Archive for the ‘China’ category

Shanghai Before Christmas 2014

December 29, 2014

“The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.”
– G.K. Chesterton

I’ve become an old China hand, at least in some superficial ways.  I’ve been to Shanghai a number of times over the years, and less frequently to a few other parts of China.  I’ve seen the Great Wall, the terracotta warriors at Xian, the peculiar karst hills of Guilin, the giant Buddhas of the Longmen Grottoes, and stood with the fighting monks of the Shaolin Temple for a special photo.  But sadly I only am able to speak the most limited of Chinese, in stock phrases to smooth my way, and certainly not to converse at any length.

Mostly we go to Shanghai, because that is where my wife’s family lives.  Shanghai has changed a lot in the 20 years or so I’ve been going there on a semi-regular basis.  It’s now a city of high-rises, high-end shopping centres and high-volume car congestion.  Without the Chinese characters there are many places where if you were set down unexpectedly it could be almost any modern city in the world.

Fortunately for me, my in-laws were always cosmopolitan and well-travelled, especially my wife’s mother and father, unexpectedly so in Chinese of their generation.  This befitted their role as medical doctors in demand at international conferences and other gatherings.

In a way they became my second set of parents, after my own passed on many years ago.  They always welcomed me into their relatively humble apartment, where in any conversation one might hear Mandarin, Shanghainese, English and French.  As a Canadian, my high-school French actually became occasionally useful.  And my wife’s dad spoke passable English, which certainly helped.

The reason we went back for only just over a week this time was the final ceremony to lay to rest the ashes of my wife’s mother, who died earlier in 2014.  She was a social live-wire even as she turned 90 years old, but endings find us all.  It’s been very difficult for her husband of almost 70 years, especially since they were closely together all those years not only as partners in life but colleagues in their profession.

I remember her most fondly for her jolliness, her sincerity and her intelligence.  When they last visited us in Vancouver in Canada back when they were young folks in their late seventies and early eighties, they always seemed such accomplished travellers.  Mom always liked to be photographed in front of every tourist sight-seeing mecca.  Dad worried about plane tickets and travel arrangements.

There were the rituals of packing, going to the airport and final waves as they left us each time.  They weren’t able to visit us in the last decade or so — visas were refused due to their increasingly fragile health.  So we — my wife more often of course — went back to see them in Shanghai.

Her father now copes as best he can after his loss with the assistance of the extended family.  Although his health remains relatively good, he doesn’t smile much any more.

But he’s taken up occasionally singing and humming quietly to himself, whether to lift his spirits or as a way to commune with his wife, I don’t know.

As we packed up to return to Vancouver, as we rolled the luggage into the living room and I worriedly checked that I had my passport and our tickets, Dad looked up at me with a brief, clear smile.  There was acknowledgement of past moments together, of getting ready to go.  We are all just travellers here.


Whenever I go away from home, I’m keen to take photographs.  I always hope that like Chesterton above, I will learn to see the places I know when I return with a little bit of that same exotic feeling and a refreshed eye.

Here are a few photos from our trip.  In Shanghai, there are many locals, such as taxi drivers we ran across, who resent Westerners always looking for the run-down parts of Shanghai to take photographs.  They feel insulted by foreigners who don’t have a proper and respectful attitude towards the modernity of present-day China.

But the older, and not always run-down, streets of Shanghai still embody what all the sterile modernity can never do, a sense of community.

More Shanghai photos will be seen on my photo blog, The Suspended Moment, as time goes by….

One short note about the photos: we came across a park where every day in mid-afternoon there would be community dancing.  The local gossip was that many affairs were initiated at these events….

Stepping Lively

Stepping Lively

Sidewalk Cobbler

Sidewalk Cobbler

Shanghai Santa Claus

Shanghai Santa Claus

Shanghai Alley Fancy Entrance

Shanghai Alley Fancy Entrance

Hanging Out In Shanghai

March 2, 2013

I travelled once more to China with my wife this year for Chinese New Year’s, visiting my wife’s parents and relatives for the brief period of just over a week.

The week of Chinese New Year, this year from February 11, and the week preceding it is a time of travelling chaos in China.  The whole country is on the move.  Children of all ages are expected to visit their parents wherever they may be. International students and others from abroad must return to visit their families, so flights are crowded.

But we made it there for the rounds of constant banquets and socializing, which is a nice trick for me since my Chinese is only of the most rudimentary kind.  There was a lot of gesturing going on, and occasional words of English and French to help along the way.

