Wednesday, February 29, 2012

BUSINESS NEWS: IKEA TO BECOME SLEEPING PARTNER

Retail giant Ikea is set to make an unprecedented departure from its core business as a furniture seller by branching into a new line in sleep centres.
The company has a construction target of one, and it will be built right next to its Beijing store.
Bedding analysts estimate Ikea misses out on some 2.5 billion guilders a year in bed sales from its Beijing outlet – it’s biggest in the world - because when customers go to buy a bed there’s always someone sleeping on it.
Rather than have staff ask them to leave, or putting up a sign saying “Oh sorry did you think it was OK to fall asleep on beds in furniture stores?” the company has come up with a radical approach.
“We’ve got some spare land next to our Beijing store so we’re going to turn it into the world’s biggest bed,” said group chairman Dave Ikea.
“These people aren’t freaks. They’re not outcasts. They just need to sleep.
“Rather than turn them away we want to reach out and help them – from the mildly dozy, to the quite tired, to the absolutely knackered.”


Crouching Tiger, Sleeping Sleeper. The scene at Ikea last
Saturday. They really should try this at home.

Phase one of the plan comprises building a large shed to house 2000 beds split into three categories tailored to Chinese tastes - “granite”, “diamond” and “bloody hell”.
Upon arrival at the blue and gold hell, Ikea customers will then be channeled like sheep into relevant zones after taking one of three tickets – “Wanting to buy furniture”, “Pretending to buy furniture but just wanting some sleep”, and “Just here for the cheap hot dogs”.

This man was back again, catching some
shut-eye in the "bedding spill-over section".
 He had the foresight to visit the
pillow department first.

In keeping with Ikea’s wildly successful formula, the sleep centre will be virtually impossible to get out of once customers are inside. With carefully selected music, lighting and lay-out, patrons will quickly become disoriented, confused and angry.
“By this stage they’ll be in need of a good lie-down,” Ikea said.
A support group for Beijing’s ubiquitous sleepers, Dormeurs sans Frontières, was unavailable for comment yesterday as they were all asleep.

Health officials were last week called to this
KFC outlet after four in five patrons were
found slumped over their tables. But then
someone remembered this was Beijing.
While China's economy has been showing
signs of slowing, a leading analyst yesterday
predicted a boom in output from the third
quarter of 2014, by which time the nation's
massive workforce "should really have had
enough sleep".

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

BY ANY OTHER NAME ...

Ever wondered about the history of rubbing people's feet?
Or what techniques may have evolved in foot massaging
down the years, or obstacles the industry may have
had to overcome from time to time?
Well don't come here. It's a brothel.
You have to give points for the imaginative name though.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

SHOPPING CAN BE FUN! NO, REALLY.

Of all the things to do in Beijing, and it’s no exaggeration to say there are precisely three, one of the most fun is shopping.
Who’da thunk?
In my single days, I was like most men. I’d view shopping with as much relish as an invasive STD test, or a talk about the relationship. But how things can change when you and that special someone enter into the binds of a life together in that ancient institution we call China.
All they had to do was make shopping a competitive sport and I was there. Sometimes there’s even body contact.
For in China, shopping usually has two distinct phases. Item selection is just the pre-game entertainment. After that, you lock horns with the vendor to determine how much you’ll pay in the great game of bargaining.
Most things are open to negotiation, from the obvious clothes, toys, electronics, fruit and veg, to spectacles and parking fees.
And at this late stage I have morphed, David Bowie like, into a new persona. I am the über-haggler, the Maestro of Miserliness, the Sultan of Scrooge, the Behemoth of the Bargain. Unsuspecting vendors really don’t want to mess with me. They shudder when I approach.

One of the busier markets in Beijing, set up primarily
with foreigners in mind. To make us feel welcome, it's
called 'Alien's Street'.

Inside, it's not as roomy as it looks on the outside. In fact it's
not as roomy as some rabbit warrens I've been in ...


... but you'll find everything you need, from mannequins to
hair ties, kitchen tools and the ubiquitous sheer polyester
socks. Sock pushers lurk on every corner. Never, ever buy
them, unless you want a sauna for your feet.

Underwear, hair bands, bath taps ...

