Wednesday, May 30, 2012


Today, time to pay homage to a trailblazer of the Beijing blog world. This is a piece by Henry Breimhurst from 2007 on his blog So I'm Going To China. The topic he examines is one known and feared by all in Beijing - the seemingly simple yet usually infuriating thing we like to call "the left turn".

It's a wonderful representation of a manoeuvre which says much about why Beijing's traffic operates as it does. The humble left turn is truly a telling example of how a society of 1.3 billion people can function like a well-oiled machine, governed by a principle of selflessness for the greater good. Or something.

For the record I sat and passed my Chinese driving test last year (OK, I sat and failed it too, so I've seen both sides). Thus I am one of the few keepers of the knowledge that, strange as it seems, cars turning left across oncoming traffic DO NOT have right of way. I have actually had several Chinese people insist otherwise. It's easy to see how you might think this if you spend long enough here - say about three minutes. But armed with my rule book I can now happily disabuse them of this notion, not that anything is about to change anytime soon.


The basics of Driving in China…

Here is the explanation of a simple concept: the left turn.
For the ones who live in China: an overview of what we live everyday For the ones who are out of China: happy memories of the traffic here!
We see here a typical intersection. The light has just turned green for the east-west streets, and car [A], an enormous black Audi with pitch black windows, wants to make a left turn into the southbound lanes. Pedestrians wait on each corner. (For purposes of this demonstration, we’ll assume no one is running the north-south red light, and no one is jaywalking – a rather large assumption.)

To make a left turn, it is VITAL that [A] cut off all eastbound traffic as soon as possible. The first few brave or foolish legitimate pedestrians step off the curb; this is of no concern. [A] makes his move.

NO! Too slow! [A] has managed to partially block [B], a brand new purple and yellow Hyundai taxi, but [A] has only achieved whatBeijing drivers would consider a ‘weak’ blocking position.

In this detail, we can see why: [A] has only inserted his left bumper and cannot move forward without contact. [B], on the other hand, is in the dominant position – by putting his wheel hard to the right and flooring it, he can fully block [A].
[B] proceeds to swerve right, cutting off [C], a tiny red Peugeot with a gold plastic dragon hood ornament, spoiler and assorted knobs glued on. Since [B] is just accelerating, and [C] is now decelerating, this has created a low-density ‘dead space’ in the intersection. [D], a strange blue tricycle dumptruck carrying what appear to be 40 of the world’s oldest propane tanks, sees this and makes a move.
DENIED! [E], an old red taxi with its name sloppily stenciled in white on its doors, has boldly cut across two lanes of traffic, behind [D], and then swerved right, driving [D] into an extremely weak position behind [A]. Meanwhile, [B] and [C] are still fighting for position, with [C] muscling his way into the crosswalk. The only thing between [E] and a successful left turn is a few lawful pedestrians. [E] steps on the gas…
…and is cut off by [F], an elderly man pedaling his tricycle verrrryyy slooooowwwly with a 15-foot-diameter sphere of empty plastic cooking oil bottles bungee-corded haphazardly to the cargo area. He was part of the lawful pedestrians, but seeing the stalled traffic, decided to cut diagonally across the intersection. Not only has [F] blocked [E], he is headed straight at [B], giving [C] the edge he needs.
[B] concedes to [C], who drives in the crosswalk behind [F] and blocks [E]. Meanwhile, [G], a herd of about 20 bicycles, mopeds, pedestrians and wheelbarrows, sensing weakness in the eastbound lane and seeing that much of the westbound traffic is blocked behind [D], breaks north against the light. [F] pedals doggedly onward at about 2 miles per hour, his face like chiseled marble.
Now things get interesting. [C] has broken free and, as the first vehicle to get where he was going, wins. [E] makes a move to block [B] but, like [A] at the start of the left turn, only gains a ‘weak’ block. [A] has cleverly let [F] pass and guns into a crowd of [G], which both moves [A] forward and drives some [G] stragglers into the path of [D], clearing [A]’s flanks. Little now stands between [A] and a strong second-place finish.
STEP 10:
Except for public bus [H], one of those double buses with the accordion-thing connector. [H] has been screaming unnoticed along the eastbound sidewalk and now careens dangerously into a U-turn. This doesn’t appear to concern the 112 people packed inside and pressed against the windows (although that could be due to a lack of oxygen.) [H] completely blocks both [A] and [D]. On the other side of the intersection, [B] has swerved into the lawful pedestrians (who aren’t important enough to warrant a letter) and has gained position on [E]. [E] has forgotten the face of his father: He was so focused on his battle with [B] that he lost sight of the ultimate goal and is now hopelessly out of position. This clears the path for dark horse [I], a blue Buick Lacrosse, to cut all the way across behind [H] and become the second vehicle to get where he was going (and the first to complete a left turn), since [F] has changed his mind again and is now gradually drifting north into the southbound lanes. But everyone better hurry, because the light is about to change…

