Sunday, September 30, 2007

Trekking in Bhutan

We are in Bhutan and trekking starting Tuesday morning... so no blogging for us this week. But be sure to come back and visit the blog next week. Bhutan is an unbelievable place and I cannot wait to tell you everything about it!

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

A day in colonial Gulang Yu

Spending the day walking around Gulang Yu was such a treat last Sunday!
Gulang Yu: “the wave which sounds like the beating drum” (gu for drum and lang for wave) – what a nice name!
Gulang Yu is a small island just 5-minute ferry ride from the island of Xiamen.
We wandered all day and we felt like we were back in time at the beginning of the 20th century, but in a place where inhabitants were long gone and had deserted their gorgeous colonial residences.
Indeed a lot of the homes are empty, falling into ruin and covered in ivy, with overgrown gardens of tropical flower bushes. But despite the decay and the abandonment, it is said to be the largest and best-preserved collection of colonial mansions in mainland China. It is difficult to explain the reality of the island and its architecture though without going back to just a little bit of history. From the 16th century to the 19th century, starting with the Portuguese and then the British, the Dutch and the French, Europeans tried unsuccessfully to open trade with China. But the Chinese emperors, who considered every other country as its vassal, was a lot less interested in opening its country to trade than the British were interested by its products, such as its tea. So China resisted for several centuries, forbidding access to its ports, its rivers and its lands and trying to limit the trade to the port of Canton. The British continued to trade illegally though, having found a product of desire which it brought from its Indian colony: opium. As the trade of opium increased rapidly, the emperor of China understood the dangers of its addiction and forbid its trade. It also tried to punish illegal trade by destroying boat loads of opium it would catch. A century of humiliation started for China however in the middle of the 19th century. Humiliation is a word which comes back often in the books you read about that period. China lost two opium wars against the Europeans – British and French – and had to pay heavy fines to reimburse for the destroyed shipments, and to open its ports to trade and to missionaries. Amoy (today’s Xiamen) along with Beijing and Shanghai was one of these ports, which saw the arrival of the Europeans. Amoy officially became a foreign concession in 1903. For more on the subject, you can read an interesting book: The dynasties of China, by Bamber Gascoigne. I grabbed it last year at Shanghai airport!
Today, more than in other former “treaty ports” even Shanghai, Xiamen has kept the signs of its colonial era. It has many nice colonial buildings on its coastal streets and it is said to have the largest and best-preserved collection of colonial-era shop-houses in mainland China as well.
But Gulang Yu has a very special place in the history of the trading port. Most of the foreigners lived on the small island rather than in Xiamen itself.
And by the 1930s, the island counted about 500 resident foreigners and more than 10 consulates. No surprise! The island looks like a tropical paradise, with its hills and its coastlines. It has a nice breeze which I am sure is precious during the tropical summer months.
Today, there are many tourist shops, but also nice beaches, many gardens to visit and many nice narrow streets where you can adventure and discover this colonial heritage. We even visited a museum which was not on the list of tourist places to see on the island, with tons of relics, oil lamps, books, clocks and furniture.
The feeling was strange. It was just an accumulation of objects on tables, as if people had taken everything from the many houses and just dropped them here. Two gold fishes were swimming in a bathtub outdoors… a child’s wooden toy was in the middle of the courtyard. The signs explaining the history let the visitor know in broken English (and mandarin of course) that the local people were not happy at all with the fact the foreigners had taken over the island, and it was time that the island went back to what it used to be.
And there is a lot more to see. It is a place for artists with its school of Arts and Design, and many sculptures in the gardens, its piano museum with over 100 pianos from the 19th century, its piano concerts and much more. We will have to come back!

