About Administrator

Perpetual nomad. Student of things Chinese and the human condition.


The word “coolie” in English is a transliteration of the Chinese 苦力 (kuli) meaning bitter toil or hard labour. Every day I am struck by how many people even here in the capital know what it means to eat bitterness (吃苦). Just as in London where many of the lower end jobs are done by immigrants from all over Europe, much of the kuli here is done by outsiders. Unlike London however there is no social security net so the labourer could as well be a Beijinger as from Shanxi.

Our campus alone has an army of labourers keeping it in shape. For the first week of summer a large green canteen tent was pitched by the tennis courts and rows of barrels lined the basketball courts. Every day as I ambled to classes at midday a couple of men were hard at work spreading noxious sealants over the surfaces, one on spiked platforms making fine adjustments to marks made by the other as he dragged a large brush along. The men lived in the tent for over a week while they mixed and spread the green and red chemicals until the shine set for summer.

One of my classmates observed that a lot goes on on campus in the wee hours. I somewhat dismissed it thinking most jobs would be delayed to avoid disrupting classes during the day. But as I came back late one night the heavy duty trucks were nose to tail into the main gate bringing in materials for one of our construction sites; for these guys it was peak hour. En route I had also passed a gang of men painting the white barriers down the middle of a main road. The smell was enough to hurt my head as I sped past in a cab; they had half the fence left to paint and no breathing protection.

Kuli has plenty of daily grind. Every evening around the exercise fields we see people riffling through the rubbish bins for their recycling collections. Our textbooks list this as something that students can turn to to supplement their income. They also suggest you check first though as there are existing armies of elderly recyclers who have territorial rights and rely on the job for their livelihood. On a walk through the hutongs one weekend I passed two women standing over a third squatting outside her rooms. She was cheerfully counting her day’s haul of plastic bottles. At 2p each she had made the princely sum of 26p in the time I took to pass and she had almost completed her stock take.

The hutongs are a hive of enterprise both traditional and modern. In scattered bedroom/work units mom and pop suppliers cut white plastic door and window frames down to size, clouds of lung clogging dust filling the air. In a busy lane a young family cooked facing the street behind their new kitchen window pane as a man welded together a bicycle rickshaw next door, his naked eyes inches from the torch and his customer huddled in to watch.

My most thought provoking kuli labourer was the man watering the main entrance road to the campus on a hot, dry day. He had filled up his barrel at a tap outside the main gate and had inadvertently left the barrel “on” so was already watering the pavement as he set off. A crowd of men loafing around where he filled up yelled at him helpfully as he lowered the barrow bars to go back and open the taps “it’s already open!” Wordlessly he returned to his handles and plodded into the oncoming traffic. I know they have trucks for this job in Beijing as I got sprayed by one the other day. I guess he must either be cheaper or more accurate.

Those employed by a middleman boss have the worst time of all. They are paid only once a year and are frequently exploited by unscrupulous bosses who fail to pay them at all. Suicide is not unheard of among those who have already had a rotten existence and then don’t get their measly few hundred quid to take home. Makes our first world complaints look quite trivial.

Four Legs Good

A friend sent me a note the other day about our recent food issues and it came up again in class today. The context was somewhat different as my teacher used the global frenzy for milk powder to illustrate China’s rising spending power, along with the fast one the matriarchs of China pulled on the gold shorters over the May holidays. The Chinese consumer has the ability to spend where she wants to.

Five years after tainted milk first hit the headlines in China, HK airport is playing regular public broadcasts about the two tin export limit and the global infant formula market is in disarray. It still amazes me that in an industry where consumer confidence and quality assurance is paramount a brand like Mengniu, implicated in the scandal along with its peers, still exists. Moreover if the valuation is anything to go by foreign investors still love it for its market potential. This even as their valuable mainland customers remember with bitterness management’s reassurance to the HK market that product sold there was not the same shoddy quality as that sold up here. As if the mainland consumer can’t understand Chinese.

The issue of export quality versus local goods is not particular to China. The Australians for example keep all their best stuff for their home market (certainly hope that’s true of their wine, as they claim). The South Africans definitely don’t let their best wine go offshore. The Chinese however keep second rate goods for the home market and save the best for everyone else. In the days of restricted product choice exports in oversupply sold back into the domestic market were known to be better than local market items; “export turned import” stickers were considered to be a mark of quality.

