Sunday, January 22, 2012


Monday is Chinese New Year’s day. Here’s a guide to what you should and shouldn’t be doing. If you’re here. And if you’re Chinese. And you believe in this stuff.

1. LET OFF FIREWORKS. But of course. Surely the greatest Chinese invention. The first time I lived in Beijing, they were outlawed in the city. But now, it’s open slather for the whole 15 days. Alas for most Chinese, it’s not so much about the pretty colours but about scaring off evil spirits with the noise – the really big noise. With an abject lack of elan, you’ll see stern-faced men stride up to a small cardboard tube, light a fuse, step back, witness the bang, nod their approval in a “that should do the trick” kind of way, then go and do it again. Or you may not see them. Sometimes you’ll round a corner, often with your unsuspecting little girls in hand and - BOOM! - something that sounds like it should bring up iron ore goes off right beside you in a quiet residential street. Our kids, understandably, aren’t that fond of spring festival. If they venture outdoors they walk around warily with their hands over their ears, as if Beijing were a minefield. Which it kind of is.
There are more fun ones available – the near-professional level kind that shoot coloured balls around. You can hold these in your hand and fire at will, which is always fun until someone loses an eye, or a hotel.

Oops! Beijing's new 44-storey Oriental
Mandarin hotel was pretty much finished
and getting ready to open during Chinese
New Year celebrations in 2009 when
someone shot a firework at it, and then
this happened.
2. CLEAN HOUSE. We’re not saying the Chinese are superstitious or anything, but many believe the house must be thoroughly cleaned before New Year’s day. No cleaning can be done on that day, or you might sweep good fortune out of your house. After day one of the 15 day spring festival, people can sweep up, but are supposed to stack the sweepings in corners, not removing it from the house until the fifth day. And then it must be carried out, not swept.

3. DON’T CRY. For it is believed if you cry on New Year’s day, you’ll cry for most of the year, if not all of it. Thus kids can get away with murder on the day and won’t be belted.

5. DON’T SWEAR OR USE UNLUCKY WORDS. Like ‘four’ (see what I did there?) Four (si) sounds like the si which means ‘death’. Thus, on New Year’s day, you might get into trouble if you and three mates want a beer: “I want more than three but less than five, please.” Just pray noone asks you the time between 3:59 and 29-to-five.

Chinese people go all-out to think of imaginative New Year gifts for
younger relatives, which are always, without exception, little red
envelopes containing cold hard cash. 
6. EAT DUMPLINGS - STAY UP ALL NIGHT. The tradition is that families get together on New Year’s eve and, at midnight, they start eating jiaozi, small dumplings usually filled with meat, after which they are supposed to start bickering about who makes the best jiaozi. Eating fish (yu) is also good, for it is said to portent good fortune for the year ahead, because yu also means ‘extra’. But don’t go eating chicken (ji) that day, because a troubled year could be ahead. (Ji sounds a little like qi, which means anger). (Look, I don’t make the rules, OK?) (They’re ancient.)
7. AVOID GETTING YOUR HAIR CUT FOR A MONTH. The old belief is you shouldn’t get your haircut in the first month of the New Year, or that wretched, ever-present danger, bad luck, might rear its head again. Thus there’s a big rush in the last days of the old year, with hairdressing salons often open until the early hours of morning. They have to make hay, for then it’s slim clippings for a month. Also on hair, don’t wash it on New Year’s day. Yes, luck again.
8. MAKE SURE THE FIRST PERSON YOU SEE IS COOL. The first person you bump into on New Year’s day is thought to be significant for the year ahead. Thus you don’t want it to be that dork from next door who’s always bugging you about joining Amway. Try to make it someone you like.
9. AVOID BAD LUCK. For it is unlucky.
10. DON’T USE KNIVES OR SCISSORS ON NEW YEAR’S DAY. It may cut off fortune.

Performers get dressed up in lion dance costumes such as
this one, which are always baking hot. In Beijing and other
parts north this is a good thing, since spring festival falls
in the dead of winter when it is absolutely freezing cold.
(My reference guide for all this points out that while many Chinese people these days may not believe these superstitions, they will still practice them, as a means of providing continuity with their ancestors.)