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Mid-autumn Festival

Xiamen is preparing itself for a celebration. It is mid-autumn festival here in China, one of the most important celebrations of the year. Don’t be confused, as we are end of September and you are thinking it is the beginning of fall. We are on lunar calendar here in China, and the autumn has started sometimes in August. The mid-autumn festival will take place on the next full moon, on Tuesday.
It is a celebration for friends and family to gather and we should see fireworks here downtown Xiamen. But more importantly, the mid-autumn festival is about 2 things in Xiamen: moon cakes and dice games.
Made of a thousand recipes with savory and sweet fillings, the moon cake symbolizes the moon of course. It is associated specifically with this festival, the same way some other foods are associated with other celebrations throughout the year. And everyone buys them for friends and family! In stores, you can see high piles of these gold and red nicely decorated boxes, and people are walking the streets with their arms filled with boxes, like people with Christmas gifts.
The dice games are played EVERYWHERE. And it may very well be a specialty of this area, rather than a tradition seen throughout China. For that game, six dices are thrown in large ceramic bowls, and the combination of numbers coming up define which prize is won. As you walk the streets, you can actually hear the sound of the dices being thrown in the bowls. Retailers give customers chances to play the dices if they spent a certain amount of money in their store. Sales people for the credit card company have a display in the street and you can play the dice game if you register for a credit card (hummm, it is an interesting sales strategy when you know that most retail stores don’t accept credit cards!). Last week, at a lunch of the expat association, we played the game of course… the prizes: Tupperware boxes! On our street, tables have been set up and there the prizes are large bottles of cooking oil. Interesting, no?
This afternoon, on the island of Gulang Yu, they even had a huge set up of over 100 tables with bowls on their soccer field. I am telling you, this is a serious affair here. The fascinating thing is that the number which makes you win the dice game is… 4! I know, the number “4” was bad luck when I tried to get a phone number… but I guess that when you play dice game, it is actually good luck. Well, I am so confused now. Confusing China.
Happy Mid-Autumn Festival! Zhong qiu jie!

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Blog censure!?

Blog readers of the world: Be content! Why? Because you can read all the blogs you desire! Bloggers from Xiamen, China – like my friend Tina and I - are happy to post blog entries for you to enjoy (as long as we can guess the menus in mandarin), but guess what… we cannot read them ourselves!
It is said that blogs had been used to organize protests and that consequently the authorities have blocked them all. One thing we are not sure of is if it is only in Xiamen or all over mainland China. (Radio-Canada news Home Page is also blocked, whereas I can log to CNN.com… go figure!).
So, here are a few tricks for bloggers to go around this unpleasant surprise (it is not fun if we don’t try to go around what authorities are trying to impose, right?).
Trick number 1 (I am pretty sure it works from what I observed on line): put your blog within your website if you have one… then it will loose this noticeable “blogspot” URL, and everyone will be able to read you.
Trick number 2: view the blogs through a VPN – you know a company network – That is what we do ourselves to read expat blogs from China. It is slow but it works.
Trick number 3: go to Hong-Kong for a week-end (we need to exit China every 30 days anyway with our visas) and enjoy all the blogs in the world then! Read away for the whole week-end!
Trick number 4: if you are planning to move to China, and are looking for all those valuable tips and pearls you can find in blogs (and nowhere else), don’t wait to get here to read them, it will be too late. Read them before you come!
And to all of you out there, start enjoying reading those blogs as if they were forbidden fruits, because they may be…

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Food etiquette

An evening at the restaurant with Chinese hosts... Food is coming, several dishes at once. We are taking nice portions of food: fish, meat, vegetables, soup… Such a nice assortment. But generous helpings may after all be a mistake! Because more food is coming… and more. After a while, we start asking ourselves: how many more dishes have been ordered? How much more will be coming?
Have to try everything though, to thank your guests for their hospitality!
Some things we love (as per our Westerner taste) some others… oh well… well, we have tried them… “no thanks, I am OK, no more”… what was it anyway? Chicken feet… sea cucumbers… brain or other delicatessen…
We are so full now!
We promise ourselves that next time we will just take a few bites of everything!
In the meantime, I am finishing the bowl of soup I was served. My guest serves me more – despite my resistance. OK, got to eat it. Good, my bowl is empty again! Oh, no, he is serving me more! Why?... I am so, so full… I really won’t be able to finish this one!
It is only a few weeks after that feast that I discover what happened there. My mother had taught me to always finish my plate of food, because leaving something was not polite. Hummm, it is quite different here in China, quite the opposite actually. if you empty your plate, your Chinese hosts will feel that they have not been good hosts and have not offered you enough food,and they will feel bad about it. And will serve you more (ah, ah, I understand now!). In China, leaving food in your plate is the right thing to do for respect to your hosts!
Oh, one more thing: slurping when you eat your soup is a sign of appreciation here, quite OK, nothing rude about it.
There is a lesson there: next time I think that someone just did something “universally” impolite, I will think again. What is politeness to me might very well be very rude to my neighbor and the opposite could be true as well!

