Category Archives: China ’09

15 minutes of fame on Chinese TV

Finally, a picture of my appearance on CCTV (Chinese  TV) below. There’s apparently a DVD somewhere too. I was there courtesy of Dominic Johnson-Hill, owner of the achingly cool Plastered T-shirts brand in Beijing, seated beside me. I would love to say I was star of the show, but actually I was just a mannequin, modelling one of his t-shirts. The programme was part of the launch of a major Government innovation initiative. (Here’s what I wrote earlier on it).

I arrived yesterday in Northern Malaysia for my date with the breeding turtles – fresh from learning to free-dive in Koh Tao, Thailand. Update on the latter to follow early next week.


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Will the real China please stand up?

Q: How many Xinhua News Agency reporters does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Three – one to publicly denounce everyone who saw the light bulb go out, one to delete any information pointing to the fact that the light bulb went out, and one to issue a statement saying the light bulb was never there in the first place.

Despite protestations from the Chinese that they are opening up their media, I don’t doubt that there is still a grain of truth in the joke above, which I got from Hong Kong’s HK Magazine after the trouble in Xinjiang. (Here’s a fantastic FT article about the Chinese policing of the Internet if you’re interested.)

Outside the cyberworld too, China wasn’t the easiest place to travel in. In particular, entering via Tibet and then Xinjiang gave a very particular viewpoint on the project for a new China. The rationale for the Han Chinese presence in both places is as much economic as political – waterheads in Tibet, and mineral resources in Xinjiang – and it’s true that in return there has been at least some economic benefit for the people. But the treatment of the local population by the authorities that I saw in both places (outright physical violence in Tibet, a threatening wariness in Xinjiang while I was there) stuck in the gullet.

But these things aren’t simple – as one provocative article pointed out in the self-same HK magazine, everything is relative – even if you look at China as an occupying imperial power in these territories, their record is probably a lot more palatable than that of the British in India, the French in Indochina, or the Belgians in Africa.

Ultimately of course, all this occurs in an environment where, as the joke suggests, the whole concept of truth takes on a very different meaning. Closing down Blogger earlier this year was a retrograde step (am I really that dangerous?), and ludicrously easy to get round. I just sent my posts via email to a friend in London and he posted them from there. How long China can on the one hand continue with its attempts at control of the media while on the other opening up to the world is an increasingly moot point.

Despite all that, China grew on me. It is a fascinating (if slightly puzzling) place, and I was privileged to see it in 2009 – a number of ordinary people told me that they felt the pace of change had substantially quickened this year. And how’s this for a stunning statistic – China holds roughly the same number of people as the whole of the Americas (North and South). Yet North and South America have over 50 national governments and 4 major languages; China has errr…. one of each.

So what is the real China?


I spent my last full day in China in a place called Dali, the town below the Kung Fu monastery. My guidebook dubbed it “China-lite” which is a pretty fair analysis – many travellers love it for it’s easy going feel, but in reality it’s more sanitised than a bottle of Extra-strong Dettol.

However, as I sat having a last coffee, I realised that this town is as good a lensas any through which to view China’s past, present, and future.

The tourists are coming…

In Dali, I befriended a taxi-driver called Michael (Chinese name Lee Ming). Business is booming for Michael with plenty of pick-ups from the airport 35 km away, a rail station 10 kilometres away, and expressway roads cutting a swathe through the countryside to take Chinese and Western tourists up the side of the beautiful Er Hai lake..

His eyes widened as I asked him about the pace of change – it’s all very different from 10 years ago when he first came to Dali – the railway wasn’t built, the airport wasn’t even under consideration, and the roads outside the city were dirt tracks. Horse-drawn carts were common in the town. In 2000 there were 6 hotels – named Hotel Number 1, Hotel Number 2, etc; now there are hundreds of hostels, guesthouses, even boutique hotels catering for an increasingly well-heeled Chinese crowd.

Internal tourism is the big boom business in China – the emerging middle class taking advantage of a massive transport infrastructure push to experience places in this vast country that until recently were hardly even accessible. Backpacking among Chinese youth is taking off too.

Michael’s eyes narrowed, however, as I asked him what would happen in the next 10 years. “We have problems, many problems. I have moved out of town. Pollution very bad for my daughter. And is very crowded. Many many tourists…”

The new accessibility is also accompanied by what is perhaps the most bizarre aspect of China – the wholesale re-creation of the country’s past after years of neglect. All over the country, Pagodas, Temples and other tourist sites are being restored, rebuilt (in some cases even built from scratch). And in nearly every case, they are smothered by concrete walkways, huge (currently empty) parking lots, and awful shopping malls complete with pushy touts.