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


My wife is a pig and my daughter is a dog.
Furthermore, my sister is a dragon.
Now, I know what it looks like. This can only mean one of two things, right?
1. I am not happy with my current living circumstances and want to ensure rapid change.
2. I am perfectly happy with my current circumstances and have gone completely mad.
Perhaps something went radically wrong over the holidays? Perhaps I’m lashing out after another “dad-sized” mini-haul of Christmas presents last month? (I’m not … but seriously, what’s with that? Supply the sperm and lose the presents? When did that come in? Fathers of the world unite, I say. Fill your pockets with the one or two things you were rationed for Christmas and let’s all get together and … and … feebly resign ourselves to our lot).
In fact, there’s a third possibility. Sometimes living in China does have its upsides. For here, and especially now, I can talk like this and get away with it, because …
This comes around just after western new year. The Chinese go by the moon, or the lack of it. Legend has it that long ago, at the start of this particular moon cycle, the people were visited, and eaten by, a horrible monster. It’s name was Nian, which is now the Mandarin word for year. Back then, people presumably only knew it was a new year because of the appearance of this hauntingly punctual, famished monster. But now we have science, and the new year is calculated according to the moon. When all is dark, at the start of the second new moon cycle after the winter solstice, this is Chinese New Year.
It is only then that we can truly know one thing: We are allowed to start letting off fireworks – for the whole 15 days of the spring festival period, which ends when the moon is full.

The moon, going through its final warm-up
for Chinese New Year, yesterday.

Also, much like with western New Year and all those resolutions of self-improvement, we start examining what form of lower-level beast we are.
The Chinese rotate 12 animals through the years. Next Monday, New Year’s Day, the bunny will hand over to the dragon for its 12-month reign, much like in the Miss World pageant. What a transition – from what is surely the lamest of the dozen to the most mighty and auspicious. (Sorry, rabbits, but what images are evoked when you boast about your Chinese zodiac animal? I mean apart from the “has lots of sex” bit?)
Everyone born in a particular year is automatically designated as one of those animals. You don’t say “I was born in the year of …”. You say “I am a …” And this explains how I can happily, a bit too happily if you ask her, call my wife a pig, right in front of her and without then having to duck. A westerner of Chinese ethnicity, she likes to laud her people for inventing the “big four” – paper, gunpowder, the compass and the pop-up toaster. So she can’t just pick the good bits and complain that she’s a sow.
Trouble is, everyone born in this roughly 12-month period is said, under the Chinese system, to possess the same characteristics. It sounds ridiculous, since it is applied to such a broad sweep of people. But is it any more ridiculous, I ask you, than a western system which credits everyone born in a certain month-long period with similar personalities?
Well, yes it is actually. But only slightly.
Pigs - that is anyone born in 1971, 1983, 1995 et cetera – are said (by this website I’ve found) to be nice, good mannered, tasteful perfectionists. Of course if you look these things up, you’ll find the same broad array of standard traits that western horoscopes and TV clairvoyants dish out. Good/bad with money, outgoing/introverted, etc.

Pigs of this sort, the so-called "double-snouted pig", are
said to be extremely auspicious.

Sometimes the odd long bow is drawn. “The snake relies on its gut feelings”. At other times it seems more literal: “Rabbits are very sexual”. Well duh.
Then there’s the only animal that’s not really an animal – the dragon, which comes this year. This means my sister must be 48, because I don’t think she’s 60, and I’m damn sure she’s not 36. Dragons are said to be “energetic, warm-hearted, charismatic and lucky at love”. But I’ll bet my sister has met someone her age who’s lazy, cold, dull and keeps getting dumped.
If you want even more detail, each animal designation can be broken down further, as the five elements – metal, water, wood, fire and earth – are applied, also in rotation. If you were born in 1927 or 1987, for example, you’re not just a rabbit but a Fire Rabbit. Or if you came about in 1941 or 2001 then your designation is Metal Snake, which I’m sure was a band in the ‘80s.
Which reminds me, as with most things Chinese, there’s a bit of confusion here. In English, noone born in the year of woolly, cloven hoofed things seems sure if they’re a goat, sheep or ram. That’s because the Chinese use one word for all three, yang. So if you don’t like to call yourself a goat, you can swing a little.
Also, noone’s sure what Chinese year we’re up to. That oft-quoted “5000 years of civilisation”? It’s a rounded-up figure tracing back to the Yellow Emperor, Huang Di, who in terms of starting time is the Chinese Jesus. But some scholars reckon this is the year 4710, some say 4709, and still others say 4649. Then if you go to Taiwan, officially it’s the year 101 (since republicanism replaced Chinese imperial rule in 1912). It’s also 101 in North Korea, but for a completely different reason – because Kim Il-sung was born in 1912.

