Saturday, 23 February 2008


One of the regular items I wanted to include in my Blog was some of the interesting stories that pepper the daily newspapers and websites here in Shanghai. The majority are not written to shock, surprise or titillate the reader, they are written as informative and thought provoking snippets into life in and around Shanghai - however I sometimes find them shocking and titilating! – so in no particular order, here is the news that was in Shanghai over the last 7 days:
While the rest of the world continues to suggest that everything build, made or slightly connected to China, will poison, maim, decapitate, sterilize, cause blindness, deafness and basically make you ill. Those of us who live here try to convince ourselves that this is just a ploy by the Americans to try to adjust the appalling balance of trade that currently exists between the two countries. Well a couple of stories I read this week may make me think again!

The first one to catch my eye was a story about ‘bloody clams’ I have to admit that I wasn’t familiar with the ‘bloody’ clam, I had eaten clams quite regularly in Chinese restaurants – and actually found them very enjoyable, and hadn’t been too concerned – that was until I read this week that there had been a number of cases of hepatitis ‘A’ being found in blood clams sold in local restaurants - an outbreak of some form of food poisoning at one of the local eatery’s isn’t unusual, but this grabbed my attention because I then found out that blood clams had been banned in Shanghai since 1988 – why? Well in the spring of that year blood clams infected over 300,000 people in Shanghai with Hepatitis ‘A’, 300,000 in one season, in one city.

This got me thinking about what else may we be at risk at over the winter / spring months in Shanghai, well I didn’t have to think for long as the next report in the Shanghai Daily answered that question for me – during the month of December 2611 people were detected with serious infectious diseases and the top 5 for Christmas were (In reverse order) scarlatina, viral hepatitis (our old friend!), tuberculosis, gonorrhoea, and at number 1 – syphilis. On an ‘unconnected’ story the Shanghai District Public Sanitation Bureau has just issued 50,000 maps of local public conveniences for taxi drivers, it describes the initiative as a way to "reduce environment pollution". Which has to be one of the best youthanisms I have ever heard!

Continuing on a health theme, anyone that has visited China will undoubtedly recognise the amount of people who smoke. A lover of statistics – here are a few about smoking in China:

  • Over 350 million people smoke in China.

  • Official figures suggest that nearly 2/3rds of all males smoke

  • 30% of the world’s tobacco is consumed in China.

  • Government institutions make 95% the cigarettes consumed in China.

  • The government produces 2 trillion cigarettes each year.

  • Smoking contributes over $30 billion to the communist party coffers.

  • Smoking kills 1.2 million Chinese people each year.

  • There is no age limit to buy cigarettes in China.

Thus I found it somewhat interesting to read about an initiative just started in Shanghai hospitals to try and educate the locals into quitting the dreaded weed. They will set up drop in clinics to help with the physiological issues surrounding nicotine deprivation – I guess they should start with the doctors and surgeons first (its estimated that 60% of them smoke – most whilst working!).

Just to show you that communism is still alive and well in the great PRC, it has just been announced that from May this year Mickey Mouse, Spongebob Squarepants and Pokemon aren’t welcome into the houses and flats of the young and youthful from May this year. The government has decided to ban all foreign cartoons from 5pm to 9pm each evening – not because they are violent, abusive or suggest a capitalist way of life, but to allow local Chinese cartoons become more popular. The idea being that if you take away the competition, people will like your own product more? A concept that left China 100 years behind the rest of the world before the Cultural Revolution! Oh and the government issued special guidelines on the shape, colour, texture and size of gluttonous rice balls – good to see they are attacking the issues that affect the masses!

Saturday, 16 February 2008

xin nein kuai le!

The question everyone has been asked this week in China, will undoubtedly be – “Did you have a Good Chinese New Year?” I have to admit that I don’t subscribe to the Chinese tradition of celebrating the Lunar New Year – I guess in part because I simply don’t understand it! It’s an alien concept to a western educated fool; it seems archaic and strange that a nation should continue to measure time on a different scale to the rest of the modern world.

So my answer has always been fairly short and probably very disrespectful! You see CNY to a foreigner living in China is a mixture of confusion, noise, congestion and ill-timed extended holidays. Surely our tradition of celebrating the New Year in line with the Western Calendar is far more appropriate; the date is the same every year, our system of counting days, months and years has a long history and a lineage can be shown back to long before Christianity, and was created by some of the greatest minds in the worlds history – or was it?

Unhappy with my ignorance I felt that I should try and find out some more.

Firstly, I hadn’t realised that CNY pre-dates our Gregorian calendar, with Emperor Huang Ti introducing the first cycle of the zodiac in 2600 BC. As with the western calendar it’s based on the lunar cycle, with the major difference being the start date. Because of cyclical lunar dating, the first day of the year can fall anywhere between late January and the middle of February. A complete cycle takes 60 years and is made up of 12 cycles each of 5 years in duration. The 12 cycles are where the animal zodiac comes into play – depending on what year you’re born in depends on what animal zodiac you are born under.

Rat 1924 1936 1948 1960 1972 1984 1996
Ox 1925 1937 1949 1961 1973 1985 1997
Tiger 1926 1938 1950 1962 1974 1986 1998
Rabbit 1927 1939 1951 1963 1975 1987 1999
Dragon 1928 1940 1952 1964 1976 1988 2000
Snake 1929 1941 1953 1965 1977 1989 2001
Horse 1930 1942 1954 1966 1978 1990 2002
Sheep 1931 1943 1955 1967 1979 1991 2003
Monkey 1932 1944 1956 1968 1980 1992 2004
Rooster 1933 1945 1957 1969 1981 1993 2005
Dog 1934 1946 1958 1970 1982 1994 2006
Boar 1935 1947 1959 1971 1983 1995 2007

This year is the year of the Rat – not this nicest of creatures, and one that has been seen as the bringer of death, petulance and plague in the west – not something we would necessarily celebrate or worship! So why these 12 animals? Well legend says that before Lord Buddha departed the Earth he summonsed all the animals to come to him – only these 12 arrived, and as a reward he named each year after them.
CNY is celebrated over 15 days, with each day having special meaning and containing different activities that include abstaining from Meat on Day 1, being extra kind to dogs on day 2 (which I guess is similar to no.1 in Beijing), the 3rd and 4th days are reserved for son-in-laws to pay respect to their parents-in-law, whilst the 5th requires you to stay at home, lock all the doors and don’t accept visitors as this may bring bad luck. The following 7 days are set aside for visiting friends and relatives and for them to visit you, the 13th day you should cleanse the system by eating rice congee and mustard greens, and on the 14th make preparations for the following days Lantern Festival.

CNY includes the best of all old cultures with some strange and ‘bizarre’ customs and superstitions. Including not sweeping the house on New Years Day, and the following days dust and rubbish should only be swept into the middle of the room, before placing the piles into the corners – where they should not be stepped on or disturbed, only on the 5th day can the rubbish be removed from the house – by the back door!
The explosion of firecrackers is well known; this coincides with midnight on New Years Eve and is combined with the opening of all doors and windows in the house – to let the old year leave.
On CNY day nothing should be lent out, or debts made, everyone should refrain from using foul language and it is considered very bad luck to cry! You shouldn’t wash your hair and make sure you have your red underwear on, as this will set a happy and bright tone for the year ahead. Oh and its very bad luck to use knives or scissors on this day also. I have neglected to offer reason for all of these superstitions, but needless to say they are to prevent a year of misery, debt, tears and misfortune.

So after all of my reading and questioning of Chinese friends, do I understand more about CNY? well as with many investigations you normally find out more about your own traditions than you do someone else’s – When you consider that the western calendar has been generally influenced by dictatorship, religion, commerce and politics since Julius Caesar founded the modern day calendar, and that England only adopted January 1st as the start of the year in 1752 – let alone all of the crazy traditions and superstitions associated with New Year celebrations in the west – you figure that a calendar that has been around, and stayed the same for over 4500 years probably has more right to a 15 day celebration than the one in the West (Taking religion out of the equation of course!).

After all that I can see why most of us foreigners will never really understand CNY. However if you ignore all of the folk lore and superstitions, most Chinese spend the New Year, meeting with friends and family that they haven’t seen all year, enjoying food, drink and playing games, giving gifts, decorating there homes, exchanging presents and burning money in the form of fireworks – a bit like Christmas and Western New Year really! Oh I forgot by following both the western and Chinese calendars you get two birthdays, and for kids – two lots of presents (maybe there is sense in keeping some traditions alive!).

Saturday, 9 February 2008


I recently bumped into an old friend on a flight from China, and I felt compelled to repeat what he told me, what follows is the how he told me his story:

It all started with him telling me about the love of his life, a partner whom he loved and cherished, someone he had ups and downs with, but ultimately the good times far outweighed the problems that everyone faces in a relationship. He felt that they were the perfect couple, each satisfying their needs perfectly. Then one day he was summonsed to a room where he was told that his partner of 18 years had tragically and very suddenly died – he was distraught and couldn’t think straight, he went through the full range of emotions - disbelief, anger, sorrow and frustration. But ultimately a deep depression set over him, and he felt that there was no future, and things would never be the same again.
To make matters worse everyone kept telling him to go out and find another partner as soon as possible, and if he couldn’t find a partner quickly then maybe he would need to alter and lower his expectations, and accept someone to fill the gap.
He couldn’t accept this advice and prayed for a resurrection, searching for ways to bring life back into his partners limp corpse. He hoarded memories and memorabilia, around his home, and recalled stories about their relationship with anyone that would listen. For months afterwards the media continued to cover the death and every time he turned on the TV he was reminded of his departed loved one.
Finally encouraged by friends and relatives he conceded and tried to find solace in another. He searched and searched to find a new partner, initially all he found was disappointment and rejection. The years of being loyal to one partner meant that his ability to communicate and sell himself to somebody new was difficult; contentment had meant that he had let himself go, and he could no longer compete with younger, leaner and more virile competition. He came to the conclusion that he would never find a perfect match and he would have to settle for anything that would accept him.
Lowering his expectations he finally did find someone who could see his virtues and welcomed his previous loyalty’s, at first there was excitement, but soon this turned into despair – it was a false relationship that didn’t have the same spark as before. It quickly turned into a relationship of convenience and the future looked bleak.
Then it happened, the hours of dreaming and hoping finally came to something. He had a call to say that his beloved had been resurrected and that life had been breathed back into the progressively rotting corpse. His heart pounded, and a sweat appeared on his brow, feelings welled up and produced tears of joy. He phoned around his friends to tell them of the news, and despite their words of caution he continued to race back into the ‘perfect’ relationship.
It was the day he had waited for; he was to be joined with his life partner once again. She looked, dressed, and smelled the same – but something was missing. All of their old friends had disappeared and some new strange people with different customs and a strange language had invaded the relationship. There was a lack of substance and reality about it all. She promised a future but couldn’t deliver; this was a fake resurrection, one with familiarities but ultimately filled with mistruths and dashed hopes. Expectations were tempered, but even these were missed. The relationship could never have gone back to how it was before, too much had happened and one of them had no soul and no sense of what had made the relationship so strong previously. Reluctantly he decided to end it for the sake of both sides; he took the pictures down from the walls in his house, put away the keepsakes, and locked away the memories into a psychological box.

Of course he wasn’t talking about the women in his life, but about the company he worked for – the company MG-Rover! I sat there amazed to here his story and the emotional roller coaster ride he had been on over the last few years. This was a guy who had worked at the company for the majority of his adult life, only to be told one day that his job had gone and he needed to find somewhere else to work. He relayed his story as if he had lost his wife, and was told to find a new one straight away, he then told me of his rejection from company after company because of his age and skill gap, and after a trying a new career, all he could do was compare the new with the old. When he was offered a chance to join NAC UK – an enormous sense of hope and delight convinced him that it would be the same company, 12 months later he has given up trying to convince himself that the new Longbridge could be anything like the old, and has decided to move onto pastures new.

It is always interesting to hear how people were affected by the collapse of MG-Rover – this was the first time I had heard someone use a personal relationship to describe the depth of feeling and emotional turmoil that the closure had on him and his life – even after almost 3 years. I guess the fact that I’m still writing about it – means it affected me more than I thought!

Saturday, 2 February 2008


The last 7 days in China have been dominated by one thing – the weather.
Weather isn’t normally the main topic of conversation for the Chinese (unlike us British!) food, money, money and food seem to be the core topic of any discussion, but the unusually cold and particularly the snowy downpour that has fallen over China this week, has focused everyone’s attention on not only the bad weather, but also the strains put on the Chinese infrastructure.

What makes this week’s spell of bad weather even more disastrous is the fact that it ties in with the annual ‘Chun Yun’ (Directly translated as "spring transportation"), – the exodus from where you live and work, back to your family around the time of the Lunar New year. Commentators describe this as a mass exodus of ‘migrant’ workers from the cities – which conjures up images of farmers, laborers, factory workers and basically any menial employees who have traveled far from their hometown to find work. Whilst this is true, it is also a bit of a misconception by us westerners.
There are a significant number of people who come from rural areas to do the jobs that city folk wont, in particular the construction workers who help China become the largest user of steel and concrete in the world, but then there are the office workers, engineer’s, managers, policemen, school teachers, bankers – in fact all walks of life, and those people who cover the complete spectrum of age, wealth and social demographics.
They spend 11.5 months a year working in the large economic powerhouse cities that straddle the East Coast of China, and at several key points in the year, they try to get back to visit wives, children, parents, and grand parents. Many of my friends, colleagues and employee’s have become more and more concerned as the weather forecasts got worse and the snow got deeper and deeper over the last few days.
I cant even imagine the number of people trying to return to their home towns over the last 10 days or so (estimates range from between 200 and 500 million!), but having lived and worked in two Chinese city’s, Nanjing and Shanghai – 70-80% of the people I meet, don’t derive from the city that they work in, leaving friends, family’s and loved ones far behind in search of the Chinese promised lands. The official figures suggest that 2.3 billion journeys will be made on public transport over the 10-day period, and that 23 million children are separated from there parents during the majority of the year. Chinese New Year for most for some becomes the only time for families to get together.
In Shanghai the snow first fell on Saturday 27th January, at first it seemed like a welcome break to the cold, dull and mostly wet weather we had been having. This time of the year is always depressing, and the weather wasn’t helping the situation. Waking up to a sprinkling of white powder seemed to be the tonic for a depressingly dirty late January. Like many families we played out in the snow, built snowmen and used the weather as an excuse to snuggle up in front of the TV, eating warm food and generally being lazy – unaware of the saga that was unfolding around us.
Many have wrote stories about horrendous trips desperately trying to get back home, and we have all seen the pictures of politicians cashing in on the disaster by handing out blankets to those stranded at many an airport, train or bus station, I just wanted to add a few of the startling facts that have struck me over the last 7 days in a snowy Shanghai.

  • The first story to put the darker side of a snowy day was the fact that in just a 24-hour period Shanghai hospitals 1000 people has been treated for bone fractures, after slipping on the ice and snow..

  • Official figures highlight that nearly 9000 flights had been delayed or cancelled during the 1st 3 days of the snow at the city’s 2 main airports.

  • 9,678 km of fixed-line networks and paralyzed affecting more than 19.2 million phone users nationwide.

  • 149,000 houses had their roofs collapse whilst the snow damaged a further 862,000.

  • Railway officials had estimated a passenger flow of 178.6 million people were delayed - the size of the combined population of Italy, France and Britain.

  • More than 1 million kg of fish and about 30,000 farmyard ducks here have become victims of the bad weather.

  • As of yesterday evening, railway departments in the province said they had paid refunds on more than 500,000 tickets.

  • Close to 1 million police have been deployed to control traffic on China's snow-covered highways.

  • 1.2 million people were stranded in Guangzhou train station as cross-country trains had been delayed and cancelled.

  • 100,000 people pile into Shanghai train station square – waiting for news.

These are just a few of the stories from the last few days, my stories – well, the biggest problems I have had is turning a 30 minute journey to work in to a 3 hour scary roller coaster, scrapping the ice of my windscreen in sub-zero temperatures, and a mad dog that likes to swim in frozen lake water. Apart from that I have decided to stay put and warm my feet against a defrosting dog, oh and pray that the snow clears in time to keep the 250 ships stranded at the mouth of the Huang Pu River delivering coal to the Shanghai Power Stations so I can keep the TV going and the food hot!