Thursday, April 26, 2012


Here's a sign enticing, cajoling, positively
seducing people to use the toilet. Perhaps
you can polish a turd after all. Photo kindly
provided by Sandy Go.

If you're hungry enough to eat that, then eat it wherever
you like.

Speaking of food, Mum don't forget to pick up a box of
Wodi Collocation from the tinned foods section.
I've no idea either. And neither does Google Translate.

Strictly speaking, it's not cigarette
advertising. Should have seen the
look on the face of the motorbike
dealership boss when I told him his
new range of Marlbcro bikes came
with a typographical error as standard. 

Daughter Lani, hanging out at the base of
a 40-storey Beijing building recently.
But wait ... ! 

"This is the way we wash our building,
Wash our building, Wash our building."
It's ok - they're all wearing shoes.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012


The Chinese people are a very clever bunch who've come up with a lot of things. Rubbish at football and cricket, but very good at inventing inventions.

When we argue, my ethnic Chinese wife and I will usually conduct a reasoned, adult debate. We don’t like to waste energy on arguing, so when we do, you can bet it’s a weighty, important issue, usually: “Who is better – the Chinese, or my own downtrodden yet dogged species - white people?”

Famously, the Chinese invented paper, scissors, rock. In the 1400s, when the British were eating mud and tree bark off plates made of their own faeces, in Beijing they were having banquets with porcelain, silverware and roasted swan. That's true, I'll concede, before countering that the Chinese have been pretty quiet for a few centuries now and that, as we say in Australian football, titles aren't won in April.

Still, you can say what you like about the Chinese (well, you can if they're not the kind of Chinese who like to be known as “the government”). And I hate peddling racial stereotypes. All white people hate that.

But one thing that can't be denied is this: My God the Chinese can hear.

This isn’t a euphemism. It’s not metaphor or Biblical parable. I just mean their ears seem to work particularly well. On the scale of picking things up audibly, I've become convinced it goes: 1. Great big huge radio telescope; 2. Dog; 3. Chinese person.

Has anyone else noticed this? It might just be me. It might be another sure sign I've got too much time on my hands. But after six years in China I'm sure I’ve hit on what I would call a reasonably scientific finding. My wife the doctor wouldn’t call it that, for our idea of science differs. Still, I’m determined to take my conclusions from a sample survey of “quite a few” and get them published in a scientific periodical somewhere, like the New England Journal of Medicine, or Ripley’s Believe it or Not.

So many times I've been blown away by Chinese ears at work. Strolling on footpaths, I've seen people walking about 30 meters apart. The one next to me tries to catch the attention of the one ahead. Translated into English it wouldn't so much be "OI DAVE!!" but more like 'I say, Dave old thing ... "

I’ll think: “Who’s he talking to?” Then, up ahead I'll see Chinese Dave turn and say, equally quietly, “Mmm?”

I've been in department stores where my attendant needs to ask a distant co-worker something. "Xiao Wang how much is this calligraphy brush?" they'll say, in a voice fit for a bedtime story. Mouth agape, I'll look from one person to the other and calculate the distance.

"Come on - big loud voice now,” I’ll say. “There's no way in the world he’ll hear tha..." And then I’m cut off.

"Ten ninety nine!" comes the reply, again in a voice I can barely hear. It’s as if Xiao Wang has been resting his head on my attendant’s shoulder, and not on his own display counter. Seriously, these guys make Lindsay Wagner look like Beethoven.

Chinese people love to hear things easily.
Among their many inventions was the
world's first hearing aid, modeled here
by an ancient emperor.

Similarly, modern emperor Mao Zedong unveiled his own
"hearing enhancer" at the launch of the Great Leap
Forward as a reminder of Chinese ingenuity.

The Chinese propaganda machine soon swung
into action, with posters like these encouraging
people to look after their ears in the workplace.
The caption reads: "Stick two fingers up to
bad hearing!"

Revolutionary hero Lei Feng models
his own contribution to the cause -
The Bat Hat.

In looking for reasons there are a few hypotheses to consider.

Are the Chinese compensating for other senses which may be less sharp? Discuss.

Consider how a blind person develops great touch, or how someone who likes Michael Bolton could still be a good dresser. The Chinese are very good at hearing, not very good at seeing. It’s true the majority wear glasses, although the bucktooth thing is for cartoons only. Still, it’s not like they’re blind blind.

When you’re having a discussion with a Chinese person, they’ll usually take a firm position. Most often, this position is about five centimetres away from your ear. Which makes me wonder: Is spatial awareness also a deficient sense to be compensated for with strong hearing?

Sometimes you could wonder whether this relates to the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain that controls spatial awareness. There was once a test conducted on London cab drivers which found that because of their map-like knowledge of the city’s map-like road system, on average their hippocampus had grown to take up a larger-than-usual part of the brain, leaving scant room for the parts controlling matters like cheerfulness, racial tolerance, or knowing when to shut up. But they could get around.