I found this sad, but in reality I don’t matter (and anyway, how different is it really from Aviemore…). For the Chinese tourists, being able to experience their history afresh is reward enough. That’s the market that counts – and the infrastructure is being built at a dizzying pace. As long as the economy is stable, the internal tourism market will be a major feature of how this country appears to Western eyes in 10 years time.

Look at me, I’m ethnic

In Dali it’s not unusual to see women, dressed in pristine outfits of the local Bai ethnic community, guiding middle-aged Western couples through the streets. But there’s a problem with this picture. Most of them aren’t Bai at all – they’re mainstream Han Chinese dressed up to look like Bai people.

(In a wonderful twist of irony, if you hang around long enough in Dali you will meet real Bai women in genuine, and less pristine, local dress – they’re the ones whispering “Ganja? You want weed?” to every passing traveller in an effort to earn a crust).

Ethnicity is a fascinating issue in China. In 1989, after spending 40 years assiduously erasing the hard drive of the nation, the government realised that some form of recognition of the ethnic diversity inherent in a nation of this size was necessary – in fact, essential. As a result, there is now a kind of forced “celebration” of ethnic people in the provinces, which leads to bizarre contrasts like the one above.

One researcher that I met pointed out that the result of all this top-down Ethnic pushing and pulling is that the people just go with the flow…in a display of “economic subjectivity”, most Chinese residents in Yunnan for instance will happily switch between Bai and Han ethnic identities dependent on what brings most economic benefit. Hmmmm… we’re all globalised now….

There is, however, one big elephant in the room. One of the surprises of my journey though China was the prevalence of Islam – there are 200 million Muslims living here. Where religion gets involved, ethnicity becomes a less malleable issue, as recent events in Xinjiang show. The attempts to be more open in reporting those disturbances show that, when it comes to religious ethnicity, the authorities realise they will have to tread a fine line between managing diversity and promoting homogeneity. A big issue.

Cultural baggage? What cultural baggage?

In Shanghai, I asked a businessman I had been introduced to the archetypal impossible question – how do I get to know China better? The answer was one that I‘d hear versions of before – “If you want to really know the Chinese character, you must understand three concepts well – Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. Then learn China’s 20th century history and you’ll understand where we are today.” I spent a good few weeks thinking this was the final word.

But while Lao Tzu, Buddha and Confucius do provide some context (and are certainly still important for an ageing population), I’m not so sure that the youth of China give a toss about the old boys; and they‘re fast catching on to the idea of Mao as a pop-cultural icon rather than an inspiring sage.

Computer games, booze and other intoxicants, and (above all) money seem pretty important too. I wrote about the computer-game addiction before – and the sight of a group of Chinese teenagers carrying one of their slobbering-drunk friends along the street in Dali may still be rare up there in Yunnan province, but it’s increasingly common in the cities. More Confuse-us than Confucius. China-lite? Hmmmm…

So I wonder if, more than anything else, it might actually be the lack of cultural baggage that will mark China out in the 21st century. After a 200 year blip, during which the world could easily categorise China (first as a colonial outpost, then as a communist ogre), the Middle Kingdom is back, and this time it’s engaging with the world. Money can be made by anyone, sanitised urban environments can be created, the past can be re-presented at will. (It’s kind of like someone saying “Categorise that!”)

In the tradition of all interesting change in the world, it is, of course, one massive economic and political experiment – probably the biggest in history. One things for sure – in Chinese terms (think centuries, not decades), the ball will keep rolling one way or another, even if things crash in the short term as this article suggests.

It’s my blog and I’ll pontificate if I want to

Right, so that’s that off my chest. The wonderful thing about a blog is that you can write what you want (although I realise that the above is probably stretching a point, and may well fail the “entertain-me” test). I suspect, however, that no-one has got this far, so it won’t matter much anyway.

I am currently recovering in Laos before heading to a beach in Thailand for a few days, and then off to Malaysia for a date with some Turtles that need help breeding.


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From Flying Dragons to Breeding Turtles

[29.08.2009 - Pictures now added]

“What the… who’s that?? And how did he DO that?” It was my first session in Wu Wei Si monastery learning Kung Fu, and I’d just witnessed a teenage boy fly – yes fly – gracefully through the air.

