Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Is China Headed for a Crash Landing?

China's trying to track where all its yuan went, or rather where it disappeared
The buck -- or shall we say the yuan -- stops here.

There are more and more signs coming from the motherland that the economy is going to go bust very soon.

One of them is Premier Li Keqiang recently ordering for a nation-wide audit on how much debt the country has... if you don't know what it is already, that's a scary thought.

Since early 2009 when Beijing pumped 4 trillion yuan ($586 billion) into its economy, growth sustained and even grew, thanks to massive spending in building infrastructure such as highways, airports, roads, as well as property development, and eventually trickling down to corrupt officials who grabbed a piece of the pie that many promptly spent on casino tables in Macau and elsewhere.

That massive stimulus also led to excessive overproduction in goods, everything from plastic basins and clothing to cars and cement.

The Chinese government had hoped that average citizens would mop up the overcapacity by finally stop saving money and start spending; but with the lack of a solid social welfare system in place, particularly health care, the public hardly budged.

Part of it was their skepticism in the government, but also in the goods... were they trustworthy? They'd rather go to Hong Kong or elsewhere to get what they perceived to be higher quality products...

Li Keqiang recently ordered an audit of the country's debt
And because of overcapacity, companies aren't able to sell off their goods, and as a result aren't able to pay off their creditors which means banks are unable to loan more money out and keep the economy moving... the central government recently loosened bank deposit ratios, but that hasn't help that much...

The government has also ordered more than 1,400 companies in 19 industries to cut capacity, and some of these firms will have to shut down. The sectors include steel, copper smelting, cement and paper.

So that is where we are at now... it's a basic sketch of the situation and it looks pretty bleak. And it's going to severely impact Hong Kong very soon since it depends so much on the mainland market for its economic growth.

Already we are seeing property prices fall here, particularly for luxury flats, though moderately-priced ones will probably remain steady since there is a strong demand as young people want to enter the real estate market.

So it will be interesting to see how the rest of the year pans out. The first sign will probably come from Macau's casino profits, followed by luxury market sales figures. Perhaps the rich really are pulling out in droves, or they are stashing their cash elsewhere.

In the meantime we are curious to see what kind of debt figures China will come up with and how its leaders are going to deal with what we expect to be a staggering number...

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Sore Loser?

Hong Kong's "Superman" won't be spinning the media on Thursday
Tycoon Li Ka-shing has announced that he won't be holding court on Thursday, talking to the press after the interim results.

This is the first time in 20 years that Li will not make pronouncements that will make headlines the next day. Instead he'll only be talking to financial analysts.

Why is that we wonder?

Is it because he doesn't want to say if his company Hutchison Whampoa is giving up on Hong Kong because it's mulling selling Park N Shop, even though it's a good strategic move?

Surely he'd relish the opportunity to laugh at the barrage of media and tell them how much he loves Hong Kong?

So it can't be that.

Oh wait -- Li didn't make himself available at both the Cheung Kong and Hutchison annual general meetings either in May.

Could it be that he's still pissed off at how the media portrayed him and his companies during the dock workers' container terminal strike back in March?

Someone doesn't seem interested in taking the opportunity and spinning it to his advantage... or is it a a sign someone is a sore loser?

Monday, 29 July 2013

Just Don't Blame the Military

Blame management, not the military for flight delays
It was recently revealed that some mainland airports, particularly Beijing and Shanghai, have the world's worst record for delays.

According to statistics from FlightStats, a US-based website with flight and airport information, mainland airports accounted for the top seven in terms of flight cancellations, and for the top eight in delays, among all departure airports in Asia and the Pacific region in the past month.

Beijing Capital International Airport has the distinction of recording delays or cancellations for more than 16,000 flights arriving at the airport, and about 20,000 departing in the past three years.

The statistics are staggering, but we all know it's because the Chinese military claim the airspace as theirs and commercial airlines must wait before they can get the clear to use it. Also, once there's fog or snow or heavy rain, many Chinese pilots have no clue how to deal with these severe weather conditions.

In any event, instead of naming the military for causing many of the delays and cancellations, the government prefers management to take 42 percent of the blame, air traffic control measures 26 percent, bad weather 21 percent and military restrictions 7 percent.

The report also said civilian aviation uses 34 percent of the mainland skies, while the military uses 25 percent. Apparently no flights are allowed in the remaining 41 percent.

What does that mean? Is 41 percent of Chinese airspace being underused? Or is this a state secret?

The authorities claim the increasing number of flights have put a strain on management and security at airports, while others say there aren't enough routes and airports.

Does China really need more airports? The country seems to be running at overcapacity at just about everything. They don't even have enough qualified pilots to fly planes. And every time I go through security in Beijing Capital International Airport, it's a breeze...

It's just amusing to see China trying to spin the story. Some of the delays and cancellations can be attributed to poor management, but really, military restrictions should be taking a bigger piece of the blame pie.

Until the military changes its mind on its control over China's airspace, delays and cancellations will continue, along with violent meltdowns and tens of thousands of passengers questioning if the civil aviation industry can really cope with ever-increasing demand.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Pain in the Mouth

About a month ago I experienced the worst pain one can experience in your mouth and it took several weeks to dissipate.

At that time I ate dinner with YTSL at Tung Po, a dai pai dong in North Point. I wrote about it here. However, the next day and the day after I felt a kind of pain in the roof of my mouth and thought that I had probably eaten too much of the eggplant from the sizzling hot plate.

The pain was not searing; it was an annoying pain that made it hard to eat, so I had to put pieces of food in my mouth like a child in order to eat. But after that, the pain got worse -- so much so I could barely even drink water.

It turns out I had burned the roof of my mouth and tongue, and I was about to go on a family trip to the east coast of the United States. Needless to say I lost plenty of weight, not just because I couldn't eat, but because I was in so much pain -- which varied from hour to hour, day by day -- that I lost my appetite to eat.

I could only drink cold water and milk and perhaps some yogurt, but a smoothie was actually too painful to down, believe it or not. Sleeping was difficult too because the pain was constant and thankfully because we were out all day sightseeing and doing things, being exhausted was what helped me fall asleep, most of the time.

