rules us,
and produces various fruits with coloured flowers and herbs.

It goes on a bit more, but I’ll stop there because these are some of the loveliest lines I know about the environment.

It is said that Francis preached to the birds and talked to the wolves. I take this all with a pinch of salt. But he did love nature passionately, which is really why I chose his name for my confirmation.

I hope the new pope is worthy of the name he chose.


St. Peter’s Square:
White smoke:–/YXBwaWQ9eW5ld3M7Zmk9aW5zZXQ7aD00MjA7cT04NTt3PTYzMA–/
Cardinals and Swiss Guards:
Habemus papam:
St. Francis:


Beijing, 17 March 2013

I am desolate.

This morning, we managed to hook up with our son on Skype, and then he managed to hook up our daughter, so that we could have a three-way conversation! This is quite beyond me and my wife. We have no idea what he did to make it happen, but we are very happy that he did it.

So we were having a pleasant conversation about this and that, catching up on what they were up to. And then I noticed that in a crook of the tree just outside our window a pair of magpies had begun to build a nest! This was really exciting, the height of our floor being such that we would have a front-seat view to the whole thing. Each magpie was bringing a twig or two and weaving it into the other twigs already there.

As my wife continued to talk to the children, I grabbed my phone and took some photos.

magpies nesting 009

magpies nesting 010

magpies nesting 011

I was happily looking forward to making a pictorial diary of the nest building. Then I was already imagining the egg laying, the birth of the little ones, their first flutter (as it were), all immortalized in photos.

Then our son had to sign off and we continued with our daughter, who told us about the latest events in her job (exciting, but also unsettling, changes have taken place). When we finished, I went back to the window to check how the nest building was progressing.

But the magpies were not there and the scaffolding of twigs was sagging at the edges. I looked around anxiously. No magpies to be seen. Perhaps they had gone off to get extra good twigs, I thought.

We went out to lunch, and when we came back the first thing I did was to go to the window. No magpies, and the construction was drooping even further.

abandoned nest 002

They’re not coming back. Something drove them off. Was it me? Did they notice a rather large shadow lurking in the near distance? I had tried to be careful, used no flash, and I think our windows are partially tinted. Was it a bad location choice? As they say of real estate – and I guess it’s as true for birds as it is for humans – it’s location, location, and location. Maybe the tree crook was a little too crooked. Or maybe it was the smog; you can see from the first pictures that it’s pretty bad today. Maybe they thought it was better to move out of town.

Whatever it was, they are not coming back. I’m really desolate.


Beijing, 16 March 2013

Let me tell you about Lisa.

That’s not her real name, by the way, it’s her Western name. Like many Chinese, she has adopted a Western name for her interactions with laowai, or foreigners, like us. Which is just as well, frankly, because I personally never remember Chinese names and always mispronounce them dreadfully, which must be trying for the person being mispronounced.

Lisa is one of the army of young people who act as receptionists in our building. My wife and I are not entirely sure what any of these people do. Part of the day they sit at the desk by the entry door, monitoring who comes in and out. Then they disappear to do who knows what somewhere else in the building. They are perched at a somewhat higher level in the building’s management hierarchy than the doormen. They get to sit at the desk in the entry hall, while the doormen (always men, by the way) only get to stand by the door swinging it open for anyone who goes in or out. The two worker categories are distinguished by their uniforms. Lisa and her cohorts wear a white shirt, dark suit (men and women; no tailleurs here), and a dark coat during the winter months. The doormen, on the other hand, wear what looks like army fatigues and a red beret (although we have noticed that one doorman seems to have moved up the ranks and now wears an outfit more akin to the receptionists; but he still opens the doors).

