Coffee, Tea or Hot Water?

A scanned copy of the ‘New Life Weekly’ encourages people to drink boiled water, 1934, Vol. 1 (10). From National Digital Library of China

In my workplace cafeteria I remember  a large hand printed sign posted above the racks of clean water glasses: “Do NOT use for HOT WATER!”

The company had just relocated to a new site in Toronto and the food services group was getting  used to  the strange habits of a two thousand odd tech team.   One of the more perplexing issues was the amount of breakage due to people dispensing hot water  directly into cold beverage glasses.

With some curiosity, I had watched employees (all Chinese) by-pass the stoneware coffee mugs in favor of the more fragile, non-tempered water glasses. They filled them up with boiling hot water and ignoring scorched finger tips transported them back to the lunch tables.  Odd, I thought but cafeteria services being the least of my worries at the time, I forgot about it.

Years later when I was stationed in Beijing, I was charmed at the many little courtesies afforded to visitors in business meetings.  Almost always I would be seated around a meeting table where paper cups of hot water were already set in place.   My first couple sips were surprises and after the startled responses to my request for cold water, I learnt to appreciate the gesture and ignore the paper cups.

In this article from the Sixth Tone ‘The History of China’s Obsession with Hot Water’,  the mysterious habit is explained.  It’s a fascinating explanation of a custom that has followed generations of Chinese from old world to new.  It’s good reading.

Toronto, Canada. September 2017




If We Were Having Coffee … with Music

Digital Camera R.

If we were having coffee it would be decaf because it’s late. We’d talk about everything and eventually get around to music. I’d tell you about my new favorite band, Kaleo. They are an indie alt-rock/pop/folk group that’s just hitting the air waves in the US and Canada. I like their bluesy “Way Down We Go” and have it on repeat on my player. Blues is not really my thing but as I’ve grown older and traveled wider, I’ve found that many of my favorite things change with time and place.

When I was growing up in Jamaica, reggae was the background sound track of daily living. It was the only music on local radio and Bob Marley was considered an upstart for bastardizing the sound of roots reggae. Little did we know that he would be the impetus of reggae going mainstream. I didn’t fully appreciate the range of his impact until last year when I was in Northern Thailand. While driving through the narrow, pot-hole riddled mountain roads, our driver turned up the volume on “Exodus”. We forgot about the nauseous highway and started jamming all the way to Chiang Mai.

During my first year in Beijing, I discovered a love for hard paced rock. Green Day’s “Holiday” was my favorite work-out song and I had sweat inducing playlists with The Killers, Nickelback and Lady Gaga. In 2009, the Great Firewall closed off the world-wide part of WWW and it was impossible to access popular western music legally. Illegal pirated copies? No problem.

The biggest selection of western music was in Sanlitun, a popular bar street district defined by the international embassies around it. The unnamed store had a huge selection of music and movies, shrink-wrapped with discs on the outside of glossy paper box packaging. Occasionally, during government invoked piracy raids, the storefront disappeared overnight. But if you looked around and hung around long enough, someone would beckon you over and lead you to the basement. There the goods would be temporarily housed in makeshift stalls. I am not a fan of buying pirated goods but there were no other listening options at the time. The unexpected outcome was that I bought many CDs blind and in the process, ‘discovered’ music I wouldn’t normally have heard.

In Singapore when I’m held captive in a taxi, I am forced to listen to 70’s crooners and ’80s style pop. Once after hearing one too many songs by the Carpenters, I asked the driver if this was the only radio station in Singapore. He said “I don’t listen to the music. They have good traffic reports.”

In my house I keep my internet radio tuned to my favorite Toronto station. I hear the winter weather reports (not missing it) and Spence diamond commercials (annoying but somebody has to pay for free radio.) I also hear the latest in the alternative rock scene.

Which brings me back to my favorite new band. Kaleo from Iceland. A group of young musicians who combine the chords of the ’60s with the rhythm of gospel tinted blues, to make a vibrant rich sound.

Perfect for late night coffee.