After over a week I got myself checked out in the emergency room in New York. Luckily there wasn't much of a wait to see the doctor, who took a relatively quick look and determined that the roof of my mouth wasn't infected (thank God), and that the dead skin was sloughing off the roof of my mouth and tongue; the new skin emerging underneath, made it particularly sensitive which was the pain I was experiencing.

All he recommended was that I get some Chloraseptic and spray it in my mouth to numb the pain in order to eat. Thankfully the bill was $150 considering I had no insurance.

Once I sprayed my mouth, there was an immediate numbing sensation and my window of opportunity to eat was very short. So I'd spray my mouth and then try to scoff down as much soft food as I could (with some dull pain). After a while the numbness would slowly go away and then I'd have to wait another two hours to be able to spray again if need be.

Although the bottle recommended only using it for two days, I used it for about five days. The pain eventually got duller and duller and everyday I would discover I could eat certain foods, like cold boiled eggs, watermelon, the inside of a bagette and lots of ice water.

And then I could eat carefully on one side of my mouth because my tongue on the right side was still in pain. By the end of my trip I could finally eat a three-course meal.

May we also add it was painful brushing my teeth? Tears would well up in my eyes in the first few days, but finally I could even use mouth wash without it stinging so much.

But during that time I came to really appreciate my mouth! I thought about how I used to conduct a lot of food tastings several times a week and when I think about it, I took my mouth for granted. I just popped things in my mouth and decided if it tasted good or not and wrote about it.

And while I was in pain, I didn't complain about not being able to eat gourmet food, but tried to figure out ways to cope and also eat something to keep my body going.

Another aspect was that it was bizarre having pain in my mouth but also being able to do everything else, walk around, see interesting things, take pictures of them and listen to talks. I just couldn't respond or communicate back. I was practically a mute for almost two weeks. I listened a lot and talked minimally. In a way it made me focus more on what was around me instead of what was going on in my mouth.

By now you must think I have some kind of oral fixation, but I don't! I'm just saying I have a new appreciation for my mouth! And now with everything pretty much back to normal, the feeling of the roof of my mouth is a bit different; my tongue looks beautiful too, may I add!

I seem to have a preference for cold drinks now, or is it because it's summer?

And I'll make sure I never eat sizzling hot things again!!! I also signed up for travel medical insurance...

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Jilted Lover Seeks Revenge

Fan Yue kisses Ji Yingnan on one of their getaway trips
Chinese President Xi Jinping is still continuing his crusade to battle against corruption in the Party, but he still has quite an uphill battle.

However, he may get some help from an interesting source -- jilted mistresses, xiao san or "little three".

The latest story is 26-year-old TV host Ji Yingnan, who revealed to the Washington Post about her relationship with a senior central government official in Beijing.

She discovered at the end of last year that her fiance was actually married and had a teenage son the entire time they were together.

He lavished the young woman with cars, shopping sprees and gave her more than $1,000 in cash from the first day they met. She believed him when he told her he was working in IT, but in fact is Fan Yue, deputy director at the State Administration of Archives. He is now under investigation.

"I never imagined that the one I loved so much, the one I gave so much love to, the one who lived four years with me, would become my enemy one day," she said to the Washington Post.

On the day of their "engagement" party
She has already released hundreds of pictures online, including a video where her paramour splurged on a lavish engagement party. After dinner, he presented her a massive bouquet of flowers and had the diamond ring brought into the karaoke private room by a remote-controlled toy car.

But we have to wonder -- who's fooling who?

Surely Ji isn't that naive to think she really was in love with a man who had her as a "kept woman"?

And as a senior government official, wouldn't Fan be nervous having so much photographic documentation of their relationship? Or was this is moment of hubris to ask a woman to marry him even though he has a wife and kid? Or his mid-life crisis?

As you can tell we feel neither sympathy nor indignation. We can only shake our heads and wonder what planet these people are on.

It seems corrupt officials are still playing the "hope-they-don't-catch-me" game. They are either not taking Xi's anti-corruption drive seriously or playing with fire.

Either way we continue to be gobsmacked by how much money these wayward officials manage to embezzle from public coffers and how tacky their parties and clothes are...

Friday, 26 July 2013

Crafty Fun

My first mosaic made last Friday evening
The company I work for periodically organizes social events for employees on evenings and weekends.

Most of the activities are sports related, such as volleyball, badminton, football (soccer), and even war games.

Gathering coloured tiles together and then arranging them
I wasn't particularly interested in them because I play badminton as if I'm playing tennis, I had my fill of volleyball during university, and definitely not into football or war games. But when there was an announcement about a mosaic class, I was keen to sign up.

And it turns out many others were too, so the organizers had to open a second class which I attended last Friday night.

It was held in a rented out classroom in a non-descript office building in Mongkok and all the attendees were women except for two men.

Carefully gluing each piece onto the frame
While the classroom next door was used for a magic class, we did some tricks of our own in creating crafty works of art from small broken tiles.

Before the class we had to choose what we'd like to do our mosaic on -- a round or rectangular wooden box or picture frame.

And before we started we had to think of a design using the coloured pieces in front of us. I had grand dreams of doing my piece de resistance for my first mosaic, but the materials we were given were small tiles that weren't particularly brilliant colours. Oh well. What do you expect for a HK$50 ($6.45) fee?

So I settled on a heart-shaped design to keep things simple. We first had to gather the coloured tile pieces we wanted to use for our design, and so I collected a combination of red and orange pieces. For the area around the heart, I picked out shades of blue, green, mauve, gray and white.

Pushing grouting in between the tiles
Then we placed them on our box lid or frame to see how they looked and then had the tedious task of gluing them with regular white school glue. After they were all attached (somewhat), we had to dry them using a hairdryer.

This was perhaps the most tedious part because we had to make sure they were completely dry and stuck on the wood, but this was not always the case as we found out in the final step.

Then our friendly instructors made batches of grouting for us and using our fingers, had to fill the gaps between the small tiles with the grouting.

It was a pretty messy step, and those fashion plates who had manicured nails weren't keen on getting their hands dirty and strangely disappeared... so the instructors picked up their pieces and helped finish them off which was too kind of them.

The finished product waiting for stuff to be put in it
When we had finished filling the cracks with grouting, we used a wet tissue to wipe the tiles clean again, another tedious process, but made the results of our work come out two and a half hours later. Before we left our instructors took pictures of our work and placed them in clear plastic bags for us to take home. I clutched mine in the rainy street and proudly admired my first mosaic on the bus ride home.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

The Bo Xilai Saga Continues

We will soon know Bo Xilai's fate now that he has been indicted, trial to come.
After months of speculation, fallen Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai has finally been formally charged.