Quote me any price for any thing and you’ll get the same response: I got it cheaper.
My wife Stef hates it. I don’t want to sound harsh but you could call her a disgrace to the entire Chinese race. She couldn’t bargain her way out of a wet paper bag. Left by herself, it’s not unknown for the price to actually go up, and our sweet little window of “couple time” at the markets ends with me dragging her away with my hand over her mouth.
She says she hates confrontation. You could have fooled me. Around the house she seems to love the stuff, like that time I forgot to book those plane tickets, or the morning when I suddenly took ill. OK, I’d been drinking the night before. OK, I was driving us on a Sydney freeway. OK, it was her first Mother’s Day. Still, mustn’t grumble I always say, especially since I had the presence of mind to blame our nine-month-old when we got to the car wash.
In fairness, Stef may be at a disadvantage compared to me on two counts: 1. She’s a woman. (It’s not what it looks like/I can explain); 2. She’s an overseas Chinese. Vendors, 90 per cent of whom are women, do seem to reserve a particular disdain for her, as if she’s looking down her nose at her yokel cousins, or should be happy to use her comparative wealth to support her ethnicity as a whole.
Stef may also dread haggling because as a doctor she usually sets the agenda.
In the surgery: “Will you do what I say to cure this disease?” “Why yes, doctor. I’ll take the pills, drink lots of fluids and get some rest. Thank you!”
At the market: “Will you take 50 yuan for this shirt?” “Go stuff yourself and get out of my sight, spawn of Satan.” As a journalist, if I'm addressed like this it counts as a fairly good day.

Meanwhile at our local market, Ya Show, it's a touch busier.
As the little blue flag in the distance shows, people actually
bring tour groups here - to go shopping on their holidays.
Goods on sale in markets like these usually fall into three
categories: fake goods; recently-fallen-off-the-back-of-a-truck
goods, and goods which would have made it to other
countries but for unfortunate manufacturing flaws, like
bad spelling.

You really can get everything.

Usually a good way around any communication barrier is to
bring out the calculator. This lets the shopper work out, to
the nearest decimal point, exactly how badly they're being
ripped off. Vendors often get physical. I've been dragged by
the arm into stalls before.

"Buy the shoes or it's the back of my hand!"

It’s got to the point where Stef would prefer to go into a proper store, with price tags and everything, and pay what it says for avoiding argument’s sake. (Boring, right? These retail hell holes of course hold even less appeal for me than before, considering what sport lies beyond their gates).
She says bargaining has taken the fun out of shopping. I say that for the first time in 45 years it has put an ounce of enjoyment into it. With gunfights in the streets now banned, it’s the nearest a 21st century man can come to walking away blowing the smoke off his pistol.
Like a title fight, I love the game – the introductions, the preamble, the feeling each other out, the battle of wits, the use of the gab, the parry and thrust, the evolving struggle and finally, the execution. For once the chase and the kill reward in equal measure.
Perhaps it’s because unlike Stef, I have no shame. I figure the worst that can happen is they can say no. Usually they don’t. They need the money.
What I also have going for me is a penis. This rarely gets tabled in negotiations, mind you. What I mean is I am a man. Men don’t care that much, especially this one. My favourite clothing label is the Jeep Car Company.
Men can take something or not. We’ll pick an item, maybe sniff it, nonchalantly suggest a price and shrug and depart if we don’t get it. Suddenly vendors go low.
Women go over clothes like they’re looking for anthrax. They’ll feel something, hold it up to the light, pull at the seams, check the buttons and zippers, try to stretch it, imagine it alongside other colours, and sometimes even try it on.
If it’s kids’ clothes, I might as well sit down. My wife pictures how it might look on our daughter, or on her niece, or her old neighbour’s niece’s daughter as she plans what presents to dish out on our next holiday (“Chinese mothers and presents” – a topic for another day). She might then chase some frightened child to hold it up to them because they’re a similar size to our Lani.
Obviously, the process takes bloody hours. Hours I will never get back. Spent shopping. Accumulating items. Saying goodbye to money for good. At least when I hand over $20 to bet on a horse I know I might see it again.

Nothing dodgy going on here.

Or here. 


Or here. Rest assured these are all officially licensed
products. You've heard of AB Milan, right?