Monday, September 17, 2007

Museum of Tea Ware, Hong-Kong

I always loved everything about tea and teapots.
There is a lot of tradition around tea. When I was young, I was told the “teachings” of the British: warming up the teapot first, one spoon of tea per person and one for the teapot, etc… Did the Brits in fact learn what they know from the Chinese? I wonder.
Today one thing is clear: China is at the core of the tea tradition.

So, during our last visit to Hong-Kong, it was great to discover the Museum of Tea Ware, which is located in Hong-Kong Park.
First, the museum is a fascinating place for potters. An exhibit showed the works from a 2007 creativity competition of pottery teapots. Videos were even showing some of the potters making their creation.
I also picked up a pamphlet which described the physical characteristics of a well-functioning clay teapot, its body, lid, handle and spout, in details. The “How to” of clay teapots. I should try it one day!

But the museum has much more to offer. Did you know that the various types of teas require different water temperatures, and that for instance the temperature for green tea should be 80-85°C, and 100°C for black tea? require different teapot sizes depending on how much the type of tea leaves will expand? that some brewing methods recommend to not only rinse the empty teapot with boiling water, but also rinse the pot filled with tea leaves a second time, before finally brewing the tea? that oolong tea should only brew very shortly not to be bitter (but use large quantities of tea!)? A world to discover, indeed!

And it is just the beginning of my exploration. I am ready to “hit” the many tea houses of China next!

Blind date at the Orient

The Orient: an Australian bar behind the Marco Polo hotel (the reference location for all westerners here in Xiamen). The blind date: Mark and Tina.
You can read their blog at http://wichmannstories.blogspot.com. They have some “crispy” stories there (that’s the French expression – des histoires croustillantes – and I have no idea if it translates well into English! Juicy stories, may be?).
Anyway, Mark and Tina arrived in Xiamen two months ago from Chicago, and we had been exchanging blog comments and e-mails for a few days. So, Friday night we decided it was time to go for a beer together. And as they were on their way to the Orient, Tina told Mark how it felt like a blind date. We would meet and one of us could say “Oh, you don’t look at all like your picture!”. On our side, I told Ed in the elevator “it is like a blind date, we know so much about them (we read the past two months of their blog) and we have not met yet”. Funny, no! Well, we had a great time, sharing stories about how we manage the interesting challenges life throws at us here. There is a certain connection that immediately exists between “expats” here (as we are called), because we share the same experience. And they are a few of us here: Mark and Tina, Mark is originally from near Boston, Tina from Toronto and they were living in Chicago. Mark works with their contract manufacturer here for a water treatment equipment company. They have been here two months, and will be here 18 months. At the bar, there was also a writer from California who arrived one month ago, and another westerner who had been here for 20 years (20 years!). At the METRO store two days ago, we helped two kids (they looked so young!) who arrived two weeks ago, are from Denmark and work for Ecco Shoes. They will here one year. At the apartment (condo-hotel) we stay at, there are many Japanese and some westerners, some even with kids who leave for school in the morning. The American international school is probably not far.
It is a strange feeling, the feeling of being back in time, like we imagine colonial India at the end of the 19th century or the beginning of the 20th century… even the haze from a hot and humid climate, the local people and some of the architecture make you feel that way sometimes…

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Exchanging money back to US dollars?

We had been warned not to exchange too much money into RMB because we won't be able to exchange back to US dollars. Something quite funny happened to us at the Bank of China yesterday on this subject:
We needed to exchange dollars to RMBs in this case. Tellers are helping customers, customers are sitting and waiting and we quickly realize we need to get a number to talk to the bank teller. The machine distributing the numbers is asking us which service we want: "individual business" or "foreign exchange outward remittance", so we indicate "foreign exchange outward remittance" (That was probably the wrong answer anyway because we wanted to exchange dollars to RMBs in this case but not the opposite). Our number is 3040 and the "foreign exchange" counter indicates 3032, but there is no teller there. There are tellers for "individual business" handling clients 1148 and 1149. Minutes pass by. More clients are being helped at the "individual business" but noone shows up to help at the "foreign exchange outward remittance". We try to get the attention of a teller, but without success. What should we do? After a 20-minute wait, we decide to get one of these "individual business" numbers which will definitely solve our problem, but we smile thinking about this extremely efficient way to not service the customer looking for US dollars. Afterall why have a teller telling people "no, you cannot get US dollars" when you can simply have them wait for a long time, until they simply give up! For the whole 30 minutes we were there, noone ever came to that counter for "foreign exchange outward remittance"! Of course, there may be a totally different explanation for what happened but it was funny to imagine that could be the explanation. In any case, don't they have the cutest little girl on their pamphlet?

