Archived entries for Uncategorized

Beijing the day after

A couple of footnotes from the June 4 non-commemoration.

There was a candle-lit vigil in a park in Hong Kong last night, attended by either 150,000 people (estimated by the organisers) or 62,800 (police estimate).

And the BBC’s James Reynolds also danced with umbrellas at the Square yesterday, except being British, he was a lot more polite:

Today in Beijing

Tiananmen Square was very threatening.

For a start, I was completed spooked by James Fallows’ blogging on his visit to the square last night. He tried taking some photos of the huge security presence… and does not say what happened next. In fact, he says he won’t say what happened until he is out of the country. He ends his piece with

if you in Beijing and are near the square, be careful. Seriously.

So I left the big camera with the red-rag-to-the-bull long lens at home and joined a group of five other New Zealanders who planned to walk around the square this afternoon.

On the edge of the square, uniformed cops were checking identification papers and rummaging through people’s bags, while a street-sweeper cleared away rubbish with a wire in his ear. We ignored those guys, crossed the road to a square entrance, and got stuck.

Just before the Olympics, Chinese Security put up wee tents at all the entrances to the square, installed a metal detector and staffed them with a couple of bored guys who waved you through.

Today, the tiny tent was stuffed with about 15 cops.

My bag got put through the scanner then manually searched. A cop checked my ID (a Chinese diplomatic ID card), and passed it along to a couple of others. The last cop radioed in for instructions, and while he was waiting for a reply I said in my best English ‘Okay?’, took the card from him and walked past into the square.

The other New Zealanders (4 with diplomatic IDs, one with a NZ passport) were not so lucky. Two of them were Chinese speakers, and once they outed themselves as such, were grilled on why we were visiting the square, what our intentions were and whether we were ‘working’. The Kiwi Chinese speakers said we were showing our friend through the famous Square as tourists, and after much discussion, they were let through.

Inside the square, it would have been funny if it wasn’t so tense. There were the usual hordes of troops marching about in columns, but they are a common sight around there. What was unusual was the large contingent of ‘plain clothes’ security guys. They were easy to spot – they stood completely still, legs slightly apart, a wire in one ear and, rather incongruously, carried an umbrella. Some of the umbrellas still had their price tags attached.

The huge number of these guys, silent and staring, was un-nerving. They vastly outnumbered the tourists. In some directions it appeared the Square was solely populated by brolly-carrying statues.

We walked a little way into the square and stopped to take a few photos of the Heroes Monument. Some umbrella-carriers came to life and did little walk-bys around us, to listen in to our conversation and see what we were photographing.

A little further on, we noticed someone had decided a light in the square needed fixing, which meant moving a huge crane into position – a good place for a lookout. No-one was working on the light fixture.

By this time we’d picked up a couple of umbrella carriers of our own (in matching pink polo shirts) who followed us at respectable distance as we walked around the square, past Mao’s resting place (closed today) and back out again. We saw maybe 4 other white tourists in the square – there were some mutual ‘what the hell is this?’ looks.

On the way out we passed a Chinese bloke with a big grin and a “I Love Tibet” t-shirt.

Good luck to him, I say.

Apparently Chinese people who want to commemorate the the 20th Anniversary are planning to walk quietly around the square in white shirts – the colour of mourning in China. I didn’t see any of that. With the grim-faced security guys around, I think I’d sit that one out.

While in the square, our group sort of muttered to each other nervously but no-one felt particularly comfortable talking. We certainly didn’t take any obvious photos of the security. In fact I’ve just had a look at the few photos I did take, and they’re all pretty much duds- I was obviously too freaked out to take anything sensible. Reid and Sia are about to ride down to have a look on their bikes – perhaps they’ll do better.

For a lighter side of umbrella-based security, watch John Vause attempt to do a piece to camera on CNN this morning:

(PS – this afternoon, it rained. I bet that’s manufactured, to help disperse any crowd that attempted to form)

20 years ago

Tomorrow is the 20th anniversary of the day the tanks cleared the students from Tiananmen Square.

The overseas media focus on the anniversary is largely focussed on how this anniversary is being completely ignored in China. Local media have not reported it.

