Sunday, 30 September 2012

Bo's End is Nigh

After months of silence the Chinese government has finally decided to expel former Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai, paving the way for his prosecution and incarceration.

The judgment indicates the reformers have won this hard-fought battle -- making the singing of red songs and creating a cult of personality a la Mao Zedong politically incorrect.

However it was hard to tell what was going to happen to Bo.

When his wife Gu Kailai's trial did not mention him, there was speculation he was safe from prosecution.

But then former police chief Wang Lijun's case was heard over two days, the first of which was behind closed doors because it concerned "state secrets".

Wang's testimony must have been enough ammunition for the reformers to take down Bo, leaving his supporters with even the best guanxi unable to save him.

Now there are state-media editorials claiming the tactics he used to govern Chongqing based on the ideology of the Cultural Revolution were ultimately doomed, and that he abused his power in office to elevate himself.

However isn't the latter what all officials do?

Nevertheless, the editorials go on to say Bo did not learn his lessons from that chaotic period which led to chaos in society, thus echoing what Premier Wen Jiabao had said during his annual press conference in March.

Bo was also accused of having "improper sexual relations with a number of women" and bribery.

So while he apparently did all these bad things, and he is legally liable, there is not one mention of corruption.

Why not? Is this the one thing they are letting him off the hook for?

Accusing him of being corrupt would probably open the door for other senior leaders to face the same charge as well.

And since he did so many other horrendous things, perhaps the public won't notice corruption isn't on the list?

The omission of corruption clearly indicates the Party's desperate act of self-preservation.

And it also shows it never fully intends tackle the issue head on, even though it is the main thing threatening to topple the Party.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Where Musical Dreams Come True

The undulating sculptural look of the Walt Disney Concert Hall
A relatively new landmark in Los Angeles is the Walt Disney Concert Hall designed by starchitect Frank Gehry.

A workman washing part of the building
Completed in 2003, the silver building's birth began in 1987 when Walt Disney's widow Lillian donated $50 million to build a performance hall for the city.

Despite other donations, the project went over budget and numerous fundraising efforts had to be made.

Nevertheless, the result is a fantastic venue Los Angeles should be proud of.

Gehry's signature style of undulating shapes create the effect of sheets of music shuffled together -- at least that's my impression of the building looking at it from the main entrance. It contrasts with the 1960s minimalist architecture in the neighbourhood with its voluptuousness and shininess.

On the day we went, workers were washing parts of the building's exterior, and it must be quite a challenge cleaning it -- it must be like going up and down a mountain making the task less than monotonous.

The hall shines in the midday sun
Inside we were given orange stickers to wear and offered the option of a free audio tour or just wander around ourselves which is what we did.

The interior has lots of wood panelling that makes it warm and inviting despite the cavernous space. It's understandable we were not allowed into the main concert hall, but there were video projections showing what it looked like.

Musicians report the hall is technically brilliant in terms of accoustics, allowing every sound to be heard.

We particularly liked the garden outside on the second floor that also has a public entrance. While it's mostly concrete, the highlight is a fountain made in the shape of a massive rose called "A Rose for Lilly: Frank Gehry's tribute to Lillian Disney; A gift of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren."

The interior is cavernous and warm with lots of wood
It's a mosaic made entirely of Dutch blue and white tiles. While the source of the fountain is not seen, there's running water in the bottom petals inviting cool respite from the hot weather.

The fundraising efforts did not go unnoticed as in many of these public projects. Donors were named in every area of the hall, including stair cases. Outside in the garden area is a giant spiral naming other patrons.

And breathing more vibrancy into the concert hall is the music director, Gustavo Dudamel, the young Venezuelan conductor and violinist. He was appointed the position in 2009 and since then has has created a lot of excitement about classical music to the younger generation.

His youth is needed more than ever with mostly white heads in the audience.

Lillian's rose designed by Frank Gehry using Dutch tiles
Dudamel and the combination of a cool concert hall surely results in a dynamic classical music scene in the City of Angels. 

Friday, 28 September 2012

Delayed Justice

Finally 10 years later, a Chinese family has received justice for the murder of their daughter.

Li Ang, 28, was convicted of murdering Amanda Zhao and sentenced to life in prison by a Beijing court on Thursday.

"Our worst nightmare began 10 years ago," Zhao's mother Yang Baoying wrote in a statement translated for the media. "Since that time, the road to justice has been long and difficult. During that time, we felt hopelessness and despair. Justice was beyond our reach... The verdict today means that the murderer cannot run from justice -- that justice will prevail, no matter how crafty you are. At the end, you will be punished."

Yang is referring to Li, 18 at the time, who reported Zhao missing on October 9, 2002. She was Ang's girlfriend and they lived together with Li's cousin in a Burnaby basement suite. Zhao was studying at a Coquitlam language school.

Eleven days later her body was found strangled and stuffed in a suitcase near Stave Lake.

But Li had fled back to China by the time charges were laid on him and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) got a bad rap for not preventing Li from leaving the country.

He was finally charged in Canada in May 2003 and in February 2004 the RCMP confirmed they had questioned Li in Beijing.

What took so long for Zhao's family to receive justice was not only because of the RCMP's bungling in handling the investigation, but also because Canada and China do not have an extradition treaty... perhaps because of Lai Changxing.

However with Lai having been sent back to China, and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper suffered a blistering lecture from Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, seems like Sino-Canadian relations are getting back on track.

Which probably suggests that in the last year or so Zhao's case finally moved ahead with the verdict handed down Thursday.

Murder in China usually means the death sentence, but Li got life in prison, perhaps due to Canadian intervention.

Hopefully Zhao's family can now move forward knowing their daughter's killer will be repentant for the rest of his life behind bars.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Sharing the Wealth

A modern archway greets visitors at the entrance
An impressive artistic and idyllic tourist spot in Los Angeles is the Getty Villa, formerly known as the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu.

The pond featuring lotus flowers and lily pads
Jean Paul Getty was born into a wealth family that made its money in oil. Getty studied economics and political science and in the summers working in his father George's oil fields in Oklahoma.

He started running his own oil company and made his first million two years after he graduated from college.

However Getty's playboy ways (marrying and divorcing five times) didn't impress his father, who only left him $500,000 of the $10 million for his son's inheritance after Getty senior died in 1930.

Nevertheless, Getty Junior did very well for himself, snapping up oil companies during the Great Depression and amalgamating them under the Getty Oil.

The museum is a replica of a Roman country home
In 1945 he bought a 64-acre site in Malibu and nine years later opened the J. Paul Getty Museum to exhibit his collection of Greek and Roman antiquities.

Then in 1968 he decided to recreate a first- century Roman country house, the Villa dei Papiri that was buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. Many of the architectural details are based on elements drawn from other ancient Roman homes in Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabiae.

The villa houses an extensive art collection of over 1,200 works that are organized by theme, such as Gods and Goddesses, Dionysos and the Theater, and Stories of the Trojan War.

Detail carving of a sarcophagus
In 2006 the renovated museum was reopened as Getty Villa, with many modern updates, from a stylish outdoor terrace where visitors can get gourmet Mediterranean-style meals, to a pretty lotus flower pool, and concrete that have the texture of wood.