As reported earlier by a Hong Kong media outlet, Bo was indicted on criminal charges of bribery, corruption and abuse of power, taking about $3.3 million in bribes and embezzling another almost $1 million as a senior official. The charges also claim the bribes came from Xu Ming, a billionaire from Dalian, where Bo had been mayor. Xu is also expected to be criminally charged.

The charges were filed today in a court in Jinan, capital of Shandong province. This now paves the way for a trial date to be set, which could be at a minimum only weeks away.

This latest development follows from the other formal announcements that were made last year; on March 15, Bo was removed at Chongqing party boss and then the following month on April 10 he was ousted by his colleagues in the Politburo and the party central committee. Finally on September 28 he was stripped of his party membership, thus allowing for a government criminal investigation.

These formalities were done because of Bo's "mistakes and responsibilities" regarding his police chief Wang Lijun who fled to the US Consulate in Chengdu and Bo's wife Gu Kailai who was convicted of murdering Briton Neil Heywood and is now serving a suspended death sentence or life in prison. Wang was convicted of defection and is serving 15 years in jail.

Bo's case is a highly complex one, and as some legal experts note, his lawyers apparently haven't been allowed to see him yet. How is this rule of law for such a high profile case?

There is also speculation to what extent Bo's trial will be made public. Will it be a show trial like his wife's? Swift or extensive? Will Bo follow the script or will he talk off the cuff and spill more secrets during his testimony?

We will be awaiting to see when his trial date is, which could be as early as mid-August. It will finally be the beginning of the end of the Bo saga, that has gripped China and the rest of the world with corruption, power, sex and money. Did we mention his kid Bo Guagua is probably holed up somewhere in the United States, probably for the rest of his life?

The intrigue continues...

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Ai Weiwei's Never Sorry

The poster for Alison Klayman's documentary on Ai Weiwei
I just came back from watching the documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry that won the Special Jury Prize 2012 at the Sundance Film Festival.

In the 91-minute film, first-time director Alison Klayman follows the prolific artist, activist, father and husband for two years from about 2008 when an exhibition of photographs he took during his time in New York were shown to when he was released after being detained for 81 days in 2011.

Incidentally I did see that photo exhibition and was held at Three Shadows Photography Art Centre in Chaochangdi, just past the Fifth Ring Road and was struck by how he captured protests at the time and his photographs of everything -- even the mundane -- sowed the seeds for his art in the future, that anything can be documented, anything can be art.

Ai likes to document everything, even the filmmaker
He came to prominence internationally just before the Beijing Olympics in 2008 when he denounced the Games as being fake. Many were surprised that such a well-known artist was speaking out at such a sensitive time, but he was speaking the truth -- how hutongs were being demolished and migrants moved out of the capital to present a perfect picture of the city.

Ai's activism really emerged after the May 2008 Sichuan earthquake. In the documentary he said he blogs everyday, more than one article per day but when the quake happened, he could not write for a week.

And when the government refused to release the exact number of students who died in what people call shoddily-built or "tofu" schools, Ai sprang into action, calling for volunteers on the ground to collect the names of the victims, one by one.

In the end they managed to get over 5,000 names and he placed their name, gender, age and their birth date on large pieces of paper and pasted together. It's a terrible testament to what happened and outrageous that the government has done nothing to acknowledge these deaths.

One of Ai's pieces features 9,000 colourful backpacks that were placed outside an art museum in Munich which spell out the phase "she was happy for seven years". It comes from a mother who wanted her child to be remembered for though having a short life, she was happy for all seven years.

In an elevator with the police after his beating in Sichuan
We also sort of see the documentation of his beating in Sichuan when he tried to testify in earthquake activist Tan Zuoren's trial with witnesses and sound recordings, but also see him in a Munich hospital complaining of a severe headache and it was from the beatings he sustained.

His fascination with the internet is also shown in the film, blogging and tweeting -- the latter constantly. He seems obsessed with documenting everything, particularly his beating and the aftermath. As one of his artist friends says, the government is a bunch of hooligans so Ai acts like a hooligan too. He seems to know how to deal with them -- which is basically shove things back in their face.

While they film him, he films them filming him -- or rather his assistants do. While this looks amusing, Ai points out his documenting this is more effective because it's posted online whereas the police's record is for internal use only. Ai is keen to show how brutal, pathetic, bureaucratic and terrorizing the government is to him, so imagine how much more horrible they are in how they treat ordinary people.

Painting some of the millions of ceramic sunflower seeds
And just as he prepares for his Tate Modern exhibition featuring 100 million hand painted ceramic sunflower seeds, the 2010 Nobel Peace prize is awarded to Liu Xiaobo and Ai looks overwhelmed but elated, talking non stop to the press about it. Ai does not understand why someone who posted six articles online should be jailed for 11 years; his observation makes viewers stop and realize what kind of totalitarian regime he is dealing with.

There's also the softer side of Ai, seeing him with his son, Ai Lao. He fathered the child with another woman who insisted on keeping the baby when she told him she was pregnant. While we don't see his wife Luo Qing's reaction, he takes full responsibility of the child's well being though he visits the child daily. It's a strange arrangement, that even Ai is at a loss of words to explain to a British journalist.

Then when he was going to fly to Hong Kong he was suddenly detained at the airport. Director Klayman was madly trying to finish editing the film at the time because he was going to go to New York for the opening of his Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads (which I also saw two years ago). He disappeared and there were worldwide protests.

He likes to blog, but tweet even more so everyday
When he was finally released late at night, he returned back, but looked shaken and was too scared to say anything about his detention, not wanting to tempt his fate again.

But months later he was back online and doing media interviews, just not leaving Beijing. The documentary kind of ends there, and makes you wonder what his experience was like being offline and isolated for 81 days. However, his recent exhibition at the Venice Biennale kind of explains it as he made miniature dioramas of what he went through which is fascinating, yet not surprising he would do something like that.

Ai admits he doesn't like producing his own work and has an army of staff to do it. One of them interviewed likens it to being an assassin. He says that Ai pays him money to execute his work for him.