In similar style to the clean-up before the Olympics, potential dissidents have been placed under house arrest a week ago – they will apparently be let out after the day is over. Hong Kong, which is usually more relaxed about protests, has had similar crackdowns. The websites Hotmail, Flickr and Twitter have been blocked (YouTube still hasn’t been put back online since they hosted some footage of the PLA beating up some Tibetans).

I’m going to head down to the square tomorrow to see if anyone is brave enough to stage a memorial to the dead – variously estimated to be between 250 (Chinese Government) to 7000 (NATO).

I suspect the square will be very quiet.

Zara’s 3rd

On Sunday, we hosted a sugar frenzy. 10 kids of various ages played pass the parcel, musical chairs and went on a treasure hunt. They then consumed food colouring and left on that awful sugar rush that precedes a meltdown of epic proportion.

Today, we started with the present from the parents then we both took her off to school. Everyone cried. But when I went to pick her up at 1pm, she seemed fine, saying only that she’d lost me somewhere and was sad.

My heart broke.

This evening we opened the rest of the pressies from the Grans and Grammas and everyone is again exhausted.

Here’s a few photos from the day (click on the picture for more). Later on I’ll post some video.

Zara's 3rd

Pera Constance

My brother, my sister and I were the townies.

When we were young, we lived in Masterton – and that meant spending a weekend at Gran and Paw’s farm was something extra special for us. A weekend in the country.

We have very special memories of this time.

We remember swan plants in Gran’s the kitchen, hatching monarch butterflies.

We remember Gran’s kitchen was where all her grandchildren measured their height up against the wall – pencil marks right onto the paint.

We remember driving over those bumpy curbs you see in Masterton’s side-streets in the Orange Bomb – Gran’s Toyota Corolla, the only car I can remember her driving that wasn’t made by Holden. It was later bought by my Mother with a huge suspension issue on the left-hand side.

Gran had an amazing complicated kitting contraption, I can’t describe it to you, you did some sort of long swiping maneuver and out came knitting – but we do remember that it was great fun to play with when she wasn’t looking.

We remember playing her collection of ancient records , some of them old 78s – Dance of the Hours, Lily The Pink, Howard Morrison signing My Old Man’s an All Black and Mori the Hori (he doesn’t seem to do that one any more).

We remember prizes on the wall she won for her roses – which made driving Paw’s ride-on lawn-mover through her flower bed seem an even bigger horror (Gran was too gracious to mention it).

We remember her roast dinners, which, looking back on it, should have killed us all immediately. Peas, carrots and parsnips pressure-cooked until they were translucent, meat covered in fat, cheese sauce – all delicious. And the marzipan on her Christmas cake was two inches think, I swear. I have never tasted better.

But my strongest and favourite memory of Gran is, if we were staying at her house over the weekend, climbing into bed with her in the morning.

The three of us in her bed squeezed poor old Paw out the other side – he went off to make breakfast while we pulled up the huge thick eiderdown and dragged out the Dr. Suess books.

As far as I remember these were the only books we let her read us. She had big hardcover editions of The Lorax, Horton Hears a Who, I had Trouble Getting to Sola-solu, The Sneetches, many others.

Gran had a fantastic appreciation of the ridiculous, she loved a funny story, and Dr Suess suited her perfectly. She had a very distinctive reading style, a sort of clipped but very expressive delivery and a hooting laugh. I must have been 5 or 6 when I last heard her read these stories, but I remember them very clearly.

I now read the same stories to my daughter in the same way.

Gran personified boundless energy – and I guess this is why it is hard to accept that she is no longer with us. She seemed to never stop, she never even slowed. Sure she lived a long life, but she also seemed to fill every day of that life with irrepressible action.

Gran always looked forward, never back. ‘Right’, she’d say, and we were off.

She is an inspiration.




Ho there….

photos from the Botanical Gardens visit….

Botanical Gardens

… and Silver Mountain.

Silver Mountain

Post Process

Here’s the blogging process:

1. I write a post, sometimes on the website directly, sometimes somewhere else.

2. I read the thing through, and make a couple of changes to correct grammar, typos etc.

3. I click ‘Publish’, and you subscribers get an email with the content.

At this point, Reid reads the post and discovers about 100 new types and screwups I hadn’t noticed. These get corrected on the website, but not in your email. So – if you want a version of these things are have less ‘issues’ in them – the website is the place to read ’em.