STEP 12:

And we’re ready to start over…

Monday, May 28, 2012


China has announced its most ambitious nation-building project to date, a scheme which, if successful, would dwarf the accomplishments of the Three Gorges Dam and the country’s space program put together.

It plans to restrict every public toilet in Beijing to harbouring no more than two flies each.

It's the latest, and possibly most amusing, of countless bids to arrest a problem which has plagued this nation for decades. The Chinese invented the compass, paper, printing press and gunpowder. They're clearly no slouches in the cleverness stakes. Just look at how many of them wear glasses. So why oh why, we ask ourselves as we run teary-eyed from yet another rancid public convenience, have they not managed to come up with a passable toilet system?

In the 1990s when I first lived here, there simply weren't many public bathrooms to be had. This was around the time I was introduced to a phenomenon social scientists like to call 'people taking a dump outside on the ground in full view of other people'.

The president of the time, Jiang Zemin, was aware of the problem. As Beijing bid to host the 2008 Olympics , Jiang became famous for two reasons. The first was that he made toilets his thing, commanding his minions to come up with better public facilities. The second was that news agency Reuters once put out a story about him for which a sub-editor failed to notice what the spell check had done to the president’s name. Thus news organisations around the world received a story which began with "Chinese president Jingo Semen said today ... "

OK the second thing might be famous among wire service journalists only, but it's true, and funnier than a president who made toilets one of his core issues. Slightly.

A Chinese public toilet, yesterday. Believe me, the lack of
privacy is the least of your concerns.

A commonplace scene in Beijing: Two people find
themselves walking past a public toilet yesterday and
begin vomiting into their hands.

The great man Jiang Zemin. Like myself on
many a Sunday morning in China in the
'90s, he embraced the toilet and made it
his own. His passion for public conveniences
may have earned him some less than
flattering nicknames at APEC meetings,
such as the one where this photo was taken.
But at least all his counterparts were wearing
their pyjamas too.

Now at least Beijing has many public bathrooms, but a visit is not to be entered into lightly, as in, without comprehensive medical insurance. To be kind, they don't work all that well, the pipes seem to be always backing up, or they don't flush properly. There are attendants whose job is to clean them, but, being kind again, perhaps they're just overwhelmed by the size of the task.

The result, to quote the superb Australian sewage treatment feature film Kenny, is that when it comes to roughly 99 per cent of public toilets here, you could say there is “a smell in here that will outlast religion."

More doors would be nice, too, so people could do their serious business in private, but first things first.

The daring “two-fly zone” initiative was announced by the Beijing Municipal Commission of City Administration and Environment in a raft of new regulations snappily dubbed “Beijing city standards for the major profession of public toilet management and service regulations.”

It calls to mind the famously innovative “Four Pests Campaign” conceived by Mao Zedong as part of the Great Leap Forward in 1958. Mao, who was good at guerrilla warfare but bad at ecology, ordered China’s greatest resource – it’s vast populace – to kill flies, mosquitoes, rats and sparrows. And they did, by the million. The sparrows had been eating the people’s grain, you see. But now the insects started eating it instead, unfettered by natural predators. And then millions of people starved. And Mao went back to politics.

This time it’s slightly different. The Beijing government said that as a means of gauging improved cleanliness, there should never be more than two flies per toilet. At least then a series of old jokes about a pair of flies holding a discussion in a bathroom will not be affected. And if two Australian men find themselves in there together, they can at least gamble (an old saying suggests we would bet on two flies crawling up a wall).