For a camera this time, I took along my fairly new Olympus XZ-1, which is basically a bunch of electronics in support of a pretty fine lens (down to f/1.8) for a compact camera.  I played around in Photoshop for some of the resulting photos.

This first photo is in one of the downtown areas with the typical masses of residential apartment skyscrapers moving into the distance.  The smog in Shanghai is much less of a problem than the infamous stuff in Beijing, but is still present.  (I was pleased to see blue skies in Shanghai while we were there.)

This downtown location has what amounts to a private garden in the midst of the surrounding apartments.  There are a lot of gated residential areas here.

Shanghai Downtown and Park

The next photo is the interior of an older Shanghai hotel where my wife went (with me in tow) to order a select menu of dishes for one of the banquets.

This is an intense matter, I observed, for Chinese, and especially for the women who pour over menus in great detail looking for just the right items for the occasion.  Notes are made, discussions with hotel staff ensue, crucial decisions are made.

The weather was just above freezing when we were there, and like most places the lobby was not heated.  A chilly breeze blew in the door when anybody entered, and all the hotel staff in the lobby wore heavy winter coats.  But then the sun came out….

Shanghai Hotel

Of course, getting around in Shanghai is most easily done by taxi.  The next photo is from the backseat, on the driver’s side.  A common complaint of taxi drivers these days, my wife says, is that business is down due to so many people buying their own vehicles (and as the frequent traffic jams display).  There was a marked difference from even a couple of years ago in how often one could find an available cab.

Usually in the Shanghai cabs, from the backseat position on the passenger side you’re looking a small TV screen with ads for watches or liquor cycling over and over again.   On the driver side, I noticed the ad like a seal shown here in the lower right corner.  It proclaimed that Chrissie Chau, one of the Top 100 Sexiest Women in the World would be appearing at a nightclub called Richbaby in March.

This amused me.  In a country of approximately 750 million women, to be in the top 100 sexiest is surely a staggering achievement.  How are such things measured?  And who does the measuring?  Apparently in this case the magazine FHM (formerly For Him Magazine) has taken on this massive if arrogant chore.

Shanghai Taxi Back Seat

I’m fascinated by city alleys anywhere…. they always give me a sense of off-stage life.  Particularly in China, the alleys intrigue me, since especially in the older areas they were how most people used to access where they lived.  Shanghai as it modernizes has lost a lot of that old alley culture, but it still persists in many parts of the city.


One day we went to the  Qi Bao area of Shanghai, which is an older heritage part of the city, I guess you could say.

It was a day off for many people, so the streets were jammed.  On the way to one of the main streets sat this musician playing for his supper.

Shanghai Street Music Linear F2

There were shops selling knickknacks, bakery goods, dried fruit, paintings and much more.  Here’s an example from one of the knickknack stores… an ersatz stage with strange players.

Shanghai Knickknack Shop

This is an area of picturesque canals as well.

Qi Bao Canal

I was happy to catch this shot of a boy enjoying a snack.

Shanghai Boy Eating

Besides alleys, I find doors evocative, the symbology of leaving and entering, of thresholds and openings and privacy.  Here’s one….


And finally, a shot that’s been manipulated to look as timeless as possible, of a Qi Bao canal and its bridge:


That’s it!



Thoughts on Visiting Shanghai 2012

May 4, 2012

The last few years I’ve been going to China, and Shanghai, about once a year.  My wife’s family is there, especially her elderly parents.

This year, in mid-April, was my mother-in-law’s 90th birthday party, so it was a big occasion.  Besides having an extended family of brothers, sisters, cousins along with many friends, both my wife’s parents have been very well known endocrinologists their entire lives.  So they have quite a few generations of students and colleagues to also pay them tribute.

Outsider at large

I’m always an outsider, of course, not so much in the family which always welcomes me warmly, but in China and Shanghai.  I thought I would provide some impressions and photos from this year’s trip.  Some of the impressions are new, and some are the kinds of things that seem to register with me every time.

One of them is the Chinese way of counting birthdays. My mother-in-law, who by the way is completely inspiring for someone at her age with a strong voice and intelligent manner, is 89 years old by the way we count in North America.  In China, the gestation period is counted as one year, so everyone pops into the world already slightly aged.

Banquets are another experience in China different than in North America (except perhaps with Chinese in Chinese restaurants here).  Cold dishes are brought right away to start at big round tables usually sitting 10. It will have a lazy susan so the dishes can revolve around the table.

