Death and Negligence on Christmas Eve.

At roughly 3:20 PM, Christmas Eve, I left my apartment at GaoAn Road to go to the post office. But, as I completed the first of seven flights of stairs to the lobby and entrance of my building, I realized that I had forgotten the envelope that I needed to mail. So I backtracked, grabbed the envelope, and began descending again, when, suddenly, just above the fourth floor (I think), I heard a tremendous crash come through the walls of the stairwell. It sounded metallic and fierce, as if scaffolding had fallen.

Seconds later I turned the corner out of the stairwell and saw this wreckage in the front doorway of my building:

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By shear coincidence, I had a digital camera in my pocket (I was wearing the coat that I usually take on assignment), and I snapped this photo. The front office receptionist and I stood next to each other, and I think we pretty much figured it out simultaneously: the radio signal tower that sat atop my twenty-five story apartment building had toppled. Why, we didn’t know. But that was the radio tower, no question.

There were several electrical wires hanging loose in the area as a result of the collapse, but I shimmied down the steps and – from my perspective – it looked as if nobody had been crushed by the collapse. This was a small miracle: the space in front of my building is a favorite conversation pit for the many senior citizens who live in the area. Continue reading

Just in time for flu season … No more quarantine forms!

According to Xinhua: Beginning next month, international passengers will no longer need to fill out a quarantine form upon entering China. If you’ve been an international arrival at any of China’s airports over the last four years, you know the routine: it’s the little white photocopied sheet (in Shanghai, at least) requiring that you disclose whether you’re physically sick, psychotic (really), or whether you’ve been exposed to anybody – or thing – with those particular symptoms. And it is/was, a total waste of time: it’s hard to imagine anybody with a fever, or someone undergoing a psychotic episode, actually admitting it on a form required to enter China — after, say, a fifteen hour trip that cost close to US$1000 (Minneapolis to Shanghai: US$980 this week).

If memory serves me well, the quarantine form originated during the SARS crisis in 2003, and it was merely a small part of a much larger routine. Back then, incoming passengers were subjected to a far more detailed questionnaire (asking, for example, whether they had traveled to Toronto, Hanoi, or Singapore in the last ten days), which was then examined by someone in a white lab coat while someone else – also in a white lab coat – jammed a thermometer into the incoming passenger’s ear. Below, a photo of that routine as it took place at Shanghai Pudong Airport on the evening of April 28, 2003.

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[And, for that matter, a brief account I wrote of what it was like to fly back to China in April 2003.]

In 2003, this was, all in all, a very good idea. And, had China decided to maintain the strict quarantine/inspection procedures that it instituted during SARS, that would have been justifiable: protecting China’s population from imported disease is in the national interest, under any definition. But, no surprise, as SARS ebbed, so did the strict quarantine procedures, and eventually – say, within a year of SARS – those procedures had been reduced to the quarantine forms. Since then, everybody – including China’s health authorities – has realized that that the quarantine forms are silly. It was just a matter of finding the right excuse to get rid of them. Continue reading

The Suzhou Museum: Looks Like Masonry … Sounds Like Fiberboard

On Sunday I found myself in Suzhou with a few hours to kill, and so I decided to spend a little time at the I.M. Pei-designed Suzhou Museum. Opened in October 2006, the building has received mostly warm reviews partly predicated (I believe) on the belief that the structure might be Pei’s last commission. At the same time, the Museum complex was designed to complement – and update – the traditional white stucco walls and gray tile roofs that define Suzhou’s unique architectural heritage. As Pei told the International Herald Tribune:

Instead of gray tile roofs, I needed something that would develop volumes … [S]o I let the walls climb onto the roof. If the walls were stucco, why not the roof?

The result looks like this:

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On Sunday, I paused beside those stucco-like walls, ran my hand along their surface, and – sensing something weird – I knocked upon them with my knuckles, as if I was knocking on a door. The response was a hollow, sharp, thump – the very sound that I’d expect if I was knocking on a large sheet of wood hung over an empty space. To say the least, this was an unexpected result. And, just to make sure that it wasn’t an anomalous one, I walked around the museum, knocked on exterior and interior walls (I know: I must have looked nuts), and found the same result throughout the structure. That is to say: the exterior and interior walls of I.M. Pei’s Suzhou Museum aren’t made of stucco, brick, concrete, or any of the other classic materials and methods used for centuries in Suzhou. Instead, they’re mostly likely made of some kind of painted fiberboard (there isn’t a tree outside of California’s national parks capable of providing solid sheets big enough for those walls) that is anchored to a solid core by some kind of bracketing.

This is odd. After all, as anyone who has lived in China can attest, poured concrete is the building material of choice in China. It’s cheap (as a a method and material) and it’s been utilized for centuries. In Suzhou, where masonry is a design principle and a way of life, it’s hard to find a building that isn’t built from poured concrete walls and/or simple masonry – especially those that are of traditional design, or derived from it. So why on Earth wasn’t the Suzhou Museum built that way, too? Continue reading

Somewhere in Jiangsu

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And in the rain, no less. Back tomorrow, with thoughts on the relative merits of drywall v. concrete.