Xinming, my 21-year-old teacher looked up languidly. “Oh him. He Long Fei. Means Flying Dragon. Don’t worry, three years he train…”

Let’s face it, being called “Flying Dragon” is pretty cool; but if you can live up to the name at the age of 18 – now that really is ice cold. As the Dragon flew through the air with consummate ease, kicking his legs out in a mid-air splits, I wondered momentarily if learning Kung Fu at the age of 37 was a jump-kick too far…

Doing things the Wu Wei

I had heard about the Wu Wei monastery – where you can learn Kung Fu while staying with the monks – from a glamorous French girl crossing the India/Nepal border. Nestled in the beautiful Cangshan mountains above the town of Dali, the monastery is mercifully still off the radar of the guide book writers. As a result, it is wonderfully quiet, no electricity, and few visitors.

“Wu Wei” is a Taoist concept, literally meaning “without effort”; the core of the philosophy is achieving action in inaction, i.e. reaping the benefits of doing very little. It’s fair to say that it’s light years away from the western way of doing things.

Although there’s been a monastery on the site for 1200 years, the current monastery dates back only 20 years – destroyed in the heady days of the Cultural Revolution, it was rebuilt by the current Shifu (Master) from scratch in 1988. He is a remarkable man, with a clear passion for the benefits of Tai Chi and Kung Fu. Days at the monastery start (at 5.30 am) and end with Buddhist chanting, but revolve around five hours of training in these ancient martial arts. There are only 4 permanent monks (and half a dozen other Kung Fu trainees), augmented in the summer up to 20 children come for a summer camp, with a smattering of 5 -8 Westerners passing through at any given time.

From the first morning it became clear that the Chinese kids had mastered the “Wu Wei“ concept, the five hours practice each day being peppered with periods of extended nothingness in the open air stone yard where we practised. The nothingness suited me fine – after a few months of little to no exercise, I needed the breaks to recover from the two hours of contortionist stretching that kicked off each day’s training.

The 18-year-old Flying Dragon’s athleticism had emphasised that Kung Fu is a young man’s game, not really designed to be picked up after years of bodily abuse in London. So with firm guidance from Xinming, I decided to study Tai Chi for the first week, cajoling the boys to help me at least get the form of basic Martial Arts movements right.

The rhythm of the days quickly became an enjoyable routine – woken by the 5.30 chants, jog to the river at 6.30, pick up a rock and walk back to the monastery, breakfast at 8.00, training at 9.00 for three hours, lunch at 12.00, training for a further two hours at 4.00, dinner at 6.00. Free time was filled with reading, writing, and… doing nothing.

Kung Fu Commitment

By the end of the first week, my muscles and tendons were starting to respond to a daily diet of three hours of stretching and 2 hours of martial arts. The actual diet was helping too – considering everything was cooked without electricity, the vegan feasts we consumed daily were remarkable for their variety. I could feel the health returning after the excesses of Hong Kong.

By week two, I was eager to change discipline, and moved over to Kung Fu.

Why Westerners ever think they can pick up Kung Fu in a week when it takes people years to master is a mystery. Still, it was an enjoyable challenge to try, in vain, to imitate the violent movements of teenagers who had studied for 3 years or more, and certainly gave the children something to giggle at. I can confirm, one and for all, that I will never be able to do the splits, let alone in mid-air.

The contrast with the gentle push of Yoga was stark – stretching Kung Fu style involves bouncing, pushing, pulling, and generally forcing the issue. Watching Xinming encourage 5 kids to jump on his back may have been painful to watch – but it also made for an excellent spectator sport.

By the end of a week of Kung Fu, I was starting to get the hang of things – but it was time to leave. I’d got a huge amount from the Tai Chi, but without serious commitment, you can’t hope to get anywhere close to understanding Kung Fu properly, let alone practicing it. Maybe in the next life.

But I left the monastery yesterday revived, refreshed, relaxed – and having met some great people. I also have a new appreciation of the “Wu Wei” way.

A great end to my time in China.

By train to the Turtles

Yes, I did say Turtles.

I am now heading to Malaysia to help a WWF programme to protect Green Turtles laying eggs on an East Coast Malaysian beach and then track the hatchlings using satellite technology. I stumbled across the programme on the internet, and it seemed too good an opportunity to miss.

The next week therefore is travel-heavy – overland through Laos and Thailand by bus and train with a few brief stops on the way.

I’ll be updating before I head to the Turtles.

Toodle pip!

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Typhoons howl… and Taiwan hurts

This week: a tussle with a typhoon; a book-ish breakdown; and fun with phrasebooks…

The forecasters got it right about that typhoon – 11.30pm last Saturday night was the (oh-so-perfect) timing for the T8 to hit HK Island. Given the rumours of shenanigans in the streets, four of us hunkered down in one of the Lan Kwai Fong bars and waited…

True to their word, the bars had started offering various inducements to keep the punters paying as soon as the warning of the T8 had been announced earlier in the evening. So when the typhoon finally hit with a vengeance at 11.30pm… well, you can just imagine. Spending more than a few seconds outside was to risk a serious drenching – but nothing ever really stops the Hong Kong hedonism. Scores of scantily-clad young ladies danced crazily in the street while being soaked by warm torrential rain as leering men looked on.

