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Friday, 12 February 2010

New Blog

Yep, after almost no encouragement,  zero public pressure and very little expectation I have decided to put finger to keyboard and start writing a blog again - why? well despite everything I really enjoy writing  - it gives me a buzz to write online, and what else do you do when you spend half of your life traveling to airports, waiting in airports and enduring the hell that is air travel.

If you want to follow my ramblings, please go to......

http://paulstowe.blogspot.com/

Friday, 12 September 2008

Pompous

I recently attended a dinner party, which was hosted by a very famous broadcasting company. They were celebrating a successful Beijing Olympics coverage, and for some – a farewell to China.
After 3 or so weeks in the country, (many for the first time) they had gained the irritating view that they understood the complexities of this extremely complex and mysterious land, and that they could expel their beliefs with the confidence of a local inhabitant to all and sundry.

Firstly Beijing during the Olympics was probably as far from reality as you can get. A bit like landing in a working class street during the 1977 Silver Jubilee celebrations or the marriage of Charles and Diana, anyone visiting the UK for the first time during this period would have thought we were all kind, generous, happy, welcoming, and completely patriotic – if they had arrived several weeks earlier or later – maybe a different experience would have been had? Beijing was a bit like this – a street party for all comers to enjoy (as long as they were from the Chinese Middle classes or foreign), a party town, brightly decorated with flags, clean streets, painted signs and manicured green areas. People were on their best behaviours, tolerant of visitors and charitable to strangers, Christ even the taxi drivers wore shirts and ties.


Secondly, no one can really understand a place, its people, its culture, its history, and its philosophy in such a short period. Of course we all fall into this trap when on holiday – or at least I know I do!



I only have to be in a sunny beach side resort for a few days and I start to believe that I understand the local culture, respect the traditions and customs – 8 days into a holiday and I’m looking at property prices, wondering how I can give up the rat race to rent deck chairs out on the nearest beach – oblivious of course to any hidden social, political or environmental considerations that disappear under the protected and surreal atmosphere of sunbathing, swimming, restaurants on the beach, and wearing shorts and open toe sandals.

So given this, I am normally very patient with this kind of conversation from ‘newbies’. After meeting your 10,000th person who knows all about the country you live in you adopt a skill I refer to as “hearing without listening”. So I was surprised when something really upset me during the conversation I was having with this particular women. I wont embarrass her or me in releasing her name, but this was the anchor lady from a UK TV News program, a very famous, well educated, well dressed, well travelled, Porsche Driving (That may give the game away to people who know her) alpha female – the type that would eat you alive, and leave most men in a jelly like state after her whip lashing tongue had finished destroying any male ego you had the audacity to possess. She was like a Chinese Moon cake (I will explain in a later Blog) tempting and attractive on the outside, only to find a strong, spicy, and pungent filling on the inside.

She berated me on my reasons for living in China, explaining that by living here I was outwardly supporting an oppressive, violent and dictatorial establishment. That by paying individual and corporate tax I was directly supporting the murder of innocent people whose only crime was to disagree with the single political party strategy.








She suggested that I was directly funding the oppression of Tibet, and the continued segregation of ethnic minorities in this godless country. That my money was being used to oppress families into a single child regime, support the death penalty for minor crimes, fund the continued massacre of indigenous creatures, and the oblivion of the worlds eco system driven by the inherent greed of a nation sworn to become the most powerful country on the planet – at any cost. (Admittedly she had had a few glasses of Chardonnay at this point).






So whilst I stood motionless during the avalanche of abuse pouring over me, I had time to wonder and contemplate her argument, gearing up for a repost equal to the verbal beating I had just taken. What could I say? Was she right? Had I been directly funding the imprisonment of minority religious leaders? was I responsible for the decline in the traditional Chinese family system? Had I somehow become a key player in China’s destruction of the worlds sensitive eco system?


I played with responding using the Norman Tebbit philosophy that I was just “Getting on my Bike” and finding work to support my family, or even the Nazi war crimes excuse that “I was just following orders”. None of these seemed appropriate or relevant, I had left a UK job to come to China, and I was for all intense purposes the boss with no one giving me direct instructions. So I mustered all of my intellect, my years of social grooming, the decades of experience and the extremes of my vocabulary to utter a single word – “Bollocks”.