When asked about his cat-and-mouse game with the government, Ai says he's like chess player, looking to see what his move his opponent is going to make. Before he was was beaten up, he claims he is not fearless but fearful because he knew of the potential dangers.

First time director Alison Klayman
While he claims his family hasn't shaped his art, his father has a looming presence, having been severely persecuted in the 1950s and 60s. He said after his family was released from doing hard labour, his father tried to commit suicide many times. Watching his father being publicly denounced and punished surely had some effect on Ai.

He casually makes the statement, "Life is more interesting when you make a bit of effort". And Klayman said after the screening that Ai is non-stop, constantly having projects on the go.

He has definitely spurred me to try to do more and be more productive. Definitely a force to be reckoned with. We look forward to whatever he does next.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Word of the Day: BMW

The new buzz word in Hong Kong is BMW -- not Bavarian Motor Works, but Blame My Wife.

First it was Henry Tang Ying-yen, who claimed it was his wife's idea to build an illegal basement of 2,400 square feet in their Kowloon Tong home to include a wine cellar, theatre, gym and a Japanese bath. Really? Would a woman really design a basement like that?

She has pleaded guilty and the case goes to trial next week.

And now we have Secretary for Development Chan Mo-po also doing a BMW. He admitted her personally acquired 20,000 square feet of agricultural land in Kwu Tung North 19 years ago and was director of the company that acquired it, until April 2011.

His wife Frieda Hui Po-ming was one of the three shareholders of the company until she sold her 37.5 percent stake last October to family members.

The land is part of an area which will be redeveloped into a new town; Chan's plot in particular will be zoned for public housing and is estimated to be worth HK$17 million.

What is going on here? Aren't senior officials supposed to declare all their assets before taking office?

Currently the rules require an executive councillor to declare the spouse's land and property only if the councillor has a beneficial interest in the assets. Political appointees like Chan only declare the spouse's name and occupation.

But it could be argued Chan could benefit from his wife's sale of her shares...

Why is there no one looking in best interests of the public except the media, in particular Apple Daily because it has an axe to grind with Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying?

The state of affairs in Hong Kong's government is shockingly bad. Doesn't anyone have any kind of integrity? Or is it just Secretary for Administration Carrie Lam because she can't say BMW?

Monday, 22 July 2013

Desperate Times, Desperate Measures

A screen shot of Ji Zhongxing before detonating the bomb
Two days ago a man set off a homemade bomb in the arrivals section of Terminal 3 in Beijing Capital International Airport.

He was in a wheelchair and just before he detonated the explosive, he warned people to get away from him to avoid deaths or injuries.

It was a terrible, violent statement in his desperation for justice, that resulted in the amputation of his arm.

But now security officials in Dongguan have been ordered to reopen the case into an alleged beating eight years ago that left then motorcycle taxi driver Ji Zhongxing paralyzed.

On his Weibo account, Ji claimed security officials beat him when he allegedly tried to evade a random security check while driving a motorcycle taxi. After the explosion, Dongguan officials stated that in March 2010, police had given Ji 100,000 yuan ($16,280) as compensation and that he had promised to drop any claims.

Ji's older brother, Ji Zhongji confirmed accepting the money. "We accepted it only when they told us that the money was intended to help us, and signed our names on a sheet of paper," he said, adding they didn't know what exactly was written on the paper because he was illiterate, while Ji Zhongxing could only read a little bit.

"We were then surprised when the officials warned us, as they held the paper in their hands, that we could make no further petitions. Otherwise we would have to bear full responsibility for anything that happened later."

From the other brother's account, it sounds like the two were taken advantage of because they were uneducated and didn't understand what was going on.

There is no doubt public sympathy has swayed in Ji Zhongxing's favour, but the fact that he had to get attention through a violent act shows how desperate people are.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has been talking about the "Chinese Dream". Does it include Ji and his terrible plight? There are many, many more people like Ji, which has led to one Caixin reporter have a guilty conscience in feeling like she hasn't done enough to represent ordinary people.

If the Party wants to remain in power, it needs to look after its people; battling corruption, or at least the semblance of it is not enough. Otherwise we are going to see more airport bombers and self-immolators, random killings and suicides.

Is this what the Communist Party wants on its track record?

Remembering a Dear Friend

Diao Ying in June 2010
I just found out this afternoon that one of my friends in Beijing committed suicide -- over a month ago.

A mutual friend in the Chinese capital recently found out herself and made it her duty to tell me the sad news in a soundless online chat.

We sat in front of our computer screens communicating in shock and sadness.

Diao Ying was barely 30 years old and yet she was full of promise.

I met her a few months after I arrived in Beijing to work at China Daily in 2007. She contacted me by text and we met for lunch and I was immediately taken by this bright articulate young reporter who was already making waves in the business department.

We kept in touch, almost on a daily basis, complaining about the drudgery of our work, or how bureaucratic China was. And she would illuminate some interesting aspects of her motherland that would keep me further intrigued.

Meanwhile she longed to get out and see the world and I promised myself that I would help her in any way I could to facilitate this.

She later told me she was from Mongolia and because she was from an ethnic minority (a language she couldn't speak), her parents could have more than one child, and Ying has a younger sister.

Ying was academically inclined, that she passed her gaokao, or university entrance examinations and got into Renmin University in Beijing and studied English literature.

To sum up Ying, here is the draft of her unedited personal statement she wrote as part of her application to Stanford University's graduate program in journalism in December 2008:

Some say if one did not get enough of a food as a kid, he would love it as an adult. I guess that explains when I am so addicted to news.
I grew up in a small town in Inner Mongolia. There was no newsstand in the town. We have a 14-inch Sanyon TV at home, but there was only one channel, CCTV 1. Each night, around 7 pm, my family would watch the most popular news program over dinner as most Chinese do. It is popular not because it is interesting to watch, but because the program is the mouthpiece of the Party, and people watch to learn where the country is going. But as a kid, I only remember state leaders meet foreigner leaders everyday, shaking hands.
Eight years ago, I left that small town, came to Beijing. The country has changed a lot during the past years, but the program has changed little. The anchors are still the same, with the same hairstyle, the same serious, flat tone, and state leaders still shake hands at exactly 7 o'clock in the evening.    
My parents, who live in the town, still watch it every evening --- they have got used to it. But I have travelled around, worked in foreign media and State-owned newspaper. I've got to see China by myself.   
My first job after graduation was in a fashion magazine. I was an English literature student, looking for a job in news. The door to newsroom was closed but to fashion was open. I accepted the job as bilingual fashion editor, because it is similar with work of journalism. But I soon found that I love to wear beautiful clothes, but not to write about them. I am enchanted by the unusual stories happened to common people in daily life, not the frivolous life of super model.
Fortunately, I met someone in that company who has a much longer influence on me than the job itself. He is Leslie Charlton, a British reporter. By the time we met, he was over 70 years old, and has been in the business for half a century. Having worked as a correspondent on the Fleet Street in his twenties, then in eastern Europe, western Africa, and finally freelancing in Beijing, he refers to journalism as a "crazy business" but never left. He was my polisher, and we soon became good friends. I think he saw in me the young version of himself, who has the ambition of being the best journalist in the world, but lacks the experience, skill, and sometimes, makes silly mistakes. I simply wanted to live his life.
Thanks to Les, I sticked to news and found my second job one year later. It was with Mr Peter Goff, a correspondent for Sunday Telegraph in China. At that time he wrote features for the Telegraph and a media column for South China Morning Post about the development of media industry in mainland China. My job was to look for story ideas, find sources, and arrange interviews. 
So from a fashion editor, I turned to a news researcher, still, not a real reporter. When working on the media column, I interviewed the best reporters, editors, and the most successful media organizations in China. But unfortunately, the policy on media suddenly tightened in the winter of 2005. We talked with Li Datong, chief editor for Freezing Point, China's most famous feature column. Two weeks later, it got closed by the Propaganda Department. We met Chen Feng, who did the story about a college student in Guangzhou was beaten to death by the police. He is the pride of Chinese journalist because his work changed China's law making process. But his boss got into prison because local officials were angry about what he wrote.
I felt grateful to meet these people and was looking for inspiration from them as a novice in the industry. But Li, whose daughter was the same age as me, said he would never allow his daughter to work as a reporter. And Chen kindly suggested me not to work as a reporter in China if I could find another job.  These experiences taught me how the media in China works, and how some brave and talented Chinese reporters managed to keep faith and tell truth despite all kinds of hurdles. I thought I see in them myself in the future: exhausted and frustrated after a day's work, but the next morning, when I pick up your favorite pen and the yellow notebook,feel young and full of energy again because this is such an interesting country, with so many weired things happening every day.
Apart from the inspiration that I got from the reporters, I also started to practice as a reporter and learn to view China from the perspective of western reader. Working for a foreign media in China means danger itself. Shi Tao, the assistant for New York Times, got into jail for three years for releasing "state secret". But the more difficult part is that Chinese people still think western media are bad and biased, and they do not want to talk with us. Peter wanted to do a story about prison TV when I first started to work with him. I sent a fax during the first month, and I was still sending fax one week before I quit that job. They never replied, but I kept sending. 
I also learned some of the more basic things in journalism from him. Things like always ask for the full name of a person, get the basic facts accurate, get organized with your sources, and call up your journalist friends for a coffee ---- to learn what is going on. I never attended a journalism school, I learned these fundamental rules from the daily work.
It was an interesting year working with Peter, but I felt I could do more. I felt desperate to write stories on my own and see my own bylines.  But according to China's law, Chinese citizen could not work as a reporter in a foreign newspaper. Many news researchers for foreign news organizations turned to PR or consulting companies after several years, but I want to be a reporter. In addition, having interviewed so many Chinese reporters, I started to feel it is necessary to work within the system and learn how it really works. I also wanted to write in English so that the I will have more reader, so China Daily, the only national English newspaper, was the best choice.
I applied, passed the examination and became one of the two reporters selected by China Daily from thousands of candidates. I was assigned to the business department because they were short of hand. But I knew nothing about business. I accepted the offer happily for two reasons. First, learning something news is always appealing to me, and China'e economy is such an important topic. Second, I have learned that business reporting, compared with politics and society, is an area that is less controlled in China.
I read New York Times and Washington Post since college regularly, and I subscribed Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, and Economist after I decided to be a business reporter. My chief editor found my talent in features writing when I interned, so I got to write longer business features and profile while do daily reporting on trade and retail industries. For the past two years, I have talked with nearly all the major entrepreneurs in the country. China often appears on the cover of western magazine as a dragon with claws, and the experience as a business reporter here allows me a chance to see on my own.    
I went to New York last autumn and bought a book to memorize my first trip abroad, Travel with Herodotus, written by the Polish reporter Ryszard Kapuscinski. He spent most of his youth time in Africa and covered over 20 coups. Working for a cash-stripped Polish news agency, he was often reporting stories that his much richer Western colleagues missed. I was curious, how did he manage to do that?
On the airplane back to Beijing, I found Kapuscinski, who passed away last January, have one thing in common with the writer of Histories 2,000 years ago: they both have an instinct to inquire and tell. I thought we were the same kind of people, Herodotus, Kapuscinski, and me. Many people can look without seeing, listen without hearing. We chose not to do so, so we became journalist.   
Not surprisingly Ying was accepted into Stanford and we were deliriously elated. But soon the realization hit that she was not awarded a scholarship and nor did she have the money to pay for the tuition fees. Her parents were willing to give her their life savings for her to go to the Ivy League school, but she didn't want them to do that.

In the end she accepted a fellowship with New York University to study in the EU for a year. She was so excited to leave China and finally see the world, though she would miss her family, and her mother was most worried about her. She taught her parents how to use Skype so that they could be in contact everyday on the computer.

The last time I saw Ying in person was in September 2010 when she was in transit in Hong Kong on her way to London. We almost didn't meet because I couldn't locate her in the airport but when I finally did we had a big long hug. Over a small meal at Maxim's we tried to catch up in a few hours, but there was too much to say.

I received one or two postcards from her as well as a Christmas card -- perhaps the first time she'd ever sent one. After her fellowship was over, she managed to stay behind and write for China Daily and report on the Summer Olympics last year.

It wasn't until April she told me she was coming back to Beijing on orders from China Daily to go work at the Bangkok bureau. This was not something she wanted to do and after I asked her what was going on, she finally revealed that she had been verbally harassed by her male superior. I asked if touching was involved but she said no, but it sounded like she was devastated by not only one incident.

