Beijing, 30 March 2014

We’ve had a bad air day here in Beijing.
smog in Beijing
Actually, we’ve been having a series of bad air days, after a relatively long period of good air days. Due to the change of weather patterns as we move from winter to spring, I imagine.

In any event, these days of high particulate levels have led to an efflorescence of masks on the face of pedestrians.
beijingers wearing masks
When my wife and I first arrived here four years ago, the local population stoically accepted the situation. The official government position at the time could be summed up as: “air pollution? what air pollution?” So the masses followed the party line and officially shrugged off the decision by some foreigners to wear protective masks as weak-kneed and effeminate. At most, they would don surgical masks
a common enough habit here, although used more as a way to control the spread of the common cold.

Then, about a year ago, with the change in party leadership, the government made it publicly known that actually there was an air pollution problem, and almost overnight Beijingers started wearing protective masks. Such is the power of the party …

My wife and I, though, are made of tougher stuff and have considered all these mask wearers, Chinese and foreigners alike, weak-kneed and effeminate. That is, until now. Because even we, tough nuts though we are, have begun to think that maybe we should also be wearing masks on bad air days, before we get hit with an irreversible case of asthma or worse.

But what masks should we wear? And here, I have to say, aesthetics will play as much a part in our decision as efficacy. Efficacy alone would suggest wearing some sort of gas mask. The problem is, gas masks – at least in their traditional form – are fantastically unaesthetic. Consider this photo, taken in London during the Second World War
gas masks WW2-1
The Londoners in question were taking part in a drill, to make sure they knew how to use their masks in case the Germans dropped gas bombs.

Or how about this one, also from the Second World War, of some bizarre outing in the woods by a bunch of people (scouts?), all kitted up in gas masks
gas masks WW2

Can you imagine us all walking around Beijing looking like this? Already walking around in the smog is depressing enough. Having people looking like this looming out of the fug around you would be enough to give you a serious case of the heebie-jeebies. It would be like meeting a streetful of Edvard Munch’s screamers; one would begin to start screaming oneself.
The Scream lithography
The more modern gas masks have a friendlier design, showing as they do the face of the wearer.
gas mask-modern
I mean, at least you could smile at each other as you pass on the pavement and give each other moral support in this time of trial and tribulation.

But I feel that wearing even such a user-friendly gas mask would really be over the top. After all, we are only being subjected to excessively high particulate levels and not to massive leaks of poisonous gas, which these gas masks were presumably designed to deal with. Good design must be “fit for purpose”, as they say; these gas masks fail on this criterion.

A somewhat pared-down version of these gas masks is available in China, which has the “snout” but not the eye coverings.
And that is precisely the problem which I have with this particular mask design. It would make the wearer look somewhat porcine
pig snout
So we need to look further afield for an efficacious but also aesthetically pleasing mask. I have found these on the web and/or seen people wearing them on the street:





My wife and I have debated the relative merits of these masks. Always assuming that we take the final plunge and buy masks, she would go for the fourth, which gives her space to breathe; she has tried the last mask and found it suffocating. For my part, I would go for the second mask, which I find pretty cool.

Of course, the best would be that NO-ONE has to wear masks. But for that to happen, the party is going to have to take some painful decisions. We will see …