Lisa is a godsend to us, because she speaks pretty good English. Whenever the electricity stops, or the hot water cuts off (which has happened to me twice when I was well soaped under the shower), or the TV mysteriously loses half of its channels, or the air conditioning system doesn’t blow any air out, my wife knows whose mobile number to call to explain what the problem is. In no time at all, Lisa will marshal the right buildings management crew or add some more Yuan to our electricity card, or water card, or hot water card (they have a rather bewildering system here for utilities; money gets credited onto a card, which then is used to credit an account we have somewhere in the building, and the utility magically works again). We always know which are her days off, and we anxiously hope that nothing will happen during those days; dealing with the other young men and women at the reception desk is hard going since they speak hardly any English. Some six months ago, we were also very afraid – as was Lisa herself – that she would be rotated out of the building to another of the host of buildings owned by our real estate company, but luckily this did not come to pass.

Over the year we’ve been in this building, my wife has struck up a good relationship with Lisa. She is a very friendly person and loves to chat. In the process my wife has found out a few things about her. She lives far away on the outskirts of Beijing, with her parents and twin sister. Given her miserable wages (real exploitation; I don’t know what Karl Marx would have said about it), and the fact that real estate in central Beijing now costs the same as in Manhattan, there is no way she can afford to live alone closer to work. And I think there is still an expectation that as an unmarried woman she should live with her parents. She went to a second-tier university to study languages, so it’s a bit depressing to see that the only job she could get was as a building receptionist, admittedly in one of Beijing’s tonier buildings. But the press often has articles about the army of young Chinese whose parents struggled to send them to university – but, crucially, one of the second-tier universities – and who haven’t managed to land a job (or at least a job that fits their expectations after a university degree). They live like ants (the term used in a study of this phenomenon), jammed together in colonies on the outskirts of Beijing and other big cities, as squatters in buildings condemned to demolition, eking out a living with small jobs here and there, often not daring to tell their parents what the true condition of their lives are.  So I suppose Lisa can consider herself lucky to have a regular job, even though she’s paid miserably, works long hours, and hardly gets any time off.

One thing about Lisa that warms the cockles of our hearts is that she has an enthusiastic curiosity about the rest of the world. I think her dream would be to travel all over the world if she could. She took her first small step in this direction some six months ago, when she left the country for the first time in her life and visited Thailand. She had managed to scrape together a week of holidays. She went with a group, of course, and they didn’t do anything very adventurous – Bangkok and a beach somewhere was the sum total of the trip. But she was so happy. She emailed us a photo of her standing somewhat awkwardly next to a guard at the King’s palace in Bangkok, beaming at the camera. And when we met her after she got back she told us all about the trip with a big smile on her face. She said she was looking forward to her next trip, once she had scraped together some more holiday time (she was on duty during the Chinese new year, when most of the receptionists took time off). My wife persuaded her to think of traveling alone, telling her that her English was good enough for her to manage without a group. She showed Lisa where she could buy her own flight tickets on-line and book her own hotels. Lisa was a little hesitant but seemed game to try. She was thinking of going to Viet Nam, she told us.

Yesterday, when my wife was leaving the building, Lisa came running over, beaming with joy. She announced to my wife that she had found a travel companion – traveling alone was too much for her. It was one of the other women at the reception. They were going to Viet Nam, Lisa announced, she had chosen the flights using the websites my wife had given her, everything was going swimmingly. But when my wife came back that afternoon, Lisa was completely crushed; my wife told me she had never seen her so down. When her travel companion had announced to her parents the plan of going to Viet Nam, her mother had nixed the idea: too dangerous, she had pronounced. It is true that China and Viet Nam had had a little war back in the late 1970s and that there is a certain amount of animosity at the moment because of disputes over islands in the South China Sea, but to say that Viet Nam is dangerous is ridiculous. But the parental veto had been cast and that was that. My wife urged Lisa to reconsider the destination. Lisa mournfully said she had thought of Malaysia; China wasn’t having any fights with them. But she had really set her heart on Viet Nam. It’s Lisa’s day off today. Let’s see if the night has brought her counsel, as the Italians say.