The city government’s move marks a new crackdown on flies. In 1998 Beijing took a similar step, but said it was OK for up to five flies to congregate in a toilet. Recently, the southern city of Nanchang set a three-fly limit on its public conveniences. Clearly the capital had to go one better. You can't help but feel, however, that government officials have set an impossible task, and left themselves open to more of the ridicule which has followed similarly odd public statements in the past.

A Beijing government official indulging
in a favourite pastime, yesterday.

Previously we had no public toilets in Beijing. Now we
have them and they look like this. Here we see a woman
preparing for the happy task of going in to do her
business on a squat toilet while dressed in a bridal
gown (and non-matching jacket).

A Beijing fly, yesterday, said to be
up in arms over the new edict. 

Here is another Beijing toilet which has backed up with
dire consquences.
No, only joking, it's nothing so gross. This is just the one
were a woman accidentally gave birth and lost her baby
down the pipe in Beijing's Zhaoyang district last
month. Squat toilets are said to be a good thing in the
field of childbirth, for they help women develop
strong pelvic muscles. However, they're not so good
in instances like this. In an incident which made the news
in many countries, emergency workers had to take
the toilet apart and retrieve the newborn, who was stuck
down there for some 15 minutes. Charles Dickens
couldn't have conceived a more pitiful start to a life.

This is performance artist and confirmed
weirdo Zhang Huan, carrying out his
1994 work 12 Square Metres. To
highlight the state of China's public
lavatories, and of course for the sake
of art, Zhang coated himself in fish
juice and honey, then sat naked in
one such God-forsaken place for an
hour, letting flies coat his body.
He died moments later, aged 23.
No, he survived. But noone has had
sex with him since.

A propaganda poster which was part of the "Four Pests"
campaign. It says "Q: What do flies and capitalists have in
common? A: They should all be squashed to death with
a big swatter."

Rats, sparrows and mosquitoes
were also hunted down by some
very angry-looking Chinese. 

Loosely based on the "one country - two systems" approach to China's governance of Hong Kong, the "one toilet - two flies" system has come into effect immediately. Just how it will be enacted, however, was not fully explained. If an attendant finds, say, 21 flies, how will she first choose which 19 to evict, and then how will she do it? How then will she convince them to not come back? And where will all these homeless flies go? At least the toilets keep them off the streets. At least if they're in the toilets they're not at the open-air meat markets.

The new regulations also said a public lavatory may contain only two “discarded items” at a time, and that neither may sit there unflushed for more than half an hour.

One female bathroom attendant went out on a limb by suggesting there may be flaws in the plan.

“That’ll take a lot of work to narrow it down to two flies for many public toilets in the park or at some tourist sites,” Xu Xiutang told the Global Times newspaper. “They are actually putting a number on this? Are they going to come down to the toilets and count?”

Aware that they might be made to look silly, the city government added a concession that the two-fly rule was a guiding principle only. Thankfully this bit was ignored by a gleeful international media assumedly tired the standard announcement fare about things like non-ferrous metal production, strengthened diplomatic ties with the likes of Togo and Tonga, and other countries’ hegemony.

The announcement was classically Chinese in terms of the country’s love of numbers, statistics and the black and white.

Of the hundreds of stories I wrote here in the 1990s, one that sticks out the most concerned an announcement by the Arts Ministry. Worried that the art sector was not pulling its weight amid China’s era of opening up and reform, the Ministry plainly announced one day that the country had set itself a non-negotiable target of producing 10,000 “quality” artworks in the following 12 months. The tone made it clear that anything like 9,639 good pieces and 361 that were only average would simply not be good enough. I wondered what the parameters of “quality” were, and who would judge what passed muster.

Then there was a review of the contentious film Seven Years In Tibet, which inflamed Chinese sensitivities over perceived western busy-bodies sticking their noses in over the mountainous, monk-strewn region. Nothing irks the Chinese more than foreigners calling for Tibet to split from China. In a wonderful bit of language, Chinese government spokesmen used to say such interference “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people”. Their rancour was shown in one editorial in the English-language China Daily newspaper in the 1990s under the memorably zippy headline “Tibetan splittist chicanery slated”. And then along came Brad Pitt.