While the villa is impressive, the murals are stiff and tedious; nevertheless, the use of marble is impressive and the gardens beautiful.

Currently on show is a piece called Lion Attacking A Horse from the Capitoline Museums in Rome.

It's a large marble piece of a ferocious lion biting int the backside of a startled horse. The lion's strong claws push the equine down to the ground, signalling its demise.

Lion Attacking A Horse from the Capitoline Museums, Rome
This image is an emblem of triumph and defeat from the era of Alexander the Great to the Renaissance Rome of Michelangelo.

Many of the pieces on display are in excellent condition, the graphic illustrations very clear, even if they are on shards.

It's interesting that Getty was so keen on collecting Greek and Roman items -- so much so to build a replica villa to house them all.

Ah the life of the uber wealthy. But we shouldn't complain -- he left $661 million to the museum after his death -- and he was keen to share it with us.

The Outer Peristyle showcases some bronze statues
The Getty Villa
17985 Pacific Coast Highway
Pacific Palisades
(310) 440 7300

The Lion Attacking A Horse is on show until February 4, 2013.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Delicious Dumplings

The heavenly xiaolongbao at Din Tai Fung in Los Angeles
In Los Angeles there's a big Taiwanese community and many of them live in an area called Arcadia.

The exterior of the restaurant
And as luck would have it, there's two Din Tai Fung restaurants practically next to each other -- on the same street.

We got there before 11am when it opens and there were already a few groups of people waiting to dine on some delicious Shanghainese fare.

Once you walk in you can see an open kitchen with staff busy rolling dough and breaking off pieces, periodically weighing them on a scale. These are then vigorously rolled into thin round skins wrapping the delicious pork and its juice when steamed.

The restaurant is contemporary and hardly looks like a Chinese restaurant save for the few round tables and of course chopsticks and bowls.

While there is a book menu that strangely doesn't have the prices listed, diners must order using a paper sheet listing the dishes with the prices.

Most of the dishes are the same as the ones in Beijing, though there are many variations. We had an excellent place of stir-fried string beans that were crispy and sweet, and there was an appetizer of fried pork chop that had great flavour and not dry either.
"Crystal dumplings" that are vegetarian and very good

Since there were many of us, we had many orders of xiaolongbao -- and they were excellent. The thin skins coupled with the meaty filling and juice was divine. Who can resist having another... and another...

Another good dumpling was the vegetarian one that was also quite filling.

However the pork and shrimp wonton was just average -- the shrimp not having much taste, while the plate of spinach with garlic was also nothing special.

Contemporary decor in this Taiwanese eatery
We liked the zhajiangmian, noodles with broad beans and a meat sauce mixed together, and the fried rice with shrimp. Another winner was the chicken soup, a flavourful broth with pieces of chicken in it.

The starter of seaweed with bean sprouts and tofu was delicious as in other branches, and the spicy cucumber had a kick to it.

What was also impressive was our waitress who was patient with our large table, but also very efficient and fulfilled our requests relatively quickly.

Mmmmm delicious!

Din Tai Fung
1108 South Baldwin Avenue
Arcadia, CA

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Still Trying to Curb Housing Woes

The Hong Kong government is planning its long-term strategy on housing and members of the committee looking over this matter believe it's important to take into account mainlanders buying property here for price-control.

Many believe mainlanders flushed with cash are snapping up flats in the city, and in turn pushing up property prices that are surpassing 1997 levels.

However it's strange the government does not keep track exactly how many non locals are buying up homes.

Real estate agents gives estimates according to the spelling of the clients' names, but there are many more property transactions made by companies as well.

A member of the committee looking into long-term housing plans and is an adviser to Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying says there should be a study looking into the profile of mainland buyers.

"Times have changed. We cannot ignore their demand and have to consider how to accommodate their needs -- provided they are genuine needs," said Marco Wu Moon-hoi. "We have to do a survey to find out how many of them buy a home for self-use, how many for long-term investment and for speculation. We also need to take into account those who come regularly for short stays."

While this suggestion is good, would mainlanders comply with honest answers if they know their response will affect policy?

Another member of the panel is suggesting extra stamp duties or curbing mortgage loans to mainlanders buying a second property in Hong Kong.

Meanwhile a newly-elected lawmaker says anti-money-laundering vetting measures banks use should also be implemented in the property sector to curb speculation.

"If someone's got millions of dollars from bribes and he comes to buy an apartment, what's the difference from money laundering?" asked Kenneth Leung Kai-cheong.

"A bank definitely won't open an account for a customer who comes with a suitcase full of dollars notes. If banks have to comply, why does the property sector not have to?" asked Leung, who is also a tax specialist.

While all these suggestions mean well in trying to protect locals' interests, it does mar Hong Kong's reputation for having a free economy, though it may work has a short-term measure.

Leung's idea is the most strict and would be least appreciated by mainlanders, the bottom line is that there isn't enough housing and different kinds of housing available to young people.

The main problem is not the mortgage -- most young professionals can afford it -- it's the amount of money needed up front that's the main problem.

Who has enough for a 30 percent down payment as well as the stamp duty up front?

So perhaps the government should be figuring out ways to help first-time locals enter the housing market more easily.

Wouldn't that be easier to figure out than how to curb mainlanders snapping up property?

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Low-Frills Success

Co-founder of Costco Jim Sinegal
On the plane I watched a CNBC segment on the success of Costco Wholesale Corporation.

The concept of the store goes against most retail rules in that it's in a giant warehouse, there are no signs in the aisles to tell you where things are, you must pay a membership fee to get in, and there isn't much selection to choose from.

But it works and people come in droves, usually paying much more than they intend to.

The show interviewed many people who love going aisle by aisle because you never know what you can find -- at a deal, and it is great for large families, getting a lot of food at reasonable prices.

Costco sells everything from toilet paper to ketchup, lasagne, detergent, clothing and toys, and even diamond rings, Bordeaux wines and flat screen TVs.

It is the second-largest retailer behind Wal-Mart, making $93 billion annually in sales in its 600 locations.

Apparently Costco only stocks 4,000 items, whereas the average supermarket has 50,000 and 100,000 at Walmart.

However, for many consumers, the lack of choice helps make choosing easier as shopping experts say that the more choice there is, the person gets more confused and could eventually give up on trying to decide on something.

But at Costco, the choice is basically made for you and the company will only mark up the price by 15 percent.

That's why Costco works hard to push for the best price, but also for companies that want to be stocked in the warehouse store, that means they have to be competitive in terms of price and be flexible in meeting Costco's demands.

Costco also develops its own Kirkland Signature brand and one of its biggest selling items is toilet paper. It's interesting to note the company takes it TP seriously -- with a lab that tests out all its own products, including toilet paper for its strength and softness among other things.

And when it comes to wines, high end wineries are keen to be stocked in Costco and invite the buyers for exclusive tastings in the hopes of being carried by the retailer.

Items like toys and clothing make up 25 percent of Costco sales, and so they are mostly impulse buys.

What's most impressive is that Jim Sinegal, who was Costco's co-founder and CEO up until April this year, has retail in his blood.

When he was a teen he started as a bagger in a supermarket called FedMart and was hooked on retail. He worked his way up the company to executive vice president of merchandising and operations.