No Peking Duck for Olympic Athletes?

[UPDATED at the end of the post]

I’m a fan of the Beijing Olympic Committee’s regular press releases, if only because – amongst the hail of platitudes – you occasionally get a gem like the one issued on November 9. Entitled “Chinese cuisine to highlight Olympic menu,” it then spent two paragraphs explaining why it probably wouldn’t:

“The menu designers will fully consider the different cultural background, dietary habits, diets and behavioral patterns of the athletes … and meet their demands with dishes of different styles, while offering the best Chinese dishes …”

Alas, no hints were offered as to what will represent the “best Chinese dishes.” So I wondered: would it be classic canteen affair? Fried noodles, say, and some sort of mushy dumpling? Or would the Olympic village go high end, with shark’s fin and abalone served beside bird’s nest? At a minimum, I hoped (from a journalist’s standpoint) that we might learn the sorts of diets fed to China’s own carefully trained Olympians. Were those diets – as I’ve long suspected – decidedly Western (on a nutritional basis)?

I slipped this one into my “follow story” folder and thought nothing more of it until yesterday, when – quietly – Xinhua announced: “Not much Chinese food in Beijing Olympic Village.” If you’re a Chinese nationalist, it doesn’t get much worse than this:

“Asian-style food including Chinese, Japanese and Korean dishes would together account for 30 percent of the menu designed for athletes in the Olympic Village,” said Xiang Ping, deputy director in charge of the Games Service Department of the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (BOCOG).

She said that a preliminary menu had been drawn up and sent for expert appraisal, with results expected next month. “Western food will comprise most of the menu,” she said.

Enter Xinhua’s well-worn sense of (well-earned) national (culinary) pride. It seems that someone – an editor? a reporter? – senses a cover-up:

She did not disclose whether the famous Beijing roasted duck or Kung Pao Chicken (diced chicken with peanuts) would appear on the menu. Continue reading

“The spiciest thing I’ve ever eaten.”

It’s cold here. Cold and wet (my Beijing readers should focus on the latter). US trade negotiators are in Beijing (meaning, further declines in the dollar – and the value of my income). And no, I wasn’t one of the winners in the Led Zeppelin reunion concert ticket lottery. So what’s a down expat to do on what can only be described as a Bad China Day?

Go. Eat. Hunan. Food.

That’s right, I took my self-pitying self and a good Hunanese friend down to Xiang-E Qing [that’s what’s on the business card, so please, no pinyin slapdowns for the ‘E’] and we ordered up the spicy duck jerky as an appetizer. For the record, my Hunanese dinner companion has a spice consumption capacity second to none; she’s been known (by me, at least) to eat spoonfuls of hot sauce right out of the jar as if it’s, well, ice cream. So I was a bit taken aback when I saw tears in her eyes (joy? pain?) as she tested the jerky. “Well?” I asked. To which she answered, in between nibbles and tears: “It’s the spiciest thing I’ve ever eaten.” Me, I couldn’t say: one bite of the stuff and I had to spit it out. Lawsuits have been filed for lesser hazards. The dish in question, below:

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Anyway, Xiang-E Qing has nineteen locations in China, most of them in Beijing. The sole Shanghai location is at the intersection of Yueyang Road and Zhaojiabang Road.

The Ministry of Making Things Much, Much Worse

[Very light posting as of late. I’m in the midst of a new – and very large – project. More on that soon.]

Inflation is up and this time, darn it, Beijing is serious about making sure things don’t get out of control. Arguably, of course, they already are: in November, food prices were up 18.2%, year-on-year. Some of this run-up is surely exacerbated by companies (some, state-owned) who choose to horde key commodities in anticipation that they’ll rise even further in price (fuel, for example). Fortunately, Beijing has made clear that it won’t tolerate that kind of business, and last month it specifically prohibited edible oil manufacturers from hoarding product as a means of running up prices.

The idea being, of course, that hoarding in an inflationary economy is only going to make things worse.

So, I take it as a less than positive sign that, today, Beijing instructed 36 of  China’s largest cities to begin maintaining

… a minimum 10-day reserve of food and cooking oil supplies, as part of its measures to ensure market stability during the current period of rising food prices.

In other words, as of today, there will be an additional thirty-six major buyers of food and cooking oil on the Chinese market, all with the mandate to purchase a ten-day supply of the listed commodities in sufficient volumes to supply hundreds of millions of people. Anybody want to guess how that’ll influence the December inflation statistics?

In other inflation-panic news, this morning Beijing announced that it would resume imports from six American pork producers that had been de-listed due to growth-factors fed to their hogs. I found the story on SCMP [subscriber only], where it’s depicted as a concession in the ongoing trade row between the US and China. I think it’s reasonable to assume, though, that there’s a far more pressing domestic reason for the shift.