Does poor spatial awareness (see other chapters on The Hippocampus; Cognitive Function and Reverse Parking), merely relate to brain parts? Or is it nurture? Discuss.

With 1.3 billion Chinese in the country, their idea of personal space may differ to the average Australian. I’m proud to say my country holds the silver medal in population density, with three people per square kilometre! We were only beaten by the lonely Mongolians with 1.7, but have vowed to go one better next time.

Or is the Chinese ear different to the Caucasian ear? You’ll find, if you look, more fast-twitch fibres in black people than white people, which helps explain why the former generally run faster. Chinese people were given one less fold of skin on the eyelid than white people. Were they compensated by getting an extra fold in the ear which we don’t yet know about? Investigate, and then discuss.

A Chinese ear, yesterday, attached to the head of our maid
Cui Ayi.

And the author's own white ear. See? Told you they were

Ninety-two and still got his own ears!

Perhaps it’s evolutionary. When the British got here, they found the locals all spoke in a barely discernible voice, which they called “Chinese whispers”. Maybe, over the millennia, the Chinese ear grew stronger to pick this up.

Or is it just care and attention?

When I started my first China stint in 1995, I met the man who was to become my faithful interpreter, Ai Ping. I grew to know him as Love Bottle. “Ai” means “love”, and “ping” means “bottle”. After a while he very politely told me his name didn’t mean Love Bottle if you pronounced the tones correctly. I can’t remember what it was, but it didn’t sound half as good. Still, we continued our relationship nonetheless.

In any event the day we met I was thrilled to see he had a long pinky fingernail. I was a guitar player back then. Many guitarists grow a long nail for plucking. Excitedly, I thought my first Chinese acquaintance and I might bridge cultural divides by "getting down" through the international language of music.

I then noticed lots of people had similar nails. Had I landed in a nation of guitar players? Contrary to expectations, did this ancient place rock? And if so, did it rock particularly hard?

A few days later I raised the subject.
"Ai Ping - You play the guitar!?" I beamed.
"Your finger nail there ..."
"Oh, this?" he said, holding the digit up beside his head. "This is for cleaning my ear." He put his left nail in and he shook it all about.

I have a high regard for clean ears. Mrs Doctor always chides me for sticking cotton buds into mine, even though my dad uses car keys. But still Ai Ping had left me deflated. He showed me he had a long pinkynail on the other hand as well. I noticed that so did everyone else. This scotched the guitar theory, but it did suggest clean ears. So maybe that’s it?

Another Chinese ear, this time with needles
sticking into it. This is an ancient form of
Chinese medicine known as "sticking
needles in the ear".

It leaves the victim open to
scorn and ridicule from people
like myself for having to wear
little band-aids in their ears.

 Here is another form of ear obsession called
"ear candling". Either that or she should have
stopped after the last joint.

This Beijing man demonstrates another method of
ear upkeep which is widely practiced in China.
And my wife worries about cotton buds? 

Even their pigs have good ears. A lot of Chinese believe
that if you are ailing in a certain body part, you should
eat an animal version of that body part.

In Australia, "pigs' ears" is rhyming slang for "beers". But
in China, it's not.

And if you have problem feet ...

A group of Chinese politicians seen relying on
their ears during a rousing speech at the National
People's Congress.

The thing that stuck with me most from Wild Swans, Jung Chang’s chronicling of a life of upheaval and famine under Mao Zedong, was her assertion that Chinese people just love having their ears tickled, as if they were a nation of cats. If we are to believe her, and I don’t after testing this on the street this morning, then maybe the answer lies in physical massaging from an early age? Investigate, discuss and then go to your room.

On the phone it's different. There's lots of shouting going on. In the often quirky Chinese language, the phone is called the dian hua, or the "electric talk", but if you sit beside enough phone talkers, you'd think it should be the dian tingde shengzi, or “electric can and string”.

But face-to-face, pound-for-pound, if I ever want to lend some ears I’ll make sure they’re Chinese ones. For it’s a little known fact that ears are a strength of this Communist country. According to one old saying, even the walls have them!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


In one of his most inspired moments, Morrissey, that most miserable of British sods who used to front the band The Smiths - wrote the following:

It’s so easy to laugh, it’s so easy to hate,
It takes strength to be gentle and kind.

It’s one of my favourite lines, and one I like to quote to my daughters. At the same time it’s one I don’t apply to myself exactly all the time in the writing of this blog. This is what I like to call a “double standard”.

Yes it’s easy to poke fun at Beijing. If it were hard, no doubt I wouldn’t do it. For some other lines I quote to my daughters include –

Never do today what you can put off till tomorrow.