He also learned from his mentor Sol Price about the warehouse retail concept and Singeal is known for treating employees well.

Employees are paid very well and have good benefits. And it pays off -- there's less turnover and staff proud to be working for Costco.

In the segment Sinegal was seeing touring numerous Costco stores on what employees endearingly call "death marches". He walks around the store with managers trailing behind him and he asks how stock is moving, why are things placed in certain areas of the store, or questioning them on the price of items.

What's also interesting is that he had no entourage either -- it's just him -- though he did travel by corporate jet.

Would Hong Kong ever have a CEO like Sinegal or a Costco?

The city will never have a Costco -- there is no space big enough to house so much stuff, but also most households average one to three people. We don't need giant tubs of mayonnaise or 360 Advil pills in one bottle.

But at the same time we need something like Costco to break the tycoons' hold over us with the limited choices of Wellcome and Park n Shop, Broadway and Fortress, Mannings and Watson's.

We're tired of paying much more than we should.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Egging on Protests... or Not?

The Chinese government is playing with fire by alternatively fanning and dampening the anti-Japanese protests.

As of late tonight the anti-Japanese protests have sputtered in Beijing after officials sent text messages telling residents not to protest anymore.

Commerce Ministry spokesman Shen Danyang said Wednesday that there was support for "rational patriotic activities", but that the ministry would "firmly oppose illegal behaviours involving smashing and looting during protests."

Near Liangmaqiao Lu where the Japanese embassy is located, there are still some barricades up, though people have left.

But that's not to say they won't return again tomorrow, or perhaps the weekend when they have more time on their hands.

For the most part many of the protests seem planned, with observers noticing groups of people protesting in shifts, while others wait by the sidelines resting their feet with food and drink.

How is that a real protest? Sounds more like a relay protest.

Apparently some protestors were told what they can and cannot do:

They can throw eggs and shout, but they can't beat up the Japanese or the police.

The government even supplies eggs for them. But if they burn cars or damage premises then they will be punished.

Egg producers must be thrilled to be raking it in -- or are they dismayed their eggs are landing on the ground than on dishes?

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

The Poor State of China's Education System

A child uses a TV stand as a desk in a school in Shunhe township
I was going to write about former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun's trial that unexpectedly began yesterday and then ended today.

He confessed to defecting when he fled to the United States embassy in Chengdu which is a serious charge, but because he aided in the investigation into Briton Neil Heywood's death, the court may give him some leniency.

The verdict will be given at a later date.

But there are other more pressing matters -- like the state of education in China.

A recent report stated that up to 3,000 students in Macheng's Shunhe township, an impoverished region in Hubei province, had to bring their own desks and chairs to school.

A grandmother and grandchild carry desk and stool to school
Photos showed a grandmother carrying a roughly-made desk on her shoulders, while another pupil sat on a stool and used a TV stand as a desk.

The report led to public outrage that local Macheng officials could not provide such basic necessities for students to study properly.

This contrasted with the ultra-modern Macheng city government complex nicknamed "the White House of Macheng" by The Beijing News, which criticized the local government for not allocating funds properly.

And some used the power of the internet to post pictures of Macheng's party secretary Yang Yao wearing various luxury watches.

He later admitted on his own microblog that he owned a Longines watch he bought six years ago.

While he said Macheng is an underdeveloped area, he admitted the shortage of desks was an ongoing problem, with some 40,000 students having to furnish their own.

Forty thousand students who don't have desks and chairs?

Where did the money go?

The city government added there was a shortage of funds due to renovating old schools.

But following more media criticism, the local government miraculously seemed to find an extra 5 million RMB on top of the 4 million RMB earmarked for 32,800 desk sets last year.

At the moment 3,000 students now have new desks in Shunhe.

"The public deserves an answer on how the government could come up with 5 million RMB in such a short period of time," said Professor Chu Zhaohui, from the National Institute of Education Sciences. "What if the media hadn't reported the shortage of desks in Shunhe?"

Xiong Bingqi, deputy director of the 21st Century Education Research Institute says the main problem is that even though the central government may increase funding for education, students are at the mercy of local governments who allocate the funds.

"That largely leaves the level of school funding dependent on the financial soundness of each local government. So an overhaul of the school funding regime is imperative for a higher level financial guarantee, preferably at the provincial level, if mainland governments are serious about tackling inequality."

This story clearly illustrates two things. The first is, China may claim to have trillions of dollars in US Treasuries, but then why are a number of its schools so poor?

The other shows that the central government doesn't have enough control over provincial and local governments to ensure money is properly allocated.

So while Beijing may claim so much money has been funneled towards educating the next generation, the funds have obviously gone elsewhere...

And who is responsible for the growing gap between the rich and the poor?

Monday, 17 September 2012

Fact of the Day: Over 3,000 Parallel Traders

A mainland official revealed there are more than 3,000 parallel traders who cross the border many times a day to buy goods from Hong Kong.

Over half of them are Shenzhen residents who have multiple entry visit permits.

The whopping figure was brought up at a recent meeting between Shenzhen and Hong Kong customs authorities to discuss illegal cross-border exports.

"At least 3,000 to 4,000 parallel traders are in operation every day," said the official. "They make at least two return trips a day, but some can make four to five."

That means they make at least 2.2 million cross-border trips a year evading mainland import taxes.

With each person dragging a cart behind them, imagine how much stuff they buy every day.

In 2011, Shenzhen residents with multiple entry permits accounted for 6.17 million arrivals in Hong Kong compared with 28.1 million mainland tourists who visited the city.

And as most of these parallel traders hone in on Sheung Shui, the district closest to the border, prices of goods there have shot up 10 to 20 percent higher than nearby districts.

No wonder Sheung Shui residents protested this past weekend, fed up with all kinds of goods from milk powder to shampoo, toothpaste and even the yogurt-based drink Yakult costing more.

For example, a kind of Chinese medicine ointment used for joints cost HK$38 in Sheung Shui, but HK$28 in Taipo and Shatin.

Yakult, which is a probiotic drink that is actually too sweet to have any health benefits, and there are false claims that drinking it can increase the size of women's breasts, costs HK$10.20 a pack in Sheung Shui, but only $7.00 in Shatin.

While things cost more, it doesn't necessarily mean the stock is available either.

"The staff at the dispensaries will only serve mainlanders because they buy a lot each time. By the time I got to the counter, they would tell me it was all sold out and I had to go to other districts to get baby formula cheaper," a woman in her 40s said.

Many of these mainland traders buy the goods, bring them back and then sell them online on Taobao, the Chinese version of eBay. And because they promote that the products are from Hong Kong, they can make a healthy profit.

It's interesting the mainland authorities don't mind giving people who don't have a Shenzhen hukou or residency permit, multiple entry permits to Hong Kong and are not be interested in cracking down on parallel traders who aren't paying import taxes...

Imagine how much money they would rake in if they did?

What gives?

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Tea for Three

Teatime Indulgence at Palm Court. Photo by Marc Checkley
The Langham Food & Wine Festival is one, the first time the hotel group has organized such an event on a very large scale.