This week’s scandal involves ginger which has been stimulated with fertiliser that pumps up the tuber like it’s on steroids but unfortunately leaves poisonous traces. That’s the stuff for us. You needn’t worry if you’re buying ginger from China as the farmers themselves have been applying quality control: toxic ginger gets piled up for domestic sale and innocuous ginger goes abroad.

Consumers are peeved. Comments on Weibo vary from “are our lives worth less?” to “who is supposed to be in charge of this?” My friends say sotto voce I am lucky to be able to come and go at will and I shouldn’t consider staying long term. Those with children are relieved if their offspring can find jobs with foreign companies that might get them out. If you’re not growing your own food you have no idea what is in it, so everyone just chows on with something that seems like apathy but is really impotence. I suspect that also explains why Mengniu hasn’t disappeared into a crater: there is still a big enough market of people who have no alternative to cheaper domestic goods.

We now cannot eat pork, duck, chicken or ginger. The last of those even makes a vegetarian diet challenging since ginger goes into pretty much everything. As you know however rat, fox and mink are all available. I had a pie on my way home from a night out last week. It was a “meat gravy pie”. It was quite yummy but it tasted like nothing from the animal kingdom I’d eaten before. I might be sticking to instant noodles and fruit for a while.

Spring Fever

I’ve been a bit quiet recently due to the onset of a severe case of mid term exams. On the one hand this has not been as bad as I might have feared but on the other it has been a lot more time consuming than I would have liked. I don’t know if this time around I took the lessons easier or every time it feels like I am unprepared. It’s been a few years since I last sat any exams (as my babiest classmate keeps reminding me) so I doubt I’ll remember.

You may be aware of the spread of the H7N9 virus which made its way to Beijing a couple of weeks ago and now across the Straits to Taiwan. Meanwhile the media coverage here has died down though that may not necessarily be good news, especially not for Sichuan – the reaction to which has been quite interesting but perhaps for another post.

So far in precautionary measures our authorities have just stuck up a sign called “Warm Tip” which could be read a number of ways. Top advice includes washing your hands with soap (I would if they kept any in the school loos) and staying alert for symptoms. I think the notice also said stay at home if you get sick, which wouldn’t be very helpful to the other people in the dorm or indeed a sufferer. At least the threat is sufficiently distant that they have not yet started taking the birds’ nests out of the trees as they did in the Shanghai universities.

I’ve heard a few accounts now of when SARS hit in 2003 and this is as good a guide as we can get to what might happen if things get bad this time. In a nutshell: the school went into quarantine without warning one weekend. If you were in you could get out but once you were out, tough luck you ain’t coming back. Any student who had gone home for the weekend was stuck although given that all lectures were ultimately cancelled they probably didn’t miss much. We have the Mayday holidays next week so for the non-graduands there would be general celebration if we hit lockdown while everyone is at home.

For the graduands however it is exam term and in 2003 the prospects for a whole year of students were pretty catastrophically altered. With the economy as uncertain as it is currently this batch would be even worse off. It is also interview period around now but the quarantine rules barred interviewers from entering the campus. Prospective employers had to stand a metre outside the school railings yelling questions at their candidate who stood a further metre back on the inside. Meetings with loved ones were a similar affair.

For those lucky enough not to have such concerns the atmosphere approached that of a holiday camp. The weather was fine so after a morning lie-in students would evacuate their dorms into the gardens to play cards or sport while their rooms were fumigated. In order to keep people out of each others’ dorms they all wore placards slung from around their necks with their dorm number on in huge figures.

Of course those measures seem a bit pointless when you consider that catering staff were still free to come and go and even though entering other peoples’ dorms was verboten people still hung out together outside. At least the staff temperatures were monitored as they came and left. The best thing I learned from all this is that being such a big campus we have dedicated food suppliers; our own producing commune. I was very pleased to hear that as I’m now back on pork and chicken, though the latter may come off the menu soon.

If the above does not offer sufficient comfort then there is always the option to leave. In 2003 students who had somewhere to escape to left town pretty swiftly. Apparently the Koreans were first out of the blocks and the Americans last; some of the latter actually stayed since they now had captive language partners with no lectures. Much as I value my language progress I won’t stick about if it comes to it and if the shutters come down during the holidays I’ll hang out in HK. There are worse places.