Huang Di - the man who kicked it all off. Said to
have started Chinese civilisation and to have
invented music and the arts. Of course, like pictures
of his rival Jesus, this likeness is imagined. And just
to confuse the issue further, he may or may not
have existed. The jury's still out and won't be

I happen to be a horse, which I’m quite pleased with. It sounds more imposing than a rabbit, sharper than an ox and more popular than a rat. Plus I love horses, which is to say, betting on them.
And, to quote a great song from the ‘70s, my name means horse. My adopted Chinese surname, approximated from my real one of Marshallsea, is Ma, the word for horse.
“Hi, I’m Trevor Horse,” sounds a bit funny in English, as would David Wombat or Brian Giraffe. But “Mister Ma” in Chinese sounds OK.
The problem is that when this horse swept his pig off her feet, her mother started shrieking that I was “an iron war horse” and should be avoided at all costs. That was 16 years ago, and I’d say it’s created an impression in my mother-in-law’s eyes that’s been hard to overturn. After all, what’s 16 years compared to 4710, or 4649?
Today, in the course of my research, I have discovered I am not a metal horse at all (1930 and 1990). This isn’t quite akin to having just been told I was adopted, but it has come as something of an identity shock, just when I thought I knew me.
In fact, I’m a fire horse (1966). This doesn’t sound much better, no less confrontational. But in any case I’m going to call my mother-in-law, who, by the way, is a snake.

Slightly unrelated ... my daughter Evie, the dog,
handing me the world's smallest Christmas present.
It's a home-made paper star measuring 20 millimetres
across. I'm not bitter or anything.

This is it - that's all. After consulting the teachings of
Tiger Mother Amy Chua, I informed Evie that she had
"spoiled Christmas for everyone for ever more".


PRAWN (1937, 1949, 1961, 1973, 1985, 1997, 2009)

Those born in the Year of the Prawn are flexible and mild-mannered, yet stubborn and pig-headed. And pointy-headed. Never cross one, for as Sun Tzu said, the earth is slow but the prawn is patient. Wood prawns are all liars. Compatible with: Tiger, Pig, Avocado.

CAMEL (1938, 1950, 1972, 1984, 1996, 2010)

Camels are determined, resolute, amiable but completely mindless people. Never, ever befriend one. Usually develop facial ticks in their 30s. Compatible with: Nothing.

MOLE (1944, 1956, 1968, 1980, 1992, 2004)

Moles are typically mischievous, cheeky, curious little people, with a love of the arts and a lot of hair on their face. Mostly, they become alcoholics and debtors. Very good at sex, however. Compatible with: Dragon, Horse, Aardvark.

MOTH (1941, 1953, 1965, 1977, 1989, 2001)

The Year of the Moth comes towards the end of the cycle. The most argumentative of all zodiac animals, the moth is also extremely opportunistic and will settle wherever there’s a light, like on your couch for weeks at a time. Usually ambidextrous. Hates shopping. Compatible with: Everyone.

SQUID (1939, 1951, 1963, 1975, 1987, 1999, 2011)

Winsome, adventurous little so-and-so's who love being the life of the party. Congenial, generous, dogmatic, approachable, intelligent, warm, hard-working, charming, ambitious, multi-traited, etc etc. Hitler was a squid, as was Jane Austen. Compatible with: Ox, Anteater.

Monday, January 16, 2012


My favourite restaurant in Beijing. I've never been inside it,
but I defy anyone to name a better eatery than the
 "Men Ding Li Patty Explode The Stomach".