We were not there and Ying didn't disclose what was said, so we will never know what happened.

In my last online chat with her, Ying kept saying it was the end of the world, but I tried to persuade her otherwise, that she had to be strong, and she would overcome it with the love of her family and friends. I believed she could come out of this and become even stronger, but she was uncharacteristically pessimistic.

All we know is that on June 4 she jumped from the apartment building she lived in, located near China Daily. She apparently left a note for her boss but other than that we don't know exactly why she decided to end her life.

Perhaps she chose that day because it was the fourth anniversary of the day she quit China Daily to leave China. Ying told me that she had to get 15 signatures from different senior people in the company to officially release her and she managed to get all of them in one day. Maybe she associated this day with freedom.

Her employer gave some compensation to her parents, but we will never know what she wrote in the letter.

Ying -- why did you do this? Why did you not tell us what was going on? Why did you shut us out when we were willing to help you, to listen to you and to support you?

We all love you so much and will miss you dearly. I'm so sorry I only heard about your passing today. I hope you find your peace.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Forward-Thinking Design

The multi-talented and accomplished Le Corbusier
We did the thing in New York this summer -- wait for hours to check out the Rain Room as you can see in my earlier post.

But we also checked out the main museum and saw such favourites as Vincent van Gogh's The Starry Night, Henri Matisse's Dance (I), many of Pablo Picasso's works, including Les Desmoiselles d'Avignon, and of course Claude Monet's Water Lilies.

One of the many models of his designs in the exhibition
Meanwhile we checked out one of the special exhibitions on Le Corbusier, the first extensive retrospective MoMA has presented on the artist, architect, interior designer, city planner, photographer and writer. It's on until September 23.

He did 400 projects, including 75 buildings in 12 countries.

Le Corbusier was born Charles-Edouard Jeanneret and when he was young, his parents thought he'd follow his father and become a watch engraver, and so Le Corbusier enrolled into art school. But one of his teachers influenced him to go into architecture.

A recliner that Le Corbusier designed
He travelled extensively, constantly sketching what he saw and he left behind 80 sketchbooks filled with drawings and water colours. He had lots of ideas for private homes to social housing, and even designed furniture. One exhibit showed a small home he and his wife lived in up in the Swiss mountains. It's very tiny -- could be a flat in Hong Kong -- and he designed all the furniture inside that seemed more practical than stylish.

In 1920 Jeanneret adopted the name Le Corbusier, an altered form of his maternal grandfather's name Lecorbesier, believing a name would help reinvent himself.

Then just designing individual buildings was not enough -- Le Corbusier began thinking on a large scale of city districts and even entire municipalities, as Chandigarh, India, would attest to that. His ideas were so revolutionary, in that they had no historical anchor or precedence; they were fresh, modern and forward thinking.

The exhibition shows a film of him in his later years being interviewed in his studio by a young woman. As she asks him questions in French he gives what might have seemed like radical answers at the time in that he had no patience in talking about the past or having to explain himself.

Chandigarh's State Assembly is the focal point of the city
Sadly he died August 27, 1965 when he went out for a swim -- against doctor's orders -- in the Mediterranean Sea at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin in France. Nevertheless, we will continue to remember him as a force to be reckoned with, who had power and unconventional freedom of his ideas.

Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes
Until September 23
6/F, MoMA
New York

End of an Era: Met Buttons

Two of the last few metal tags that I got on my recent Met trip
In New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art used to issue these metal tags to visitors that also functioned as a mini souvenir.

But after June 30, the storied museum ended its 42-year run that started on January 1, 1971. The main reason is because the cost of metal has gone up, now costing three cents a button compared to two cents a few years ago.

Now people will be issued a sticker that costs a penny, allowing the museum to allocate more of its budget to exhibitions.

It's sad to see the tag go, but also sadly understandable.

We're just glad we were there to get two in the end as keepsakes.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Philly's Old School Charms

Beckoning us to come to the Museum
Culturally there's a lot Philadelphia has to offer, starting with our boutique hotel called Rittenhouse 1715 A Boutique Hotel. Located on a side street, it was formerly a carriage house, to store horse-drawn carriages.

Depicting Irish immigrants coming to the United States
Inside the place is very traditional decor with only 23 rooms on three floors. The basement has a small cafe for complimentary Continental breakfast, and there's a sitting area where hotel guests can have wine and cheese at 5pm.

At the hotel's advice, we took the Phlash bus, which is basically like a "hop on, hop off" bus, but without the commentary for $5 each. So that's what we did.

It goes in a long circular route, many of the stops that are parallel to each other, so if you missed a stop, you don't have to loop around the entire circuit.

This City Hall is the grandest one we've seen to date
One of the stops was Penn's Landing, and there is the Irish Memorial, a large bronze sculpture. It is dedicated to the more than 1 million people who died from 1845-50 because of the potato famine, and to the those Irish immigrants to managed to make it to the United States to establish new lives.

We also saw City Hall, the world's tallest masonry structure and the country's largest municipal building in Second Empire style. It was designed by Scottish-born architect John McArthur Jr and built from 1871-1901 for $24 million. The original aim was to be the world's tallest building, but by the time it was completed, City Hall was surpassed by the Washington Monument and the Eiffel Tower.

Nevertheless, it's still an impressive and grand building... makes you wonder how many municipal staff are needed to run the place...

On the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art
We were impressed by the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The size of the building should give an indication of how big its collection is. The foyer is grand inside and people friendly.

And then all you do is wander inside and become immersed in all the items it has on display. There's lots of American antiques from furniture to silverware, paintings and photographs, then wander off and step into a dimly lit room where there's a fantastic collection of Chinese artifacts, large wardrobes covered with fiery dragons, and even an imperial dog cage decorated with jade bracelets.

Inside one of the rooms that looks like a temple
There's also rooms filled with sculptures of Indian gods and goddesses, Persian pieces and even a Japanese tea house you can peer into. The museum also holds paintings by Peter Paul Rubens, Paul Cezanne, and Edgar Degas.

We only managed to finish part of this museum and missed out on checking out the nearby Ruth and Raymond Perelman Building with more exhibitions as well as the Rodin Museum. Next time I guess.