Enough elbow room?

Well, I borrowed this line from the book China Road I mentioned in a previous posting. With 1.3 billion people, this is a busy place. 49 cities of more than 1 million people, most of them you never heard about. Even Xiamen where we are is 3 million people. And most of us have never heard about it, right?
People all around... It reminds me of a funny situation. A few days ago, visiting apartments with a real estate agent. Suddenly at the corner of a building, a couple of people join us, no introduction, no idea who they are, where they come from, how do they know about what we are doing or why they joined us. Few minutes later, two more people joined... before I knew it, there were 6 of us visiting the apartment with us, and they disappear one by one as strangely as they had appeared...
That afternoon the story repeated itself several times. Another exotic moment...
(Photo: fisherman and jogger in front of the apartment this morning at 8AM)

Call 110 for English!

A Chinese wonder! I have read this great tip, a couple of days ago, in the blog from Mark and Tina (arrived in Xiamen two months ago and living the same kind of experience as us): we foreigners who are totally unable to communicate here in the native language of this beautiful country, can be saved of any situation by just dialing 110 and having access to a translator, right there on the phone. I have not tried it yet, but I am sure I will get this opportunity soon!
There is a lot to say about this incredible service. Hospitality here in China is wonderful. We foreigners are very welcome. Not something to take for granted I believe, because it is not true of every country of the world. And I don't think that it would be fair to see it as a sign that "they need us". Let's call it a win-win! I believe we need their low-cost work very much too!
But enough said about that. What is more fascinating to me is to put this back in the context of the history of China. I have been reading a couple of very interesting books on China recently (I will definitely talk more about those). China Road is a great book written by a British journalist, Rob Gifford, about today's China, but with some references to its history. He explains how China has lived 100 years of imperial humiliation from 1850 to 1950. The same idea is conveyed in the historic novel Empress Orchid on the last Empress of China, in the middle of the 19th century. British and French were seen as humiliating the pride of China, which had lost the Opium wars. They were forced to pay large fines to these foreign countries, open their ports, welcome missionaries...
China today could very well be xenophobic.
China realizes though, says Rob Gifford, that the current times could be its chance to show its greatness again. And I hope it succeeds. It is a fascinating place.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Practical tips

I know. I said I was going to talk culture and history.
But just for once, I thought I could share a few practical tips. A lot of us, getting settled in China, seem to have similar experiences: buying phones, renting apartments, opening bank accounts, shopping for food, etc.
So, here are our own experience:
- yes, beds are hard like rocks in China, when you rent an apartment. That is one of the key reasons why we decided to settle in a service apartment (they would call those condo-hotels in Montreal). Everything included: breakfast, cleaning, internet, TV, phone... and an English-speaking person at the reception for us. As we have our offices in the apartment itself, this is all worth it in our opinion!
- banking: seems like a lot of the day to day life is done with cash. We cannot get a debit card from HSBC, nor can we get a credit card from Bank of China, so we decided not to open an account and just get cash at the Bank of China ATM at the street corner. The exchange rate is good, and we will see if this is enough for us.
- phone calls: we are trying that unbelievable system which allows people to call our Vermont phone number and... it rings in China (we'd better disconnect the phone at night!)
- moving a lot of stuff to China: we settled for a locker in Hong-Kong, where we keep some stuff, for instance for our hiking trip to Bhutan.
- visas: we chose a multiple entry business visa with 30-day maximum stay at a time.
Hoping these tips will help new comers!

Monday, September 10, 2007

Buying a phone number!

First day. At the cellular phone store.
I am there with a local translator, choosing a cellular phone and phone number. When I am presented with a notebook with hundreds of phone numbers to choose from, I cannot really understand why some phone numbers seem to be less expensive than others. “Because they contain a "4", an unlucky number for Chinese people”.
I already knew that luck played a big role in Chinese culture. A business will have its grand opening on a particular date, for good luck; the location of a future office will be chosen with the help of a fortune teller. What I did not know, is how entrenched it could be in day-to-day life... even affecting how much you pay for a phone number! A whole new world to be discovered by us, Westerners!
The end of the story is why "4" is bad luck. The reason: the word for "4" in mandarin sounds very much like the word for "death". Hummm, now we understand!