Yes “Bollocks”, sorry but I couldn’t help it. I knew it would be impossible to talk reason with someone who had a profound believe, and such a passionate viewpoint on these matters. I could have come up with a Pulitzer Prize winning speech, a Barack Obama crowd-pleasing address to a field of party faithful, all to try and change her mind, but I reverted to type.



This had the impact of at least shutting her up, so as she looked at me stunned I went on to explain that I may, in some small way have been feeding the Peoples Republic of China Communist party, but she also played a part – you see virtually every car you buy, every toy you purchase, the clothes you wear, the computer you play on, the bra you use for support, the zipper keeping your jacket together, the suitcase you pack your clothes into, the watch that tells you the time, the shoes that fit snuggly on your feet, the TV you watch and the Radio you listen too were all made in China, by Chinese workers and Chinese companies – who all pay Chinese income and corporate tax, in far greater quantities than me. They all burn natural resources, they all impact on the political and natural environment of the country – so here is a deal, as soon as you stop buying Chinese produced goods, I will leave the country and stop paying tax to the Chinese government - or at least directly!


I won’t tell you how the conversation ended, but needless to say I won’t be appearing on that news program in the near future. However it has made me think about my time in China, and how other people perceive me, and other people like me who work here. I had never seen myself as someone who is in direct support of a government I didn’t (or couldn’t) vote for – despite having to pay taxes. Is the same argument true of everyone who pays taxes but didn’t vote for the elected government? Are taxes an indirect vote of support for the government? Personally I think the argument is, is well Bollocks. But maybe you know better- I would be interested in your comments – perhaps someone out there is willing to engage in a Morgan Spulock experiment, where by instead of only eating MacDonald’s products for a month, they abstain from buying anything made in China for 30 days?

I am as usual writing this Blog whilst sitting on a plane, this time on my way back to blighty, and although I will only be in the country for a few days I will try and see how difficult/easy it is to succeed – although I somehow think the hire car I have ordered from the airport will have a multitude of parts with the “Made in China” label hidden somewhere!

Saturday, 6 September 2008

AP Interview and Video

A copy of the video taken at the new base for London Taxi production in Shanghai, and the supporting feature that has appeared in news outlets across the world.












London Taxi's famed black cabs made in China
By ELAINE KURTENBACH


FENGJING, China (AP) — London Taxis are as British as bowler hats and Big Ben. But the latest models coming off this new assembly line are unlikely to ever touch an English road.
At a sprawling factory in the lush green suburbs of Shanghai, young Chinese workers are busily gearing up for full-scale production of one of Britain's most iconic vehicles. It's part of an odd alliance that aims to give the distinctive black cab a greater presence outside its namesake city.
London Taxi International, which will continue to build nine out 10 cabs used in Britain at a factory in Coventry, England, couldn't grow production at its small-scale, high-cost plant. So it turned to a partner — and to China — as a way to drive overseas expansion.