If at first you don’t succeed, lie on the couch and watch telly.

China can be a challenging place for a westerner. But thankfully, lots of things happen here to make you smile, or laugh out loud, and I try to document some of them. I don’t think I’m ever guilty of being churlish, petty or nasty in trying to see the funny side, but I do like to call a spade a spade.

And right now, to dish out some credit, the spade is looking quite lovely. For finally it is spring!

Yes, that most wondrous season is here, or in Beijing’s case, those four or five days between freezing cold and boiling hot when the blossoms come out to give Kublai Khan’s old home town a makeover. And then we get a big thunderstorm like we did last night to wash and blow them all away. But nomatter, for a few days there it was a brilliant patchwork of colour. Let’s have a look shall we? Hmmm?

There - see the blossoms?

That's enough of that mushy nonsense. Now here's some other signs I saw on my walk.

Do NOT walk through this park if you're
acutely paranoid ...

... or prone to self-loathing.

Back to the blossoms. They really are spectacular. So
hard to imagine during the long, bleak winter.

Just beautiful.

Blossoms, willows, bridge,
reflection, soldiers. The lot!

Looks like an ad for God's sake!

These ones were out too, though to be fair,
they are plastic.

Then there were these blossoms by a canal, which
reminded me - Beijing is also a great place if
you like wire.

Now I don't mean to highlight a downside, but perhaps
some of Beijing's wiring could be fixed up a little bit?
Just so it's maybe not so unsightly, or life-threatening?
 I'm no expert, on anything, but my dad the electricity
man says this is actually a phone line, so kids won't
get shocked if they want to play skipping games
with it. But my wife the doctor says it is
a strangulation hazard.

I'm not sure why but in Beijing, if your piece of wire is
a bit long, the trick is to just coil it up till it's the right
length. I used to think this arrangement beside the
Golden Pineapple youth hostel was one that would
draw my dad's most bitter professional scorn.

But then I saw this one. Dad says that
in the trade, the technical name for it
is "a rat's nest".

Whereas this is what's  known as
"a friggin dog's breakfast".

This looks quite neat really in comparison
to some others. To think someone actually
knows where all these wires go ... is just
way too optimistic.
That yellow bit is not a short-circuiting
captured on film but is in fact the sun,
sweetly filtered by some of the city's
distinctive haze.

Here the workers were getting creative,
with a production sympathetic to its
Chinesey surrounds. I think they were
attempting one of these ...

It's a fancy little Chinese knot called a
 Zhongguo Jie, which means, err,
a "Chinese knot".

I'm thinking I could get rich if I could
just import the only thing they don't
seem to make in this country -

This one I call Pig Pen from Peanuts.
It's not all wire though.

And at times this merging of with nature can look
almost bucolic.

This looks like an unfolding tragedy. But no,
Dad says it's another phone line. I noticed
this a week ago and when I went back
yesterday it was still there. So maybe
it's meant to be like that. If you pick up
the dangling end and hold it to your ear
you can still hear Mrs Zhou going on about
the woman from downstairs.

My study of old Beijing: An alleyway
and some bikes. A wire runs through it.

Monday, April 16, 2012


This week the Tiger Father introduces a new segment exploring the highlights of 5000 years of Asian culture and civilisation. Today we start with the mystical, often misunderstood phenomena best known to millions of devotees around the world by its two-word English name - Hello Kitty.
The Japanese-born cat was thought to have been dying a death a few years ago. In 2002, she lost her place as the top-grossing character in Japan. In 2010 she was written off as “weak” by no less a judge of soft, fluffy mute kittens as the New York Times.
But at an age when most cutesy-wutesy little things are being thrown on the scrapheap, Kitty, 38, has made a comeback thanks to China’s economic boom. Such is her popularity in China, sometimes even among children aged under 30, that China's first Hello Kitty restaurant has opened in Beijing. Before you laugh or gasp in amazement, I should point out there is an entire Hello Kitty hotel in Taiwan. And a Hello Kitty hospital. For grown-ups. In fact, it's a maternity hospital. Thousands of children have already come into the world there surrounded by Kitty paraphernalia, no doubt counting themselves lucky to have been born with a mouth.
We may end up there at another time. But I doubt it. Meanwhile here’s the restaurant.
(* Warning: The following pictorial feature should NOT be viewed by anyone with a doctor-certified affliction involving the colour pink.)

I did warn you. There's more pink here than in
Barbara Cartland's wardrobe.

DON'T WEAR: Orange or brown.
DO WEAR: Sunglasses.

Lani and her mum pose by an only somewhat pink
balloon display. No, I'm only joking. It's very pink.

 And nor is that the girls' mum, but a suitably-attired
waitress. This is the entrance of the Hello Kitty
restaurant, in the Shimao shopping
complex in the suburb of San Li Tun.