By the time Stef has decided she wants the thing, she’s invested so much time in it that the vendor knows she’s really going to want to walk away with it, otherwise what sort of accumulator is she? Thus, the price stays high. Well it would if she didn’t bring me in for the negotiation part, like some hired thug who’s been sitting silently waiting for the trouble to start.
I start by telling vendors they should know two things: One, I’m a local. I know what things cost. Two, I’m extremely ‘kuo men’ (wonderful Beijing slang for stingy, meaning “scratch the door”. It stems from a tale of the poor scraping gold leaf from a temple entrance).
Some shoppers start at half of what the vendor asks, some go for 75 per cent. My wife usually starts at 100 per cent. I usually start at about 20 per cent and use several arguments to prove this reasonable:
“You and I know this shouldn’t be more than 50 kuai.”
“I bought one last week for 40.”
“I know you only bought it wholesale for about two.”
“In fact it’s worthless anywhere else. It says ‘Mommy Hilfiger!’”
“After me, there’ll be some dumb tourist along who’ll give you 400.”
“You look very pretty today.”
That last one’s a good one. Shopping is also the only place I’m allowed to flirt. Shamelessly. Sometimes with my wife right there. I admit, a big bald 45-year-old married father flirting with a 20-year-old Chinese girl isn’t exactly Wuthering Heights. It may just be the creepiest scenario since Harold and Maude. But after cold hard cash, prettiness is China’s most valued commodity. (The most common greeting for a young woman is not “Miss” or “Young lady” but “Mei nu”, which comes out in a sentence as “Excuse me pretty girl … “)
Women vendors get flustered and giggly when I pull the flattery out of my arsenal. It’s one of several tools to knock the opposition off their plan in this game of retail chess. They forget the script. Soon I have an item in my hand, I’m edging away, talking fast and handing them 20 when they’d demanded 200. They know they’re not in the argument any more and that they actually have got enough money.
“Bam!” I say. “That just happened! I’m that guy!”
I never try to buy from male vendors. Obviously.
Once I had to buy two cashmere jumpers. “I should tell you,” I said to the girl, “these are not for me, they’re not for my wife, they’re not for my mother. These are for the mother of a friend in Australia. And he’s a guy. So I really really don’t care. Fifty kuai each.” She smiled and handed them over.

George Bush visits Beijing's famous Silk Market during
the 2008 Olympics. Thinking he was still President and
conducting another intellectual property rights visit, most
vendors fled for the exits.

My all-time favourite, showcasing all facets of the game, was buying two pairs of jeans once. I had my little girls in a pram. The market girl gushed at how cute they were, how nice I obviously was, and just how sweet the scene was overall. She gave the girls lollies, and asked if she could help by selling me jeans.
I chose two, which she said would cost 500 kuai (about $US80). I went behind the change curtain saying 150 each. She laughed as she tickled my children, saying I’d really need to part with 500, and that 300 was “really too low, sir”. I thought I’d have some fun and emerged saying I’d actually meant 150 ($24) for the two, making it clear I’d not go a cent higher.
Her face changed in a blink. “What?!”
“You know it’s enough,” I said. “One fifty kuai or no kuai – take your pick.”
She feigned shock, horror, betrayal. The insults flew. “You tightarse!” she hissed. “If I knew you were like this I’d never have talked to you!”
“Yeah yeah - don’t like me now, do you?” I smiled, offering my money. “Don’t like my kids much any more, do you?”
She snatched the cash, shooed me away like a skinny dog and told me never to darken her door again. It’s the B-grade acting that makes it such fun. Minutes later an American tourist will have given her 700 for the same things.
People get intoxicated with markets, being able haggle for what back home they could never haggle for. It’s easy to forget the thing could be bought cheaper back home.

The worst place in the world: our children's shoe stall at
Ya Show market. Trips here can take days. You wait while
the vendor finds the second shoe, or a bigger pair,
or a smaller pair, or a different coloured pair, or while my
daughter argues with her mother over sparkly/non sparkly,
or while our two daughters argue over the same shoe.
Sometimes my wife has ruined an entire Sunday lunch simply
by saying at the end of it: "We need to buy shoes for the
girls". She could end lunch by saying "I'm having an affair"
and I wouldn't shudder nearly as much.

Bargaining doesn’t always go my way. I use extra long bootlaces, but could find only one woman selling them. She knew I needed them because A) I wear big boots for an injured ankle and B) The ones she kept selling me kept breaking. She had me. Thus I had to pay more for a pair of bootlaces than I did for a winter jacket (I finally brought loads back from Australia).
And when buying a suitcase once I was forced into some heated haggling with a woman who eventually, very begrudgingly, took my 300 kuai.
“Stop acting,” I said. “You know it should only have been 200.”
“Oh really?” she chirped. “I sold one this morning for a hundred.”