Beijing, 12 March 2013

My wife and I often lament the homogenizing effect globalization is having on our world. One of our common comments here in Beijing is: “Look at those young people. They dress just like our children!” [or children from the UK, or Italy, or the US, depending on the context]. We have an Ikea just up the road, which is thronged with young – and not so young – Chinese families buying the exact same things we were buying from our local Ikea in Vienna. And of course we can dine, if we wish to (which we sometimes do, I will admit), in that icon of globalization MacDonalds, which serves the same burger absolutely everywhere – it is so uniform that the Economist has created the Big Mac Index, which uses the cost of the Big Mac worldwide to check if currencies are at their right exchange level. And we can wash down our burger with a cappuccino in a Starbucks which looks and tastes exactly like a cappuccino in the Starbucks round the corner from our daughter’s place.

But for me the strangest aspect of globalization is … store mannequins. Often, when we are walking around in Beijing or anywhere else in China, I will come nose-to-nose with a store mannequin which is obviously European.


Why on earth would Chinese women (I presume they are the ones who are targeted) be more inclined to buy clothes they see on a European mannequin than on a Chinese mannequin? (By the way, I have never seen a Chinese mannequin). I have to assume that the globalization of US movies, of TV shows, of magazines and so on give European women a greater glamour. Either that, or a Chinese company bought (or perhaps “borrowed”) the rights to a mannequin designed in the West somewhere and is turning them out by the millions.

I’m not the only one who has been struck by these European mannequins in China. Here are some photos taken by others which I found after a trawl through the internet.





And it’s not just in China that you find these European mannequins. Here’s one I stumbled across in Laos, rather worse for wear and covered in pseudo-ethnic bling.

laos 068

The internet threw up these photos from other Asian countries.

The Philippines:






Even Iran!:


This presence is so strange that a quilt maker, Robin Schwalb, made this quilt about it (and got a prize for it, too!)


Here’s what Mr. Schwalb has to say about his creation:

“That suit, that hair, that mole; you immediately recognize Chairman Mao. But who – or what – are those pouty women, with their Western features, retro hairdos, and dead-eyed stares? They’re store mannequins, manufactured in China for the Chinese market, never appearing solo, but always arrayed in chorus lines. Perhaps the discordantly comical images have a darker point – if you have that system of government, you get this kind of dehumanized citizen.” [1]

I will pass over the political comment, which is disputable. Let me tell you the strangest thing about all this. This “pouty woman” looks exactly like a colleague of mine in Vienna. It is so odd to suddenly see her staring at me out of a shop window in some corner of China. I have never dared tell her. I don’t think she would appreciate being compared to a store mannequin.



Mannequin-china-1: my photo
Mannequin-laos: my photo


Beijing, 9 March 2013

Whenever my wife and I come across a CD section in a store, we’ll normally spend a happy half hour browsing through the offerings. My wife only begins to nervously look at her watch and comment loudly on the rest of the shopping we have to do when I drift into the ethnic music section. You know the type of music I mean: songs from the Nenet and Orok peoples of Siberia, Traditional Samburu Warrior Songs from Kenya, laments of the Cherokee Nation and so on.

I have a strange fascination for this type of music. I always feel that I am about to find a music that will speak to my soul. After all, I have read that music has played a central role in our development as human beings. Music is deep, deep within our psyche, it activates the most primitive parts of our brain.  Surely, then, the music of our remote past is the most “authentic” of musics, and these ethnic musical forms must be closest to the Real Thing. In my enthusiasm I have bought some of these CDs, normally when I am not with my wife, and they now languish in our CD collection, unlistened-to after the first go around. Because they’re always a crushing disappointment. Normally, they’re just plinkety-plonk and wailing voices. The most glaring example of this was not actually from a CD but from a live performance which we attended many years ago in Paris. With much fanfare it was announced that a troupe from Korea would be performing traditional Korean music in the French capital. We decided that we had to take part in this Cultural Event.  As the house lights dimmed, we could see three traditional-type instruments sitting on the stage, starkly beautiful under the lights. Three elderly gentlemen dressed in traditional Korean garb silently walked on and slowly settled down in front of their respective instruments. After a pause, they leaned forward, played plink-plank-plonk (I kid you not; literally three notes), and then leaned back, leaving us in dead silence for what seemed an eternity. My wife and I got the giggles, which I’m sure those around us did not appreciate. The rest of the show was all downhill thereafter. We left at the break.