Happily it’s not all bad in town right now. The grass is suddenly green all over campus and the blossoms have finally burst. Now I can see why our Forbes campus rating is so deserved. I’ll be posting some pics just as soon as I get sufficient bandwidth.

Cultural Demise

I’ve had a few conversations in the past weeks that have given a small window onto the China Rising psyche. The overall impression I was left with was muted, bordering on somewhat depressed. It’s not that my fellow conversationalists feel China has been unsuccessful but the price it has paid for that success is beginning to be questioned. Obviously there has been a lot of press about the environmental cost, since that is quantifiable, but the cultural cost is what seems to be most mourned by the people I speak to.

Beijing itself came in for a lot of flack from one guy I met. A Beijinger himself he said the city no longer has any Chinese social culture; mainland cities in general don’t have Chinese inhabitants any longer, in the cultural sense. “Why do you think that is?” I asked. He mentioned the unmentionable 60s experience and how that had successfully eradicated traditions – actually he went so far as to say it had destroyed the mainlander’s understanding of what it is to be Chinese. To get an idea of orthodox traditions one does better to go to Taiwan or even Japan. Money is now the only god in China.

Unusually he was also sad about the loss of Tibetan culture through Sinification. With so little culture remaining here it seemed he would have been happy to see one of the regions retain something authentic and undiluted. The centre’s vice like grip on power is the only thing holding the country together and this geographical continuity from the founding dynasties is what legitimises the Party rule. No territorial loss could be withstood therefore separatism is crushed by whatever means. It’s an argument I’ve seen in a few works by international scholars lately but it was surprising to have it openly mentioned by someone Chinese since it’s not really a topic for debate, even at one of the elite universities.

As I’ve mentioned our coursework also covers a lot of material on the changing face of society from family values to the homogenisation of large cities in the quest for growth and real estate income. We recently read a piece on the wanton destruction and rebuilding of cities that dates back to 2005 but with all the vested local interests in real estate it will take either mighty effort from the centre or some kind of financial disaster to change this.

I think it is said that culture and other seemingly idle interests such as the flourishing of the arts are the preserve of the wealthy. Now that so many have reached a certain level of material comfort a quest for something more may not be too surprising. The dilemma was always going to be that allowing the populace to climb the ladder to material comfort in order to buy continued acquiescence to the system might ultimately create more problems in the long run. Take those whose material needs have now been adequately provided for but whose civil needs are unmet and add the frustrations of those waiting to make it to comfort but whose path is now blocked by economic imbalances and you have a troubling mix. There is a feeling that we are at a bit of a tipping point, albeit you could have said that at any point in the last 20 years from one angle or another.

Given that I only ever studied Chinese because I was drawn to the history and culture it has been disappointing to me quite how much has been wiped away even in the years that I’ve been visiting. However, since I am here and in large part investing my future in China I told a friend in the law faculty that I have to be optimistic that the country and its people will find a more multi-faceted way forward. He, however, said he cannot be. He will go to America and read for the bar. He can’t be totally pessimistic though: he wants to come back and help draft regulation once he’s made his nest egg.

I took a trip to pay my respects to Buddha in the Fragrant Hills at the end of Chinese New Year, as tradition demands. There was a respectable number of people tying their red wish-covered plaques to the provided boards, along with those presenting their incense sticks to the various buddhas. Hard to know how many had been through since the staff were clearing away all incense – and probably wish boards – as the visitors departed. It certainly wasn’t nearly as busy as HK’s Wishing Tree which I visited in 2011 but some indication of traditional spiritual activity was quite heartening. I will take that as a step in a healthy direction.

Day Tripper Part II

Tianjin has moved on a lot since my first visit and although the bleak journey and our collective lack of research made me fear for an uninspiring day it was in fact lovely. Where Beijing has crushed most vestiges of its cultural history, Tianjin has proudly conserved or restored its. A sad irony that the history and culture so preserved sprang from colonial occupation and concession while that razed to the ground was of Chinese origin.

I’m sure the weather helped but the area thronging with (mostly Chinese) tourists around the former European enclave now known as Five Avenues seemed intimate and homely and it wasn’t a complete stretch to imagine living there. The narrow streets and low detached houses were quite peaceful despite the taxis and threewheelers touting for business; the redevelopment of some of the back alleyways into tucked away restaurants, tea shops and even a boutique hotel is beautifully done.