While waiting for the others, I browsed through a big thick blue soft-cover book called Let's Make Some Great Art by Marion Deuchars. The author encourages children of all ages to create art and she breaks it down so it's not so hard or intimidating, from how to draw a person's face to how to create a Cubist work (draw a portrait, cut it up into pieces and then rearrange them -- why didn't I think of that!).

An octopus dish with a fresh playful presentation
Not only that but she explains different art movements as well as talk about famous artists from Leonardo da Vinci to Vincent van Gogh to Jackson Pollock. It was too heavy a book to lug for the rest of the afternoon but I'm pleased to say I easily found copies in the book store. It should be given to any aspiring artist young and old.

Finally we had a memorable meal at Pumpkin Restaurant and Market. My brother and sister-in-law found it online after reading through reviews. We went there on a Sunday evening and it turns out it was a prix fix menu for $40. While this threw us off, we looked at the five-course menu and were thoroughly impressed by the presentation of the dishes, freshness of the ingredients and how they all combined to create a cornucopia of flavours.

Goat cheese cheesecake with blueberries and lemon curd
We all fell in love with the chilled beet soup that was served table side, while the octopus appetizer was like a crazy palette of items on the plate. Our mains were delicious, and the extra creamy cheese made locally was a treat. Finally the goat cheese cheesecake was too intriguing not to try and was soft and creamy paired with blueberries and lemon curd.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Philadelphia: The Hot Bed of Revolution

Independence Hall, originally built at the Pennsylvania State House
While Boston was the hotbed that agitated for revolution, Philadelphia is where it came together.

In the Supreme Court, the prisoner's dock is in the foreground
We arrived bright and early to Independence Hall and were rewarded with a wonderful guide, a former educator keen for us to know more about American Independence. He made it fun with a few laughs here and there, pointing to people for answers and if they didn't know he'd whisper it to them.

Independence Hall was originally built as a colonial legislature called the Pennsylvania State House. But it gained its other alias because it was the place where the Declaration of Independence was debated and adopted, though it's not clear if it was actually signed there. To see the Declaration of Independence, head to the National Archives in Washington... it's very faint, but it's there.

Where the Declaration of Independence was discussed
We were then taken into the room of the Supreme Court where there is a prisoner's dock where the accused literally "stood on trial". This was later changed because having the accused stand throughout the trial made the judge and jury biased; and so now they sit with their defense lawyer.

Another famous item at Independence Hall is the Liberty Bell.

After the Pennsylvania State House was built, it was the most prominent building in British North America. In 1751 the steeple was erected and officials wanted to cast a 2,000-pound bell from England.

While the bell survived the trip from England, it cracked while it was being tested in Philadelphia and had to be recast. It cracked because it was made of an unstable mix of metals making it brittle. Then, believe it or not, it cracked again in the first half of the 19th century.

Sadly the furniture is not authentic, but as close to the original
But the Americans still love their Liberty Bell and call it "a sacred relic", a tangible link to freedom that created the nation. It is also called a "symbol of patriotic sacrifice in times of national crisis" and related to the anti-slavery movement, as Martin Luther King Jr's speech talked about letting freedom ring.

The bell is housed in a large room, but you have to read all kind of boards and look at pictures, building momentum before you finally get to the bell. And it's... anticlimactic really. It's a small bell with a massive crack on the front... We were remarking how the Japanese produced even bigger bells a long time ago -- without cracks...

Liberty Bell with its massive cracks
We then crossed the street from Independence Hall where there's a cemetery and in it is the grave of Benjamin Franklin. You don't have to pay the entrance fee to visit him because his grave is conveniently located in the corner by the wrought-iron fence so you can see it clearly.

On the brick wall next to it is a plaque listing his life and achievements in chronological order and his career seems to fit more than one man because of all the things he did. For example, at 23 he was the editor of the Pennsylvania Gazette, then founded the Philadelphia Public Library. He was appointed Postmaster of Philadelphia and a few years later invented the Franklin open stove.

Then he founded Pennsylvania Hospital and was the first to use electricity, became a liaison between the British and the colonists, became speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly, Postmaster of the colonies, signed the Declaration of Independence, negotiated Treaties of Amity and Commerce, and of alliance with France, and finally member of the Constitutional Convention of the United States before dying at the age of 84.

Puts most of us to shame! And this was in the 1700s!

Benjamin Franklin's long list of achievements
A few streets down from the cemetery is Betsy Ross' house, a small but dense house filled with rooms and a basement. For a small admission you can check out the rooms and find out more about her life.

She was the eighth of 17 children in a family of Quakers, and her life was by no means easy. She was shunned by her family when she married a man of a different faith and was widowed three times, twice by the age of 30.

After going through the rooms in the house, we came to the final one where met a kind elderly woman in period costume. She introduced herself as Betsy Ross and in her half English, half New England accent, she explained the origins of the American flag.

When she grew up she apprenticed as an upholsterer where they made curtains, bed covers, tablecloths and umbrellas. A few years later George Washington walked into her shop, not explaining who he was, but she had an inkling. He explained he wanted a few flag and could she make one?

Betsy Ross' house complete with the new flag
She said she had never made a flag before, but was willing to try. She had to do this in secret because creating a new flag would be disloyal to England, so she made it after hours in her room.

Ross explained that she made changes to the design Washington had wanted. While the 13 stripes representing each of the colonies were used well before him, the stars were new. She suggested that they be placed in a circle to symbolize unity.

Then she said it would be better if the stars had five points instead of six, mostly because it was easier. With that she took a square piece of paper, folded it a few times, snipped it at an angle and voila! A perfect five-pointed star. Later my Dad tried to replicate it, but kept getting six points...

Betsy Ross explaining how she helped design the flag
Perhaps what's most ironic is that the fabric used to make the flag was from England. Ross also explained she was nicknamed "the little rebel", not only because of her size and for making the flag, but also because she made cartridges for soldiers, mending their uniforms and made tents too.

She lived a long life too -- also to the age of 84.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Washington's Capitol and its Presidents

A reflective Capitol out front
OK OK One more posting on Washington! Just too much to write about DC!

The ornate ceiling inside is very impressive
Another must visit is Capitol Hill. It's very impressive to see it in person after seeing it off in the distance when TV reporters talk about Congress.

Inside, there's a relatively new visitor's centre (opened in 2008) in the basement, where tourists are first ushered into a relatively fast-moving line to get into an auditorium to first watch a non-partisan film about the Capitol and what politicians do there.