"To say the writing was on the wall would be pushing it a bit too far. But you do need to make progress within the automotive industry," said Paul Stowe, a British auto executive who is overseeing the joint venture between Britain's Manganese Bronze Holdings PLC, owner of London Taxi International, and Geely Group Holdings, one of China's biggest independent automakers.
The venture is bearing fruit already, Stowe said, with agreements signed to sell 6,000 London Taxis from the Chinese factory, more than double the Coventry plant's annual output.
Most will go to cities outside China — places like Singapore, Dubai, Moscow — that covet the image associated with the London Taxis' tradition of good service and durability.
The cars are unlikely to displace other vehicles used as taxis in China given their higher price and the strong political sway of bigger automakers with the local officials in charge of city fleets.
Instead, LTI expects to sell them mostly to hotels, limousine services, airports, and individuals who might want to collect one, Stowe said.
Manganese Bronze Holdings hunted for nearly a decade for a suitable Chinese partner. Geely likewise was looking for a chance to bring onboard the new technology and quality upgrades it needs to get ahead in China's brutally competitive market, without risking being swallowed by a huge international rival.
"We were the right size and available at the right time. It works well for both companies," said Stowe, who in his 15-year automaking career already has completed almost a global tour of the industry, working first for Land Rover, then BMW, Jaguar, Ford, Lotus, MG-Rover and then MG Nanjing — a venture set up after Chinese automaker Nanjing Automobile Group bought MG-Rover.
Trial production of London Taxi's TX4, equipped with 2.4-liter Mitsubishi engines, began last week in Geely's sprawling Shanghai Maple factory, in the scenic canal town of Fengjing. By mid-December, the plant will launch mass production.
By boosting volume, LTI expects to reduce costs by up to 60 percent, with most of the savings coming not from cheaper labor but from less costly parts, Stowe said. The price for the vehicles hasn't been disclosed, but will be significantly cheaper than the British-made models, which sell for about 30,000 British pounds ($54,000), he said.
"Classical British Icon with Traditional Chinese Spirit," reads one of the many slogans in the factory.
Unlike most highly automated modern auto plants, there are few robots since the London Taxi is hand-built and hand-welded. The result is a heavy-duty, durable vehicle that can be driven 1 million miles and last several decades.
But it's the vehicle's traditional idiosyncrasies, such as its famed ability to make extremely tight turns, and the storage space next to the driver's seat that originally held hay bales in the days of horse and carriage, that give the black cab its appeal as "not just another car," says Stowe, who as deputy general manager of Shanghai LTI Automobile is busy plotting the venture's brand strategy.
Black cabs — which these days often come in other colors and are festooned with advertising — are seen strictly as a commercial vehicle back home. But in China, the vehicle's novelty, and notoriety from appearances in dozens of films, lends it a certain cachet.
"It's pretty cool to see a British car traveling on the street of Shanghai, just like in a movie scene," said Xu Bin, senior auto trend editor for the local magazine Metropolis.
But much will depend on how Geely, which is in charge of selling the cars in China and the rest of Asia, decides to market the vehicle: The terms of the 53 million pound ($95 million) deal gave the Chinese side a 52 percent share in the joint venture, as well as a 23 percent stake in Manganese Bronze Holdings. The British partner holds 48 percent of the joint venture and rights to sales of the vehicles in the rest of the world.
Stowe, who has sold the rights to his memoire of his experiences working in China with MG Nanjing to the BBC, seems something of an cultural ambassador in the automaking world.
To help explain the London Taxis' distinctive, tall-topped shape, he keeps a bowler hat on hand.
Although round, black bowler hats are an uncommon sight in London nowadays, decades-old British rules required that a gentleman be able to sit comfortably in the back of a London Taxi with his hat on.
"I actually purchased the bowler hat in London," he said, "but I was surprised to see when I looked at the label that it was made in China."

Sunday, 31 August 2008

Beijing Olympics – The Finals

I know I am a week late with my final account of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but unfortunately work gets in the way of life sometimes! This would be my last journey to Beijing during the Olympics and I had a packed agenda, as well as some serious ‘star gazing’ to do!

I had made in through the heats, struggled but survived the semis and was now entering the finals. I had managed to be entered in 5 key events; lunch with the Mayor, dinner with the PM; a photo opportunity with a Lord, drinks with a whole plethora of ‘stars’ and finally breakfast with the Mayor. Not very sporting I would admit, but arranging invitations to these events required speed, flexibility, years of training and above all the ability to cease opportunities even if they don’t exist!

Of course I wasn’t doing any of this for self-gratification, this was all duty for company and bosses. I would be accompanying the CEO of MBH John Russell and Geely President, Li ShuFu at the events (OK yes I would be carrying their bags).

The Olympics provided a rare opportunity to gain access to important officials all in one place at the same time, the fact that the place would be Beijing would make access that little bit easier. Even politicians get the ‘being abroad’ feeling, which sometimes allowed them to let their guard down, and the distance from Whitehall during the summer break, meant that the army of aides, advisors, private and public secretary’s would be kept away.

Why was this important? Well the Mayor of London was top of the hit list, not just because I had some admiration the man I used to laugh at during his tenure on “Have I got news for you?” but also because as the head of London, he had significant influence on what is almost 90% of our customer base – the cabbies of London. As the Chairman of the ‘Transport for London’ (TfL) organization he is very influential in the laws that govern the capitals transport policy. A mere acknowledgment of our existence was vital for the long-term future of ‘The London Taxi’ to remain the icon of London and of Great Britain.