Despite the worsening weather, there were still plenty of enterprising taxi-drivers willing to risk their livelihoods to ferry the brave through the torrents coming off the Peak – this is Hong Kong, after all, and there’s a reputation to keep up.

Fin de siecle? You decide.

I left Hong Kong three days later, travelling up the old Pearl River delta trading route to Guangzhou. Despite the fact that this sea journey’s been largely superseded by an express rail route, there’s still something
romantic about leaving Hong Kong – and arriving in China – over the water.

The 12 days I spent in Hong Kong were great fun – not only were they a much-needed respite from China, but the length of the stay gave me a real sense of an intriguing city that’s entering a crucial phase in it’s history,
and a chance to catch up with good friends.

Now it was time to return to China…

Back to China with a bump

“This book is NOT GOOD for China. It is NOT GOOD book.”

It was only a few hours into my latest rail journey from Guangzhou to Kunming. I was feeling smug that my efforts with broken Chinese were forming a rapport with my neighbour.

But the mood changed when he picked up the novel I was reading (without asking, as if to demonstrate that property is still, very definitely, theft). To put it mildly, he was displeased.

“This is BAD BOOK. Why are you reading this book?”

I was somewhat taken by surprise. I tried to point out that it was only fiction (and good fiction at that) and that I had bought it in Shanghai, but the title “Death of a Red Heroine” – along with the subtitle “Murder in
Modern Shanghai” – had clearly got his goat.

After a period of further unanswerable barracking, another Chinese passenger in the compartment eventually came to my aid, pointing out that the book was, in fact, written by a Chinese literature professor (Qiu Xiaolong).

But my inquisitor was on a roll now. He picked up my Rough Guide to China, and turned straight to the map page. I had a horrible feeling I knew what was coming next.

“TAIWAN. Is in WRONG COLOUR.” He brandished the offending map – which suggested that Taiwan might not be Chinese – around the compartment to the approval of the gathering throng. (This is a very common complaint of China Guides, and one that actually results in Lonely Planets guides to China being confiscated by the Police at the Nepal/Tibet border).

As I had no wish to swim in the murky waters of international politics (and my knowledge of the issue is slight) I decided to keep quiet. There was very little I could do, so I just sat back and watched the sparks of righteous anger fly.

It’s hard to get used to the different attitude to information in all forms here. As I write, Google’s Blogger service is still blocked after a number of months, and Facebook has been blocked since the Xinjiang riots. Is there general disquiet in China about this? Errr. Nope. Whatever the reasons, free information, whether in written form or on the net, just isn’t as highly prized here. At the moment.

Having fun with phrasebooks

As quickly as the storm had arisen however, it blew over. I prized the novel and the guidebook from his hands, defusing the still charged atmosphere by replacing it with my less contentious – and most amusing – English/Chinese phrasebook.

This witty volume from Immersion Guides is ostensibly for overseas Beijing residents, but actually good for the whole of China. Instead of the normal trite phrases, IG give you such Q&A exchanges as:

Question: Do you speak Chinese?

Answer: wo liuli de shuo hen cha de zhongwen! (I fluently speak horrible Chinese!)

Question: Your Chinese is excellent!

Answer: Pimao eryi… (It’s all fluff…)

Question: Where are you from?

Answer: Ni cai ba… wo xiang shenme guojia de ren (Guess… where do I look like I’m from?)

Question: What kind of work do you do?

Answer: Wo shi tegong. (I’m a secret agent.)

Question: Are you married?

Answer: Wo zhang de tai nankan le, Zhao bu Zhao duixiang (I’m too ugly to find anyone.)

A superb way to break the ice.

And finally…

I arrived in Kunming yesterday, completing my 12,703rd mile on Chinese railways. Since arriving in China in mid-May, I have travelled entirely overland – the latest train from Guangzhou to Kunming took my into my 151st hour on the trains here. (I have also covered a further 36 hours and c. 2500 kilometres of bus journeys).

It has given my journey a satisfyingly complete feel – and let’s face it, it’s not often you get a chance to travel like that.

Tomorrow night I head on another train to Dali, from where I will be venturing to the Wu Wei Si monastery for 2 weeks of Kung Fu training, much needed after Hong Kong. As a result there will be a blogging break for a fortnight.