A number of well known chefs have been flown into Hong Kong to cook for the city's foodies, including Albert Roux, whose restaurant in London was the first to be awarded three Michelin stars, Kiwi Benjamin Bayly, executive chef of Grove Restaurant, Sursur Lee, originally from Hong Kong, now based in Toronto but also has restaurants in Singapore and Washington, and Igor Macchia, whose Ristorante La Credenza has two Michelin stars.

Parisian pastry chef Gontran Cherrier
Another is Parisian pastry chef Gontran Cherrier and some friends from out of town and I sampled his afternoon tea. He owns Gontran Cherrier Artesian Boulanger in the City of Lights and so we were eager to see what French creations he would whip up.

We had "Teatime Indulgence" at the Palm Court in the lobby area of Langham Hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui and we were pleasantly surprised by the elegant but also relaxed atmosphere of the place. We sat on a plush couch that was very comfortable and were entertained by live music.

The place wasn't too busy and so we took our time choosing which tea we wanted to drink.

And then the afternoon tea (HK$298 each) arrived, all three portions presented on a three-tier curate. We loved the beautifully decorated places, painted with delicate flowers.

At the bottom were a selection of savouries, a scotch quail egg on bread, cucumber and ham rolled sandwiches, and scallop sandwiches too topped with caviar. We particularly liked the smoked salmon wrapped like a ball that was full of flavour and also the beetroot shell holding foie gras terrine. Ooh la la!

Several pastry selections... we liked the flaky round ones
We were then given some small scones plain and with raisin that had come fresh from the oven. They were a nice small size and came with clotted cream, butter and thick jam.

The next plate had some delicious sweets, including a flaky round pastry, another like a rectangular piece of cake, though it didn't do much for me, and then a chocolate muffin that had a cool rather than hot fondant inside.

Desserts on the top plate were intriguing. There was a pastry decorated with raspberries and cucumber?! But it was very refreshing, as well as the tart finish of the cookies topped with a lemon dollop. Oh and there was another flaky pastry with a bit of cinnamon flavour too.

All in all we had a great time catching up and enjoying our afternoon tea too.

Delicious savouries particularly the foie gras in beetroot shell
Would have been even better if chef Gontran made an appearance, but oh well.

Perhaps he'll come back to Hong Kong again soon?

Palm Court
Langham Hotel
8 Peking Road
Tsim Sha Tsui
2132 7878

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Finally Making an Appearance

Xi at China Agricultural University today
We are relieved to see Vice President Xi Jinping finally make an appearance today in Beijing.

While there wasn't any footage, there were pictures of him marking national science day by visiting China Agricultural University.

From the pictures it looks like Xi does not have a slumped face so perhaps there was no stroke or Bell's Palsy.

Was it his back?

Or was he trying to watch his back politically?

The Telegraph gives the suggestion through sources that Xi was under attack by senior supporters of President Hu Jintao.

Apparently Qiao Shi, 87 and Song Ping, 95 accused Xi of breaking the rules by meeting with members of the Central Military Commission twice while Hu was in Hong Kong in July.

They allegedly deemed Xi "unreliable" and even suggested the party congress be significantly delayed. According to sources, the in-fighting was apparently so intense that former president Jiang Zemin had to mediate.

Xi was not Hu's first choice to succeed him and there are already tensions between them because of their differing backgrounds.

While Hu is a technocrat, Xi is a princeling, though according to sources, the latter is making an effort to bridge the divide.

"Song Ping and the other elders are suspicious of Xi and the other princelings because they are not obedient," says the source. "They saw these princelings grow up and know the difference between them and Hu and Wen Jiabao, who are more polite and less personally ambitious."

That's what we know from the outside though. We know their family members are profiting from their high positions in government...

So was the illness faked to give Xi time to defend his integrity or he was forced to "disappear" to test his credibility?

The next few days and weeks will give us a better indication of what's going on as we're all dying of curiosity to know what's going to happen!

Meanwhile China Agricultural University is near Liangmaqiao where the Japanese embassy is and was the site of violent protests against the Japanese government buying the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands from a Japanese owner.

Protesters were out in force not only in Beijing, but also Shanghai, Xian, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong.

Japanese cars were smashed and people don't want to be caught eating in a Japanese restaurant either or buying Japanese goods.

One wonders if these anti-Japanese protests are used to distract the public from the succession issues at hand or to stoke up nationalistic fervour in the run-up to the National People's Congress?

Friday, 14 September 2012

The Next Chapter in the Bo Xilai Saga

What will former police chief Wang Lijun say in his defense?
Things are going to get more interesting next week.

Gu Kailai is in prison, but now the man who betrayed her family (from her point of view), former police chief Wan Lijun will be on trial from next Tuesday -- in Chengdu.

He is charged with defection, abuse of power and bribe-taking.

This contrasts with Gu who was convicted of murdering Briton Neil Heywood, but because her defense was that she was trying to protect her son, she was given life in prison instead of the death sentence.

And her trial had no mention of bribe-taking or amassing millions that were then transported out of the country which was probably why she murdered Heywood in the first place.

In any event it'll be interesting to see what Wang looks like -- probably not as puffy-looking as Gu...

Last night I met a young hotel marketing communications woman from Chongqing.

She was friendly though quiet as most of us at the dinner spoke either Cantonese or English.

I practiced some Mandarin with her and asked her how Chongqing was doing post-Bo Xilai.

She smiled when I asked the question but her answer was not upbeat.

The woman explained that the economy had definitely slowed down since Bo was sacked from his post as Party Secretary of Chongqing in mid March.

"Tourism is still doing well, but other sectors are not so good," she said, explaining that companies did not want to invest in China's most populous city since they did not know what was going to happen next.

It seemed like Bo's strongman tactics were exactly what were needed to jump start the city's economy and it had now lost momentum with his unceremonious exit.

But it's not just Chongqing -- seems like everything's come to a grinding halt until the 18th National People's Congress -- and even that date isn't sorted out yet.

When it comes to party unity and the economy, the former trumps the latter.

It's amazing anything gets done in China...

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Loh Helps Leung Administration Go Green

We are pleased to see Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying is making an earnest effort to tackle Hong Kong's air pollution with the appointment of former legislator Christine Loh Kung-wai as undersecretary for the environment.

Her appointment was confirmed yesterday and we hope she will be pushing Leung's administration to start thinking green in terms of air quality, waste management, and nature conservation.

She did not ask for the job -- she was approached by Leung and agreed to join as she believes he is serious about improving the environment as well as help influence public policy, which she has spent the past 12 years researching as head of her think tank called Civic Exchange.

"The one thing I have not done in my career is to be on the executive side, where I have a chance to set policy," she said. "This is something I'd like to do now. I think it is possible to do something within the CY Leung administration, together with the minister [Environment Secretary Wong Kam-sing].

However Loh is not completely clean -- Civic Exchange received local and overseas funding for projects, including HK$740,000 from CLP Power on a nuclear project last year, as well as HK$74,000 from Exxon-Mobill and Koala Resources on a conservation policy project started in 2010.

While some environmental groups are skeptical, others are trying to be open-minded.

We really need someone actively advocating our interests in having Hong Kong reduce its air pollution, and manage its waste better with a recycling system that works. We should also educate the public about the perils of wasting water and paper because resources are fast disappearing.