NOTE: Did you notice – that piece was quite long? Well here at The Tiger Father, the boss has gone mad! Last Thursday, owing to the twin pressures of nursing a sick child and having a jackhammer operating two metres above my head, I brought you not many words at all. So today we gave you, at no extra charge, a BONUS WORD OFFER, with an extra three- or four-hundred thrown in for nothing.  I’d have edited it down but my wife instructed me to watch the Oscars and report on the frocks. “One red one, one green one, two black ones …”

Thursday, February 23, 2012

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SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING: Sitting beside a Beijing ring road for long periods of time while getting your hair cut could really stuff your lungs. Mind you they say it’s better than strenuous activity. Oh look, I shouldn’t worry, you could get hit by a bus tomorrow. In fact if you get your hair cut on a footpath, I’d be more worried about that quite frankly.

SPOTTED ...

... while out glasses shopping. Trendy Chinese-made
sunglasses every bit as glamorous as California, only one
syllable better. Customers have often been known to
walk out with a new pair of sunglasses on their face
and a Beach Boys song stuck in their head.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

ARTS & CRAFTS - PICTORIAL SPECIAL

So, you want to mummify your cardboard robot and have it guarded by a team of dough-people with rambutan skins on their heads? Here’s what you do …


1. Four testicles in a bowl, yesterday.
 No, they’re actually rambutans. Know what they are?
 If not, I can help by revealing that they’re a weird sort
 of fruit. When I was a lad, fine old British-style apples
and peaches were good enough for us. But my wife,
being born in Malaysia, was weaned on this sort of stuff.
If you weren’t sure, don’t feel bad. In a Sydney
 supermarket one time, a pesky red-headed child stopped
 to examine some and asked his harried mother what
 they were. When she shrugged I helpfully said they
 were rambutans. “Leave them alone,” the mother snapped
 to her boy. “They’ve got rum in them.”
That's as true as I sit here today.



It was the fruit that actually provided the impetus for this whole project during dessert recently when one of us, and it may well have been my daughters or my wife, found himself pondering some rambutans for a long time before reaching a literally breathtaking realisation: “THESE SKINS WOULD MAKE GREAT HEADS OF HAIR ON SOME LITTLE DOLL THINGS!” I shouted.

Granted, as a ‘eureka’ moment it was less profitable than some others. But it’s rare that I feel like Archimedes in his bathtub, so I still took the chance to run around in the nude for a while like he did. Oh to be an eccentric ancient Greek mathematician, eh readers?

From there, the whole idea just snowballed, really. What can I say? It was six-year-old Lani who suggested the dolls could make guards. We had just been to London so perhaps she thought the skins would resemble the bear-fur hats of the Grenadier guards. I still thought they looked like an unruly head of hair, or a hat the Queen might wear to Australia in the sixties. But I was big about it and we went with 'guards'. I do want to stress, however, that none of this would have happened if not for me.

Then it was a question of who or what would they guard? The girls at that time were just crazy for embalmed human remains. We'd just visited the British Museum, so Lani suggested our forces could guard a mummy. When I said we had no Egyptian dead people in the house Lani spoke the kind of sentence that makes me love being a stay-home dad, one I'd not heard enough in 20 years of working in busy newsrooms:

“Let’s mummify our robot!”

2. He, Robot.
 While really really bored once,
and trying to enforce a strict six-hours-
a-day TV limit, I suggested to the girls we
build a robot. Surprisingly, they jumped at
the chance, perhaps because I assured them
it would actually work. With the usual
suspects from a raid on the craft box -
toilet rolls, egg cartons, other boxes
which looked more like torsos and heads -
our beautiful creature came sort of to life.
We stuck it together with loads of homemade
papier mache. This gets really gooey and
messy and is thus heaps of fun. Remember
the four main ingredients: paper, flour, water
and a maid to clean up. Once it was dry, the
girls painted the robot for a finished look
which was, I can say completely objectively,
utterly, utterly bizarre. Noone's ever been sure
if he has four eyes or two and a couple of rosy-red
cheeks from applying too much rouge. Here he is
cooling his heels backstage before his big makeover
with his constant companion, our robot cat
(factory-built). It's really cute how these two
hang together. In truth, Robot was probably
just glad to be down from the top of the
clothes dryer, where he'd been for about a
year since precisely the day we made him.
It sounds like I'm playing the dangerous
game of attaching a human personality to
a cardboard robot, I know. But they're
like plants - the more you talk to them, the
more personality they have. Admittedly, I
hardly ever spoke to him, but it is true
that when you're a stay-at-home
parent it's possible to go completely
mental.