Me and Davy Crockett

As I was brought up in a way more similar to loggers, mountain men and Davy Crockett than to anyone cultured, it has taken me time to develop the patience to politely take just one small morsel with chopsticks and place it on my plate.  I wait for a moment so as not to appear as famished, greedy and starving as I might be, then bring it slowly to my mouth until I get to swallow it.

It sounds painstaking, but eventually enough dishes come, and people loosen up enough so you feel not so abashed about helping yourself more freely. You do get enough to eat eventually, especially as a guest or Westerner since your neighbours at the table will tend to drop things on your plate so you don’t have to commit the gaucherie of reaching for the good stuff yourself.

The area in Shanghai where my parents-in-law live has been massively redeveloped over the years.  They live now in a cluster of apartment towers. Such clusters may have their own manicured grounds and are usually gated with security guards.  These gated groups of apartments are just about everywhere in the widespread newly developed residential areas.

But something new this time I hadn’t seen before were beggars on the sidewalks outside some of these areas.  One was doing fake karaoke warbling with an amp and dramatic gestures; another, with one missing hand, held the other out, also misshapen, for money.

I don’t know if this phenomenon is just new for this area of Shanghai where I always visit, or whether it’s a more general reflection of the growing disparity between rich and poor in China.  Perhaps some of both.

Vehicular traffic follows quite different rules than in North America.  For starters, any vehicle has more right-of-way than pedestrians, from bicycles to scooters to motorcycles to motor cars.  Step off a sidewalk, and you’d better be sure there’s nothing coming.  In a paradoxical way, it may be almost safer, because you have to be alert and not assume vehicles will stop or pause for you.

With the number of people, it almost has to be that way, otherwise the steady stream of people on crosswalks would bring traffic even more to a halt.

And on the sidewalks, scooters and motorcycles expect to motor on past you as well.  Some sidewalks are halved with a line for motorcycles on one side and pedestrians on the other.

Since I first visited Shanghai and China back in the 90s, the respect for traffic lights and lane markings has increased substantially, although one can still occasionally experience in a taxicab a very flexible notion about where the lane is, even with oncoming traffic.

The prevalence of smoking is much higher than what is typical nowadays in North America.  I don’t see the giant posters for the rugged cowboys of the Marlboro Man ads anymore, but they’ve accomplished their Chinese mission, apparently.  Enclosed rooms in restaurants still provide ashtrays; smokers welcome.

Most Chinese air-dry their laundry. And most will hang them off poles extending from their apartment window balcony.  Some will dry them hanging  on lines or hooks just above or at street level, underwear and all.

Shanghai’s redevelopment has taken away a lot of the sidewalk commerce, from shoe and bike repair to street food, which I am partial to.  But still pockets of the older Shanghai remain in between the KFCs, the Starbucks and the McDonalds.



Notes on images, from top down:

1) There are still many little storefront restaurants for busy office workers.

2) At first we thought this fellow had a really nice voice for a street singer, but after a moment of careful observation, we detected he was doing a bad job of lip-synching.  Not sure about the function of the sitting attendant with the big stick, but maybe he’s there to beat off those who want to retrieve their donations after being taken in by the “singer”….  Also note the laundry hanging nearby.

3) A cart of bright fresh oranges. There’s a lot of fruits and vegetable sold directly from carts like these, and they also are an integral part of the traffic between suppliers and shops.

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Shanghai New Year 2011

February 13, 2011

My wife and I returned last week from staying in Shanghai for two weeks during Chinese New Year. It is also known as the Lunar New Year or Spring Festival even if in early February it seems much too early for that.

This is the second time we stayed in Shanghai during Chinese New Year.  The last time was a couple of years ago.  I noticed some changes in the festival and the social environment since then.

The economy seems to be of some concern there.  Not a looming crisis, but shadows on the wall at least.  The cost of housing – typically condos – in Shanghai and other major cities in China has risen out of sight for most people, so much so that popular movies even comment on the problem.  This is compounded by the one-child policy which led to a preponderance of boys.  Girls of marriageable age now apparently expect that their prospective husband comes with home ownership or… next!

Year of the Rabbit

Inflation in general, especially for mid-level items and up, has risen steeply.  The prices of many goods are no lower and sometimes higher than the same kind of item in Greater Vancouver where we live.   In fact, we heard back in Canada that tourists from China come to Vancouver and buy linens, for example, made in China that are cheaper here and then ship them home…

Part of the reason is apparently the rapid increase in middle-men in China, of all descriptions, from legitimate distributors to corrupt officials, all with their hands out for a piece of the action; the action which so far has made so many Chinese rich.

Food however remains relatively inexpensive.

Typical Shanghai view in the morning.