All started well with an impromptu meeting with the Mayor at an unplanned event at the ‘London House’ facility set up by the London Development Agency (LDA), one of those grab your chance before it disappears moments, where we were able to hijack Boris for a good 15 minutes before he was whisked off to yet another interview, job done a Gold Medal on the first day – a surprise, as we didn’t even expect a bronze from this event. With one medal in the bag, and despite it being early morning, I took advantage to call on a friend for a favour. Even though this was my 4th visit to Beijing in less than 2 weeks, I still hadn’t had chance to see any of the new stadiums built for the games. So with one phone call, a 20-minute Taxi ride, and a climb up 30 flights of stairs, I was sitting in the crow’s nest of a TV company’s prime position overlooking the Birds Nest – what a fantastic building, and what a great sight to end day one of my Olympic finals.

Day 2, meant that we had a pentathlon of events to compete in, starting with lunch with the Mayor, Sir Martin Sorrell and Madam Zhang (VP of the Bank of China), again no medal expectations here, however a late minute no show by the Chinese contestant, allowed my boss to move to the top table and secure a silver. This was followed by a Photo shoot with Lord Digby Jones and an easy Gold, a private meeting for Li Shufu and the Prime Minister added another success, and finally a garden reception at the ambassadors residence which due to my poor positioning meant a poor bronze and a bit of a disappointment.

The day of the closing ceremony was meant to be a day of rest – however an invitation to the Geely University was not to be missed, a facility built by Li Shufu as a private University housing some 20,000+ students and featuring a mock ‘White House’ as the centre piece and Library, we watched as new interns did their compulsory army training – yes, apparently all new students to ‘all’ Chinese University’s have to go through instruction on how to march, stand in line, salute and have someone spit in your face whilst barking orders. I asked the dean of the University what the purpose was, he informed me that children had become lazy, and disrespectful in this new modern world, and that this would break them into a new regime of strict learning – and they say communism is dead?

The evening promised to be entertaining, unlike the rest of the government agencies we hadn’t managed to get tickets to the closing ceremony itself, but I had secured tickets to the closing ceremony party at the by now infamous ‘London House’. The evening started gently, with most of my time spent trying to avoid Boris’s Brother – trust me a blog all on its own is required there! Then as the evening drew on, I met up with an old buddy from the BBC, and as we stood there chatting, we both had a ‘blonde’ moment when walking towards us was his highness Mr. Beckham, as we struggled to find our cameras I quickly realized that by the time I had worked out witch button turned it on, it powered up the flash and I got him into focus – the moment would be lost. So I opted for the next best thing and thrust out my hand, and with a “Good Evening David – Great kick” (reference to the closing ceremony kick, which wasn’t great – but give me a break this was a nano second thought moment), he looked at me stunned, then turned his head to find that his body guards had dropped back several yards and weren’t there to rescue him, he reached out and shook my hand, uttering just a “Thanks” before rushing past. So as we un-pieced the moment, and how stupid we both were to of A; been excited by it, and B; that we had both missed the moment – the same thing happened again, only this time with a dwarf of a guy who rushed past us like some cartoon character on speed – Jackie Chan, quickly followed by Leona Lewis and Jimmy Paige – all of whom we never got chance to take photos of either!

The next day, would be the finale of our Olympics and started with a breakfast meeting with Boris. This would be a private event to discuss the complications of road traffic in London, and some possible solutions to ensuring that the famous icon of London continues to provide service for the cabbies, the customers and the green party. A successful meeting meant bagging another gold, and all there was left to do was for the Myor of London to launch the “Think London Tour of China”, a tour of 12 great cities of this eastern wonderland, in what else but a London Taxi (Kindly provided by us). This would be an opportunity to get some great shots of Boris with a London Taxi – what I didn’t expect is that he would want to drive the vehicle! He jumped in the drivers seat and I seized the opportunity to be carried as a passenger – there are not many people who can claim to have been driven in a London Taxi by the Mayor of London!

So to conclude we bagged a sack full of gold medals, and I won the admiration of my son and his cousin (meeting David Beckham brings enormous kudos with 9 to 10 year olds!). All in all a very satisfying Olympics – however having spent 12 days in Beijing and never seeing an event does seem rather poor form, oh well there is always London!

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Beijing Olympics - Semi Final

Today marks my 3rd trip to Beijing in just 7 days, for those who have little understanding of the geography of the country. Beijing is just 2 hours away by flight, however as with all air travel that is only half of the story – added to this you have the hour or so to get to the airport, the extra hour to check in and get through security and a final hour waiting for your flight, and of course the hour to get to your final destination – in all from office or home to location is takes about 6 hours, multiply this by 6 individual trips and I have spent a day and a half just travelling to and from Beijing this week.


Sky News Interview







Why? Well I wrote about my first visit, which was planed well in advance and was a trip to confirm arrangements for what we had in store towards the end of the games, the second trip was organized last minute to accommodate Sky News and a piece they wanted to do on the London Taxi in Beijing. This was a fly in, do the interview and fly back out again – while this seems ostentatious, it is far cheaper at the moment to fly in and out, than it is to stay in a hotel overnight – even if the constant traveling zaps all of your energy!
The interview was a gentle report, associated with Sky’s coverage of the Olympics, it concentrated on why the London Taxi was so popular in China, and what our plans for production and sales would be. I had worked with the team from Sky several times before at the Nanjing MG plant, so it was great to be reunited with some old faces – although Peter Sharp’s reference to me, as the “Quintessential British Toff” took some getting used to! The best thing for me was to get some video footage of the vehicle outside of the imperial palace and below Mao’s portrait on Tianemen Square – I imagine he would be spinning in his crypt if he knew that one of the greatest symbols of London was circling his resting place.

My third trip this week, was one that should have been given to Tom Cruise – as in ‘Mission Impossible’, I can‘t go into details as it would cause embarrassment to too many people, but needless to say I was dispatched to Beijing on a task that me pet Labrador dog had more chance of succeeding in. Despite this I jumped (actually crawled) onto a plan at 9pm, arrived around 11pm traveled to some god forsaken hotel for a midnight meeting, before leaving for my hotel at 1am – my head hit the pillow at 2am, only for the alarm to ring out at 6am in preparation for another 8am meeting. A day of negotiation and sitting around coffee bars waiting for phone calls culminated in me getting a plane back to Shanghai at 9 pm that evening, with the thought that I had to be back at the airport for 8am the next morning.

Now anyone who thinks this is glamorous or interesting or exciting – obviously doesn’t travel much, if sitting in sitting in crappy Taxis (Not the London Taxi variety of course), queuing in long and unruly ticket counter queues, having to endure virtual strip searches in the intense security that surrounds the Olympic airports – I am not joking, don’t spend your money on pole dancing clubs, or brothels – the girls who frisk you at Beijing airport these days would be accused of sexual assault if the tables were reversed. Trying to explain that the bumps and bulges in your trousers aren’t sticks of dynamite in pigeon Chinese can become rather embarrassing, I am surprised that men of a certain ilk aren’t lining there trousers with pins or paperclips, just to get a more intense probe!
Then you have the hotels, which have stunning entrances, with enormous chandeliers and polished floors, check-in desks as long as Olympic swimming pools all beckoning you to spend a small fortune for the privilege of staring at an absurdly expensive mini bar for half the night, wondering how you will justify the late night bar of chocolate on your expense claim to your finance controller. All for a business meeting that could quite easily be done over the phone, if it wasn’t for everyone’s desire to ‘press the flesh’.
The first 60 or 70 times, its great to visit new cities, countries, hotels etc. but after that they fade into one – hotel rooms are all the same, worse than that, if you have been lucky to stay in some great ones, then everything else just compares badly – regardless of how good they are.Having just read all of that, I have changed my mind – it is great really, and I wouldn’t change it for the world. I returned back to Shanghai with a failed mission and the thought that I would have to return back again in just 48 hours, but this time I was determined to have some fun!

Friday, 15 August 2008

Beijing Olympics - Part 1

Since returning from holiday, work has been intense. I had been working with the regional development agency “Think London” for several months, and my return to Shanghai meant 2 weeks before the start of the Olympics, and just a short number of days before the plans we had put in place to finally be tested.



Think London is responsible for promoting investment in the capital of the UK, it travels the country and the world explaining the virtues, advantages and potential growth companies, governments and individuals can gain from working with, and in, arguably the greatest city in the world…er that would be London.

The relationship with LTI – the makers of the Iconic London Taxi, is of course the vehicle itself. Think London have used a specially modified London Taxi as a mobile media and promotional tool for several years, and the vehicle supplied by LTI has seen service and in America, India and across Europe. This would year would see China’s turn to be entertained by this partnership – or at least that is how the story started out!


China has extremely tight import controls, especially over vehicles. It is almost impossible to bring a second hand vehicle into the country - I say almost impossible – the only success I have known was when working at NAC MG, we managed to import a number of historic Austin and MG cars from around the world, Oh and when SAIC, so convinced that they would be successful in purchasing the Rover brand from BMW did the same – but of course those vehicles never emerged from the dockside after they lost out to Ford who finally did by the rights to use the brand (thus ROEWE was born and the cars still continue to rust in Shanghai Docks!), other than that I have never heard of anyone being able to bring a used car into the country – especially a right hand drive London Taxi in bright colours!

So we played around with ideas of how we could do this for several weeks, trying (as you do) to see what political strings can be pulled, and what favours you can glean from new and old colleagues all with no success. After much head scratching, I went out on a limb and offered a new locally built London Taxi, whilst this may not sound too much of a risk – we hadn’t at this point built a single vehicle, had no complete factory and most importantly the correct approvals from the Chinese government to use the vehicle for anything other than test and development. However I saw this as an amazing opportunity to gain public and media exposure at the largest media event in a decade – the Beijing Olympics.

Advertising at the Olympics was way beyond our financial reach, especially when you consider that having spent the several billion rmb that it would take to get your products into the eyes of the public, we would have had to take deposits for the next 30 years worth of production for any kind of payback! It always seems strange to me that the brands that do spend the equivalent to the national debt of Brazil in promoting their brands at such events are already the most well known brands in the world? Or is that the point?

The events being planed by Think London in Beijing, which required our vehicle to be present, would be worth a fortune in terms of free advertising and would help our little company get a foot onto the big stage.

We would provide a vehicle, equip it with the latest in visual and audio technology, paint it in bright colours, and gain the appropriate approvals for its use during the Olympic Games, in return Think London would use the vehicle to deliver VIP and VVIP visitors and guests from the around the world to special events hosted by the British Governments many departments camped out in Beijing during August. The potential passenger list would have put most London Cabbies stories of “you will never guess who I just had in the back of my cab today?” into the C and D list of celebrities. Prime Ministers, Mayors, Lords, Ladies, Dukes, Duchesses, Sporting Heroes and Business Leaders from around the globe were all making the journey to Beijing, and hopefully travel in our Taxi at some point – I like to call it “promotion by association”.


So vehicle finished, and registration approved (I make it sound simple, but this took 4 weeks, hundreds of hours of document preparation and camping out at the registration bureau for 4 days), the vehicle was ready to make the journey to Beijing from Shanghai. Of course we knew entering the city would be difficult, with security as tight as a goldfishes backside we planned for the Tow truck to stop 2 hours away from the cities outer ring round, we would then attempt to drive the vehicle into the heart of the Olympic village using the Olympic Pass we had been given by BOCOG the organisers of the games. The vehicle was in fact stopped in Anhui province and never got near Beijing, I knew security would be tight but this was ridiculous, hours of inspection, negotiation, phone calls, pleading and begging finally allowed the vehicle to continue its way into Beijing, and starts its month long programme of promotional activities.

The first 10 days of the Olympics (post opening ceremony) are about business, the Olympics provides a great opportunity for the heads of large corporations to be in the same place at the same time, and it also allows those that want a piece of a particular corporate pie, to lavish their target clients with gifts, tickets to events and of course the after show party’s, whilst I do not fit into any of those categories I had been invited to a reception at the Ambassadors residence in Beijing several days later, and took this as an opportunity to see the vehicle, ensure arrangements for the vehicle were going to plan and of course to visit Beijing during the Olympics.

During the run up (which seemed to last longer than the American presidential elections) we had heard how they would ‘clean up Beijing’, reports reached western newspapers about how the sky would be clear, spitting would be banned, Taxi drivers taught English, unsavoury bars closed and the hookers sent back to the Russian borders. As a regular visitor to Beijing (5 times this year), I was keen to see how things had progressed, the journey started well with the local airline putting on its newest A330 aircraft, and the staff being more polite than normal, they even had copies of the China Daily in English available to read during the 2 hour flight – although after 79 pages of Olympic propaganda it did become tiresome!

I could go on about all of their ‘clean up Beijing’ campaigns had failed, but you’ve probably read that already, from the army of foreign journalists here, that seem desperate to find fault wherever they can – sure my taxi driver stopped to relieve himself on the hard shoulder, just before clearing his nasal cavity’s in a way that only a true Chinese man can, and of course the air was so thick that it left grit on your teeth, and yes everyone still pushed, shoved, barged and was generally devoid of any manners – but none of this matters, if it wasn’t for people walking in their pyjamas, spitting on your shoes and shouting “WEI” loudly in to their phones during a funeral – what would be left for us to talk about?

The real changes I saw in Beijing may not have been noticed by the visiting journalist, small innocuous changes – like seat belts in the back of taxi’s, and the lack of any construction work which has been halted during the Olympics for two reasons 1. So not to provide any poor migrant worker shots for the western journalist and 2. Because all of the workers have been ordered out of Beijing, in fact I think everyone not directly involved with sweeping, pointing the way, helping you cross the road or wave a flag has been banished from the capital. Beijing has become a ghost town, I have never seen any city in China so quite, my plane was half empty, the taxi journey took only 30 minutes (including the impromptu rest break by the driver), the streets were clear and the houses empty. I guess the local government worked out that it couldn’t stop its people from engaging in their usual activities that seem to upset us foreigners so much – so it sent them all away – one way to solve the problem I guess!

Friday, 1 August 2008

Holidays!

I fondly remember my family holidays way back in the day when I was younger.
My parents always made sure we had at least one week away every year. Long before air travel and foreign holidays became in reach of the common people our chosen destinations would be limited to South Wales, Devon or even as far as Ireland or the Isle of White.

My earliest memory of a summer holiday was the annual day trip to Blackpool. My granddad was the treasurer for a local fishing club, and each year the club would pay for the children of the members to join them on a day out to the bright lights of northeast England. We would all climb aboard a large coach, and as we entered the vehicle we would be handed a goody bag and some pocket money to spend at the UK’s poor cousin to Vegas. I am still amazed how, as children we could make a plastic bag full of ‘half penny’ chews, ‘sherbet dips’, liquorice sticks and 'refreshers' last the full 4-hour journey from the Midlands, and then manage to make the $2 pocket money last the whole day at the pleasure beach, although admittedly we could never make it stretch far enough to pay for a go on the bumper cars!


The rest of my youth was spent in damp caravans, chalets (a name invented by Butlins for a garage with windows and a door!), tents and even a farmhouse in Ireland. The weather was almost as changeable as accommodation, from glorious baking sunshine that would burn my younger brothers ears, to continuous rain that hammered down on the caravan roof like falling meteorites.



Entertainment was the beach, crap cabaret, the beach, penny arcades that used to pay your winnings in tickets tokens rather than cash (which you then exchanged for really naff gifts at the end of your stay), and the beach. Or if you were very unlucky and the rain didn’t subside, you would try desperately to tune the black and white TV to the 3 available channels in the vain hope you may be able to see Blue Peter through the snow storm interference, and if you were very, very unlucky - having to play monopoly, scrabble or cards with you parents.

My fondest memories are of my dad letting me sit on his lap and drive his green Austin Princess (Registration COX 613V if anyone knows its whereabouts I would be interested) on the beach at the age of 8 or so.

Sand so hot it would literally burn the skin off your feet and make you dance like a demented sand crab. Sitting in cabaret rooms with a glass of dandelion and burdock and a pack of Smiths Salt & Shake, while Ted Rogers called Bingo numbers out then talantless shows dragged on the rest of the night, and spending hours and hours of glorious fun on the beach with my brother, getting into trouble, getting lost, getting buried and most importantly getting out of our dads way. So why am I reminiscing all of these obscure memories and tedious experiences? Well as you may have guessed I am writing this BLOG whilst sitting on yet another plane, this time returning from our annual family vacation. Two weeks with my two young children, who along with me are extremely fortunate to travel to places I had never heard of when I was young – come to think of it, I don’t think my A’ Level Geography teacher, would have heard of half of them!