Back alley Malaysian

Back alley Malaysian

I could live down this lane

I could live down this lane

Having spent a few hours ambling around the neighbourhood, including a lunch stop at an Italian restaurant run by a Japanese owner, we headed for the old Italian concession’s heart in Marco Polo Square. When I first visited with my father almost exactly twenty years ago the four wedding cake towers on each corner of the crossroads were dilapidated and the residences overcrowded with families. Despite the fact that these incongruous buildings were an interesting piece of the city’s history the area was empty but for us taking a few curiosity photos. It looked like only a matter of time before the houses collapsed from overload and indifference.

Things couldn’t be more different now. In the noughties the Tianjin government decided to restore the quarter and collaborated with Italy to do the job faithfully. Materials and craftsmen were brought in from Italy and Chinese workmen taught by the Italians how to restore rather than rebuild. There’s a very interesting article on the subject here if you care to know more http://www.globaltimes.cn/life/life/2010-07/550773.html. I found the process described quite unusual when you consider that Beijing’s original Dashilar district was demolished and rebuilt in exactly the same form but with new materials in order to smarten it up for the Olympics. I’ve been there, too, and it feels like a naff Chinese cultural theme district now the history has been ripped out of it.

A little bit of everything

A little bit of everything

The fact that Tianjin has grown organically out from the river and the streets are consequently more higgeldy piggeldy than the stern grids of Beijing also gives the whole city a bit more small scale charm. Unexpectedly it has a feel a bit like Boston, US, in the way that the old stone buildings hold their own against the new high rises and green open spaces unfold in front of colonnaded old bank buildings while the river winds alongside. One of my fellow students said it made her think of Gettysburg.

To be sure the place has its peculiarities like the faux castle and European themed waterfront which is trying to be an Italian piazza or Swiss Alpine riverside facade. That did have a bit of a Disney feel to it, but the river did seem of Alpine cleanliness compared with even our campus canal, which is filthy.

Is that an Austrian Castle?

Is that an Austrian Castle?


As we waited for our train back to Beijing the people sitting along the river’s edge and in the vast square in front of the modern station were enjoying the last rays of sun and the odd Euro-Chinese scene and I found myself quite enjoying it with them. Given the walkable, relaxing neighbourhoods and the opportunity to sit outside with a beer in a German style market complete with oompah loompah band and dirndl-sporting Chinese waitresses while watching the weddings go by I think I’ll be going back again soon. If nothing else I have to try lunch at Brasserie Flo.

Nice day for a white wedding

Nice day for a white wedding

Or lilac....

Or lilac….

Or turquoise...

Or turquoise…

Or emerald...

Or emerald…

Day Tripper Part I

I went on two very different day trips this holiday season. One took me inland to the Great Wall through rural villages and terraced orchards showing the first signs of blossom, the other seawards through bleak flatlands past factories, concrete high rise shells and clusters of Barratt style communities (with Chinese characteristics, natch). Typically the sky was smog-ridden and overcast for the former and gloriously blue for the latter, though the contrasting weather could neither detract from the spectacular views of the Wall nor enhance the monotony of the countryside en route to Tianjin.

The Wall was not as mobbed as I would have expected and in a three hour walk we passed few groups other than at entry points. The blossoms were just beginning to spread providing a bright contrast to the brown hills and mountains stretching into the distance and a delicate detail against the stonework of the Wall. The snaking progress of the bricks up ridge and down dale was as incredible as all the cliches about it are over used so I’ll let a couple of pictures pump up my wordcount.

Life on the Wall

Life on the Wall

One of the few places the wall meets water

One of the few places the Wall meets water

The people we did pass were clothed in anything from shaggy sheepskin shrug and platform shoes to full hiking gear and the route was not easy even for the properly equipped. I didn’t envy platform chick’s boyfriend his job of getting her back down in one piece since unsurprisingly she was stuck for some time even on the way up when she was able to face the right way.