You know there may be a problem when Chinese government officials make a point of promising in their New Year’s messages that inflation and the economy will be kept under control in the coming year.

The New Year’s celebration itself has changed too.  There is the wildly noisy and bright fireworks displays of New Year’s Eve until long into the early hours of course. That isn’t different from our last visit and adds to the celebratory atmosphere all around of  relatives and friends bearing gifts, banquets, TV specials and other activities during the New Year’s season.

A Shanghai face...

On the fifth day of the Chinese New Year is where I notice a big change from two years ago.  This is the birthday of the Chinese god of wealth or prosperity, of money basically.

In the intervening days from New Year’s itself, the ongoing sound of fireworks had abated to almost nothing.  But on the fifth night all hell broke loose.

Every entrepreneur and would-be entrepreneur in this city of almost 20 million people famed for their business acumen and apparently afraid of losing it paid up to thousands of dollars for the necessary fireworks to propitiate the God of Mammon.  And they were all exploded on the fifth night for hours and hours.


New Year's fireworks reflected on neighbouring buildings

The fireworks weren’t like little firecrackers we might hear locally on Halloween.  No, these are the artillery, the cruise missiles and the bunker busters of modern firework technology all set off in what seemed like a manic cacophony.  As the night wore on, I realized that this was the sound of fear and superstition.

I personally feel that it’s bad luck to be superstitious but people of many cultures can be so.  It’s a human trait which I think comes with associating behaviours or things with random beneficial or harmful events.  It’s very like Skinner’s experiments in behavioural psychology with pigeons.


Taking in the fireworks on New Year's Eve

But the Chinese, as a culture, seem especially prone to it, even the most educated and scientific.  And perhaps especially the business class.

On this night, we tried to go to bed.  But the onslaught was unrelenting.  I watched pale light coming into the darkened bedroom from city lights flicker and tremble with the shake-up in the skies.

Burning incense on New Year's Day at Shanghai's Jade Buddha Temple.

There were roaring, blasting, explosive, percussive cracks; rapid artillery-like barrages; pelting, whining, moaning, zooming eruptions; rocketing, detonating, blaring slams of noise; whistling and thundering gusts of bombardment which mixed and whirled and crashed their noise along the sky.

After hours, this all finally started to dwindle, then revive to almost former levels, then slacken again until, after a few long cycles of this there was finally relative silence.  You could hear now the milder accompaniment of a city full of car alarms going off from all the vibration.

As you can probably tell, I spent a lot of my time unable to sleep trying to come up with the appropriate descriptors….

People still live in this gentrified area in the midst of boutiques

So we had a memorable time in Shanghai, more it turns out for the enjoyable times spent with family and friends and touring about the city.  Got some interesting photos too.


Olympic Gymnastic Cheating Revisited

August 29, 2010

Almost two years ago to the day, I wrote a post about China’s female gymnastic performance at the Beijing Olympic Games and Google hacking. I was struck with how the little girls of China were so obviously underaged, which happens to be an advantage in that sport.

And then I found Internet security expert Mike Walker’s blog on the subject at Stryde Hax, which detailed his probing of documentation once available through search engines and then deleted by the Chinese government. However, with some knowledge of the workings of Google and other search engines, he was able to dig up archives of the deleted web pages which contradicted the official Chinese line.

indexAlthough investigations from more mainstream investigative sources found the same sort of evidence, the International Olympic Committee seemed to ignore and then to actively support the powerful Chinese participants.

Now over two years later, the Chinese female gymnastic team at the 2000 Sydney Olympics has been stripped of its medal and the American team officially has moved up to bronze… It seems at least one of Chinese team’s members were too young then, as well.

Stryde Hax notes this vindication while pointing out that the glaring Beijing case was acknowledged by the head of the international gymnastics association, while at the same time distancing himself from any attempt to investigate it further.

Stryde Hax’s recent blog post ends with this telling comment:

“If you’d like to read the official Chinese response, try to access this link:
That URL is an attempt to retrieve this blog from the archives of the Chinese search engine Baidu. Visiting the link will result in a forcibly terminated connection via automated Internet censorship; you will simply receive a browser error. And that is the official response.”

And further on Google hacking…

Johnny Long’s Google Hacking Data Base is still online. He’s now a “Hacker for Charity.” The GHDB provides all kinds of clues and suggestions for searches that reveal more than the creators of the data might want others to know. Most of it is pretty mundane though.

And now that Microsoft’s Bing search engine is out there, there are tools around to do similar penetration type investigation of search results there — take a look at this article on Binging