Sunday, January 15, 2012


That was one of the questions on two of the lips at my Beijing apartment compound a few weeks ago as Tiger Father fever gripped the world. Now I’m back, semi-refreshed from the holidays, ready for a whole year’s ranting.
Remember that thing that time? Sh*t My Dad Says? It started out when young journalist Justin Halpern had to move back in with his father owing to an acute attack of unemployment. One day he stopped grimacing over the outrageous things his dad kept saying and instead started posting them on Facebook. Soon a lot of followers would log on each day to read these dad-isms. Then a publisher saw them, had them turned into a book, which became a TV series, and next thing you know ol’ Justin’s a millionaire.
Well the same thing is going to happen here. Or it is if you believe those shrewd market analysts I like to call “those in the know”, or which I sometimes call “me”.
It all started way back in October, 2011 …
One day, this stay-at-home dad looked around him to discover two startling things: 1. His kids were in full time school. 2. His wife was staring at him. Not in a good, doe-eyed way, but in that arms-crossed, tapping-her-foot, waiting-for-something-to-happen kind of way.
So, like many a stay-at-home parent before him, this old journalist remembered what he could do best – type!
This realisation had come to me once before, which was also the previous time I was unemployed. It was 1991 and I was living in recession-hit, war-torn Canada. I was fatigued and downhearted. But in one of those stories-that-change-your-life I looked at the back of my bus ticket and it asked me in big letters if I could type. As a journalist, hell yes I could type. So I followed the ad to its source, which was a pool - of typists. And I became a temp secretary. A male one, as it happens.
I still have that crumpled old bus ticket pinned to a corkboard in my home office. Every now and then I look at it, wistfully of course, and take it down. I then tell my kids the story of how you never know what Dame Fortune or Madam Fate can deliver when all around seems dark.
Well, not really. I threw the ticket away that day. It didn’t really change my life but I was soon on my way to making $8 an hour for typing, which was dead simple. But occasionally I do tell my kids to never give up on their dream of making an easy eight bits an hour as a typist, if that is a dream they might one day have.
But apart from being able to type, to be a great writer, or even a poor one, you need to have words – words coming out of you like angry bats from a cave, as one writer once wrote, or like blobs in a lava lamp swirling occasionally to the surface, in my case. Not wanting to give away all my secrets to great writing or anything, but as you type those words you have to remember to watch on thing – the word counter at the bottom of your screen. When it gets to 1000 you stop. Then, if you’re able to grasp some internet technology, which in my case has been likened to watching a dog walk on its hind legs, you can have yourself a blog.
And that is how the Tiger Father was born, coming into the world at 4.02am last October 19 weighing seven pounds six ounces and covered in slimy goop.

A dog operating a computer and standing on its hind legs,

Since its inception, the Tiger Father has, to be modest, created an enormous wave of excitement, having been named by Time Magazine as one of the biggest phenomena of 2011 along with the El Nino effect and the second coming of that beacon of hope and succour to millions, the iPad.
Or, to be more accurate, the Tiger Father has created some excitement around my compound, amongst friends who, for want of better words, are part of the day-to-day mundanity into which I breathe life with my florid prose. Often this excitement consists of them coming to me to ask not be put in this blog. Like the lady I saw hurling F-words at a guard that time, or that other housewife who is secretly planning to form a people’s army and overthrow China's Communist regime.
But mostly the talk turns to who will play us all in the movie which will surely follow the book which will come out of all this.
I must admit, funny as it might seem, I haven’t yet decided on me. But I’m thinking of either Tom Cruise, Daniel Craig with his shirt off, or Gollum off Lord of the Rings. There are some more obvious candidates. As referred to in a previous post, sexiest-man-alive Bradley Cooper will be offered the role as the man he looks like, my mate Bill from building three.

The author relaxing on holidays in Hebei province,
three hours north-west of Beijing.