The Aporkalypse

I really don’t know what to think about H1N1, or Swine Flu as it’s known to it’s friends. Egypt is culling the country’s pig population, despite no cases ever being detected there. On the flight from Beijing to Hong Kong I took yesterday, a full 2/3rds of the passengers were wearing surgical masks, despite only 3 people in China having caught the flu, with no deaths (out of 1.3 billion people). And if you think the masks were an over-reaction, you’ll be interested to know that the security and customs staff at Beijing airport were all wearing them as well, as were the flight attendants on the plane.

The world-wide death toll from the diseases has reached 160. Many other diseases are killing people much more rapidly.

The media alternates rapidly between announcing imminent doom and saying the whole thing is a beat-up, designed to distract us for the recession.

Certainly the World Health Organisation is playing it pretty cool, by not imposing compulsory screening for travelers – and this is getting the Chinese really fired up.

I don’t know much about the latest case of Swine Flu discovered in China – it was only announced today – but the other two cases were unfortunates who had contracted it in the States and then travelled to China.

All week on all television stations the planes, trains and hotels the two infected guys had used were broadcast in ticker-tape across the bottom of the screen, along with instructions to call the authorities if you had used these services as well. Apparently the same information has been txted to me as well (I can’t read it).

But what the Chinese seem to really want is for American’s travel privileges to be controlled, to stop the spread of the disease.

The Americans are being seen as the major spreader of the disease, as all Mexican flights were cancelled weeks ago. Not that many Mexicans would be interested in coming here at the moment actually, as few weeks ago people with Mexican passports were being summarily thrown in quarantine just for being Mexican. Not having been near Mexico for years is no excuse. Eventually the Mexican Government charted a plane to fly to Beijing and evacuate anyone with a Mexican passport who wanted out, stopping at a few other Chinese cities on the way back. Chinese news showed them all being carted to the airport in convoys of ambulances, despite none of them actually being sick.

To try and move all this along, an American can no longer get a rushed visa for China – it now must take the maximum 7 days to process (though I’m unsure how this will stop the spread of disease). But the editorials of the local papers are furious with the WHO for not being more draconian, and want more done immediately (without being too specific about what ‘more’ is).

As for me, I had my temperature taken when I went to the gym earlier this week – a new requirement of entry. I’m fine. And Piglet is still my friend.

(and as a postscript – when I arrived back in Beijing we all sat on the tarmac while health officials took everyone’s temperature on the plane, using a tool that looked like a James Bond brainwashing device. 2 people were led away for further investigation.)

Actual Serenity

In complete contrast to the Botanical Gardens expedition, on Reid’s birthday we went off to visit the Silver Mountain Pagoda Forest. Again aiming low with our departure time, we only missed it by 1/2 an hour and after stopping somewhere to pick up a picnic, it was again time to head north.

Zara stayed behind to play with Yu Mei on this expedition, but Zac came along, snoozing in good style as we battled our way north.

Fairly early I worked out the instructions we were following to the Forest had been written before the Olympics, and very little of the roads and intersections described in the book had survived the Games. However, with the dumb faith of people who haven’t got any real alternative, we headed north anyway until the road ran out. We then turned right.

A little after that, we passed an old faded wooden sign with something in Chinese written on it, and based on my description of what the Chinese word we were looking for, Reid deduced it was the way we should go (I  said the second character in the word looked like a pitchfork, and the last character was the same character that is in my Chinese name. Reid needs very little information to read Chinese).

The road twisted into the hills past some amazing train viaducts upon which travelled the longest train I’d ever seen, and eventually we arrived at the Pagoda Forest – to find, amazingly, only about 10 other people there. The silence was deafening. It was beautiful. We headed into the park a little way to eat the picnic, then, with Zac strapped to the front of Reid, we ventured further.

The Silver Mountains used to be nest-bed of high-minded Buddhist thought and teaching, and the Pagodas themselves are the last remnants of a Buddhist temple that was built in the 15th Century. The pagodas now house the remains of various learned Monks and appear reminiscent of Ankor Wat in Cambodia. Eerie and majestic, are surrounded in the forest by other sites where the local monks lived their lives – caves they sheltered in, platforms for preaching, other temples for chanting.

