Beijing, 4 May 2013

Spring is also pineapple time in Beijing. Actually, pineapples play the function of daffodils here. They are the harbinger of Spring. Their arrival tells you that help is on the way, that the temperatures will soon be going up and you can soon start shedding your heavy clothes.

All of a sudden, in lateish March, a swarm of people, mostly migrant workers as far as I can tell, appear on every street corner with a mobile table top. Here is a photo of the young lad who has staked out the corner just south of the bridge over the canal, which I cross every day to go to work.

pineapple seller 002

The pineapple sellers use the tables to prepare their pineapples for sale. Because they don’t just sell you a pineapple – if you want that, go to your local supermarket. They will peel their pineapples, carve out the eyes (I take the term from potatoes; that is the closest equivalent I can think of)

pineapple peeled

and sell them to you so prepared, lovely little yellow sculptures with whorls etched deeply into their surfaces.

pineapple unprepared and prepared

Pineapple prepared-01

In this last photo, the pineapple is shown off in a posh display case. In Beijing, as the sharp-eyed reader will observe in the first photo, the pineapple sellers normally put their product in cheap plastic bags – often yellow, which accentuates the yellowness of the pineapple’s flesh; a clever little piece of marketing. If you want, the sellers will go one step further and cut the pineapple up so that you can eat it as you walk along (they will thoughtfully provide you a thin, sharpened stick with which to spear the pineapple chunks).

My first meeting with the pineapple, when I was young, was out of a can, cored and cut into circular slices.

I have since learned that before the advent of large-scale refrigeration infrastructure, canning was the only way of transporting pineapple over long distances because pineapple doesn’t ripen if harvested green. A worthy reason, no doubt, but I was not impressed. I found canned pineapple cloyingly sweet and suspiciously soft. At some point, I discovered fresh pineapple; I think it was early in our marriage, when my wife brought one back from the supermarket. What a revelation! Firm flesh, sweetness with a slightly acidic taste which left a tingle in the mouth … a completely different experience. Since then, I have not touched the canned variety if I can possible avoid it.

I read that pineapple canning was developed in Hawaii. Which clicks a memory of a film, seen late at night on the TV and with Charlton Heston as the main protagonist. A delve through IMDb reveals that the film in question was The Hawaiians.

The Hawaiians movie poster

Apart from vaguely recalling that the film had to do with the development of the pineapple industry in Hawaii, I remember two scenes quite well. One is a visit by Heston to an island used as a leper colony; anyone who has read the bible cannot but be aware of the terrible plight meted out to lepers, and I was shocked by the idea that still in the 19th Century people could just be abandoned on an island because they had leprosy. The second scene I remember is the heroine, a Chinese woman who had emigrated to Hawaii and whose common-law husband it was who had been banished to the leper island, standing at his grave recounting to him news of the family. I found that very touching – and saw the same scene being re-enacted just a month or so ago, when we visited a local cemetery during the tomb sweeping holiday!

Hawaii may have developed the industry but it no longer leads it. As in all things now, China is among the largest producers of pineapples in the world, growing some 1.5 million tonnes a year (for those readers who are, like me, interested in useless information, Thailand is currently the biggest producer, standing at 2.6 million tonnes annually). Here is a picture of a pineapple field in Guandong province.

pineapples in Guandong

The fruits look suspiciously bright, due no doubt to the photo having been doctored. Which – in a country of where watermelons have been known to explode in the fields because of overuse of growth-enhancing chemicals – made me wonder if the pineapple fruit itself is doctored. A little search confirmed my worst suspicions! Stuff called gibberellic acid is used to “enhance fruit growth”. Gibberellic acid! The name itself is a horror, whose ingestion I have no doubt will reduce me to a gibbering wreck. And it’s no good that an official review by the US Environmental Protection Agency soothingly concludes that “the uses of Gibberellic Acids, as currently registered, will not cause unreasonable risk to humans or the environment”. The weasel words are there: “as currently registered”. Here, where farmers just chuck stuff on their fields with wild abandon, that is a meaningless cautionary clause. This Gibberellic acid is a hormone! Lord knows what will happen to me now …

What is the world coming to, that you can’t eat anything without the nagging doubt in your mind that if you don’t die you will turn into some sort of extraterrestrial being?


Pineapple seller: my picture
Pineapple peeled:
Pineapple unprepared and prepared:
Pineapple prepared-01:
Canned pineapple:
The Hawaiians movie poster:
Pineapples in Guandong:


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?