Singapore.  April 2016

Brand names are alive and well in Beijing

The power of brand names is well appreciated in China. Imitation is the highest form of flattery and we find imitation in the most unlikely places.
arm hachetIn the grocery store I found my favourite brand of baking soda .. except that it was so much cheaper !Cpple phoneBetter still was this i-phone look alike. But no pretense of plagarism here. After all it was clearly designed by Cpple in California !

Snow in Beijing

They told me ‘ never snows in Beijing’.   ‘… It used to snow in Beijing, but that was twenty years ago’.

Well, in the year we arrived, in early November 2009 .. it snowed in Beijing – three times in seven days. Well before the first snowfall in Toronto!

Beijingers are not well equipped to handle snow.

Brooms and dustbins were deployed to the hopeless task of removing three inches of dense wet snow.

More puzzling was the sight of men walking around with 10 foot poles .. knocking snow off the trees.

Luckily it warms up soon and the snow doesn’t accumulate.

Knock on wood.

We still have four months to go!   

Peking Duck, Beijing Style

Jim arranged for a Beijing Duck dinner with the IBM team.   A local manager ordered all the dishes, and there was an array of nice , and not so nice dishes.  Nice dishes included Snails with Mushrooms. Not so Nice dishes included grisly and grotesque Duck Tongues.     As usual, there was no rice.   When asked, the waitress said ‘ … the duck is the rice and it’s at the end’.

Beijing Duck was served with

  • sugar and skin only, not like in Toronto
  • pancakes, like in Toronto
  • sesame pita puffs, not like in Toronto
  • green onions and hoisin, like in Toronto
  • garlic puree, radishes and cucumbers, not like in Toronto

On Friday, after a week of eating formal business dinners, I felt the need for a simple meal.  I decided to eat at the hotel in the Dragon Palace, a Cantonese style restaurant.  Cantonese meant rice with the meal. I had Imperial Braised Chicken, which was a delicious hot-pot of boneless chicken, mushrooms and bamboo shoots.

On the next table, a lone American ordered Beijing duck.   I watched as the waitress carved the duck and carefully prepared two platters of duck and pancakes.  It seemed wrong for a person to dine alone on Beijing duck.  It is a special dish reserved for banquets and celebrations.

However, this gentleman did and he finished it all off on his own.

Good for him.

Beijing, 2007

Oh my God! The Traffic

Whether in Beijing, Shanghai or Hongzhou the traffic is an nightmare. I sit in the back seat and cringe. The traffic is endless and unrelenting , but more so the drivers are all cowboys. Lanes, lights and traffic signs are only guidelines and aggressive driving is the only way to survive. The road is shared with bicycles and all manner of tri-wheeled vehicles or boxes on wheels. Bicyclists drive fearlessly through the traffic and face off taxi drivers and buses. I was warned early on the pedestrians have no right of way, and will be run down by cars and bicyclists alike.

In Beijing, where everywhere is under construction, there is a ton of people everywhere loading, unloading or moving stones. I saw a bicyclist toting three hundred pounds of concrete on his bike. Jim says he’s seen bicycles with full sized refridgerators strapped on either side of the bike.

Drivers here must have nerves of steel. Switching lanes, cutting, driving in the pedestrian lanes, driving on the shoulder to pass, crazy cross-braided merge lanes, all appear to be normal.

Beijing, 2007

Sunday in the Park and the The Temple of Heaven

We went to see the Temple of Heaven today. It is an enormous park created for the Chinese emperors to speak to God. There were three impressive temples built of wood and highly decorated with the imperial colours of blue, red and gold. Cathy tells me that each door way has a threshold which is deliberately built high to keep out evil spirits. It is bad luck to step on the threshold as it lowers the ramp and allows spirits to enter. In some temples , the thresholds are so high that people are forced to kneel in honour of the temple gods.

The park is visited by the many Chinese where they either play mah-jong , tell stories , sing … it is a park where there are impromptu performances by grandmothers, uncles and sons.The performances are for the socializing, not for pay – as no money is asked for , orcollected.Unusual to my western eye, was the age of the participants who all looked to be mature but active.People in their thirties to seventies were there, doing their thing.No brassy teenagers or hyper-youth were around.Instead, hundreds of multi-generational families and seniors abound – walking, playing, picnicking and socializing.