So it'll be interesting to see how much of an influence Loh will have in public policy and hopefully this time she will make a lasting impact for future generations.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Tycoon Quirks

Emperor Group chairman Albert Yeung showing us his money
Ah the insecurities of the uber wealthy.

Last week entertainment mogul Albert Yeung Sau-shing made a rare public appearance at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre to tell about 600 people his secrets of success as outlined in his autobiography, Work Hard, which he published in March.

The Emperor Group founder who is one of Hong Kong's richest businessmen and the man behind the city's top entertainers revealed that he feels inferior if he carries less than HK$50,000 ($6,448) in his wallet.

He even whipped out his wallet to reveal HK$40,000 in one thousand dollar notes to show the audience.

"I always have HK$40,000 to HK$50,000 cash in my pocket, or I would feel uncomfortable," he said, explaining the need came from having grown up poor.

"I like lending money to others," he said. "It springs from a sense of inferiority. My dad borrowed from loan sharks. Now I feel good being the creditor."

In his book, Yeung admits to cheating with celebrities while married to his now ex-wife Ren Manling, and that he is obsessed with neatness.

He has his stationary placed at the exact same place on his desk and his clothes are "tidier than any boutique" with 40 suit jackets on the right side of his dressing room, and white shirts on the left.

"If any sauce drops on the dining table, I would be very unhappy, as though my business had failed," he said.

This comment would surely make anyone nervous eating anything with this tycoon.

Ranked 32nd on Forbes' list of Hong Kong's wealthiest men, he has helped nurture the careers of such Canto-pop stars as Joey Yung Cho-yee, Leo Ku Kui-kei and Nicholas Tse Ting-fung.

"On the first day, when Nicholas Tse joined my company, I told him not to learn from his father. His dad is a loser," Yeung said, referring to Patrick Tse Yin's bad investments in his youth.

Yeung has advised his stars to invest in property, and as a result, Nicholas Tse is "Lyndhurst Terrace's Li Ka-shing", as he owns so many shops there, and Yung has six luxury properties.

Two weeks ago Emperor Group spent HK$363 million on a 750 square foot shop in Tsim Sha Tsui, making it the most expensive retail space in Kowloon per square foot.

"It could be an expensive deal, but never a wrong deal."

Yeung's father had a watch shop called Shing On Kee Watch Shop in 1942. He was born a year after.

In the 1960s, his father lent him HK$200,000 to start his own watch shop and he opened Observatory Watch & Jewellery in 1964 on Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui.

Two years later Yeung got the distribution rights to Omega and Rolex and from there expanded into jewellery and now Emperor Group includes such businesses as financial services, property. entertainment and films, hospitality, publishing and catering.

It would be so fascinating to do some psychoanalysis on Yeung.

Money has obviously had a strong effect on him since he was a child, thus motivating him throughout his career to ensure he never needs to borrow from anyone.

However his obsessive-compulsiveness about neatness is so extreme, one would be too petrified to be in his presence if you didn't even look neat yourself.

But flashing his money around -- was that a publicity stunt or totally impromptu? Hasn't he heard of credit cards?

In any event, I'm just glad I'm not part of this uber-rich circle -- Yeung's too tough of an act to follow.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

End of the Occupation

Breaking news folks -- the Occupy Central movement is no more.

Around 10.40pm I passed by the HSBC headquarters on the bus and saw that the bank had put down all of its gates around the property and inside the passageway had already been cleared out.

Security guards were standing outside every few metres to ensure no one could even get close.

The rest of the protesters, some 20 of them were moved out this afternoon, but not without resistance. One woman even dared to say that removing them and their property was illegal.

Excuse me? The court already ordered you to leave two weeks ago and yet you still stay.

Another woman tried to claim that the bailiffs were not following proper procedure by not posting the eviction notices prominently on the site.

Every other newspaper has published stories about the eviction notice and the bank has tried to be nice by helping you remove your stuff. What more do you want?

In the end the belligerent ones were carried out of the space, which is now in lockdown mode.

So that's the end of Occupy Central. The passageway under HSBC will now return back to normal.

What a relief.

Fact of the Day: The Most Expensive Flat in HK

The Hong Kong property market is far from cooling.

A four-bedroom flat at The Cullinan, above Kowloon Station, was bought by a mainlander for HK$131.45 million ($16.95 million), or a record HK$50,772 per square foot.

Data from the Land Registry shows the flat was bought by Grand International Group Holdings, whose director is Li Yanan, a soccer player.

The 2,589 square foot apartment on the 82nd floor has a 632 square foot balcony and parking space.

Previously the most expensive flat per square foot was 39 Conduit Road for just under HK$64,000 per square foot. But then it turned out many deals in that real estate development were a sham cooked up by Henderson Land to boost property prices.

Wonder if this one is too?

Where is Xi?

There's wild speculation as to what happened to Xi
Will Vice President Xi Jinping please come out and tell us how he's doing?

He has not made a public appearance in nine days, cancelling out on his latest appointment with Danish leader Helle Thorning-Schmidt yesterday and last week with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

The strange thing is that the Chinese government alerted the media in advance that Xi would meet with Thorning-Schmidt, but when it was cancelled, this was brought up with Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei.

He had the temerity to refuse to say whether such a meeting had been planned and later cancelled.

These comments are just creating more rumours, which range from Xi being in a car accident, to suffering a stroke, to having a bad back from swimming or playing sports, or even being injured from an assassination attempt.

People's imaginations are running wild to say the least.

Someone who claims to have good sources said he may have Bell's Palsy, his face contorted not making him look good for the cameras, while another said he strained his back from swimming which seems strange unless he slipped and fell after he swam.

In any event the silence over Xi's whereabouts have led people to speculate whether he was OK physically and politically.

"The whole saga shows that China still keeps the lives of its leaders a secret," said Qiao Mu, a journalism professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University. "It is a rigid pattern that has been used by officials to deal with rumours over the past decades, and it is not going to change.

"The leaders think that the public does not need to know about them, and all the confusion will be cleared up when they show up at meetings."

While Johnny Lau Yiu-siu, a Hong Kong-based China watcher says it is unlikely Xi was politically purged, he said Beijing should be more transparent when it comes to the top leadership.

"Without a proper account of what has happened over the past weeks, the rumours will remain rampant even if Xi makes a public appearance."

Or perhaps what happened to Xi will remain a state secret, much like President Hu Jintao diagnosed as a diabetic.

Why is his diabetes a state secret? It would humanize the man and make people more aware of the health issue if more people knew about it.

But no, any mention of it on the mainland could land you into serious trouble.

Which is why I'm writing about it in Hong Kong and not Beijing.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Gains and Losses

Civic Party's Tanya Chan's desperate plea for votes was ignored

The good news is that voter turnout yesterday was around 53 percent, nearly the highest voter turnout in Hong Kong's history for geographical constituencies.

As I mentioned yesterday, there was a steady trickle in where I live and it was reported some 300 voters still waiting to cast their votes when polls were closing at 10.30pm at Tseung Kwan O Integrated Social Service Centre. It's good to see people exercising their right to vote.

The bad news is that pro-democracy groups only won 27 of the 40 contestable seats in the 70-member Legislative Council which was disappointing despite Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying scrapping the three-year deadline for the introduction of national education.