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Thundering Typhoons and Hong Kong hiking

The highest level of Typhoon warnings (called “T8”s) are bizarrely popular here in Hong Kong. But not for the dubious excitement of a tropical storm… it’s the free booze what does it.

If a T8 strikes (as it may do tomorrow), the bar of Lan Kwai Fong and Wan Chai will show their entrepreneurial spurs, and offer all kinds of inducements to get the expats venturing into their space. Lock-ins, free shots, offers of a free round if you can beat the barman at Heads’n’Tails, 4-for-1 deals.

This is, of course, the city where the nightlife frequently turns into “morning-life”, and for many visitors, the Hong Kong experience passes in a blur of crazy but all too-brief nights on Hong Kong Island, or in a couple of sleep-deprived hours in the impressive but sterile Chep Lak Kok terminal.

I had my share of blur in the first few days here, but for various reasons (see below) I’ve spent 10 days here. As a result, different sides of Hong Kong have emerged from the mayhem.

Restorative respite on Lantau and Lamma

“What do you fancy doing tomorrow? A spot of hiking?”

It was a Saturday morning. I peered up from my temporary blow-up bed and raised an eyebrow at Tom, a friend from cricketing days and my host in Hong Kong.

“Hiking? In Hong Kong?” I said, wondering if this was another of Hong Kong’s drinking metaphors along with the apocryphal “T8 warning”. It quickly became clear that it wasn’t – and that Hong Kong in fact boasts some excellent hiking – so I readily agreed, eager for some respite from the madness.

Despite Lantau being only a 15-minute ferry ride from Hong Kong Island, it wasn’t till early afternoon that we made land-fall in the small main harbour town. (Lantau is the biggest island in the Hong Kong SAR, and dwarves Hong Kong in lateral and littoral, if not in vertical, size).

It was somehow fitting that the first person we spoke to was a clown (yes a real clown) on his way to entertain some kids. His laid-back demeanour, sprouting hair, goofy teeth and Aviator sunglasses made a refreshing contrast to the crisp dress and urgent energy of the main island.

Given that the guidebook had decided to spend the day on the sofa, we were reliant on local knowledge to get us to the start of the trail. Our taxi-driver clearly had a sense of humour – within minutes of him driving off, we were in the thick of steamy jungle on a trail that is officially closed.
In a show of traditional British fighting spirit, Tom and I battled enormous spiders, valiantly protecting Tom’s French girlfriend (that’s how we saw it anyway) from certain death. The trail was fabulous, and after a couple of hours we arrived at the 34-metre high bronze Tian Tan Buddha, eventually descending via cable-car with a unique opportunity to look down on the Hong Kong airport from above at sunset.

A few days later I also visited Lamma, Hong Kong’s third largest island just across from Aberdeen, the main island’s second largest town. With no cars and beautiful beaches, Lamma provides more rapid relief for Island fever.

The island has hippy colony aspirations – the irony of the huge glowering coal-fired Lamma power-station not lost on residents, who have installed a huge wind-turbine for their own needs.

Modern Metropolei” – linking Hong Kong and Shanghai in the popular imagination

Hiking’s not the only distraction for residents here – there is also a flourishing arts scene.

Two exhibitions are currently riding high – one at the Hong Kong Art museum with a superb display of contemporary art with contributors from Gilbert & George to Richard Prince, promoting Louis Vuitton’s new Frank Gehry-designed Jardin d’Acclimatation which is being built in the Bois de Boulogne.

The other, at the History Museum, is even more interesting – a six-room temporary exhibition drawing parallels and links between the respective 20th century histories of Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Exhibitions like this always involve a certain amount of weaving of facts into a coherent story, but the narrative construction here is fascinating. The story presented is one of ‘adoption and incorporation of the Western ways” into Chinese life, of “infusion of western artistic techniques with Chinese painting styles”, of “sinonisation of Western cuisine”.

This is a picture of a progressive and ancient Chinese civilisation that sees the 200-year period of foreign influence as a mere blip on its journey – but one that the Chinese can learn from, adopt as necessary, and move on from.

Now, so the story goes, both Hong Kong and Shanghai will rise again to offer a “cosmopolitan life, offering residents a diverse array of choice and lifestyle”. I wouldn’t bet against it.

And finally…

My efforts to learn Mandarin in China have been of nil benefit here, given the gulf between the mainland Mandarin and Hong Kong Cantonese languages.

Anyone who knows the city is familiar with the harsh vowel sounds of the Cantonese and the effect his has on spoken English, immortalised in the constant “BA-BA!” valediction you get whenever you leave anywhere.