The problem is, classical music is one of those things that society strongly suggests is Good for You, like cod liver oil. So when I was young – and indeed not so young – I instinctively rejected it.  I had the same reaction to all those classics of English literature that society keeps pressing upon you as Good to Read. As a result, I have read hardly any of the Canon of English literature: some Shakespeare plays, normally the ones that I have acted in, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (after I’d seen a theatrical version of them; wonderfully ribald stuff), one novel by Thomas Hardy (I had to do it for O-level English, I hated it; his poetry is better by far), half of Dickens’s “Pickwick Papers” (because there was absolutely nothing else to read and it was raining outside), and that’s about it. Oh yes, I read Jane Austin’s “Pride and Prejudice” after I saw the film (wonderful, wonderful first line: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” It is certainly a truth acknowledged here in China). My wife is the same with Italian literature. Mention Dante to her and she will rant on about the hellish hours spent at school analyzing every single word in the Divina Commedia.

But to come back to music. Until I was in my third decade, my instinct was to head for the door any time one of the Greats of classical music was put on the record player (still no CDs in those days). And I hardly ever went to a concert hall, much to the despair of my mother-in-law who had a season ticket at the Scala and lived for music.  I was constantly on the look-out for alternatives. When I was a boy, I enthusiastically followed the Beatles and then as a teenager the more intellectual of the Rock ’n Roll groups – Emerson Lake and Palmer, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, and a smattering of others. But I soon tired of what was on offer. I keep telling my children that it’s been downhill ever since the mid-seventies in the world of Rock ’n Roll, but of course they deny this self-evident truth.

And so I fell back on ethnic music, with the disappointing results I have just described.

But all is not dark and dismal. I have sometimes stumbled across pieces of music that have really spoken to my soul. I mentioned in an earlier posting a Christmas carol by John Tavener. On the strength of that one piece I bought a CD of his music. I have never had cause to regret it. I have always had a fondness for Benjamin Britten since as a boy singing his Missa Brevis in the school choir. So I snapped up his “War Requiem” when I came across it during a visit to Coventry Cathedral. It has been a joy in my life. What else? For my wife’s fiftieth birthday, we decided to spend a few days in Paris. On the long drive there from Vienna we played a new set of CDs my wife had just bought: eight CDs from Harmonia Mundi France – a sort of summary of Western classical music; only the French would have the guts, or maybe the intellectual arrogance, to try that. I fell in love with the first piece on CD 1, a piece of very early Church music sung by the Lebanese Sister Marie Keyrouz, of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. On the strength of this one piece I later bought a CD of her songs. Wonderful, all of them. We got to CD 2 round about Linz, and out floated the haunting Kyrie from the thirteenth Century Gradual of Eleanor of Brittany. I’m still looking for the whole set of music contained in that Gradual. One day, I read a review in the Economist of a “Passion according to St. Mark” by the contemporary Argentinean composer Osvaldo Golijov. I was intrigued. I managed to find the CD in a specialist music shop in Vienna. I was hooked. He weaves Spanish musical forms together with more traditional classical forms and musical forms from his Romanian Jewish heritage. On the strength of this CD, my wife bought his CD “Ainadamar”, a musical reflection on the life of the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, murdered by Nationalist militia during the Spanish Civil War. More Spanish, this one, which feeds into my fascination with flamenco, an absolutely fantastic form of music. Now that is an ethnic music which speaks to the soul! I have several CDs of flamenco music, and if I could be born again I would want to be born a singer of flamenco. Or maybe a dancer of flamenco. Flamenco’s roots are in Muslim music, and some people in Spain are exploring the links. When my wife and I were on a holiday in Spain a few years ago, I came across a CD in Toledo which was a medley of Muslim, old Spanish, and Jewish songs. Two of the Muslim songs in particular were ravishing; I can’t give you the titles because the CD is sitting in our storage boxes in Vienna. I could go on – certain pieces of Indian music, one or two Jazz songs which are absolutely bewitching, Bob Marley’s “Jerusalem” … Even some of those classical music pieces that I ran away from when I was young!  For every piece of plinkety-plonk I’ve fallen for, I’ve stumbled across a piece of music that truly comes from heaven.