I saw people with nylon paddle boards doing tai-chi like dances – either alone or in harmony with a partner. They dance gracefully with the paddles, balancing the ball with indescribable grace and elegance. Elsewhere, old men tell stories as they write character with water on the stone pavement and younger men walk with their cages of song birds. Under a covered pathway musical performers play traditional Chinese instruments and songs. To my Western ear the Chinese songs sound strident and tooth-shatteringly painful, but it’s clear that others appreciate it. Further on , I see a four-some playing a version of kick-ball with a feather ball (looking like a badminton birdie). Rather like soccer players, these 50-somethings kick the ball between them, doing head –spins and ankle/knee tosses like any Brazilian soccer star.

Bargaining in Beijing – Hongqiao Pearl market

After the park we went shopping at the Hongquai Pearl Market.This is a large indoor shopping mall, packed with stalls and vendors selling many things, including pearls.As in all Beijing markets, bargaining is required for all purchases.

I started at one of the silk stalls where I purchase a beautiful white embroidered blouse, a rich charteusse green jacket, a black cheongsam blouse for Laurie, and two brashy silk ties, red dragon and purple pandas, for Luc. This is my first venture into bargaining and from a starting of 1200 Y we get down to 800 Y.

Upstairs, I stayed at Dong Li’s pearl stall for nearly an hour as she and her sisterpulled forward a selection of freshwater pearls and jade.She hand strung a customized string of pearls with a light jade pendant, and tailored another necklace to my desired length.Dong Li’s explained the difference between good and poor quality pearls, and politely encouraged me to buy more jewellery.When it came time to bargain, she started at 880 yuan and we worked down to 650 yuan.I suppose a better bargainer could have gotten lower, but at $110 for four beautiful necklaces,I figured I wasgood.It must have been a good deal for Madam Dong, as she gave us a bonus.I got a free pearl bracelet, and later when Cathy came back to find me, so did she.I also received two bottles of water and some very nice gift boxes for each necklace.It was very pleasurable shopping experience and I can well imagine doing this over and over, and ending up with dozens of necklaces.

Beside the pearl stall, I found a chess set for Daniel.Set in a painted wooden box, the chess pieces are hand carved bone statues of a Chinese Emperor, Empress and Chinese soldiers.I asked for a full size set and started the bargaining process.The vendor started at 800 Yuan and eventually made her way down to 550.I punched in 400 ($60) on the calculator and she went down to 500.At this point I was ready to go … I hadbegun to think about the sheer size of the box …but then she say’s ‘OK, Your price my friend!’.I thought for a moment that she’d given up, but then she pulls out a new box and I realize we’vecompletedthe sale.Once again, I get a bonus, this time a wooden lucky charm.As I walk away, Iwonder about my travel sanity as I size up not only the size but the weight of this box.

With my chess set, pearl necklaces, base ball caps and silk blouses, I realize that I needed to make another purchase – luggage. Downstairs , Cathy took me to her favourite vendor and I pick-out a large (knock-off) Swiss duffle on wheels. Because the vendor knew Cathy, I immediately got the sell price of 150 yuan ($25). Cathy bought a very nice Gucci handbag for 200 yuan. At this point, I want to buy more .. but I am now out of cash (having bummed the last 100 Y from Jim) and the ATM doesn’t work. We retreat for lunch.

Lunch is at a local joint across the street.It has the advantage of having an English menu (Hongqiao is a tourist attraction) and Jim orders several dishes, including a Potatoe, Eggplant and Green pepper stirfry. Jim explains that he orders potatoes whenever he sees it as potatoes are a precious vegetable, sold by the unit, and sparingly used.The stir-fry arrives and is surprisingly good – it’s a strange combination of soft but flavourful textures.I wait expectantly for rice, but it doesn’t appear.Jim tells me that rice comes at the end, after all the dishes are done.I ask to break tradition, as I’d love to eat the lovely food with rice.

Beijing, 2007