Monday, 31 March 2008

Best Man?

First, please accept my apologies for missing a weeks BLOG. I had taken what I thought would be a well deserved rest in the UK – how wrong could I have been?
I arrived back in the UK on Wednesday 21st March, after a nearly 13 hour flight – delayed due to a diversion from the normal route – The pilot informed us that apparently Beijing is now a ‘no-go’ zone for international flights. In an attempt to reduce pollution flights not directly taking off or landing in Beijing are not allowed into the cities air space (sorry my poor use of grammar will undoubtedly fire off a rally of abuse from the anal retentive amongst my readers – no apologies, you don’t like what I write or how I write it – read something else!).

Back to my reasons for being rushed off my feet whilst on vacation. Well for me this was just a normal bi-monthly visit back to the UK – whereas my family hadn’t returned to the UK for over 15 months. So they wanted to fit in as much as possible in the 10 or so days we were in Blighty. We had to fit in visits to family, friends, acquaintances and work colleagues, days with my bosses in Coventry, meetings with the writers, editors and producers of the forthcoming (hopefully) production, and of course the main reason for the trip back – my brothers wedding.
I had been asked to be best man by my brother some 9 months earlier when they announced their engagement. Being best man was explained to me as “like being asked to kiss the queen”, and incredible honor - that no one really wants! I didn’t feel like that, however I was quite embarrassed, whilst extremely close to my ‘little’ (He is 2meters tall and counting) brother – he has some fantastic friends who have been close friends with my brother since children at the age of 3. These were much more deserving of the task than me – someone who had escaped the turmoil’s of family life for isolation in China. When asked I thought – great lots of time to develop a cracking speech. 9 months preparation into what should / shouldn’t be said, time to create a balance between sentiment and humor, and hopefully develop a relationship with this new and unknown family that would become my brothers ‘in-laws’.
I have had lots of opportunities to talk in public before, and wasn’t necessarily nervous about the whole thing, after all the audience should be well watered and had no crosses to bare against either me or the bride and groom – a welcoming audience, just looking for a slice of entertainment during an otherwise long day.
But, as the day got closer I became more and more apprehensive. Most of my family hadn’t seen my for several years (at least 2), I had left for China as a boy – I had to return as a man! What if I fluffed my words? What if I froze? What if I wasn’t funny – or even worse I was embarrassingly abusive? Despite the 9 months notice I had left writing the speech until the very last day, I didn’t have time to rehearse or review – I just had to go with what I had.
Here is what I had planed to say – but I must admit to adlibbing quite a lot, not necessarily due to confidence – more to do with reacting to the heckling and the copious amounts of alcohol I had consumed prior to the big moment. “I would just like to say thanks for the introduction, and I hope that everyone has enjoyed themselves so far, I know you all want to get to the bar and when I’m speaking I don’t object to people looking at their watches, however I do get upset when they start shaking them to make sure they are working.

Despite being Martins favorite brother, I have to admit to feeling a little bit guilty at being nominated as Martins Best man, So to make amends I would like Martins first and second choices for Best Men to stand and take a bow – Mark and Craig please stand.
Both Martin and myself have known Craig & Mark a long time – too long perhaps!
To Martin, Mark and Craig have been loyal, trustworthy, compassionate and faithful friends through thick and thin. They have shared your triumphs, your disasters, and your good and bad times and in some cases they have even shared your prison cell.

You are both far more deserving as Martins best friends to do this job – however Gabby decided that for two reasons you probably weren’t suitable:
1. You know far too much about Martin’s seedy past, and
2. You were far too ugly to appear on the wedding photos.

You can sit now boys.

This is my first (and probably last) time as a best man and one of the difficulties for a best man virgin, is knowing how long your speech should last, having consulted many of you before this big day, the consensus seems to be that the speech should last as long as the grooms love making – so without any delay, I would like to thank you for your attention and wish you all a great day. (At this point I sat down, before starting again)

Whilst my job is to talk about Martin, I do have to congratulate the Bride, the bridesmaids and of course the flower girls on a fantastic turnout, you all look stunning and have provided a ray of sunshine on what weather wise would be a fairly dull day.

I hope that now the stressful bit is over you can sit back and relax and enjoy the rest of the day.
If any of you have been wondering just how stressful the whole wedding preparation has been – well 6 months ago when this all started Martin had hair as long as mine!

I know it is customarily as best man to completely embarrass, and ridicule the groom.. However I must admit to being a little worried about this task, one reason is because of my deep respect for Martin and my love for him and his new bride, and the other because of my throat – Gabby said she would cut it if I said anything bad.

I haven’t known Gabby that long, but what I do know is that she is a fantastic person, kind, generous, loving and one of those people who has the ability to recognize and appreciate inner beauty – which is just as well really.

By marrying Martin, Gabby has been an inspiration to all of those people out there who believe in lost causes, not to say that Martin was a complete lost cause, but ever since his first arrest at the age of 6, Martin has been a bit wayward, I don’t want to exaggerate this – but he is on first name terms with the cleaners at Solihull police station.

Still Gabby has had a calming influence on his illegal activities and even his famous wandering eye; although to be honest it wasn’t so much of a wandering eye - more a nomadic penis.

I know it’s coarse to talk about Martin’s previous encounters with the opposite sex, and to even discuss just how many lovers he has had – so I won’t go into any detail and will leave by saying that 94 must have been his lucky number.

Still all of that is behind him now and from what I’ve heard was occasionally behind him whilst he lived in Germany.

At this point I would have liked to show you all a few photos of Martin growing up – but the truth is that at the age of about 14 Martin decided that he would put all of his baby and junior pictures into the washing machine – his idea was to avoid his best man showing them to everyone at his wedding. (Bastard)
Which means that I missed the opportunity to show everyone old photographs of him with his tackle out – not to worry I do have a DVD here, and copies are available on eBay!

Before I finish my wife insisted that I give some marital advice to Gabby.

First trust your husband, adore your husband, and get as much as you can in your own name.
Remember - All marriages are happy; it’s living together afterwards that is difficult.
And finally men are like tiled floors, lay them right the first time, and you can walk over them for years.

To even the balance I would like to offer some words to Martin in return:

Remember women are meant to be loved, not understood.
Set the ground rules straight away and establish who the boss is - then do everything Gabby says.
The body of a young woman is one of god’s greatest gifts, it’s just a shame he didn’t design it to last.

And finally to both of you:

In the first year of marriage the husband talks and the wife listens.
In the second year of marriage the wife talks and the husband listens.
In the third year of marriage they both talk so loud the neighbors listen.

I think everyone has heard enough from me, but in a vain attempt to recover any sense of decorum. I would like to finish by saying that I think you make a wonderful couple, Gabby you are young, beautiful, kind, sexy and wonderfully warm person, whilst you Martin are well – bloody lucky!

I love you both with all my heart and know that you have a fantastic and special relationship that will survive the worse things that life will throw at you, and excel in the best it has to offer.

So for the last time could everyone please raise their glasses – to the bride and groom, Martin and Gabby. "

Nw I’m not sure if it was a good speech or not – it raised a few laughs, no one hit me, and everyone was still talking to me afterwards. Like all speeches I was nervous before I did it, and wanted to do it again once I had finished. If any one out there is about to be a best man (Or women) I hope I have provided a little bit of inspiration, hell I could have done with it before writing mine!

The day was fantastic, and ended with me getting extremely drunk and trying my John Travolta impersonations – unfortunately I don’t have any photos of that. However I understand the whole thing was videoed and is probably coming to ‘You Tube” very soon!

(I do have to point out that my brother has never been in trouble with the police – and what I said about his previous history with women was a pure opportunist moment to get my own back on him for releasing my pet mouse into the wild when I was only 8 years old)

Sunday, 16 March 2008

Shanghai Taxi

I felt that a Blog with a title like “Carry on Cabby” should have at least one article devoted to the much maligned taxi industry. But as my knowledge of the UK taxi industry tends to revolve around never finding one when you really need one, trying to avoid small talk during the journey and then taking out a third mortgage to pay for the service.
I figured, I would follow my mom’s advice “If you don’t have anything good to say – don’t say anything!”
So as an alternative I thought I would mix a bit of news from China with as many taxi stories I could find from the last 2 weeks newspapers here in Shanghai.

I should mention that like most major city’s (London excluded!) Shanghai has a horrendous taxi problem; Shanghai has approximately 45,000 taxis, operated by over 150 taxi companies. This supports a population of over 20 million, which swells uncontrollably during both Chinese holidays, and from foreign visitors. The most renowned place to try and catch a taxi is Hongqiao Airport, which for anyone landing there on a cold winters night, after a 3 hour flight from Shenyang sitting next to a throat clearing, garlic stinking, pistachio eating, bogey flicking, flatulent peasant will know the horror of the Taxi queue that awaits your exit from the airport!

Taxi drivers tend to work 17 hours a day, and earn 4-5,000 rmb a month (about 350 quid!). They are not exactly known for their personal or vehicle hygiene, and if they don’t like the look of you they will pretend that your talking Swahili and that they have never heard of Peoples Square, Pudong, or even Shanghai! Getting one to stop is only half the battle, they pick and choose whom they will pick up even then they may not take you to where you want go – talk about “this side of the river”.
Yet despite all of this they are synonymous with what makes this city great – fast, frantic and ferocious.

As with all cash industry’s they become the target of organized crime, and the dregs of humanity start to squeeze whatever morsel they can out of a profession that struggles to hold its head up high. Shanghai has tried to fight back against these unscrupulous gangs, which has lead to a couple of high profile cases in China during the last week.

One of the initiatives has been to target gangs preying on newly arrived tourists and business people – “EIGHT Shanghai-based taxi drivers have been detained over a frightening fraud scheme, mainly targeting foreigners, that involved using threats and, in some cases, stand-over men, to charge passengers exorbitant fees. The traffic law-enforcement team, the taxi industry watchdog, yesterday announced the eight cabbies had been apprehended after a two-month undercover operation that was helped enormously by cooperation from affected passengers. The eight suspects were involved in 13 extortion cases, involving illegal income of up to 50,000 yuan (US$7,038). The watchdog also impounded ten taxis used for extortion purposes and drivers involved face criminal charges. In response to complaints from duped passengers, the taxi watchdog formed a task force and focused the crackdown campaign on city transport-hub areas, including railway stations, airports and the Longyang Road Maglev Station. The Maglev station, leading to Pudong International Airport, has long been a spot where foreign passengers have reported being swindled by both legal and illegal cabbies”.

However with every initiative comes a dark side: this story featured only days after the success story ran.

“THE death of a woman who was brutally killed last Friday as an undercover agent for the taxi watchdog. Chen Sujun, 33, was stabbed dead at the end of her part-time shift on Friday in Touqiao Town, suburban Fengxian District. The 21-year-old illegal taxi driver, Lei Qingwen, stabbed her chest and throat when a watchdog team surrounded his vehicle, banged on the windows and told him to get out of the car. Lei faced a maximum penalty of 50,000 yuan (US$7,036) for this, a repeat offense as he had already paid 10,000 yuan in fines after being caught the first time. Sources from the taxi watchdog yesterday said the driver attacked the woman out of rage. The young man was the major breadwinner for his family and was getting married in May. He was still paying off the debt he had incurred to buy the Chery sedan. Insiders said management was considering compensation for the woman's family”.

A tragic story, which shows just how violent this society can become.

If after all of that you decide that Taxi’s aren’t for you, and that you would be better off using the train you might want to read this one before making your journey:

“RAILWAY police yesterday said they would punish a Guizhou Province farmer who was caught with a suitcase of pornographic novels and movies at Shanghai Railway Station. Police said the farmer claimed he watched and read pornographic material every day and reviewed each one. Police alleged he also said he loved practicing the moves he learnt from books and movies with his fiancĂ©e. A patrol officer stopped the 30-year-old farmer yesterday. He was about to board a train back home to get married. The police officer became more suspicious when hearing loud noises from items clanging about in his suitcase. Police found 33 porn novels, six disks of sex movies as well as a notebook filled with his personal reviews. Police said Chen was not a trader of porn products. He allegedly told police they were just a part of his personal collection and that he was hoping to publish his reviews. "Traveling with pornographic products is not allowed by law," a railway police officer said”.
You have been warned!

Saturday, 8 March 2008

Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner.

The last couple of weeks have been as hectic as ever, and as usual full of ups and downs. I have met some interesting people, been to some fascinating places, eaten some bizarre foods and even managed to avoid being arrested.

It all started last week at a dinner hosted by the Shanghai Consulate in honor of David Millibrand’s visit to China and the city of Shanghai. I wouldn’t normally attend these events, but seeing an opportunity to be wined and dined by the British Government was an opportunity too good to miss. The event was held in a very swanky restaurant on the famous Bund area of the city (Wai Tan in Chinese), they had hired the whole place, and bused in people from the four corners of Shanghai (and beyond) to welcome him to this fantastic city. In usual style he was several hours late, which gave me good opportunity to get drunk on government, sponsored red wine.
Not a great mix – a megalomaniac with a tendency to be a bit outspoken after a drink, and an ‘important’ VVIP! I managed to barge my way to the front of the awaiting crowd and thrust my business card into his hand, then berated the poor guy on how all of this was a complete waste of tax payers money, and how the hell did he hope to get a real understanding of China, by flitting from one immaculately arranged engagement to the next. Not my finest hour perhaps – but it made me feel good for the 30 seconds that it lasted before his aides came to his rescue!

My next appointment with the famous was something that had been arranged for a while, and something I wasn’t really looking forward to. The UK Trade and Industry department had organized a series of seminars in China to promote the British Motor Industry (Stop Laughing, Britain really does have a thriving Motor Industry – its just owned by someone else!). I had promised to support the seminars, and even agreed to sponsor a dinner for the 15 strong group. That was before I was informed that the keynote speaker was non-other than Professor Garel Rhys CBE.
I had never met the guy before, but knew him very well through his writings about the motor Industry, for those who don’t know – he is probably the most quoted person in the UK when it comes to the car business, and has chaired Select Committees of the House of Commons and House of Lords; the European Union; the United Nations Industrial Organisation; the UK Government; and many companies and agencies. He is outspoken and confrontational, and loved by the UK media because of this.
The reason I felt uncomfortable about his visit? Well I once wrote him a damming letter in response to an article he wrote about Nanjing’s purchase of MG. He never replied, but I guessed I had burned a few bridges!
So you can imagine how uncomfortable I was when I found my self sitting at the same breakfast table of a hotel in Chongqing! It doesn’t happen very often, but once in a while an opinion formed about someone can change.
I found him extremely pleasant, enthusiastic, incredibly well informed and one of the most generous men I have ever met. I spent several days with the delegation that included government officials, and the heads of the good and great British motor industry (MIRA, VCA, Millbroook, APR etc.) all touting their service to the Chinese motor industry. The seminars and subsequent factory visits included 70% of the larger indigenous vehicle manufacturers in China, all were very generous with their hospitality and welcoming to the UK visitors and they listened intently to what they had to say – were any deals done? Any contracts signed? Any Joint Ventures agreed or any strategic alliances formed? Well no, but the seeds have been sown and awareness made. The delegation was here to explain how difficult it was to design, engineer, homologate and sell vehicles in the European market – and how they could help now or in the inevitable future when they decide that the rich pickings in Europe are too tempting to ignore.

Amongst all of this I needed to do some of my own work and carry on with my day job – Ie bringing the Iconic London Taxi (sorry but I’m contracted to use the word ‘Iconic’ whenever I mention the London Taxi!) to Asia. We are deep into our project, and planning our presence at the Beijing Auto Show in April. We desperately needed some new advertising material, and some local shots of the vehicle to adorn our brochures, posters and advertising material in general.
As we would be trying to position a vehicle in front of some of the most famous tourist spots in Shanghai, we needed to gain permission from the local authority’s. Whilst not impossible to gain the correct permissions, it’s probably easier to cycle to the moon on a unicycle made of butter. So for this reason I decided to flout the law and get my people to cut some corners into getting the best shots of Shanghai and London Taxis as possible.
Wrong! Several hours into their shoot – I get a call from one of them that the Pudong police force have arrested them and impounded the vehicle. I then spent the next 4 hours trying to persuade the officials that we meant no harm and we just didn’t understand the rules. To be honest they weren’t particularly obstructive, or angry. They were very interested in our project and went to lengths to tell me the official rules and practices! After completing a thousand forms and paying numerous fines we were allowed to go. Our crime I found out wasn’t a photographic one – but driving an unlicensed, unregistered vehicle and then parking it in an illegal place, it seems we were victims of our own success, an enormous crowd had formed around the vehicle which led to the police becoming interested and to them asking for the necessary paperwork!
At least we managed to salvage a few good pictures before the crowd and the police appeared – I hope you enjoy the fruits of our labor?

Sunday, 2 March 2008

You Know You've Been in China Too Long When...

I guess it doesn’t matter where you live, you always tend to divide life into the positives and negatives. When you live in someone else country you tend to focus on the negatives!

About a year ago I tripped over a list that had been doing the rounds amongst the expatriates living in China for several years. Whilst only funny or pertinent to those living here, or have lived here – it does give an unusual insight into the quirky and weird aspects that eventually become matter of fact.

The title of the list - “You know you have been in China for too long when... “ The full list is available on but here are a few of my favourites – with a few of my own added.

  • The footprints on the toilet seat are your own.

  • You’ve totally lost any concept of queuing.

  • You stop at the top or bottom of an escalator to plan your day.

  • It becomes exciting to see if you can get on the lift before anyone can get off.

  • It is no longer surprising that the only decision made at a meeting is the time and venue for the next meeting.

  • You rank the decision-making abilities of your staff by how long it takes them to reply "Up To You".

  • You no longer wonder how someone who earns US$ 400.00 per month can drive a Mercedes.

  • You find that it saves time to stand and retrieve your hand luggage while the plane is on final approach.

  • You can shake your hands almost perfectly dry before wiping them on your trousers, or you have your suits made with terrycloth pockets.

  • You have developed an uncontrollable urge to follow people carrying small flags.

  • You are not surprised when three men with a ladder show up to change a light bulb. You look over people's shoulder to see what they are reading

  • When shopping at Carrefour some laowai stares you down for catching you looking into his basket while you wonder to yourself what laowai's eat.

  • You wear nylons when it is 30 degrees outside One of your fingernails is an inch long.

  • In a meeting you say everything will be 'wonderful' and give no details.

  • You forget that the other person needs to finish speaking before you can start.

  • You walk through the zoo, and at each animal you ask yourself 'How would I prepare this ?'

  • When you chain smoke and carry a little leather man handbag, complete with a matching phone holder.

  • You think NOTHING of seeing several people laying on a gurney with an IV connected to them OUTSIDE of a hospital.

  • You let your two and a half yr old kid set off some bangers/fireworks in the vein hope that the 'money god' will bring you fortune this year, while fully unaware that the 'save blown of limbs god' hasn't been invented yet

  • You can't believe that construction workers in other countries don't wear suits while mixing cement/pushing wheelbarrels around or while drilling holes in the middle of busy roads during rush hour.

  • You no longer need tissues to blow your nose.

  • When at a pedestrian crossing in your own country you stand there waiting and wondering why the cars have stopped for you.

  • You see models on tv from the West and think, "man, they're kinda chubby".

  • As soon as it gets hot you roll your shirt up under your pits, and your trousers up to your knees, whilst still wearing your popsocks and black (unpolished) shoes.

  • When you can squat over the toilet, with the door open, reading a newspaper and having a fag.

  • When you start to like chicken feet...

  • You yell into the mobile phone regardless of your surroundings.

  • You don’t take the plastic covering off any electrical purchase – ever! You throw your money down on the counter to pay for something.

  • When someone's cooking "Chou Toufu" and you think "Smells good !"

  • When u're shocked when u go 2 consecutive days w/o diahrrea.

  • People blast off fireworks and you could care less and don't even bother looking at the display.

Those are the everyday ones – now for some driving “you know you have been in China too long when” (Just for you Ash!)

  • The indicator stalks on your car are just somewhere to hang another air-freshener

  • The rear view mirror is permanently angled to your partners seat for her to put her makeup on.

  • Door mirrors are just a inconvenience when cutting through tight gaps.

  • As a passenger of a car, you stick your socked/non-socked feet out the window.

  • It comes as a surprise when you finally reach the tollgate after a 30-minute queue that they might actually need some money.

  • There are only two settings to your headlights – off and full beam, and you use them indiscriminately.

  • After picking up your new leather seated vehicle you cover them with knitted seat covers (To protect them!).

  • Traffic signals are merely a guide – not a rule.

  • The ability to roll a cigarette, send a text message, read a map and pick your nose whilst performing a 3 point turn in the middle of traffic.

  • When you find nothing wrong with reversing in the fast lane of a highway because you think you should have taken the last exit.

  • Anyone who drives a vehicle not black or silver is being ostentatious.

  • The hard shoulder is any just an empty lane waiting to be used!

  • You start looking at vehicle registrations in terms of lucky numbers.

  • You don’t feel the need to change your tyres until you can see steel.

  • There are hundreds more – so please feel free to send them in. Next week - "You know you've been an expat too long when..."