Archive for February, 2006

It’s a dog-eat-dog-year world

I spotted this ad in the classified section on the That’s Beijing website, and I couldn’t get over how weird it was. Why wouldn’t they want someone born in the year of the dog? Is it really that unlucky to have been born under the same zodiac as the current year? Or is it just a way of discriminating against applicants that are too young or too old? The subject was “Urgent: Film Production Company Need an Assistant,” and the text went like this, seemingly normal and justified until the end:

Position: Office Assistant
Requirements:
-native Chinese male or female
-love film and drama
– Ability to co-ordinate, organize and follow-up with tasks
– Ability to prioritize projects and tasks
– Open-minded attitude and willing to learn
– Strong ability to problem solve, delegate, multi-task, plan and organize
– Confidence in communication with a direct and open style
– Enthusiasm and motivation with evidence of going the extra mile
– An essential high degree of confidentiality
– Ability to research and collect data
– Patient and thoughtful
– Phone contact and meeting attendance

Responsibilities:
– General administrative duties
– Communicate, organize and co-ordinate
– Research and collect information to draft reports
– Preparation of documents, reports and answering of email

Computer Experience:
Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, Microsoft Outlook, Microsoft Powerpoint , Macromedia-Dreamwaver.

NOT BEEN BORN IN A DOG YEAR (NEITHER 1982 NOR 1970)

Isn’t that strange?

Posted by on February 21st, 2006

A pirate’s life for me

I’ve been getting back on a movie kick the past few days, after a few weeks spent doing a lot of reading. Mostly, I think, I’m inspired by the Academy, which nominated a lot of films that I’ve heard are really terrific for Oscars this year. The weather was gorgeous this afternoon, sunny and in the high 40s or low 50s, so I decided to take a ride out to the suburbs to Tom’s–by far the best DVD store in Beijing. Their prices are more expensive, but the quality of the DVDs is great, and their selection is unrivalled, as well as incredibly (alphabetically!) organized. I found just about every movie I was hoping to buy, plus, of course, a number of others that caught my eye in the process:

Munich
Walk the Line
The Constant Gardener
The Family Stone
A Home at the End of the World
Edward Scissorhands
Everything is Illuminated
Transamerica
Proof
Elizabethtown
The Aristocrats
The Simpsons – Season 15
The Pretender – Season 2

Altogether, they cost me about $32–but I’m flush since I got paid on Friday. Besides, these movies are all well worth it, or so I hope, and just compare how much I spent with the prices at Amazon!

Posted by on February 19th, 2006

Wahaha…t a Brand!

The Wahaha brand is one of the most famous in China. Its bottled water can be found in every grocery store and pushcart, and it’s because of that ubiquity—and the catchy name—that foreign travelers have long regarded Wahaha as their water of choice on hot days spent sightseeing or for seemingly endless train rides. The Wahaha brand, and the story behind it, goes far beyond water, however, as I learned in a visit to its headquarters in an industrial park on the outskirts of Hangzhou early one Saturday morning.

I pulled up to the front entrance, ducked through the autumn drizzle, and was met by Frances Song, the English Assistant to the General Manager. She had come to work on the weekend solely to lead me on a tour of the showrooms and bottling plant, but despite the inconvenience she seemed eager to show me around. We began in the coolest room of all—basically it was a private convenience store stocked solely with Wahaha products—refrigerated cases wrapped around half the room, displays on the history of the company decorated the other walls, and in the center was a macro-sized monument to Wahaha’s best known product other than water: Future Cola (or, in Chinese, Feichang Kele, which translates literally to Extreme Cola).

Future Cola was the result of an attempt by Wahaha in the 1998 to compete with the world-dominating brands we know and love (or hate) as Coke and Pepsi. Over the past almost-decade, the Chinese upstart has performed admirably, although it still places third to these two American brands throughout most of China. In rural areas, unsurprisingly, it is much more popular than in the cities, where the cachet of a foreign label can carry products quite far.

Even more intriguing than the story of Future Cola, however, is the story of the Wahaha company itself—and of its founder, Zong Qinghong. In 1987, Zong, along with two retired schoolteachers, began selling milk products and popsicles at a school store, having received a government loan to fund its start-up operations. The group soon decided to produce and sell nutritional drinks as a way of benefiting the students’ health. The company’s success and its lofty health-minded motives resulted in its first big expansion four years later: with Hangzhou government support, they acquired the bulky, state-owned Hangzhou Canned Food Product Company and changed its name to the Hangzhou Wahaha Group. Wahaha itself is an onomatopoetic representation of a baby’s laughter, as mimicked in a children’s folk song.