But then there’s the age-old question of who would play English mum-of-two Helen from building 15 in the Hollywood portrayal of her life (as it relates to me). Meryl Streep, though once thought to specialise in Antipodeans after a dingo got her boibee, has been installed amongst the leading candidates for the role of Helen, having just drawn acclaim for playing a similar English woman, Margaret Thatcher. But instead, Helen points out she is more often compared to that other politically-charged actress, Susan Sarandon.
Of course discussion of this while waiting for the school bus one afternoon gave rise to one previously unconsidered dilemma. Sarandon is considered one of history’s finest film stars and was duly honoured with an Academy Award for playing a nun in 1990s zombie flick Dead Man Walking.
“But will she make my bum look big?” Helen worried aloud.
For variations on a theme, this may never be beaten. Usually it doesn’t apply to actresses but to jeans and pants, which it seems often have some sort of mystical, rear-view mirror type of quality, in that the object in them is not as large as it appears.
I have of course been in the firing line of this conundrum of physics before. You don’t get to your mid-forties, a veteran of several hard-fought relationship campaigns, without staring down the barrel of this question a few times and seeing a pensive woman staring at you from behind it. My own wife once asked if the jeans she was wearing made her butt look big. “No,” I said, “It’s all the cakes and pies you eat.” Great writers sometimes have to sacrifice themselves for lines like these, regardless of the consequences. Thus we suffer for our art.

People have often commented on the resemblance:
My friend Helen out shopping in Beijing ...

... and relaxing at home
in building 15.

The real Sarandon agreed to pose for
this exclusive picture for the Tiger
Father yesterday. However, she refused
to show her butt. It remains unclear,
therefore, whether she will be asked
to play Helen in the Tiger Father movie.

But look, all these words are for a purpose, they’re not just to fill a void you might otherwise have had for the past 10 minutes when you should have been working. They’re a roundabout way of announcing the Tiger Father is back from holidays, semi-refreshed and ready* to churn, plough and finesse his way through more writings on life, times and parenting in modern China, which is nowadays not the straight-jacketed pit of repression and censorship it probably seems to the outsider looking in from abroad. It is in fact quite a bit colder.
It is my fervent, humble hope that you enjoy this blog like nothing else you have ever enjoyed in your life. And if you’re into publishing books, or making blockbuster Hollywood movies, please let me know.

(*At least I will be ready after Chinese New Year holidays, which start this week. It’s this time of year that everything in China shuts down, including myself. Pretty close to Christmas, huh? You see there are upsides to living here. There will be a fresh post here on Thursday, but after that, well we'll see.)


Say what you like about staring out a window for several hours a day - we writers do it all the time. Sometimes it even pays off.

As previously mentioned, we moved house
over the holidays. This is now the scene from
the Tiger Father nerve centre - a marvelous
view, facing north, of what I like to call
"Building number nine in our compound".
So moved was I by its beauty the other day,
I thought I'd take a photo.

While whistling tunelessly and every
so often glancing back at my computer
to see if any prose had written itself, I
thought I'd zoom in for one of those
artsy shots of the side of a building.
I saw one recently at an art fair here. It
sold for thousands. So I thought if that
guy could do it, so could I. And that's
when I noticed my shot had a possibly
priceless quirk to it. Right in the centre
of the building, there was one air-con
unit which was out of line, all on its own.

And it had a bloke on it!

Now, I don't know how much you know
about OHS (Occupational Health &
Safety) guidelines but when it comes
to Chinese workplace practices, you
might say this nation is not so
preoccupied by them, and is instead
preoccupied more by the can-do spirit.

This worker was eight floors up when told
to get out there and fix the AC. At least
we hope he was. We hope he wasn't just
doing this for fun. To be fair the picture
shows he has a colleague there near him.
To be fair again, that colleague was
doing something else. I held my breath,
willing the man to get inside quickly.

Instead he was just turning around.

Our man continued to do his work free
of such encumbrances as a safety harness
or a rope. He's got a nice pair of leather
office shoes on. Gloves are clearly for
pansies. I checked the weather at that
point and it showed it was -8 celsius
with a wind chill of -13 (8 degrees
farenheit). At least he had a jumper on.

Oh my God. As they say in the workplace
safety manuals, it's squeaky bum time -
and not the time to demonstrate how to
ride a horse at full gallop. At this point the
man's life depends largely on the strength of
some electrical cables installed by
God-knows who and who knows when.

When you live high-rise in China, you also get used to
sights like this. There's no shortage of people who'll
take the job. Mind you, official figures show
79,552 people died in workplace accidents
in China in 2010 - an average of 218 per day. This
compared with a total of 171 workplace deaths in the UK
for the whole 12 months to March last year. When
population size is taken into account, China's workplace
death rate is more than 21 times higher than Britain's.

I showed a Chinese friend this famous picture.
He said: "So?"