Beijing, 5 March 2013

Whenever I stayed with my English grandmother in London, one of my tasks was to do the food shopping for her. She expected this service from all her visiting grandchildren, along with other services such as doing the washing-up and hoovering the floors. My grandmother was of a generation that expected grandchildren to serve her and not her to serve them. A lesson, I think, for the Chinese who to my British eye dote far too much on their little princeling children and grandchildren. In any event, my grandmother would write out a detailed shopping list and I would hurry down – no loitering, please – to the nearby high street to buy the necessary. And there they were, all lined up: the fishmonger, with his marble slabs on which were slapped the fish surrounded by ice, the butcher, with his pieces of meat hanging in the window, the baker, with his loaves neatly stacked up behind him, and the green grocer, with all manner of greens in boxes outside as well as in. I would join the polite throng of people, wait my turn – another lesson for the Chinese, many of whom seem not to have heard of the concept of queuing – and paid out in pounds, shillings, and pence.

I went back to that high street a few years ago – a walk down memory lane. All gone, I am sad to report, their place taken by “boutiques”. As I survey high streets around Europe, it seems to me that no-one eats any more, they just dress. What saddened me even more was the disappearance of the tea emporium of which my grandmother had been a faithful client. Buying tea was not a task that she delegated to her grandchildren. It was a job for Grown Ups. But I did accompany her once or twice on her tea-buying expeditions. It was certainly a very majestic place. First of all, it was not a tea shoppe; this was not a place where one came to drink tea and eat cakes and sit about nattering. It was a place to buy tea – and not, God forbid, tea bags, but loose tea. One wall was covered with shelves holding large copper caddies which contained the teas. There was a series of counters in front of this wall, each carrying a set of old-fashioned brass scales, and the employees – all wearing white coats – would bring the caddies to the counter and reverently ladle the teas onto the scales. It was all very hushed and murmury. These photos give a sense of what greeted us when we entered the shop, although these are really altogether too modern and smart.

tea store-3-hk-1

measuring out tea-4-hk-1

My grandmother bought only one tea – lapsang souchong. This is one of China’s few black teas, some say its first. It comes from the Wuyi region in the southeastern province of Fujian. It has a very distinctive smoky flavour – which is not surprising since the leaves have been smoked over a pinewood fire.

lapsang souchong

My grandmother took her tea twice a day: at breakfast, which she always took in bed, and at 4 o’clock, which she always took in the living room. She drank her tea in porcelain cups with proper saucers and little spoons – no mugs for her.  She had some rather handsome cups and saucers with a Chinese design, perhaps not quite as handsome as this example:

cup and saucer-3She taught me her ritual for making tea, which I have since discovered was a bastardization of the complicated rituals used in China. First, warm the teapot by swirling boiling water in it, then add the leaves to the teapot and pour in a small amount of boiling water, just enough to cover the leaves. Leave them to soak for three minutes, and then add the remaining boiling water. One thing she did, which would have had all the Chinese tut-tutting into their tea, was to add milk and sugar, a habit which I have gladly embraced.