Beijing, 7 February 2013

A little while back, when the weather was still pleasantly autumnal, my wife and I decided to take a stroll through a hutong (one of the old districts of Beijing, rather worse for wear now). As we wandered from lane to lane, we came across this sign sellotaped to the wall of a house.

N-S transect 037

Intrigued, I took the photo for later clarification. We also picked up another of these signs which had fallen down, to add to our collection of urban flotsam and jetsam which we have found lying in our paths during our walks across the city: an abandoned set of Chinese chequers, some large chunks of raw coal, bits of brick from destroyed hutongs, broken pieces of ceramic

This was a weekend. On Monday, I went to my usual expert source on Chinese calligraphy, namely my secretary, and showed her the picture. “Double happiness”, she told me with a smile. After a certain amount of clarifications from her and some reading on the web, I can report back.

As I think is clear from the picture, this Chinese character is actually a composition of two identical characters, which both stand for , or ‘joy’. Hence its meaning of double joy or double happiness. It is very often used in weddings – this was almost certainly the case in the hutong – which I think is very sweet: marriage as the union of two happy people. Of course, we know that marriage is not all sweetness and light but two happy people is a good start. The colour red is also significant. The Chinese are somewhat mediaeval (at least to my way of thinking) in attributing moods to colours. Red stands for happiness (so Chinese communists no doubt saw a much deeper meaning in the communist flag than the original European communists ever did).

So we took our trophy back to the apartment and laid it down for future hanging. By the time we got around to doing that, we had forgotten which way was up – being illiterate in Chinese, we couldn’t read it of course. After some debate, we decided to hang it up like so.

double-happiness-house 009

Only then did I remember to check the photo.  The alert reader will immediately have spotted what we discovered, that we had hung it upside down. After a moment of consternation, we decided that actually this way it looks even more like two happy people arm in arm. So we’ve left it that way. Lord knows what our cleaner thinks; she’s been too polite to say.

We’re away next week, so I use this post to wish everyone a happy St. Valentine’s day, the two-happy-people day.


Beijing, 29 January 2013

There was a time when China was famous the world over for its bicycles. To the few who were able to get into China, it seemed that the roads were just a torrent of bicycles.

File photo of people pushing their bicycles across a railway track during rush hour in Shanghai

That torrent has dried up to a mere trickle. Some of the older expats whom I meet talk with a certain wistfulness of the bicycle culture that still existed when they first arrived in China ten-fifteen years ago, a culture where it seemed that every able-bodied Chinese had a bike. Now, there is just a torrent of cars, a torrent which is growing exponentially with every passing year and fast becoming a flood.

car jam-2

So it looks like China’s bike culture has effectively vanished. But there is one sub-species of bicycle, if I may put it that way, which still flourishes in China, in the form of a tricycle which I have only ever seen here in China.


The design is really very basic. Absolutely nothing fancy here, one has the feeling that a series of pipes have been soldered together and three bicycle wheels have been added. As you can see, the key to this bicycle is the barrow at the back, which is used to carry. And boy, does this humble machine carry! All day, every day, you will see hundreds if not thousands of these tricycles criss-crossing every city of China, most often being pedalled by one of China’s army of migrant workers, carrying every blessed item you could possibly imagine. And sometimes, the volumes being carried are awesomely ginormous, from furniture:


to cardboard:

tricycle carrying cardboard

to polystyrene:

tricycle carrying polystyrene

To old telephone casings:

tricycle carrying phone casings

To car parts:

tricycle carrying car pieces

to a whole van, for Lord’s sake!

tricycle carrying minivan

Inanimate objects aren’t the only things carried. Farmers use them to carry their pigs:

tricycle carrying pig

their ducks:

tricycle carrying ducks

and who knows what else, while this woman is using it to carry kids

tricycle carrying children

and this husband his wife.

tricycle old couple

I have to say, I do find that this particular husband is treating his wife rather cavalierly. There is a version of this mode of travel where the wife rides as would a queen, sitting regally on a throne-like armchair while her husband pedals slowly in front of her.

tricycle old couple-7

I’ve noticed that the couples always seem to be retirees. Young Chinese don’t go around like this. But that’s fine by me; I’m almost retired. I have decided that I will buy one of these throne-tricycles and bring it back to Milan. Like that, when my wife and I have finally joined the ranks of the retirees, I will be able to slowly pedal my lady wife around Milan in the style that she deserves and is accustomed to.