For the fool-hardy, there is a path to the summit of the mountain through the forest and Reid and I figured we could maybe attempt a little part of it, hampered as we were with Zac strapped to Reid’s front at first, then to mine. One completely vertical hour later we were at the summit of the mountain, red faced and shaking. Zac slept the entire way, but slowly turned pink in the heat.

The summit is a tiny platform in the clouds with a single Communist Party flag fluttering in the breeze – perhaps a reminder that, after all the religious locations we’ve passed through on the way up, the People’s Party is the way forward now.

Red-faced at the top

With shaking legs, we descended.

The Silver Mountain Pagoda Forest is easily the most beautiful place I’ve been to so far in Beijing. Despite the local council lavishing millions of yuan to restore it every year, it does not look like a religious theme park or a reconstruction of something – they’ve let the ruins be ruins, they’ve put in great walkways and paths and, unbelievably, the crowds have stayed away. It’s a bugger to find, but worth the effort.

I’ll add some more photos later


Lets go on a mission, Reid said. Great idea. It’s a long weekend (May Day), it’s a lovely day and we have a car. Let’s head to the Beijing Botanical Gardens and have a picnic.

First, of course, you need to pick a suitable and achievable time for getting out of the house. We aimed suitably low – 11.30 –  but as you’d expect we missed it by miles. But after much intense preparation we had eventually packed the kids, the lunch, 4 or 5 maps of relative use, the iPhone GPS for disasters, a range of CDs, bot-bots for Zac, treats for Zara and the kitchen sink into the Volvo and we headed out onto the Third Ring Road.

Our apartment is on the East side of the Third Ring Road, and it seems all the interesting stuff to go check out is to the North-West, so we’re probably going to do this particular journey a few times. Reid is the driver as she can’t read a map, so I do navigation, run miscellaneous interference with the kids and attempt to pronounce the names of the off-ramps we’re aiming at.  There are a couple of interesting navigational challenges on our particular route (to say nothing of the antics of other drivers heading in the same direction) but we rise above all this and end up in… a big traffic jam.

Nothing unusual in that, of course, but the jam seems to get bigger and bigger the closer we get to the Gardens until it is finally made clear to us that all the Beiingers who haven’t gone to Ikea and the Great Wall this holiday have come to the Botanical Gardens instead.

Crushed by this revelation we crawled around in a circle past the entrance to the Gardens, following signs to Parking Lot #4 which, once we find it, appears to be having it’s own exclusive traffic failure. Cars have packed themselves into the entrance to the lot which is unfortunately full – no one is being let in. Cars in the middle of the horde have lost patience and are attempting to reverse out, causing consternation from folks behind. Tempers appear to be running hot.

Zara and I abandoned the car and headed off on foot to check out the lay of the land while a queue of tour buses bank up behind Reid in the Volvo. They are generous with their horn, but Reid hunkered down until a driver came to hurl abuse in Chinese at her directly.

At this point we collectively decide this nightmare should be abandoned and we should make our escape – but miraculously while making our break for freedom we found a park about 100 meters from the entrance to the gardens. Unable to believe our luck, we plonk Zac into the buggy and head off – only to find (as we should have suspected) all of China are already inside.

It was kinda of like strolling around a park just as a Rugby stadium was let out into it. People pushed and shoved their way along the pathways. All grass off-piste were covered by Beijingers who had come early and encamped for the duration – some of them had pitched tents. Blokes with huge cameras lined up to take photos of the fields of flowers, but found their shots contained only people. It was truly ghastly.

Eventually we found a bit of space, put down a rug and sat Zara on it. An appreciative crowd formed with their cameras. Zac joined Zara on the rug. The crowd was reinforced with a number of well-wishers anxious to advise us how we were neglecting Zac by exposing his beautiful pale skin to the sun. Others pushed their kids into view to be included in the photos. Yet more offered treats of doubtful origin to Zara, or asked my permission to take her off for more photo opportunities elsewhere. We shoveled down our lunch as fast as possible and fled.

The gardens themselves? Possibly not our cup of tea, but of course we didn’t see them in the best of circumstances. It was a really hot, dusty day and all the plants looked pretty hot and dusty as well. The Welli botanical gardens look pretty flash in comparison.

But you’ve got to do these things. We did what we aimed to do. That’s the important thing

(And it turned out the car park was illegal. We got what we suspect is a ticket – but of course we can’t read it)

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