We exited the wall some six or seven kilometres from where we started and ducked into a small guesthouse where they produced one of the better meals I’ve had here from a tiny kitchen outhouse. There were a couple of Chinese families also waiting to be fed and I was struck by two boys about the same age playing together: it is so unusual to see gatherings with more than one child involved. The one time I saw a two:one child:adult ratio was three adults with six children in Tiananmen Square; it took me a while to work out what was so odd about the grouping. The father of one of the boys at the guesthouse had to berate him for not playing nicely which is also quite rare not only because children are generally thought to be spoilt here but also because when else would he have to share, other than perhaps at school?

It’s Getting Hot In Here

April 1st was the first day of spring. I know this not because it got much warmer – although, miraculously, it did – but because the heating has been switched off. It is still in the teens and for we lizards who like it in the 20s (mid, preferably) it’s just a bit too cold to be getting excited yet. But it is also the time of summer activity. On heading to fetch my bicycle after my now-habitually early dinner at 5pm I found the running track swarming with people. It looked like a Royal Parks funrun without the swans.
I’m getting a bit less shy about asking people what’s going on these days and they are usually sweet enough to stop and tell me. The first girl I accosted told me that it was the first and second years doing their exercise. I thought I must have misheard so I stopped another couple of girls further up the road as they clocked into a parking meter by the tennis courts.
It turns out that first and second years really do have to run 25 times a school year, logging the circuits they run on their student card so that their times are recorded. There was the standard mutual incomprehension as they explained the weirdness of the system and I struggled to get my head around it. They have to log their times to show what order they come in in but no prizes are involved.
Apparently they can do the runs at any time during the year but they all try to get it done in the spring term as the weather is more amenable and while they said April 1st was not an official date for running it was clearly the opening of the season. The barriers over the road from my dorm which went up last week and I had mistaken for a new bicycle lane are to protect them as they shuffle around wearing anything from jeans to full running gear and there are now stickers on the road to denote runners only.
The whole enforced exercise thing is quite alien to me although given my lack of motivation to get out and run myself I could do with someone punching my card.
Having said I’m not shy about asking what’s going on, I just bumped into this lot outside the canteen. Maybe it was the stance, the costumes or the number of them but I didn’t get close enough to find out what this was all about.

Don't mess with me, missy

Don’t mess with me, missy

Location, Location, Location

Yesterday morning I had to schlep into town to fetch a credit card replacing the one I lost a fortnight ago (and found the day after I had cancelled it, natch). The university is based up in the north eastern suburbs of Beijing; the journey roughly equates to travelling from Richmond to Bond Street to go to the bank.

Much like London, Beijing has expanded from the stronghold around the Imperial Palace to engulf our neighbourhood abutting the old imperial summer residence. An expedition that probably once took weeks of planning and the best part of a day to complete now takes 45-60mins by train and subway, if considerably longer crawling around the ring roads. Public transport connections, with the subway extending beyond Beida, and the fact that the fifth ring road encircles our campuses and both of the Summer Palaces, cement our place inside the growing city boundary.

In a mark of how Beijing’s middle aged spread has been a fairly recent phenomenon I was amazed to come across the Beijing Friendship Store after I left the bank. I last visited it in 1990 when the paltry luxuries on offer could only be bought with FECs thus underpinning our black market exchanges. At that time it seemed a considerable distance from anywhere else worth seeing and demanded a dedicated bicycle trip. Now it is only just outside the second ring road.

I mentioned in a previous post how much Beijing property prices have risen in recent years, the example given being from Rmb9kpsm (or £90psf) in 2004ish to Rmb40kpsm (£400psf) today. A couple of our teachers have told us that the most expensive properties, at Rmb100k psm or c£1000psf, are right on our University’s south eastern doorstep. Despite our suburban location do not imagine chi chi Richmond terrace with glorious views over the Thames. Wudaokou, where the properties are located, is more like the area around Centrepoint at Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street before it was gussied up: urban and ugly. It is not for its charm that people pay a fortune.

It turns out school catchment areas are as much of a thing here as they are in the UK and Wudaokou has one of the best primary schools. As with the UK you have to start planning for this school virtually at conception since you can’t just buy a property and get a place for your child forthwith: you have to have lived there for at least three years and renting doesn’t count. Plus your child has to have a Beijing residency permit which is only possible if a parent is also an official Beijing resident. This explains why residency, or 户口, is such an issue as without it one’s right to public services is severely limited.