Bicycles in Beijing:
Car traffic jam:
Tricycle with furniture:
Tricycle carrying cardboard:
Tricycle carrying polystyrene:
Tricycle carrying phone parts:
Tricycle carrying car parts:
Tricycle carrying minivan:
Tricycle carrying pig:
Tricycle carrying ducks:
Tricycle carrying children:
Tricycle husband carrying wife:
Tricycle old couple in fine style: my photo


Beijing, 18 January 2013

Readers of my posts will know that I walk along a piece of canal on my way to and from the office. During these walks, I watch how the change of seasons are reflected – literally and figuratively – in the waters of the canal and the willows that grow along its edge. This year, winter came flurrying in with a blustery storm in late November which damaged a number of the willows along the canal.

Winter-2012 005

Then came a snowstorm, which left a modest covering of snow and which quickly disappeared. Thereafter, the temperatures plunged and the canal froze over. With no snow, the ice was initially buffed clean by the wind, but the wind soon died down and over a period of a week or so a thin layer of dust settled on the ice’s surface; winter is very dry in Beijing. One morning, as I turned off the bridge to start my walk along the canal, I noticed faintly etched in the dust a Chinese character. I was intrigued. What had been written? A name? Two names, united in love? Or something stupid like “Wash me”? Or worse?! Given my illiteracy in Chinese, I had no idea. So I took a photo.


I showed it to my Chinese secretary. She studied the photo a minute and said “it says, qīng.”

And what does it mean, I asked?

Clear, pure, clean, she told me. Peaceful, also.

Clear, pure, clean, peaceful … The writer must have been feeling good when he wrote it. Was it love? Just a happy moment? Whatever it was, I thank him. Later wind has effaced the character, but every time I walk past the spot I get a warm feeling.


Since writing this, snow has fallen and has covered the canal’s ice with a thin coating of snow.  Someone went out and wrote in the snow. This one I could read:

love 002


Beijing, 19 December 2012

It was an official dinner like so many I attend, perhaps more significant than most since it was with our main partner in China. I sat to the right of the banquet’s host, in the position of honour. As usual, I checked nervously what alcohol would be served; it’s either red wine – good – or “Chinese wine”, aka Maotai or Baizhou, which is actually an extremely strong, sickly tasting liquor – very bad; the Chinese profess to love it,  I refer to it outside of Chinese earshot as biofuel. Luckily, it was wine; I could relax. We started with the usual speech by the host and then moved to the first of the toasts. My host and I clinked glasses and bottomed-up, before turning to those around us to toast, our glasses having miraculously refilled in the meantime. The Lazy Mary began to turn as we picked at the various delicacies before us and as more arrived. The host got up and began to toast those at other tables, others got up and toasted the host, and me, and everyone else. I was soon standing up and sitting down like a yo-yo as the various guests arrived thick and fast and made me little speeches to which I had to find a suitable response. As usual, I was beginning to run out of platitudes, and when I found myself saying sillier and sillier things I knew it was time for me to escape and do my rounds of the other tables.

One thing was different at this banquet. The host had invited younger members of his staff with a musical skill to show it off. So we had players of the traditional Chinese flute, of the traditional Chinese violin, and of the guitar strutting their stuff. We also had a singer who sang in the operatic mode O sole mio and some Austrian yodeling song set to Chinese words – the last was a surreal interlude. Initially, we listened appreciatively, but as the guests moved around, toasting with all and sundry and chatting ever more animatedly in small clusters, the players were reduced to background musack. Then, uncharacteristically, the host called us to order and invited us to sit down. Two children took to the floor, the son and daughter of staff members, and they began to sing. It was in that moment that I understood why angels must be children. There is a purity, a crystalline clarity, a simplicity, in a child’s voice as it soars into the upper registers and floats above your head that can bring a hushed, attentive silence to even the most unruly crowd, and will always fill my heart with an intimation of the divine.




Shanghai, 3 November 2012

Even though it was dark now, there were still dozens of them up and down the Bund, couples headed for wedlock who were preparing their wedding albums. Striking a thousand poses, most with Her in a red dress and Him in a matching dinner jacket, they used the river and Pudong as a background as they gazed dreamily, coquettishly, lovingly, laughingly at the cameras. Their future – young parents with babies, parents with teenagers, grandparents with grown children and small grandchildren – strolled along behind the snapping cameras. Yesterday’s buildings of the Bund, lit up as theatrical backdrops, and tomorrow’s skyscrapers on Pudong, glowing and pulsing with lights, looked down on them all benignly, while tourist ships with their outlines picked out with bright green, blue, white and red strings of lights glided back and forth along the river. Pretty, so pretty …

All the while, burly ships hauling sand, coal, ore, and other sinews of the economy threaded their way through the happy throng, rumbling quietly by, lightless silhouettes against the lights – floating daguerreotypes – working to make China great.

ships-2013-11 006

ships-2013-11 013

first two pix:””