By 1996, Wahaha had attained such heights that the French multinational Group Danone agreed to form subsidiaries with Wahaha without requiring the use of its own brand; this partnership is still in effect, and Danone controls 30% of the entire company. In 2003, Wahaha’s income totaled ¥10.23 billion (USD1.24 billion), accounting for 15.6% of China’s total beverage production. Today, Wahaha products are on sale in France, Germany, Hong Kong, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Spain, Taiwan, Thailand, and the United States.

Still, all these new facts I learned at the factory didn’t intrigue me as much as the chance to visit the bottling plant itself. From a windowed hallway that runs the length of the hangar-sized floor, I watched bottles of red tea whizzing by on conveyor belts and in various ingenious contraptions. There really is nothing like a factory tour to get a girl thinking about China’s economic prowess and future potential for world domination. If reverse-globalization means Wahaha instead of Poland Springs for sale back in New York, I’m all for it. Still, I think I’ll keep my Diet Coke.

Posted by on February 14th, 2006

A pilgrimage to Tianzhu

The Tianzhu temples caught my eye despite being out of the way—not only were they hidden at the end of a list of Hangzhou’s attractions, their names buttressed by little description or practical information, but their actual position is a bit off the beaten track as well. Never one to listen to a list or let geographic inconvenience deter me, however, I was certain that my time in Hangzhou wouldn’t be complete without a jaunt out past Lingyin Temple to Tianzhu Road, where it seems as if gods have set three temples like jewels into the mountainside. It was only an inkling I had, based on years of experience that have taught me to value my own instincts over the recommendations of any tourist board or guide book. Still, I’ve also learned that sometimes travelers avoid places for a reason, so when intuition sends me off into the tourist wilderness, where locals roam free, impervious to attack from the point-and-shooting hordes, I try not to let my expectations run away with me.

As I hiked up the road toward the topmost temple one perfect autumn morning, I reveled in the fullness of the forest on either side, a verdant surprise that already justified the cab fare from the city center. So absent from my home in Beijing, a dry, gray, and dusty city that seems to sprawl almost to the grasslands of Mongolia, the lushness of this scenery overwhelmed me. To find a place still embraced by nature is sadly rare in urban China, yet unspoiled green tracts surround Hangzhou, a fitting frame for the artful expanse of water at its heart. A few cars whizzed close to me on the paved mountain road, but I paid them no mind, wrapped up as I was in my meditation on unchecked development and the cultural and political challenges of conservation.

When I reached Faxi Si, the Buddhist abbey at the top, however, after a walk of three-quarters of an hour or so, my train of thought turned more personally meditative. Should I buy a bundle of incense from one of the women selling candles at the temple gate to attempt the proper ritual once inside? Or would it be better to fumble around in my relative ignorance, taking photographs and sticking out like the foreign devil they likely assumed I was, but also not pretending to knowledge or beliefs I didn’t really possess?

I ruled that since my intentions were in the right place—I wanted to try to fit in with the few faithful adherents I saw milling around and gain a sense of how they experienced the place, rather than imposing the interpretations of my own mindset on it—I should do what pilgrims do and buy some scent to burn as communication with the heavens. The few extra kuai my purchase would add to the vendor’s pocket couldn’t hurt either, a certainty reinforced by the speed with which she stopped counting the beads on her mala, the Buddhist rosary she draped around her wrist to help her focus on the mouthed but silent recitations of her mantras, to tell me how much my attempt at partial participation was going to cost me.

It was, then, clutching eight powdery, fuchsia sticks in my hand, which itself would remain stained pink for much of the day, that I passed through the threshold of the temple. In the main courtyard, uphill from the gate, I took in the gold and crimson buildings devoted to the lord of compassion, the Buddha whom the Chinese call Guanyin, a female deity known in Tibet and India as Avalokitesvara.

The name of this trio of temples itself evokes that spiritual place of origin: Tianzhu, which literally translates as Master of Heaven, is the ancient Chinese name for India, from which Buddhism trekked over the Himalayas more than 2,000 years ago. The religion spread over the whole of China, eventually nestling its way into Hangzhou and putting down roots so strong that, despite the passing of millennia and the cultural crusades of the past century, the people of this city still climb Tianzhu Road to reach these temples, even if most of those who pass by the old women selling joss sticks are themselves grandmothers, or at least mothers, or daughters.