Smog in Beijing: http://www.csmonitor.com/var/ezflow_site/storage/images/media/content/2013/0114-smog/14755543-1-eng-US/0114-smog_full_600.jpg [in http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Latest-News-Wires/2013/0114/Heavy-smog-in-Beijing-prompts-uncharacteristic-government-transparency-video%5D
Beijingers wearing masks: http://www.thestar.com/content/dam/thestar/news/world/2014/02/24/pollution_soars_in_china_rare_industry_shutdowns_reported/china_smog.jpg.size.xxlarge.letterbox.jpg [in http://www.thestar.com/news/world/2014/02/24/pollution_soars_in_china_rare_industry_shutdowns_reported.html%5D
Mask-medical: http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2013-10/21/132816417_11n.jpg [in http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2013-10/21/c_132816417.htm%5D
Gas masks in WW2-1: http://www.moneyandshit.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/partisans-in_World_war2.jpg [in http://www.moneyandshit.com/partisans-in-gas-masks-during-world-war-2n/%5D
Gas masks in WW2-2: http://charlesmccain.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/hist_uk_20_ww2_pic_gas_mask_mock_london.jpg [in http://charlesmccain.com/2013/12/2768/%5D
The Scream lithography: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/5/50/Munch_The_Scream_lithography.png [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Munch_The_Scream_lithography.png%5D
Gas mask-modern: http://img.xxjcy.com/pic/z14f386f-0x0-1/industrial_gas_masks_product_mf27_full_eyepiece_gas_mask.jpg [in http://www.xxjcy.com/manufacturers/z6a4a78/iz28e1a63-mf22a_type_gas_masks.html%5D
Mask-1: http://gdb.voanews.com/B8CC4108-6777-4820-9381-2F5CFE6AB98E_mw1024_mh1024_s_cy7.jpg ] [in http://www.voanews.com/content/study-finds-coal-pollution-cuts-north-china-lifespan-by-five-and-a-half-years/1697648.html%5D
Pig snout: http://kristilowe.files.wordpress.com/2013/09/istock_000012723567small.jpg [in http://kristilowe.com/tag/pig-snout/%5D
Mask-2: http://www.allergyasthmatech.com/ProdImages/model_photo copy[1].jpg [in http://www.allergyasthmatech.com/SP/Air_Pollution_Mask/101_373%5D
Mask-3: http://www.loftwork.jp/~/media/Images/Event/2013/20131218_frog/r_04.ashx?h=402&w=537 [in http://www.loftwork.jp/event/2013/20131218_frogdesign/report1218.aspx%5D
Mask-4: http://www.myredstar.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Totobobo.jpg [in http://www.myredstar.com/smog-living/%5D
Mask-5: http://www.pri.org/sites/default/files/story/gallery/huang.jpg [in http://www.pri.org/stories/2013-11-11/beijingers-don-masks-defend-themselves-against-dirty-air-and-make-fashion%5D
Mask-6: http://www.i-m-s.dk/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/china-air-poll.jpg [in http://www.i-m-s.dk/pollution-finally-a-front-page-story-in-china/%5D
Mask-7: http://www.theworldofchinese.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/top5-masks-master.jpg [in http://www.theworldofchinese.com/2014/02/the-top-pollution-busting-face-masks/%5D


Beijing, 23 February 2013

Whenever I visited my French grandmother at Easter, we used to stay in her house in the countryside. It was still cold enough for us to need heating, which meant that we spent much of our time in the living room, huddled around a venerable stove. It looked like this:

coal stove

although it had a chimney that came out of the back, which after a metre or so took a right-angle turn and exited through the living room wall.

During the day, my grandmother burned wood scrap – fallen branches, pinecones, bark, whatever lay around the garden after the winter storms – which she sent me out to collect on a regular basis. At night, though, she would load the stove up with coal, and it was my job to fill the coal scuttle. This meant taking the scuttle down to the cellar, where the coal was stored, to fill it up. This is what the scuttle looked like:

coal scuttle-3

I loved that cellar. It was really the ground floor of the house – there was a door at the back which gave onto the road outside. From the garden side, though, you had to open a door with a large key, of the kind gaolers had in medieval times, go down a few stairs past dark corners where all the garden utensils were stored, and through a second door into the cellar proper. And there, stretched out in the semi-darkness, was a world of enchantment. For starters, the cellar had a dirt floor, which gave it a very particular smell. Then all around, strange and wonderful things loomed out of the dark. The coal was stored in an untidy pile to the left of the door, and beyond it was an old wooden table on which were stored my grandmother’s cache of goat cheeses bought from a nearby farm, the bottled fruit which she prepared during the summer, and a small wooden barrel in which she made her vinegar. Wonderful, wonderful, that vinegar was! It seemed to me total magic that my grandmother would pour the local red wine in, let it stand for a while, and hey-presto! out came delicious vinegar. I tried making vinegar of my own decades later in Vienna. The results were … mixed, let us say. Next to the vinegar barrel was the wine rack, good rough Beaujolais wines from the local vineyards. Over on the cellar’s right were piles of wood, various pieces of old furniture, ancient utensils whose use I could not figure out, an old bike or two, some hay, and I don’t know what else.

I always spent a few moments poking around in the corners seeing what new things I might stumble across, before filling up the scuttle and hauling it back up to the living room. The coal was, of course, dusty and left all your fingers black, but it came in nice, neat egg-shaped pieces. I never thought about it at the time, but I suppose this was pulverized coal pressed and molded; I remember the mold lines running around the pieces. Here’s what it looked like, in a coal scuttle; really heavy to carry! (appropriately enough, this is a photo from a museum; we are talking history here):

As for my English grandmother’s house, it had no coal. The use of coal had been banned in London after the last big smog of 1952. I remember my mother telling us about that smog when we were children, how she had had to walk down the road and almost panicked at not being able to see a thing. Soon thereafter, my parents escaped to the sunnier climes of Africa where I was born.

london smog 1952

The house had no coal but still had a coal cellar, which was located under the pavement. A manhole in its ceiling had once allowed the coal-man to handily pour in the coal without coming into the house. My grandmother didn’t really use the coal cellar for much. The only thing I ever saw her put in there were the French cheeses which my father bought when we visited. He had a fondness for the smellier French cheeses like Roquefort:


My grandmother, in true English style, detested smells, so she banished his cheeses to the coal cellar between meals. Lucky for her that my father didn’t eat the aptly-named Crotte du diable, or devil’s droppings!

crotte du diable

Truly, evilly smelly – in fact, it seems not to exist anymore, which is a tragedy because it tasted absolutely wonderful (you had to wash your hands very well after eating it, though …).

In any event, things changed and moved on. My French grandmother had a heart attack while picking strawberries in her vegetable garden and was eventually moved into a home, and the stove stopped being used. I came across coal one more time, at school, where we had an open fire in the school monitors’ room and a ration of coal to feed it with. The coal looked more like the stuff that’s dug out of the ground, rough chunks:

coal at school

I liked to pick up a chunk and turn it in the light. Coal can be very beautiful, with black, glistening surfaces, reminiscent of obsidian:

bituminous coal

I also liked to sit next to the fire and gaze deep into the glowing coals rather than study for my A-levels:

glowing coal-2

which may partially explain why I didn’t do too well in my A-levels.

After that, coal disappeared from my life, as it did from the lives of all us in Europe.

Then we came to China.

Some statistics, courtesy of Wikipedia [1]: China is third in the world in terms of total coal reserves. It is the largest coal producer in the world, with the world’s largest (and deadliest) coal mining industry. It is also the largest consumer of coal in the world. Over half of the coal is used to make electricity, another third is used by industry, some is used in district heating plants, leaving a mere 3% to be used in residences. But you sure see that 3%.

You see them shoveling up huge chunks of coal – I was astonished at how big the chunks are; they have come straight from the coal face – you see them trucking it around, and piled up in street corners.

china-shoveling coal

And more than anything you see China’s version of molded coal, which looks like this:

molded coal china-1

You see them transporting it around on the tricycles which I wrote about in an earlier post:

tricycle with coal

You see it piled up outside houses:

molded coal china-3

Then it’s burned in these special stoves:

stoves china-1

which leaves behind the consumed molds which you see in the bottom right-hand corner of the picture. Cities’ rubbish is littered with these discards.

molded coal china-consumed

All this coal burning leaves a taste in the air, a taste which instantly takes me back to my early years in the UK, when you would walk through a town or village and smell the sharp, acidic taste of coal being burned.