Simple phrases like “Your cappucino is on the counter. Thank you,. Bye bye!” become the grating full-volume “YA-CAPPACHEENA-AS-AN-THA-CANTA-THANK-YA-BA-BA!” And I thought Mandarin was hard…

I leave here on Monday to go to Kunming, and thence to a monastery north of Dali, where I will be attempting to learn Kung Fu with some Buddhist monks. You can read about someone else’s visit here.


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Quarantined on the Friendship Highway – the rap video

I mentioned in a previous post that I was lucky to escape the clutches of the quarantine forces of darkness on the Nepal/Tibet border. The group behind us weren’t so lucky, detained because one of their number had a temperature one degree higher than normal. They ended up spending 6 days holed up in a hotel at the Chinese government’s pleasure. Unsurprisingly, they got a bit bored. So they made a rap video to keep themselves ( and now you) amused. You can see it by clicking here.


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Hong Kong phooey!

It’s not hard to see why the British wanted Hong Kong – beautiful natural setting, a great maritime entry point for China, and an opportunity for callow youth to escape the prying eyes of prudish perusal from the motherland. This is my third time here, and the buzz is inescapable. It’s pretty hard not to have a good time, and my various hosts here have done a great job of supplying me with memories that couldn’t possibly make it onto this blog.

But wait – amid all the fun and frolics, some are whispering of the city’s potential economic demise. Can this be true?

On the down escalator?

Three facts stand out from discussions here:

  1. A number of businesses are moving their Asian operations to either Shanghai or Singapore
  2. The government in Hong Kong is developing a worrying reputation these days as a potential barrier to enterprise
  3. Shanghai’s rise as a bright centre of a new (very different) capitalist world threatens Hong Kong on all kinds of levels.

From a shipping perspective, the rapid rise of Chinese ports is removing the raison-d’etre of Hong Kong’s maritime status. One of the city’s attractions was always it’s position as a reliable and trust-worthy entry-point to a difficult China. Nowadays Shenzhen’s port is bustling, Singapore is seen as better located for the South-East Asian markets and Shanghai’s global shipping aims are stripping Hong Kong of access to the Pacific trade. Even ship-broking firms that had traditionally fed off a reputational link to the UK’s Baltic Exchange are moving out – to Singapore. Hard times.

To compound the potential problem of a minor exodus, the city is also suffering from a bureaucratic government set-up (attributed to imperial days rather than result of Chinese rule) that Hong Kongers will tell you hinders rather than promotes free enterprise. Stories of delays to investment plans by Disney are bemoaned as evidence of a city’s polity that (direct quote) “worries too much about what the people think.” (Despite the delays, Disney’s investment plans have now been accepted.)

In Shanghai, one businessman with connections to the government told me that “China’s one party system makes us the most capitalist society in the world now.” Ominously, he might just be right – the ability to get things done quickly, open doors to investment at will, and encourage massive capital flows through huge infrastructure projects have more than a whiff of the way Europe and the US worked in their quasi-democratic days of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

It’s a strange and politically challenging world when China’s economic rise threatens to question the long-assumed link between open democracy (and hence political freedom) and free market capitalism.*

But tread softly, very softly…

The view from the (politically free-ish) Peak

As I walked round the beautiful peak here in unseasonably good weather, I reflected on some of the other very welcome changes that come from entering Hong Kong from China.

It’s the first time in 7 weeks, for instance, that I have been able to post directly to this blog. China’s ban on Google’s Blogger (and occasional disruption to other Google services thanks to the bizarre porn dispute) meant that I have had to email posts to London and get them posted from there since entering Tibet and China.

It’s also more than a little refreshing to have an infinite variety of news sources rather than the constant barrage of CCTV (Chinese national TV) and Chinese English language newspapers which put such a very particular “slant” on world news. While I was thankfully able to access BBC News online in China, their service in Chinese remains blocked on the mainland (though accessible here).

And lastly, in Hong Kong there’s much less of the hushed tones that come with any political discussions in China. Early on in my China trip, I discussed with one “dissenter” the concept that freedom is more than the ability to lie – it is also the ability to tell others that you think they are lying. The latter is certainly a freedom that still does not exist properly today in China.

The people who live and work in Hong Kong have a vibrancy, flexibility and adaptability that make it pretty hard to conceive of this city not surviving. Watching how it survives (under changed circumstances) could be interesting.

I will be here for a few more days before heading North, South, East or West.

* You are, of course, free to tell me if you think this is all Hong Kong phooey.

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Staying out of trouble (just)

It sometimes feels like trouble is trying to catch me up. First there was the terrorist attack in Bombay, then the Maoist bombs in west Bengal, the resignations in Nepal while I was in the Everest Region, and now Xinjiang‘s upheavals.