My wife first met my grandmother over a cup of her lapsang souchong tea. She was flying into Gatwick from Milan the autumn after we started going out together; after a day or two in London, we were going up to Edinburgh University. The plan was for me to meet her at Gatwick. In what was to become a regular feature of our married lives, I missed her. Disconsolate, I came back up to London, only to find wife and grandmother happily ensconced in the living room drinking tea.  My wife took a shine to my grandmother and I believe the feeling was mutual. My wife also took a shine to my grandmother’s tea, and later on, when we finally had some money in our pockets, we started to buy lapsang souchong.  But we have never been as rigid as my grandmother was. We drink lapsang souchong but also quite happily drink Twinings tea bags. And we don’t heat up the teapot before adding the leaves.

twinings tea bag

In my very first visit to Beijing, back in 2002, I visited – as was expected of all foreigners – one of the markets. In my case, I visited the pearl market where I actually bought my wife a string of grey freshwater pearls, for the first and probably last time in my life. When I saw a stall selling teas, on a whim I approached them and tried buying lapsang souchong. I mean, what better place to buy Chinese tea than in China, right? But they all looked at me blankly, shook their heads, and muttered “meyo, meyo” [no, no]. So I gave up; it must have been my tone-less pronunciation, I thought. And I had made the cardinal mistake of not bringing with me a piece of paper with the name written on it in Chinese, to show to my interlocutors and thus solve these little problems of tones or lack thereof.

Seven years later, we moved to China. The Empire of Green Tea.


In the face of an ocean of green tea, my wife courageously set about finding a local source of lapsang souchong. Her first step was to visit a street listed in our guidebook as a promising source of tea. She took a pinch of our precious lapsang souchong along with her and went door-to-door showing it. “Meyo, meyo”, was always the answer. But she didn’t come back empty-handed. She bought this lovely stoneware tea caddy.

stoneware caddy

After this rather discouraging start, my wife took a break in the lapsang souchong search. To keep us going, we bought a large stock in Milan during our next visit there, in a little shop we know around the corner, and then in London when we visited our daughter six months later. The next round in the lapsang souchong search started when I found the name written in Chinese on the web. Armed with a piece of paper on which I’d cut and pasted the Chinese name, my wife sallied forth again. Surely that would do the trick, we thought. “Meyo, meyo” was again the discouraging reply.

After yet another pause, we discovered Beijing’s tea market. This time we would succeed! Armed with a bag of lapsang souchong, a piece of paper with the name written in Chinese, and determined smiles, we marched through grand shops

beijing tea market-5

the supermarkets of tea

beijing tea market-3

and myriad poky little stalls

beijing tea market-1

showing everywhere our tea and our piece of paper. “Meyo, meyo” always came back the reply. But still we went on. Finally, a girl in a stall shook her head but made us understand that that shop down the hall there and to the right probably had it. With beating hearts, we made our way to the indicated shop and went through our little routine for the nth time. The two girls looked at us, looked at, felt, and smelled our  tea,  had a rapid-fire discussion, and then one of them went off. The other motioned us to sit down at the tasting table. The first came back with a package, shook some tea leaves out, and the second started the routine of preparing tea.

beijing tea market-6

After a little while, she offered my wife a small cup of the tea …

Meyo, meyo! It was, and yet it was not. We tasted it this way and that way, we gave some of ours to the girls so they could make tea with it. We compared. It was clearly of the same family, but it was not the same. Weaker it was, with less punch but also less sweetness.

Ah well, we can just keep stocking up whenever we go back to Europe and maybe, just maybe, before we leave, we’ll find a local source.


Tea store:
Measuring out tea:
Lapsang Souchong:
Cup and saucer:
Twinings tea bag:
Green tea:
Stoneware tea caddy: my photo
Beijing tea market-1:
Beijing tea market-2:
Beijing tea market-3:
Beijing tea market-4: