Saturday, 24 May 2008

Eating Out

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how expensive it could be to ‘eat in’ in Shanghai, with the price of a cup of tea at around $5 and a bowl of cereal coming in at $8, you may be attempted to eat out?

In Nanjing we had an enormous choice of cuisine – well enormous as long as you liked Chinese, Korean, Taiwanese, Chinese, Japanese or Chinese. Yes you could get some western food at the local 4-5star international hotels, but they all came with international hotel bills! Again moving to Shanghai meant that you could get cuisines from around the world and at variable prices

You have probably heard all the horror stories from friends who have visited China (especially those on business here) about the ‘strange’ and ‘curious’ dishes served up by your local Chinese restaurant. Despite the sparrows tongue, goosefeet and live lobster surprise, (
Chinese restaurants can serve up some great food. The JiaoZi (Dumplings are great), Beijing (formerly known as Peking!) Duck is wonderful and the Spaniel Eyeballs are to die for (only kidding!). However I decided not to compare the costs of eating Chinese in the UK with eating it here in China for two reasons. One it would be unfair, with literally millions of Chinese restaurants in Shanghai mainly serving a not so rich clientele, prices are unbelievably low in most cases – I’m talking 1 pound for 10 courses, and the food is so different that it would be wrong to compare. Yes Chinese food in the UK is an English invention and bares little resemblance to the food cooked here (So I am told by my Chinese friends and colleagues – as I have never had a Chinese in the UK!).

Another option was to compare hotel restaurant prices – after all aren’t Hyatt’s, Hiltons and Marriots the same around the world? As I have stayed and eaten in most of them I would have to agree, however unless you’re on holiday, a business trip or you live in Nanjing you wouldn’t necessarily eat in a hotel. City hotel restaurants are incredibly pretentious and cater for businessmen who have arrived late, meeting places for strangers and for people staying with people they shouldn’t, and cant be seen anywhere else (If you know what I mean!). Not only that I couldn’t get hold of priced menus from hotels in the UK on the Internet – and no one I knew ate in hotels in the UK (Point proved I think?).

So I have resorted to comparing what used to be called honest establishments, serving wholesome honest western food! When I was a child is was the Berni Inn, with a Prawn Cocktail Starter (none of this appetizer business), an 8oz Char grilled (Burned) steak, and Apple Crumble with custard for desert all washed down with a glass of chilled Lambrusco (Not for me of course I was too young!). Places where as a parent you hate going after the 30th visit, but it’s the only place that outwardly encourages you to bring the kids, offers a menu that you can understand, and doesn’t require you to arrange a second mortgage before booking a table.

I would have liked to have picked a menu from the ‘Miller’s Kitchen’ range who seem to have replaced the ‘Berni’ in the UK, but there website didn’t have an online menu with prices, and popping on a plane for 13 hours just to see how much chicken nuggets and chips are, wasn’t really plausible. So I had to rely on what I could get my hands on. Thus I chose Harvester for my UK comparison, with over 150 establishments you’re never too far away from serving yourself!
In Shanghai it was easy to pick a restaurant chain that fitted the bill – there is only one. The strangely named “Blue Frog” restaurant chain – which when you first hear it conjures up images of delicately prepared amphibian dishes, is actually a haven for expatriate families, caught in between the fast food chains of McDonald’s and KFC, Chinese Restaurants and High Class hotel fare. They provide a welcome break, with 7 locations around Shanghai, English-speaking staff, and efficient service offering clean toilets – although they do fill the urinals with ice? Which I have always found strange!

So I have found the restaurants for comparison, all I need now is the food – as you may expect the menus are somewhat different. The choices at the Harvester are enormous in comparison, and restaurants don’t make it easy when they try to make simple food sound exciting – for example what do they mean by feisty prawns or funky Chicken? Did the prawns cause some problems for the chef, or did the chicken arrive in flairs?

So I have had to generalize the menu’s to try and find a balance.

Well the results show that the UK is marginally cheaper (although I didn’t include the price of wine or beer) but of course this isn’t the whole story, as with any major city, you can decide on your budget and find a myriad of restaurants to suit – as long as you like Chinese that is! If it’s an Indian, Mexican, Italian or Thai then be prepared not to find too many bargains.

Saturday, 17 May 2008


I Decided I would not post a BLOG about my puerile and menial life this week, after reading and seeing the scenes from the earthquake stricken Sichuan province I didn’t feel comfortable discussing anything else. I’m not a journalist or professional writer, and couldn’t give justice to the stories that need to be told. So I have just decided to show some of the images that have moved me during the last few days.

At 2.45pm local time on the 12th May 2008 an earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale hit southwest China. The quake was centred on Wenchuan county in Sichuan province, and was felt as far away as Hong Kong and Bangkok - some 1950 kilometres away.

The current death toll stands at 28,881 (as of 2pm on Saturday 16th May), and government sources are indicating that figure could be as high as 50,000. The Red Cross report that another 200,000 have been injured and over 4 million displaced.

Here are just some of the pictures that show the scale of the disaster.

One of the most harrowing stories to be told has been that of the children at Juyuan Middle School in Dujiangyan. 900 children were killed, when the school collapsed during Monday’s earthquake.

The photograph show the gathering of school bags made to help identify the dead.

Student ID tags are collected to help identify those lost.

The pictures don't need any explanation, and certainly dont need any words from me. I just want to send my heartfelt wishes, and Sincere condolences in this the darkest of hours.

A good Chinese friend of mine sent me some more pictures from the earthquake site, I have now added these to the blog.

Please give generously:

Sunday, 11 May 2008

The cost of a 'normal' life

  • This is an entry I have been threatening to write for months, but as my last BLOG was about money – it seems appropriate that I finally got down to putting finger to key.
    As the title suggests I wanted to write about the cost of living in China – not for a local (maybe that one would come later) but as an Ex-British citizen (I think I’m ‘Ex’, I will have to check with the consulate!).
    Bulleted List
    You see the cost of living depends on your lifestyle, eating habits, living style, family size, transportation preference, and in some respects what you can actually afford! I guess many people think that the cost of living in China is extremely low in comparison with the UK, and if you wished to live life as a local – that would almost certainly be true. As I recently wrote, if you’re an indigenous Chinese worker – you will be living on far less than your western expatriate, or comparable UK worker. However living the normal Chinese lifestyle would not appeal to many westerners – if any.

    When I lived in Nanjing, I had to adapt my standard of living considerably. The lack of western nicety’s caused me and my family to do without many of life’s simple pleasures, leaving anything made by Cadbury, Walkers, Stella Artois, Marks and Spencers, NEXT or Clarks just a dream or long distant memory. After a while you start to accept (I wont say enjoy) rice with every meal, sweet bread and hairy crab crisps.

    Moving to Shanghai was like moving to a new country, we ran around the specialist foreign supermarkets like, well like children in a sweet shop – reminiscent of a scene out of a Peter Kay stand up show, we picked up Cadburys Chocolate Fingers like they were made of gold, showing them to each member of the family in disbelieve that we actually found some identifiable food stuff!

    Believe me, please believe me I have tried to lead a more simple life – but I always end up craving for a tin of Heinz Baked beans, HP Sauce, or Air-Conditioning in 45 degree heat.
    So I am writing this BLOG as a simple-minded westerner trying to live an Englishman’s life in a Chinese city, rather than an English man living in a Chinese city, trying to live a Chinese lifestyle.
    I have tried to break down the cost of living into 7 parts, eating in, eating out, taxation, commodity bills (Including vehicle fuel), rent (vehicles and property), transportation and clothes. Today’s first installment is about eating in.

    Eating In

    The most famous western supermarket chain in China is Carrefour, it also happens to be the largest in Europe and 2nd only to Walmart in the world.
    Opening its first Chinese store in 1995, it now has 42 stores employing over 23,000 people. Carrefour is the center of most western dwellers shopping habits in mainland China, apart from shopping it’s the first place you meet other people in a similar position, it’s a focal point to set distance and directions from, and it remains a key indicator for change in China.
    I have to say that Carrefour has never been my favorite store – but it was a god send when we lived in Nanjing – we would visit each week and dream of them increasing their foreign brand range by another product (It never did!), and the live fish, turtles and frogs on sale always raised a laugh.
    I rarely visit Carrefour in Shanghai, mainly because we now have choice! A couple of local stores provide (almost) everything we need – although at an extortionate price!
    I could write lists, and lists of products which whilst interesting – I would probably get an avalanche of abuse because someone out there doesn’t buy sardines pickled in human brine (Just me then!). So I just decided to pick the top 20 ‘favorites’ from ‘most’ peoples shopping trolleys. If you did want any other product compared – let me know, I am now the expert!!
I recognize that you could not make much of a meal from all of that, and believe it or not I never picked items to show an uneven spread of prices (I.e. cheapest UK Vs Most expensive Chinese). If I had included chocolate sweets or wine the gap would be even wider (a standard Mars Bar costs 1.12 and a bottle of Jacobs Creak Chardonnay is over 9.00 a bottle). If you want to check out the prices yourself try .

You will notice that I have missed meat and fish from the list, well we are encouraged by western doctors to eat only imported Australian meat, and to avoid all locally produced meat and fish.
You ignore this advice at your own peril, I recognize that the UK has suffered with BSE, foot and mouth and salmonella outbreaks despite the extremely stringent rules and regulations to control hygiene etc. But these outbreaks pale into insignificance with locally produced produce in China, where human excrement is the flavour of choice for farmers fertilizer and a recent outbreak of blue ear disease in pigs doubled the price of pork and left at least 5% of the 500 million pigs in China culled or slaughtered – or at least those that were prevented from being sold on the black markets!
Farming, slaughtering, logistic and food handling standards I expect don’t meet European standards? Although I am happy to be proven wrong!The price of imported Australian meat is incredibly expensive, and locally produced meat incredibly cheap in comparison – so I chose to leave these out of the equation to provide a more level and realistic playing field.

So cooking at home in Shanghai can be dangerous and expensive, the alternative is to use one of the 1001 restaurants in Shanghai. Which of course only use imported meet, the freshest of fruit, vegetables and ensures that they prepare, clean, cook and serve with the highest levels of cleanliness – or do they? More next week.

Saturday, 3 May 2008


There has recently been lots of news about the financial difficulties in the west, the so-called ‘credit crunch’ and the mortgages fiasco in North America have created a whirlpool of despair, doom and gloom.
Houses aren’t doubling in value every month, you actually need a job to get a mortgage, and most people are delaying the purchase of their third Mercedes.
Credit is proving difficult to get hold of, and bankers in the financial cities are struggling to pay the loan on the gold, diamond encrusted jet they brought with their last bonus.

Financial issues have also made a lot of news in China recently – but maybe on a different scale? China is full of extremes – wealth and poverty are probably the most obvious in large cities like Shanghai.

Each day that I drive to work, I am sucked in by the large air intakes of another Porsche, Bentley, or BMW 7 series that fly past.

On a weekend shopping trip to Carrefour (it was empty for the first time ever – I wonder why?) I parked up next to a yellow Lamborghini, which when I returned had been replaced by a Bentley Arnarge to one side, a BMW 740iL behind, and a Porsche Cayenne Turbo a couple of cars down.
I squeezed into my London Taxi, knowing that I was at least individualistic – You see these cars in Shanghai rarely raise an eyebrow even from the local Shanganese anymore, whereas my beloved TXII, turns heads and gasps of WoW -at least I think that's what people are saying?

Mind blowingly, China is Bentleys 3rd largest market, Rolls Royces and Ferrari’s 5th Largest, whilst Porsche predicts that China will be its biggest market in 5 years time, it is already their second biggest overseas market (after the USA).

The rich here are quite happy to flaunt their wealth in the form of imported exotica; large houses, foreign travel, Chanel suits for the women, and Prada handbags for the men!
Its seems ironic that the fake markets of Shanghai, Beijing and Hangzhou are filled with westerners purchasing the latest Rolexy watch, and Louise Vuitton suitcase, whilst the high brand shopping malls are filled with rich Chinese buying the REAL deal!

But while the Chinese super rich grow in their ranks, (At the last count their were in excess of 150,000 Chinese with a personal fortune over $5million and the number of Chinese $billionaires is second only to those in the USA at 130+). The rest of the population still live an incredibly different life, on an unimaginable low income.

The National Bureau of Statistics data shows that annual per-capita disposable income was 13,786 yuan (£985) in urban areas last year, up 17.2 percent. Just over 40% of Chinese live in urban areas and despite the over crowded shopping malls, supermarkets and roads – the average income is less than £3 per day!!!

If you think this is extreme, almost 750 million people live in rural areas where the annual income was 4,140 yuan (£296), up 15.4 percent. Which equates to less than £1 a day.
Along with this increase the central government is considering whether to lift the benchmark poverty line from the current 1,067 yuan (£76) to 1,300 yuan (£92), according to a notice issued by the Poverty Alleviation Office under the State Council. This would bring the Chinese classification of poverty inline with international standards, doubling China’s impoverished population to 80 million overnight, or in other words 80 million people having to survive on less than £0.25p per day.

One of the largest concerns to the everyday Chinese is the rapid increase in food costs, and for all those western students trying hard to survive on Student loans and parent handouts – share a thought for the 20 million or so High School and College students in China, who survive on an incredibly small amount of money – so much so that the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Education will raise allowances to 16 million students by 20 yuan (£1.45) a month from March to June, and by 40 yuan to four million needy students.

The government has subsidized students since 1989, but the amount varies according to the area. In Beijing, it is about 60 yuan for each student a month – that’s £4 Great British Pounds per month – or about 2 pints of beer a month at the local bar!

This increase isn’t just limited to students; the government has been keen to act on employers who have kept wages at the legal minimum. In Shanghai the government has just increased the monthly minimum wage from 840 yuan (£60) to 960 yuan (£69) from April 1st.
This is the 16th time the minimum wage has been increased since 1993. In comparison The UK minimum wage is 12,432 yuan (£888) per month (based on 4 X 40 hour weeks) or about an average yearly salary for those living in urban areas!

So how does this add up? Like many visitors, expatriates and local Chinese – I don’t have a clue!! We all see so much wealth, so many imported luxury vehicles, so many bejewelled watches and garish handbags that we cannot work out where the money comes from, perhaps its all down to statistics, whereby a small percentage of an enormous population is still an enormous number? Whatever it is – I am sure it could do with being spread around a bit more, before the natives become hostile!