The emergence of trouble in Xinjiang was probably the most predictable in retrospect, possibly the least predictable going forward, and is certainly the saddest, particularly with the violence spreading to Kashgar, less than 100 kilometres from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

You can read my previous post on my wanderings in Kashgar here. Mind the gap(s).

I leave Shanghai for Hong Kong today.

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The heights of Shanghai – and on the box in Beijing

Shanghai shall overcome?

“I got you… under my skin…”

As the train eased into Shanghai’s central station, the strains of Frank Sinatra’s famous song wafted through the carriage. There’s always music in the mornings on Chinese trains – normally it’s something rousingly patriotic to remind passsengers of the bright and glorious future that awaits China… but entering Shanghai is different.

Here, it’s Sinatra.

It fits. Shanghai has all the brash swagger and unerring confidence of “Ol’ Blue eyes” at his peak. I was last here in 2007, but even since then the city has changed – more skyscrapers, more high-end shops, more street-wise kids parading down the pedestrianised main drag.

It’s telling that the smartest museum here is dedicated to the future, not the past. The “Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall” is an amazing reflection of the high-flown ambitions of this very 21st century city. If you believe the hype, within a few years Shanghai is going to be the world’s leading eco-city, the world’s leading digital city, the leading global airport transport hub, an international shipping centre, and a tourist attraction to end all tourist attractions. With the 2010 Shanghai Expo around the corner, the pace of change is if anything increasing.

But all may not be quite what it seems… there are rumours that the Expo is being hit hard by the global credit crunch. Apparently the US has cut it’s investment in the Expo drastically, and the fantastic Access Asia newsletter last week reported some pretty interesting numbers – inbound tourism, fell 11% in January to April 2009 down from the same period last year; hotel occupancy rates were only 45.9% in the same period, down around 10%.

Right now, the buzz is still here though. It’s going to be fascinating to see what happens at and beyond the Expo next year.

Beijing takes on the world

If Shanghai is becoming China’s New York, Beijing is sometimes called its Washington DC – a city centred on a powerful polity and burgeoning bureaucracy.

But my experience here was of the creative end of the city – five days in China’s kicking capital passed in a blur. Beijing has the feel of a city that‘s just beginning to realise it’s own global importance.

I arrived armed with an introduction to the owner of the highly successful Plastered T-shirts brand, Dominic Johnson-Hill. A Beijinger of 17 years standing, he is both a resident and a shop-owner on the achingly cool Nanluogo Xiang – a small hutong catering to the growing urban-hip crowd here.

Dominic tipped me off first to the Turner show that is visiting here from Tate Britain. It has become one of the most popular art exhibitions ever held here. After 8 months, the dose of western European culture was hugely welcome.

Next stop was a gig by Carsick Cars, the brightyoungthings of the underground Beijing rock scene. Music’s one of the things that’s pretty hard for authorities to pin down, and Carsick Cars play with words and images in a way that has definitely captured the imagination of Beijingers. Their most famous song “Zhongnanhai” is the name of a cigarette brand – and also the name for the seat of Chinese government. With lyrics like “I love my Zhongnanhai”, the song has become an iconic (and ironic) anthem. This was the launch of their second album “You can Listen You can Talk”. The energy and sense of release at the gig was palpable.

A couple of days later, an enigmatic email from Dominic pinged into my inbox:

“tomorrow i am going to the great wall to be in a chinese tv show – i am in fact in need of a western face to be on the tv show wearing one of my t shirts, there will be a studio audience of 600 people, if you fancy coming along i’ll throw in a free t shirt and cover your expenses…”

It was what’s commonly called a no-brainer.

The show turned out to be the launch of a major new government push behind entrepreneurial activity in China, complete with the top business people in China on a panel, young entrepreneurs from around the country presenting their stories, the top Chinese pop stars providing interludes (including Zhang Liangying in the picture), and a special appearance from Jackie Chan, the darling of the masses here.

It was an amazing event. The five businessmen were all billionaires and included Jack Ma, founder and CEO of, Li Yanhong, founder and CEO of Baidu (the Chinese Google), and the billionaire brothers Liu Yonghao and Liu Yongxing, whose Hope Group has turned chicken feed distribution into billions of Yuan.

Dominic was there for an interview as “the foreign entrepreneur-done-good“, which he conducted effortlessly in Mandarin. I was there to carefully position myself beside him to get maximum exposure for the excellent t-shirt I was sporting.