Living in Asia opens airplane doors to exotic and tropical sounding places, from shanghai we are in an Olympic stones throw of Indonesia, Malaysia, Japan, Korea, The Philippines, and Thailand to name but a few.Take my daughter Alex, at 6 years old, she has visited all of the usual UK holiday spots, Cornwall, Norfolk, South Wales etc. and she has also been to some pretty exotic ones; Beijing, Nanjing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Lankawi, and is just finishing two weeks in Singapore and Bali – she has more Visa stamps in her passport than James Bond, my son who is now 10 years old has even more than her. They both lead extremely privileged childhoods, I don’t have enough allotted BLOG space to list all of the toys and electrical gadgetry they have, or the thousand and one TV channels at their disposal, the TV’s, DVD’s, Computers, and games systems under their control (most of which gets packed into our suitcase along with the non-universal charges).

So when at the end of our two-week, twin island adventure you ask what did they enjoy most? Your eyes widen and your heart races as they spend seconds and then minutes to provide you with an answer. All that planning and investigation, altering you adult plans to ensure that the hotel isn’t too grand, the food too rich or exotic, and the tourism trips too long or boring for them, the time spent searching for cool things to do, hours in ‘gift’ shops buying another cuddly scorpion or anteater. Paying extra for flights that fall into sleep patterns and limiting your self to just one change of clothes because your baggage allowance has been taken up with DS, PSP, Wii, eePC, ABC, BCD chargers. All of this aimed to try and reduce your stress levels, and keep the children entertained, fed, watered and hopefully get yourself back into their good books after months of working late and crying into your Blackberry every night, rather than reading them a good night story.



You realise you have given them so many choices over the last couple of weeks, will they choose the incredible Singapore Zoo, the magical night safari, the excitement of swimming with sharks (inadvertently), inspirational visits to ancient temples and witnessing a ceremonial Indonesian cremation, viewing volcanoes and rain forests, island archipelagos from the airplane windows, playing in their own private swimming pool, eating dinner as the sun went down, whilst the sea lapped at their toes at a beach side restaurant, maybe it would be the time they laughed uncontrollably as their father unceremoniously attempt to mount a floating, inflatable sun bed, which one hit would hit the spot? Which experiences will they decide made their holiday? Perhaps the decision was too difficult so I offer them a Top 5 option. So after some debate between them the answers;


1. Ben 10 (Carton Character)
2. Monster Hunter Freedom 2 (PSP Game)

3. MacDonald’s
4. Aero’s (Cadburys chocolate bar)
5. Staying up late!



Now don’t get me wrong, I am old and wise enough to realise that the temples and funeral service cant compete with the Disney Channel, but I had hoped some of our other excursions would have at least made the top 5 – we waded in the turquoise blue Indian ocean with 5 foot wild reef sharks for Christ sake, we watched as wild baboons shoved their big red assess into our faces, and we even drove (unwisely) down mountain passes in a knackered old Suzuki APV to find untouched, unspoiled and unpopulated beaches – drives so scary that even the blondest dumbest Aussie surfer wouldn’t dare traverse to catch the a ‘radical’ wave.


I found myself encouraging them to answer how I wanted them to answer, a top 5 that included spiritual, emotional and evangelical experiences, they seemed bemused at my suggestions.

So now as I sit here on my way back to 237 un-opened emails, 40c degree heat, the Olympics and a moody dog, I try to put some logic into why they answered in the way they did. I guess its obvious really, how can a lush tropical Forrest hugging an enormous volcanic calderas, compete with a boy who can change into monsters and aliens? Or how can a barren, wild and deserted golden sand beach beat the graphics, sound effects and monster splitting, head ripping, gut disembowelling joy of the latest PSP game? The truth is they can’t, well at least not to children brought up with international travel as a given, 3 dimensional aliens as role models, and food that tastes the same and is delivered within 30 seconds of ordering – anywhere in the world, it can’t.

Our children (mine at least) spend half of their lives living in a world where you dodge laser gun totting aliens, race around the streets of San Francisco in a Ferrari at over 200mph, Google earth your way into the Queens Bathroom, and can choose the same pre-prepared, pre-packaged processed meal from every street corner, stretch of sand, mountain pass or third world village fast food outlet.

Real life, real food, real culture, real experiences, real tastes, real sounds, real sights have been replaced by a better than, much improved, series 2 world, that comes in a shiny box with a multi-voltage adapter. I guess I should end the BLOG by saying –“give me the damp tin tube in rainy Tenby, or the bag of swizlers and Blackpool, those were the days” But I wont, because despite my children’s Top 5, I still had a fantastic, memorable, anecdote creating, relaxing and spiritual awakening experience that was nearly as good as the effects in the new Iron Man film!