To the north of the University one evening I passed some rental property agents hanging out with their sign boards on the pavement. Maybe like the parcel post guys people knew where their habitual hangout was although to me it seemed a random place to set up shop with prices not directed at your average student. A 107sqm 2 bed flat was asking £1300/month; a 137sqm 3 bed £1600/month. The range was from £0.78psf/month for the smaller units to £1.5psf/m for the larger. By way of comparison my awesomely located pad might fetch £1.4psf/m and probably costs about the same as those would to buy.

To our west the city creep is temporarily blocked by Beida and the palaces and ultimately Fragrant Hills; on a clear day these are tantalisingly close. Down to the southwest the neighbourhood is called Zhongguancun, or 中关材. Today’s class taught us that this was originally 中官材, a homophone which became too un-pc to survive, as did the original residents. Zhongguancun used to be Eunuch’s Village, where wealthy elderly eunuchs retired, a stone’s throw from the palaces and our beautiful Qing gardens.

How the Other Half Live

I made a foray into the enemy campus today. After three days of blue skies there is no longer a trace of Wednesday’s deep snow dump and the cherry blossoms along our canal are resolutely set for spring. The lakes have fully defrosted and the ornamental landscape around the more beautiful of the two, shielded from the roads by rockery-covered hills, was crowded with people taking photos of each other.

However the grass is definitely greener at Peking University and despite not making the Forbes most beautiful campuses list it works for me. It has the cutesy small scale charm of Cambridge to Tsinghua’s more Oxford city feel with its classical charms dispersed over a larger and more businesslike, no-nonsense campus.

Founded in 1898, Beida also has a Qing dynasty garden rolled into the northern boundary featuring a massive lake overlooked by a pagoda and surrounded by meticulously balanced trees and glades. The few isolated old buildings in that section are rather forlorn although they still seem to have some function as teaching rooms. The university’s newest buildings are on the east side of the campus: the granite and glass Guanghua School of Management and neighbouring Nanotechnology Building which was receiving finishing touches as I passed. The area was a bit soulless compared with the more southerly heart where students teem around the main buildings and dorm areas.

The Beida guards have similar air of officiousness to Oxbridge porters; sentries in olive green polyester uniforms check IDs and turn people back from the gates. Thankfully they didn’t scrutinise my student card closely enough to realise it was for the wrong uni and waved me through, much to the bemusement of a group beside me given I had Tsinghua scrawled all over my hoodie. Overhearing them I shrugged and said “They’ll let anyone in” at which they laughed and started to have a friendly conversation about foreigners among themselves as though I weren’t there and didn’t speak Chinese.

I presume we must have similar in Tsinghua but I noticed a lot more banners advertising upcoming lectures. One particularly grabbed me: Corporate Responsibility and Value Leadership, due to be given tomorrow afternoon by Dr Klaus Leisinger from Basel University’s sociology faculty. A topic providing further evidence of how the focus of society and the economy is changing, though I wonder if the fact that he comes from the sociology department makes it less contentious than if he were from politics or economics.

Stuck all over the banners were advertisements for part time work: “English Teaching Assistant £15/day+bonus”, “Transcriber £1-3 per sheet; Leafletter £3/hour”, “Mobile phone sales promoter £12-15/day”, “Samsung mobile phone sales promotion £8/day; Samsung electronic goods sales promotion £10/day; Samsung smartphone salesperson £14/day; and Samsung Mobile Etiquette, girls only, £22/day”.

Our first lesson in conversation class concerned students’ part time work options so I was v chuffed to see the job market in action, not to mention have proof that the course content is relevant. Sales promotion is standing and pushing sales at customers – not really so common in the UK now except maybe in a department store’s cosmetics department – and is pretty hard work, hence the higher salaries. I suppose a mobile phone etiquette dolly bird is the Debby McGee of mobile phones: there to give demos and emphasise attractive features. The best paid was for hostesses at concerts at the Bird’s Nest who get £30 for the day. An absolute fortune but I’m ineligible: only girls over 168cm tall need apply.

I made my way back along the main highway and stopped to watch a chef in the bakery window put icing on top of a cake. I had a guessing game with the two young chaps who had been watching when I arrived. It started off looking like a white seal but as I left we agreed it was probably a rabbit. I do enjoy that I can stand outside a bakery discussing cake decorations with total strangers here and no one seems to find it odd.