I felt like a daughter of Hangzhou myself as I clumsily imitated the motions of the older women in the center of the courtyard. I stuck my incense into a large bronze vessel filled with fire, until the sticks smoldered and then smoked at their rounded tips. The pilgrims bowed at the waist toward the temple at the top of the steps, shook the spicy smoke up into the air with both hands in front of them, and turned to their right, repeating the motions until their prayers were ascending to all four corners of the sky. With my thin magenta wands, I followed them as fluidly as possible, repeated their movements and tried to ingratiate my mind with their thoughts. I was not just performing empty gesticulations there on the stage before an audience of these believers and their deities, but I couldn’t fill my mind with the same resonances I knew these gestures held for them.

Like my unwitting (though seemingly not unwilling) tutors, I pushed my still-smoking joss sticks down into a bed of ash behind the censer and entered the convent’s main hall, where the Buddhas of the past and future flanked their present-minded avatar. Standing before these magnificent symbols, given form as gorgeous statues, I reflected on my history, the past that had brought me before this pacific triad; I considered my present, allowed my breath to slow until my mind could not detect it, and worked to still my mind so it wouldn’t even try; and I contemplated moving on into the future, following my thoughts of the life ahead of me into the experience of living it.

When I stumbled back out into the crisp air of early fall, which pixelates the sunlight to sharpen and saturate life as if it were a photo, I knew I couldn’t hope to understand the experience of those visitors to which the temple and its inhabitants are more accustomed. Still, I’d had revelations of my own, and I meditated on them as I made my way along the side of the road to the next bead in Tianzhu’s mala. Buddhist monks say that the mind is as random and thoughts as spontaneous as a monkey jumping through the branches of a tree. As I meandered down the mountain, however, my mind was focused and my thoughts purposeful, the monkey sitting still upon a single branch, peeling a banana.

Posted by on February 13th, 2006

Excerpts from my book

Now that I’ve finished my Hangzhou book I figured I’d might as well share the best parts of it here–it’s not like anyone’s ever going to see it.*

*That’s hopefully not true, but I imagine none of you will ever actually read it, nor should you. Most of it will be pretty boring.

Here I’m going to post only a few of the first-person texts I wrote, since those are the most interesting (and best written)…

Posted by on February 13th, 2006

The east is red

If I’m up at dawn, I might as well take pictures of it.

Posted by on February 8th, 2006

A snowy day in Beijing

Snow is rare in Beijing despite how cold it gets. It’s been well below freezing for two months or so, but yesterday was only the second time it’s snowed. Some people attribute the clear (ahem) skies of a Beijing winter to it being somehow too cold to snow, but I know exactly how ridiculous that is. Witness any winter in Boston, or in the northern half of the US, for that matter. So it was a welcome change in the weather when I woke up yesterday morning to find the sky outside my window a hazy shade of winter and not just the usual grayscale hues of haze and pollution. While I was on my way back to the office from lunch later in the day, I spotted this man on his bicycle. It seems to capture Beijing in an essential sort of mood. What I know for sure: god was I glad I’d gone out the night before and bought a proper winter jacket! (It’s “Columbia”–though I think it actually might not be counterfeit–in bright shades of red and gray.)

Posted by on February 7th, 2006

Happy New Year

And again, sadly, it’s been a while, but things in Beijing have been as hectic as ever. I started a new job two weeks ago, as the Managing Editor of a new digital travel guide company that’s about to launch this month. It’s called Schmap, and I’m enjoying my work there so far, even though it means I have a schedule like the rest of the world and have to be in the office at 9 each morning, and I usually don’t get out at night until after 7. I’ve also been busy finishing my Hangzhou guide project–and watching the fireworks. Yes, it’s with noise and light that the Chinese celebrate their New Year, which in practical terms translates to three weeks of nonstop fireworks and firecrackers.

From my aerie on the 22nd floor, I’ve had a great view of all the artful gunpowder, which has been more exciting and interesting than annoying, even though at times it’s sounded like Dresden must have on Valentine’s Day in 1945. According to R., who was around last year for Spring Festival–the name for the two-plus weeks of festivities surrounding the actual lunar new year–the government banned the setting off of fireworks in Beijing last year, and the ruckus wasn’t close to a match for this year. Apparently, the people weren’t happy about losing a chance to celebrate life. I can understand that–until now it hadn’t really seemed like the people here took life by the throat at all, but these two weeks have given me some new insight–Spring Festival seems like the only real chance they have to let loose. What’s most interesting to me, though, is the notion that they must have been celebrating like this for centuries: warding off the dark and cold that characterize north China this time of year with colored lights and echoing booms.

Posted by on February 5th, 2006