The male staff will be happy they get to wear more
butch outfits than the waitresses. But only just.

The restaurant's southern wall, featuring chandeliers and
depictions of various stages of Kitty's life, including
the wedding shot at right, although we're not sure what
kind of weirdness is going on here, given that Kitty's
creators say she is meant to be in grade 3 at school.

While the girls thought the whole thing was fantastic, I was prepared for the worst, wondering what sort of Kitty-shaped food and drink I was in for. However, I must say it was pretty good. I was able to have New Zealand lamb cutlets, which were delicious, and could even wash them down with some wine, which wasn't pink champagne but Australian merlot. The kids, meanwhile, got themselves some pink strawberry sodas and a meal of fish and chips, which was shaped like fish and chips.
Apart from the decor and uniforms, Hello Kitty wasn't really rammed down our throats. The music, however, was something you might associate with the little cute kitty - various tunes played in the single-note "tinky tink" style that made you think you were dining in a child's jewelry box. But overall, the food was fine, reasonably priced, and healthy.

They're happy because they're staring at two H. Kitty
cheesecakes. And pink drinks with straws bent like
lovehearts. OK, there was a little cheesiness.

The girls weren't so happy, however, about the weirdest
thing on offer - the raw onion slices that came with
their fish and chips.

Dad's lamb, which was delicious, although the carrot
and zucchini tasted a bit kitteny.

The plates remind you where you are, which is useful
if you have a really short memory.

A place to wash hands, for even in
Kittyland, there are germs.

While conducting my Hello Kitty research, I also came across these photos on of all the merchandise you may or may not need.

For the person who has everything, the Hello Kitty
semi-automatic rifle. Not sure if this is official HK

Hello Kitty condoms ...

... and convenient condom carry-case.

When you don't want to use condoms any more, perhaps
try the Hello Kitty wedding ...

... where you could wear one of these!

As for modes of transport, there's the Hello Kitty caravan ...

... and I found this hard-looking black bike in my
apartment compound.

There are many kinds of Hello Kitty cars, some more sporty
than this Hungarian model.

And there's this Hello Kitty passenger jet, of course from
Taiwan. But wait! Is that Kitty's arch-rival Miffy also on
the plane? No, it's Kitty's rabbit friend Cathy. 

Thinking really hard now, if you're somewhat obsessed,
you could make your eyes look like this ...

... and your teeth look like this, though
I'm not sure who's going to be able to
see this demonstration of devotion.

Are you like me and can't get enough of Hello Kitty? Well here's a "lucky eight" bunch of facts about the little white Japanese bobtail!

1. Hello Kitty was conceived in 1974 by the Sanrio company in Japan. Her creators chose to nominate November 1 as her birthday, a gutsy marketing move considering this clashes with Christian celebrations for All Saints' Day. Rumours have long circulated that this was also a secret homage to porn king Larry Flynt and Rick Allen, the one-armed drummer from Def Leppard, who share the same birthday.

2. Sanrio decided that since many of their characters were set in the US, they would make London Kitty's home, although they did not specify how she got there from Japan, what sort of visa she has, and which part of London she lives in. She is, however, known to support Arsenal.

3. Kitty's full name is Kitty White. She has parents in George and Mary, and - who knew? - a twin sister! She's called Mimmy and must be the most embittered twin in history, given the attention paid to Kitty. The question of who emerged from Mary's womb first is a zealously kept secret, although my money's on Kitty.

4. To use the old-fashioned, politically incorrect term, Kitty is 'dumb'. She has no mouth and so can not speak.

5. To use the other meaning of the same old-fashioned, politically incorrect term, Kitty is also 'dumb'. She has been in grade three at school since 1974.

6. In 2008, Japan named Hello Kitty its official tourism ambassador to China and Hong Kong. This was criticised by some as she was the first fictional character appointed to the role. It was considered a coup by others since Kitty had said at the height of her fame that she wouldn't get out of bed for anything less than $10,000 a day. She said it through a spokesman. After writing it down, OK?

7. Any controversy about Kitty didn't put the United Nations off. In 2007 she was appointed a UNICEF Special Friend of Children. The fact she doesn't have a mouth was a major factor in the decision, since she can not be embroiled in controversy for uttering an infamous public gaffe, unlike famous sportsmen, singers, or the Duke of Edinburgh. 

8. Kitty and Miffy are indeed enemies who really do hate each other. Miffy's Dutch creator Dick Bruna has suggested the kitten is styled on the bunny he conceived in 1955. The two sides even went to court over Kitty's friend Cathy, who looks even more like Miffy since she actually is a rabbit. Meanwhile the creator of a Belgian cat called Musti says his was the inspiration for both Miffy and Kitty.

From the top: Kitty,
Cathy, Miffy and
Musti. Only one
thing is clear: We
need some more
imaginative names.