The pro-democracy camp failed to capitalize on growing discontent of anti-mainland Chinese sentiment.

The parties "would've had sheer disaster if it hadn't been for the national education issue," said Michael DeGolyer, a political scientist at Hong Kong Baptist University. "They were too divided among themselves."

However the number of seats, which is proportionally about the same as in the 2008 election, is enough to veto major laws including constitutional changes.

Meanwhile pro-Beijing parties like the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) and the Federation of Trade Unions added seats. DAB is now at 13 seats from 10.

These parties seemed to be more organized, better funded and more strategic in how they were going to get votes.

The disappointing results for the pro-democratic camp have already led to the resignation of Albert Ho as chairman of the Democratic Party because it lost three seats from nine last time, while the second biggest group, Civic Party's incumbents Tanya Chan and Audrey Eu failed to win their seats back.

Albert Ho of the Democratic Party resigned as chairman today
Chan's campaign seemed desperate -- "Only YOU can keep Tanya in" with a black and white picture of her in a white T-shirt with her back to the viewer. Strange body language for a campaign poster. She seemed to assume the audience knew what the Civic Party was standing for.

More radical parties like People Power and League of Social Democrats gained two seats to five, which means we're going to see more crazy antics in the Legislative Council as well as protests and rallies, as they appeal more to young people.

The results of the vote mean LegCo is going to be as polarized as ever.

It's going to be a challenge for the government to placate such a wide variety of view points and it'll definitely keep it on its toes.

But in the end that's what we want -- accountability.

Some notables who were elected:

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee (New People's Party)
Cyd Ho Sau-lan (Labour Party)
Jasper Tsang Yok-sing (DAB)
Wong Yuk-man (League of Social Democrats)
Alan Leong Kah-kit (Civic Party)
Paul Tse Wai-chun
Michael Tien Puk-sun (New People's Party)
Lee Cheuk-yan (Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China)
Leung Kwok-hung (League of Social Democrats)
Emily Lau Wai-hing (Democratic Party)
James Tien Pei-chun (Liberal Party)

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Voting for Our Say

Today Hong Kong held its Legislative Council elections and for the first time I voted.

It is also the first time there are 40 of the 70 seats up for grabs which is why it's important for people to decide who they want to represent them, but also demonstrate to Beijing that we are responsible people who are ready for universal suffrage.

The polling station near where I live was clearly marked with a giant yellow banner and when I arrived around 12:15pm, there was a steady trickle of voters.

After checking in with our Hong Kong identification cards, we were given two ballots, one for the geographical constituency and the other for functional constituency, and a piece of board where a chop with a tick mark was attached to it.

It was strange for a polling station to have four makeshift cardboard booths, but oh well. Hong Kong isn't exactly known for flexing its democratic muscle.

The ballots were huge -- they contained all the names of the candidates in Chinese and English and included all their pictures as well. This is an interesting contrast to Canada where you are given a small piece of paper with the candidates' names and their party affiliation and that's it.

The ballots were then folded in half and inserted into the respective boxes.

However I have to say it was very difficult to decide who to vote for.

There are so many pan-democrat parties running that their platforms are quite similar, so why break out into different groups? Why not band together to make their voice stronger?

The other issue was that while most of the parties were concerned about national education (a dead issue for now), housing and the economy, none of them seemed to have strong opinions about the environment which was disappointing.

Some parties tacked on the environment at the end of their list of concerns as an afterthought than a priority.

While jobs, housing and the economy are important, so is breathing relatively clean air and having green environments to live in.

In the end none of the parties were particularly aligned to my beliefs, but I eventually decided on one.

It'll be interesting to see the results when they come out tomorrow. Some are predicting a strong pan-democrat reaction as a response to the anti-China sentiment, but which pan-democrats? With so many to choose from, they have certainly diluted their own vote.

In any event, it was also interesting to see candidates do their last-ditch campaigning today, speaking into bullhorns or their campaign cars and trucks going up and down streets.

I really hope more people come out to vote today. If anything we need to show Beijing we are a civil society that is mature enough to handle free elections.

It cannot keep holding us back. Because if they push back the date again (now it's 2017), we're just going to protest even more. If they were scared of Friday night's sit-in at Tamar protesting against national education, imagine what the turnout would be for universal suffrage?

Saturday, 8 September 2012

The People 1, Leung Chun-ying 0

Does that look like 36,000 people to you or 100,000?
The people have spoken and the Hong Kong government has backed down -- sort of.

A day after organizers said 100,000 people descended on the grounds of the government offices in Tamar -- practically all of them wearing black in protest against national education, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said that now it was up to schools to decide if they were going to offer the controversial course or not.

He made the announcement the evening before civic elections tomorrow and some critics are wondering if this is the government's last-ditch attempt to give a boost to pro-government candidates. Otherwise tomorrow's vote would have been a referendum on national education.

Or was it pressure from Beijing to resolve the issue as soon as possible because it was getting too embarrassing to see students on a hunger strike? Even film director John Sham Kin-fun, media tycoon Jimmy Lai Chee-ying and Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun attended the rally.

Police had claimed the numbers were around 36,000 but from the picture, how many do you think attended?

In any event Leung tried to worm his way out of the issue, putting blame on his predecessor Donald Tsang Yam-kuen for passing on this hot potato in the first place.

"I would rather concentrate on housing, poverty and other livelihood issues, because there is no such thing as national education in my election platform," he said.

If there was no national education in his platform, then why did Leung wait until now to claim that?

His attempt to pass the buck makes him look complicit to Beijing; he could have tried to make it look like he was trying to get national education off the agenda, but he went along with it since taking office.

In any event Leung's announcement is not a complete victory to the protesters who will continue their occupation of Tamar until national education is totally scrapped.

National Education was totally flawed from the beginning.

While it's true Hong Kong students don't know much about China, there should have been greater discussion about the content and how it would be taught.

Making students learn the anthem is fine, but having flag-raising ceremonies is soo PRC.

They can learn the basics of how the Chinese government structure is set up, but when it's pretty opaque, how do you even teach that without a hint of derision? And not even mentioning June 1989 is completely absurd for Hong Kong.

And why were two pro-Beijing companies owned by one person given millions of dollars to set the syllabus?

The other big issue was how students would be graded for the course. There was talk about giving marks according to how fervent they were when singing the anthem...

The Hong Kong government totally misread this issue.

Officials probably thought they could easily take on students who would be more concerned about studying than taking to the streets.

But they were dead wrong.

The controversy over the issue, social networking sites and big names helped keep the fire alive for this protest.

The government should not underestimate any kind of dissatisfaction because people are are going to fight for what they want.

Perhaps if Hong Kong had universal suffrage things wouldn't be so contentious...

Friday, 7 September 2012

Playing His Own Tune

Pianist Yundi Li opens the HK Philharmonic Orchestra's season
Tonight was the season opener for the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra with pianist Yundi Li as the headliner.

I haven't seen him perform in years and some of my colleagues worried Li was slipping in quality in the last few years.

Was it precipitated by recording label Deutsche Grammophon dropping him in 2008 or after?

And then there are the obvious comparisons between him and his contemporary Lang Lang... they could not be more different.