3. We needed dolls, and fast. Our real ones were either too
big or too nice to have their hair spoiled by rambutan juice.
So I summoned another brainwave and decided to bake
some. Using more flour, which I hear is sometimes used
for eating, and some water, we rolled up bespoke balls of
dough to fit into the halved rambutan shells. If you have
just an ordinary, household oven, you can bake them for
10 or so minutes. I even remembered to leave them soft on
the inside, the better for mounting them on ice-cream sticks.
Years from now we will look back on these five minutes
as my "golden age" of parenting.

SERIOUS TIP: Kids shouldn't burn themselves on hot ovens.

Also, I said 'if you have an oven' to sound funny, but it should be remembered it's actually not a given in Chinese homes, as touched on in my previous oven-related post Cakes From The Grave.

4. Mummifying Robot. Out came the toilet roll again, this
time showing its versatility by being full. Was there ever
a better craft invention? 1st Prize: Toilet rolls. 2nd: Ice-
cream sticks. 3rd: Pipe cleaners (Did you know these
were once used to clean pipes!)
Lani made her doctor
mother proud by insisting on a surgical mask for this
procedure. Another important point to remember
is since you might take photos of this to splash all
over the internet, ensure your home is really tidy.

5. Evie also wanted a surgical mask. It was fun
until someone lost an eye.

6. "We're having one of those mummify-your-robot
parties. Want to come round?"

7. The kids made sure they used the tape measure. I still
have no idea why.

At this point, our Ayi (maid) wandered in. She’s a 50-year-old Chinese woman. She looked at the kids, playing with their toilet rolls and wearing their masks while performing some sort of surgery on a possibly transvestite robot. She’d been bemused enough that we hung onto our old carboard rolls and boxes. The Chinese generally have a theory that once you’ve used something you throw it out. I include my wife in this category. I, however, zealously keep an enormous box of junk for occasions just like this. My wife and our Ayi sometimes call me a hoarder, but I always say that just because something's old, used and is now rubbish, doesn't mean we should throw it out. That we were now mummifying this assemblage of junk was something else for Ayi to wrap her head around. She looked at us quietly and walked away.

8. Time to put the faces on the guards. To make him look
nasty, drawing directly from my schoolboy graffiti training,
I gave this one fangs.

9. The cap fits! Is it hair? Or is it bear? It doesn't really
matter. You just wouldn't mess with him, would you?

10. Lani gave this one pink glasses and lipstick, for what's
a guard without lipstick?

11. When you bake these doughboys, an unplanned feature
is the little creases that appear as the dough opens up. I
decided to use this one as a part as I drew some hair. Lani
then unwittingly deployed another key plank of the schoolboy
graffiti manual by adding a moustache and ...

12. ... oh dear. OK now we had a guard who looked like Hitler.
This led to all sorts of questions, such as "Daddy, what's a reich?"
 I must confess here that I'd neglected to have that
"Nazi danger" talk with the girls. I'd never really thought
it necessary. But then I became a bit disconcerted when
Lani insisted this fellow should be the guards' leader. And
then I thought back to a couple of other things that had stuck
in my mind about our first-born from earlier on ...

13. ... like this.

14. ... and this.

Still, I decided to avoid the subject, particularly since our Hitler was in fact smiling.

We continued on diligently but found our guards couldn't stand up by themselves. We figured we'd need sentry towers for them to be propped in. Again, the versatility of toilet rolls came to the fore.

15. The German dough machine.

16. Adough Hitler (right), his smiling right-hand henchman,
and another guard in the background, possibly someone's
aunty.

17. With a face and some harrowing blood
streaks added, C3P Tutankhamun was complete.
It was time for some pictures. Good to see the
age-old staple of Martian antennae in photos
continues through the generations, remaining
hilarious on people and mummified robots alike ...

18 ... although by this stage the girls were a bit over it and
it was hard to get them to sit still, hence photos like this.

19. And this.

20. And I've got no idea what they were attempting here.

So there it was. Our mummified robot/German guards with rambutan-capped dough heads was declared an unqualified arts-and-crafts triumph. It held pride of place on our dining table - amongst schoolbags, clothes, bits of paper, musical instruments, dishes, a stick, things waiting to be fixed, and just stuff - for almost a day before being thrown in the bin. That seems a little sad but a lot of afficionados will tell you that its fleeting nature is part of the beauty of this type of thing.

We celebrated long into the night.

* NEXT WEEK: How to best make use of a durian casing while only spiking a handful of holes in yourself and without stinking the house out unbearably.