Then we got a bright young guide called Mackenzie (a young woman), who gave us a tour of the place where we all wore headsets that could let us hear her talk into her microphone. This was definitely a relief from mainland Chinese groups with guides using megaphones to broadcast their knowledge.
Rosa Parks is the latest addition to Capitol

Basically the areas we could see could be a museum rather than an office for working politicians; we saw statues placed everywhere, giving historical context to the place. But the main theme was "e pluribus unum" or "out of many one" which is the phrase of the Seal of the United States.

The Rotunda featured statues of a who's who of American presidents in no particular order, including Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Regan, Gerald Ford, Andrew Jackson, James Garfield, Ulysses S. Grant, and Abraham Lincoln. There are other non-presidents, such as one of the founding fathers Alexander Hamilton, Martin Luther King Jr and three women in recognition of their right to vote.

Lincoln's photograph in the Portrait Gallery
We were then ushered into the former House of Representatives and Mackenzie explained to us that has the number of states grew, the room got too crowded. But there was another reason, thanks to the room's arched ceilings that created the parabolic effect. We stood at one end without our headphones on while Mackenzie went to the other side and in her speaking voice we could hear her quite clearly. And as a result people had to talk louder and louder, making the room too noisy!

So in 1857 the House of Representatives was moved to its current house chamber and former room is now filled with again more statues. Each state is allowed to contribute two statues in bronze or marble.

Two interesting statues are the one of Florida's John Corrie, the inventor of air conditioning, and the recently installed Rosa Parks who is not a contribution from any state. And most suitably, she is sitting with a look of determination that she will gain the same rights as white people.
Norman Rockwell's depiction of Richard Nixon

If you want to see your representatives in action, you have to find their office across the street and get a pass from them before entering, and likewise foreigners go to a special office and must show their passports to get a special pass too.

Another interesting place to visit is the Smithsonian's Portrait Gallery, and in there the most interesting room is the one featuring the presidential portraits. There are of course many portraits of Abraham Lincoln, but we also saw ones of Washington, a very kind portrayal of Richard Nixon by Norman Rockwell, an energetic but what looks like a half-finished portrait of John F Kennedy, and a bizarre one of Bill Clinton by Chuck Close that needs to be looked at from a distance. There's one of George W Bush too, but very bland.
An abstract Bill Clinton by Chuck Close

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Washington's Beloved Library of Congress

The Library of Congress is filled with some 35 million books and counting
Just a few more things about Washington before we write up about Philadelphia.

We had a great tour of the Library of Congress and Capitol Hill. The guides make all the difference as we found on our trip. That's how the information sticks and you remember it a long time afterwards.

The Library of Congress opened in 1897 and it is the oldest federal cultural institution in the United States. In 1783 James Madison who later became the fourth president, proposed the idea of having a library of congress. That's because at the time, people had their own libraries, but would have to travel by horseback to retrieve books from home if they were in Philadelphia.

The entrance with Minerva, the goddess of wisdom and war
As a result with the creation of a new institution, this meant needing books on history, legislative process as well as any other publications of use. Our guide told us that in 1789 Congress moved to New York from Philadelphia and then 11 years later to Washington, when the library purchased 740 books and maps.

When the Capitol was built, there was a covered walkway and the library was located on the west side of the Senate. According to our guide, the only reason it was situated there was because there was more light!

However in 1814 during the War of 1812, the British burned down the Capitol as well as White House. Afterwards Thomas Jefferson offered to sell his books to the library which was contentious, as he put a price tag on them, but it was a quick way to rebuild the collection.

In the end a year later Jefferson's books were bought and moved to the rebuilt library, followed by Madison's books and those of John Adams.

The compass showing knowledge comes from all directions
But then in 1851 there was another fire in which only one-third of Jefferson's books survived. You can see the actual books in the Library of Congress in a bookshelf behind glass which is quite neat. The library is obviously trying to rebuild the original collection, with the original books marked with green tags, followed by ones bought later and then holes for the books yet to be found.

The Library now got its own building and in 1876 there was a design competition. The building was finally opened in 1897 -- on time and on budget. It also proved to people outside of the US that Americans could build their own palace of books.

What makes the Library so stunning is its Euro-centric interior, filled with the Italian Renaissance style, carved white marble and has courtyards. Some 800 tons of books were moved into the space.

Our guide also told us the Library is designed as a public space, geared towards families with murals on the walls showing children with their parents, showing knowledge and the transmission of information.

The Gutenberg Bible behind a glass case. Anyone read Latin?
The mosaics on the walls were created in Italy and then installed in the Library. In the main entrance is a sculpture of Minerva, the goddess of wisdom and war. She is meant to show that America is a well defended country and offers opportunities, giving citizens peace and prosperity.

Meanwhile there is a compass on the floor, showing that knowledge comes from all directions and comes back in all directions as well.

We got to see the 1452 Gutenberg Bible, one of four complete copies on vellum. It's a huge book, the ink in black and the red lettering was added later.

After a short wait we were allowed to look into the Reading Room -- where people can actually request books and read them. It's a reference library so books cannot be taken out like other public libraries. Anyone over 16 years of age can take a look at books, showing either their ID or passport if they are not American citizens.

Shhh! Inside the Reading Room
Inside the octagonal-shaped room, it's very majestic, with high ceilings and marble, arches and mosaics. The Library now has over 35 million books and there is an online catalogue so there are fewer people physically going into the Library.

The Library also has some interesting special exhibitions. One of them is of poet, essayist and journalist Walt Whitman. There is a glass case showing his leather bag with a flap overtop. He strongly believed in the power of kind attention and "personal magnetism" to help wounded and ill soldiers to heal.

Using this leather bag, he would bring them foods and small gifts to raise their spirits, as well as spend time talking to them.

One of the many sayings: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty"
There's another interesting exhibition showing the contents of Abraham Lincoln's pockets the night he was assassinated on April 14, 1865. In his overcoat he was carrying: two spectacles (one of which was mended with a piece of string), a lens polisher, pocket knife, watch fob, linen handkerchief and a leather wallet containing a five-dollar Confederate note, eight newspaper clippings and a calling card.

Eerie, but only makes the Library of Congress a really cool place to check out.