Nevertheless, I was still keen to see Li as were many others who packed out the Concert Hall at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre.

The HKPO has a new music director, Jaap van Zweden, but tonight it was guest conductor Vassily Sinaisky setting the tone for the 2012-13 season.

He led the orchestra to a rousing Festive Overture, Op. 96 by Dmitri Shostakovich that was energetic and lively, particularly with the extensive percussion section.

Shostakovich wrote this a year after the death of Stalin, which for him led to the beginning of his rehabilitation after being officially condemned in the 1940s.

The piece was for the 37th anniversary of the October Revolution in 1954 and the commission was originally given to a minor Russian composer named Vasili Nebolsin.

However Nebolsin freaked out and as the deadline approached, he still hadn't composed the score.

He turned to Shostakovich who agreed to help and what came next was a flurry of activity from the composer who apparently wrote non stop and talked and made jokes at the same time.

Talk about multitasking.

The next piece was also by Shostakovich -- Symphony No. 9 in E flat major, Op. 70.

This time it was the wind instruments that were featured in the score and again the first movement was full of energy and then dissipated into a slow movement, followed by a haunting third movement with lots of brass playing ominous-sounding notes and then ended quickly in a militaristic-sounding fourth part.

During the 20-minute intermission, I waited in line for the loo and overheard two angry "bus uncles" verbally sparring with each other.

One was complaining that the other made a lot of noise during the concert, while the other retorted that he was not allowed to get something out of his bag? That he was not allowed to drink something?

The latter sounded very defensive, as if his human rights were trodden on, while the former was trying to point out that this was a concert situation where you were supposed to sit quietly. The ironic thing was that both were wearing T-shirts in this battle of sophistication.

Meanwhile the Cultural Centre staff didn't seem to know how to diffuse the situation -- they were obviously not given training for incidents like these and the two men kept shouting at each other for a while.

Eventually the argument died down and I didn't see what happened in the end except the hallway was much quieter without them.

Finally the grand piano was rolled out and Sinaisky accompanied Li out onto the stage.

Li had cut his hair, which in a way took away some of his personality, but he was still his same skinny self.

He performed Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 23, the first few bars of which most of us recognize.

At first it seemed Li was nervous, as he rushed at the beginning, but then he calmed down and focused on playing with the orchestra.

However, his chords and arpeggios sounded muddy or did he make a few mistakes? I don't know the score well enough to determine that.

He was very focused on the task at hand -- if he had a free moment, he was already working his fingers on the keyboard to prepare for his next entry into the music again.

Li is definitely not an exuberant performer while Lang would be very dramatic with his hand gestures and body movement, intently swaying with the music and taking his audience along with him.

On the whole Li still plays technically very well and after he got over his jitters he played well.

But when his performance was over, Li looked more relieved than elated which was strange.

We all clapped nonstop after he and the conductor exited and re-entered the stage several times and each time Li bowed until the lights went up and we realized we'd get no encore.

This was very disappointing, considering Li is the adopted son of Hong Kong, receiving residency in the city in 2006.

Would it have hurt to have played a short one to two minute piece for us?

Maybe Li prefers to project the image of a pure artist who will only play what he wants to play and that's it.

In interviews and profiles on him, it seems he shuns sponsorships and even talking to the media to avoid promoting himself, perhaps preferring his music speak for him instead.

In any event we enjoyed seeing Li again, though sometimes you have to give the audience a bit of a teaser to make them want more of you; Li didn't seem to want to flirt with the crowd.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Gourmet Gem

Crouching statues greet you at TRB in the courtyard
When I lived in Beijing, I would treat myself to a gourmet meal at Maison Boulud in Qianmen.

That was high-end French dining at its best -- in China.

And the personable manager at the time was Belgian Ignace Lecleir and he seemed interested in getting to know all the guests in the room in the hopes they'd come back.

The contemporary interior is a contrast to the traditional temple
Or come to his restaurant.

Not long after my second visit to the restaurant, he'd left and didn't know where we went.

It wasn't until after I left Beijing did he open his own restaurant called TRB or Temple Restaurant Beijing nine months ago.

He said it took him a while to find the space, and when he did, he didn't know what to do with it. He created his office in here and for a few months tried to figure out what to do with it, though he did know he wanted to do contemporary European cuisine.

Sardines done two ways with avocado salad
It is an exciting and scary venture for him as he poured his money into this restaurant and has some silent partners, many of whom are regular customers.

TRB is a bit hard to find, but once you do, it's all worth the effort and more.

Following the directions on the website, it's west of the National Art Museum of Meishuguan. Keep walking west until you see an ICBC bank. When you see it, turn right onto the street and keep walking down the small street filled with hutongs and small shops until you reach a gray building that has the TRB signage on your left.

And once you walk through the threshold you discover a place with dynamic contrasts of old and new. The shell of the 600-year-old temple remains in tact while contemporary Chinese sculptures greet you in the courtyard.

King crab and fine herb raviolis with celeriac puree
To get inside the restaurant, you pass through a glass door area where the long bar is and down a corridor on the left that leads to the main dining area filled with banquettes and table seating. The floor-to-ceiling windows allow natural sunlight in and modern art graces the white-washed walls.

And that's only the interior.

I managed to sample a number of dishes on my visit here on a Monday afternoon and the three-hour lunch paired with wines was memorable.

For starters the curried cauliflower soup with whipping cream had bits of apple hidden underneath for a bit of a crunch. It was light and smooth, not too rich.

Next came a refreshing dish of sardines done two ways -- one very lightly pan-fried, the other marinated and topped with pine nuts and raisins accompanied with an avocado salad. Although a tad salty, this was pretty much a winner.

Roasted seabass with black truffles was divine
The king crab and fine herb raviolis, celeriac puree and brown butter looked pretty on the plate, but was dry despite the cream sauce, which was a pity. Also the skins were on the tough side and could have been made much thinner.

Nevertheless we were thoroughly impressed with the roasted Australian black cod topped with slices of black truffle. The fish was perfectly cooked, resulting in a tender sweet taste in each bite.

The final main course was confit of suckling pig, with courgette, aubergine, pine nuts and raisins. We loved the presentation of the pork, a generous square slice with the russet-coloured skin that made it very enticing to bite into, the meat very moist. It was a hearty dish that summed up the ingredients for autumn.

While the restaurant has a selection of over 700 wines including local and overseas, it has also sourced locally-made cheeses and imports them too.

Roasted suckling pig with pine nuts and raisins
For dessert we had a dacquoise, or layered dessert cake, shaped more like a bar with Caraibe chocolate and hazelnut caramel that went well with Tawny Port.

After our meal we were shocked to discover through Lecleir that the chef is not an expat, but Chinese national. He'd worked with Lecleir at Maison Boulud and previous to that? Morel's, a Belgian restaurant serving mostly steaks with frites, stews and mussels.

Pretty impressive.

Lecleir believes his chef has talent and the passion to cook and so he is keen to take his chef to New York to get more exposure to what's happening in the food scene there and at the same time sourcing high quality local products. Ideally Lecleir would love to have his own farm to grow his own produce, but that will be a long-term project.