And it gives rise to smog:

beijing smog-2

Not much different from London’s smogs.

I’m optimistic. Like the UK did, China will eventually get rid of the smogs – probably by stopping to burn coal.


1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coal_in_China

coal stove: http://img.fr.clasf.com/2012/11/22/poele-a-charbon-ancien-maill-20121122191235.jpg
coal scuttle: http://gillesrenaud9.free.fr/Seau%20%C3%A0%20charbon/P1050541.jpg
coal scuttle-fullhttp://a406.idata.over-blog.com/600×879/1/05/04/45/photos-blog-N-21/le-seau-a-charbon-boulets-musee-de-la-mine.jpg
London smog 1952: http://www.thefloridastandard.com/files/2013/02/smogdm1403_468x673.jpg
Roquefort: http://img.dooyoo.co.uk/GB_EN/orig/0/1/0/2/8/102828.jpg
Crotte due diable: http://i.ebayimg.com/00/s/MTYwMFgxMTgy/$%28KGrHqF,!iUE8cj4nvorBPVlcwEB,!~~60_35.JPG
Coal at school: http://i01.i.aliimg.com/photo/v0/112891981/Tissue_Paper_Coal_Palm_oils_Pail.jpg
Bituminous coal: http://www.ua.all.biz/img/ua/catalog/1865574.jpeg
Glowing coal: http://bargainsbegin.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Heater-3-edit.jpg
Chinese shoveling coal: http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2011/12/21/business/coal/coal-blog480.jpg
Molded coal China: http://lexpansion.lexpress.fr/pictures/1455/745377_des-briques-de-charbon-dans-un-commerce-de-huaibei-en-chine.jpg
Tricycle with molded coal: http://www.travel-pictures-gallery.com/images/china/beijing/beijing-0042.jpg
Molded coal China against the wall: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-ASl1mhpkw5k/TkRxVCEtoII/AAAAAAAAA14/pgggOooaKE0/s400/Hutong%2Bcoal.jpg
Stove for burning molded coal: http://farm6.staticflickr.com/5164/5261127408_36ccd1d718_z.jpg
Molded in coal China-consumed: http://farm1.staticflickr.com/68/424608074_e7f49e2f9a_z.jpg?zz=1
Beijing smog: http://feww.files.wordpress.com/2013/02/china-smog-17feb2013.jpg


Beijing, 2 February 2013

The last week has been dreadful for air quality in Beijing. The brief break we had which I wrote about a few posts ago was but a temporary remission and we soon plunged back into the murk. My wife was a little more philosophical about it than I. She remarked that it reminded her of her childhood in Milan, when smog was frequent, and reminisced about having to cross the road to go to primary school and not being able to see if the light had changed. But still, we both suffered.

To cheer us up, my wife bought a bunch of tulips. They were still closed when she brought them home, but she placed them in a jar and we watched them slowly open over the following few days. Yesterday morning, we woke up to a gloriously bright and clear day. Thanking all the spirits I could think of, I stepped humming into the dining room, only to be greeted by the tulips which had fully opened over night. The sunlight pouring in through the windows was picking out their delicate pinks, whites and greens. I just had to memorialize the occasion.

   tulips 003

tulips 002

The mandarins which were also on the table kept nudging themselves into the frame, so eventually, I brought them in too.

tulips 005

Wonderful, wonderful fruit, those! They don’t look up to much, but aah the taste, my friends! First comes the delicate mandarin aroma which breaks out as you begin to peel the fruit and prepares you for what lies ahead. Then comes the citrically acidic taste with sharp mandarin overtones which hits your taste buds as you pop one segment in after the other. They are completely addictive; between my wife and I, that plate of mandarins lasted but one breakfast. She has found a greengrocers up the road which sells them. Sorry, the address will remain a secret.