The whole thing was a fascinating insight into the construction of narrative here – stories of heroes from the countryside were myriad, a sign that the government recognises all too clearly that it has to deal with the thorny issue of a growing urban/rural divide. The idea of unleashing entrepreneurialism in the countryside is a compelling one, at least on paper. And a consequence of one-party government is that when the government says something’s going to happen, it usually does. So watch this space.

I loved Beijing. Other highlights included a day in the 798 Art district, dinner with friends I met in Xinjiang, and a couple of late nights out to sample the vibrant nightlife. It may not be typical China, but it is developing into one of the great cities.

I have a few more days in Shanghai and then move to Hong Kong.

ENDNOTE: Follow-up to the previous post (“Brnads” story)… Plastered T-shirts, mentioned above, is successful enough to attract copies already – Dominic’s attitude is, however, refreshingly pragmatic – “The fakes I couldn’t give a f*** about really – it’s quite flattering. It’s the bastards who try and nick my brand that piss me off…”]

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Brnads (sic), Filth, and Ethnicity

A different take on a couple of news stories linked to the growing war of words between the US and China… and brief reflections on five weeks here.

Branding – or Brnaidng?

Walk through any city centre here, and you could be forgiven for thinking that the US brand Nike has a massive presence on the High street.

But look closer… alongside the Nike store, there’s the replica store “Erke” (complete with similar logo). Next door the un-named Li Ning store goes even further – like Nike, they just use a swoosh, distinguished from the Nike logo only by an upturn at one end. (See it here).

To a western eye, these copies are fairly obvious. As are the razors in the store with the logo “Gittelly” (despite the identical font and colour palette), the t-shirt bearing the word “Adaiads”, and the “Pearlfox” store that sits next to “Playboy“.

Imitation brands are so common nowadays that they’re hardly commented on, taking advantage of the lack of familiarity with Roman characters. (From the other side of the language barrier of course, I struggle to read anything in Chinese. Let alone notice if a couple of Chinese characters are swapped around in a word).

The issue’s been around for a while, but whether branding (or brnaiding) comes into play if the mooted “trade war” develops will be worth watching.

Filtering net “filth”

Internet cafes in cities over here are strange affairs.

Endless rows of computers stretch deep into distant murky corners. Hundreds of young Chinese (boys and girls) sit engrossed in high-graphics computer games, slouched in sofa-like leather chairs.

As I walked out of one in an anonymous Chinese city last week, I had to do a double take on one screen. I had not been mistaken – the game was ignored momentarily as a young guy flicked to his messaging screen, deftly downloaded some porn, and switched back without anyone noticing. Internet cafés are clearly providing escapism for young Chinese in more ways than one.

It put a bit of “flesh-tone” on the burgeoning story about the net-filtering software that China wants to put on all new computers here.

To recap, the software will not only filter on words, but will also pick up “flesh-tones”. (The fact that this could block any website with pink on it is considered superfluous to the argument). It’s now led to interruptions to the Google service, statements from the Pentagon, and accusations by Chinese officials that the monstrous Google is deliberately linking to “pornographic and vulgar” websites.

The issue is only set to grow in profile, as this society tries to unravel some tight controls and not others.

Reflecting China

The way you enter a country undoubtedly influences how you perceive it.

Coming in through the “autonomous regions” of Tibet and Xinjiang, for instance, has given me a sense of the genuine diversity of this huge country – but also sight of the difficult relations between the strong centre and it’s far Western outposts. This is most clear in the belaboured “celebration” of China’s ethnic peoples by a strong Central authority torn between managing diversity and promoting homogeneity.

Since Xinjiang, the last couple of weeks getting from one side of China to the other, via one overnight bus, three overnight trains, five cities of 3 million people – and a day with the Terracotta warriors.

In the cities, the sense of self-confidence, general orderliness and rapid growth is palpable. The contrast with the amiable chaos of India and Nepal is striking. Comparisons East-wards with the US are more realistic.

One brief example of the differences though. Yesterday I saw something that screamed “Only in China”. 8.30am outside the main China Postal service office in Xi’An, and 100 employees in 10-row formation are marshalled in stretching exercises to what sounds like a Chinese version of Eye of the Tiger. It was bizarre to watch. I tried in vain to transpose the picture to the GPO in Edinburgh, or the USPS central office in New York. Somehow that just doesn’t work.

And Finally…

I arrived in Beijing this morning. It took a few minutes to work out why I felt slightly discombobulated – this is the first properly global city that I have been in for eight months. (None of the Indian cities have this kind of super-organised rail station, controlled traffic and all the other accoutrements).

It’s all about the big cities for the next 2 weeks – Beijing, then Shanghai, the Hong Kong.

Big, brash, urban China here we come.

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