Dacquoise of chocolate and hazelnut caramel for dessert
He has also put enormous faith into his staff, as he doesn't speak Mandarin (though his young children do). And so he relies on trusting them to help him with his business and so far so good.

23 Shatan Beije, off Wusi Dajie
Dongcheng district
(86 10) 8400 2232

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Miscellaneous Observations

Catch a flight and buy a car at the airport
From what I could see, Beijing is still bumbling along despite signs of an economic slowdown.

Restaurants like Din Tai Fung are doing a roaring business before 6pm, and Da Dong Roast Duck is serving dishes on Dragon Air.

However there are some empty store fronts and particularly at Panjiayuan many temporary stalls were not occupied which was unusual.

What is also interesting is that many of my local friends told me of their employers, state-owned enterprises, soliciting employees for new ways to make more money.

Seems like the good old days of stimulus packages and subsidies may be over.

Nevertheless for the most part my friends seem to be doing well, finding their way through the system or taking a break from it by studying abroad, mostly on scholarships.

It's those who break away from the state-owned enterprises who begin to flourish because they see possibilities outside the system.

Those left behind seem stagnant though the salary is steady, perks are not bad, but there is hardly a chance for promotion or change.

Watch out for the manhole cover!
Hopefully those who escape the state system will be able to find their feet in more progressive companies; or if anything realize the possibilities of doing things differently.

And French car maker Citroen is trying to stand out from the crowd.

I was surprised to see the car showcased at Beijing Capital International Airport.

It came complete with a young well-dressed woman manning the booth, though she didn't seem keen at doing her job.

But who is going to buy a car at the airport?

Or is this a marketing ploy to get all touchy feely with potential customers who have the money to fly?

Perhaps, but seemed strange.

Another anomaly is seeing road projects left unfinished, particularly sidewalks.

Why are they making sidewalks so hazardous to walk on?

A not quite finished curb that can be dangerous at night
That's because many of the sidewalks that are paved with bricks aren't all finished properly, especially at the curbs. And those places surrounding manholes aren't properly finished either.

The worst part is trying to walk home at night and not being able to see the uneven pavement in front of you and possibly tripping.

It seemed that the stretch from where my hotel was, at Dongsishitiao all the way east towards Sanlitun, either the edges of the sidewalk were unfinished or the curbs.

Even worse, some have extra bricks lying around near the holes and no one finishing the job off.

Very annoying.

Oh well, as I say, TIC -- This Is China.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

The Power of Weibo

A friend eagerly told me today about the power of weibo, or the Chinese version of Twitter.

She believes this is the best way for people to voice their opinions, particularly criticisms of officials and using this form of social media to make them accountable.

A recent example she cited was about a party official from the Yuexiu district government in Guangzhou who got into a physical and verbal fight with a flight attendant.

Fang Daguo, 41, was boarding a China Southern Airlines flight from Hefei, Anhui province to Guangzhou with his wife last Wednesday.

He allegedly confronted flight attendant Zhou Yumeng because she had told the couple to put their luggage away in the overhead compartment but did not help them.

Zhou posted her side of the incident on Weibo, saying that Fang verbally threatened her, saying he had good relations with her boss, and that he bruised her arm after he grabbed it. She also cried in the incident.

In her post, she said she did not want financial compensation, but an apology.

And as expected, he said nothing.

Chinese netizens or internet users were all angered after reading Zhou's version of the events and demanded Fang apologize.

But now we hear the ending of the story -- China Daily is reporting that Fang has now been suspended and that he, a political commissar for the Yuexiu district Armed Forces Department, is being investigated.

There were rumours that Zhou was fired from her job, but China Southern Airlines says she still works for the company.

It's victories like these that make netizens excited about their ability to influence the government and make its officials more accountable for their actions.

In Fang's case, if the allegations are true, it's just another official who thinks it's beneath him to take orders from someone else and believes guanxi will save him.

That kind of arrogance is exactly what the Chinese hate the most.

And they will make sure these officials get what they think they deserve -- a public flogging online.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Lost and Found

Looking out at Dongsishitiao around 10am on Monday
Today was absolutely gorgeous -- after the rains the sky was so clear and blue today it was amazing this was Beijing.

Friends had told me that just before I arrived the air was so polluted, with no wind to clear the air or rain to wash the dust away.

Mao just barely visible behind the green sheeting
It wasn't too hot and perfect to walk outside which is what I did.

Before lunch I paid a quick visit to Tiananmen Square but was disappointed to see the Gate of Heavenly Peace with Chairman Mao's portrait obscured by green scaffolding. Perhaps they are fixing up the area before the 18th National People's Congress, the date of which has yet to be revealed.

The square itself is looking less like a square and more like a concrete park with large rectangular screens broadcasting feel-good images of China, and more greenery perhaps to soften up its image. However there are intense security checks just to get into the square which completely deters anyone from even thinking of doing something that could cause a ruckus.

I crossed over to the north side and walked towards Wangfujing. Many people were eating yogurt popsicles, hanging out on street benches napping or chatting amongst themselves.

Wangfujing is just as commercial as it's always been. While Louis Vuitton and Gucci don't have an overt presence, stores like Nike, Van Cleef & Arpels, Hermes and Zara are there.

Security guard getting his shade thanks to McDonald's
And when a security guard has a McCafe umbrella to shade him from the sun, there must be some kind of guanxi between the government and McDonald's...

However people mostly wandered up and down the street gawking at the high-end merchandise.

While we didn't really need it today, all along the pedestrian-only path there are these tall metal machines with vents spewing cool mist.

It's a great idea to beat the heat, but is it really environmentally friendly, having these machines using energy to pump out mist that immediately evaporates?

Nevertheless, it was even more entertaining seeing some country bumpkins visiting the area, point at the machines and wonder what they were for. They probably thought those city folk just can't take the heat.

An energy-guzzling mist-making machine
Perhaps my happiest moment today was when I got my watch repaired.

Five years ago when I first lived in Beijing, I went to a repair shop in Wangfujing to get my watch fixed.

The repair man chastised me for not taking better care of my watch, exclaiming how dirty it was. He replaced a part and cleaned the watch as good as new and warned me not to get it wet.

But five years later, my watch would stop and start in the last few months and then yesterday the hands refused to move.

So I took it to Wangfujing, hoping the repair shop would still be there -- and it was!

The same repair man wasn't there, but a cheery one who meticulously took apart my watch, checked several parts and then revealed that one of them was broken and needed to be replaced. I can't remember if it was the same one, but I was relieved when the watch started working again.

He didn't criticize me for the state of my watch but cleaned it carefully before putting it back together.

I was so thrilled the watch was fixed as I've had it for at least a dozen years and find no reason to replace it.

The watch repair guy examining my timepiece
However my joy was short lived when I walked to the end of Wangfujing to a hutong where a friend had taken me to for dinner once.

It was purportedly the first restaurant in Beijing after the end of the Cultural Revolution and the beginning of reform and opening up in the late 1970s.

I don't remember the food being good, but very oily, however it was just the historical pedigree of the place that made it special. And it was filled with laobaixing or ordinary people who were probably residents in the area.

So I was sad to see the hutong surrounded by a metal wall and the hutong was demolished.

Where did the restaurant go? Where did the people go?

It's the sad reality of development in Beijing...