The official government-run Xinhua news agency ran a review of the film which simply started with: “Contrary to the opinion of some so-called western ‘experts’, the film Seven Years In Tibet, starring Brad Pitt, is not a good film, Chinese experts confirmed today.”

You’ve got to love such stark assuredness, an attitude that allows for no grey areas. It’s the thing that leads to statements like the one which will always be remembered as The Two-Fly Edict.


For you know what they say ... Heed no do permited
to going THE PERSON temmby woroing terrislylastly.
It started out so well, but then I'd say the designer
just got tired.

A personal trainer seen in Beijing, yesterday.


Double parked on a corner, with half-pike and twist.
Nine and one half.

And let's look at this magnificent effort again from another
angle. Just to prove it wasn't merely a car rounding a corner,
here we see the driver returning to the vehicle. The fact the
light is red also shows the car can't have been moving, for
noone would run a red light in Beijing. Half a point to the
silver Mercedes for merely single-parking on a corner.


A day after my last post on the branding of bikes, I saw another fine example. I hesitated over adding it here five days later, but then the bike's motto itself inspired me to believe.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


Time to visit the subject of motorcycle design, a big go-ahead industry here in Beijing as traffic becomes more and more congested. Every day manufacturers strive to gain an edge over their rivals.

Now, if you're going to get ahead in the competitive market of scooter sales, you've got to have a snappy name. Something zippy. Something versatile ...

Got it, boss! The 'Anycycle'. It's like this bike can be
whatever you want it to be.

Hey that's not bad! Got any other ideas?           

This one OK?

Hmmm ... it's OK. But let's think of something specific,
something cool. What's cool?


Right! Smoking! Why don't we link up with a major
tobacco company?

Great idea boss! People are gonna love it.
It's like: "Ride around and have a fag!"

Exactly. But better still, let's not link with a major
company officially. It gets too messy. Paperwork, money

et cetera. Let's just use their name and not tell them.
Get some stickers made!

I'm on it!

Here you go boss.

Clown! How many of those did we make?

Yeah, quite a few.

Forget it. Learn how to spell and do it again later.
Hey the other thing you need on a bike is
a style pattern. Can you at least manage that?

Something like this?

That's more like it. Well done.

Hey boss, while I've got you, I had a thought
for the name of our new line of bicycles.

Oh yeah?

Yeah. How does the
"Potlrklsooprk Lkfei Ge Potlrkl" sound?

Aah OK I guess. Is it English?

Not sure.

What's it mean?

Don't know.

 Anything dirty?

Don't think so.

OK well go with it for now. You never know what's
going to catch on.

Also I thought we could suggest that a bike will
be the owner's best friend for life!

The BFF Bike?

This bicycle will be the best friend this person will ever
have in their life?


Great. That won't make them feel like a loser at all.
And how's that cigarette thing going?
Yes. All fixed. here it is ...

Oh for God's sake!

What now?

FIX IT! We're gonna be a laughing stock. Yamaha are
gonna think we're amateurs!

See what I mean? Now that's a slick-looking job!

It is. You're right, boss. But I think I've got what
we need.

Oh yeah?

Yeah. It's an image. A feeling. A vibe. It's' more
than just a bike.

What is it?

So they're buying our bike as a means of maintaining
their youth vigour for life?

Well ... yeah.

It's just a bike, mate. Let's not get too carried
away, shall we?

OK. I'll scrap it.

Well it's too late now isn't it? Look, just concentrate
on the smoking thing? Got that done yet?

Yep. Got it this time. Sorry about before.


I saw this piece of bait outside a swanky women's fashion shop.

"Clothes is women's face job
There are no ugly women, only lazy women
To be a beauty queen
Apparel makes the man."

Again it's a Chinese sign that seems to raise more questions that it answers.

Are we saying all women are lazy, or just the ugly ones? What exactly is a "face job"? And what do men have to do with it?

Either way, I know if I were a woman, I'd be charging straight in.

Sunday, May 20, 2012


Around our place these days it’s all about the facts.
Our kids are obsessed by them.
“Bring me facts or bring me death!” they yell, banging their fist on a desk and slurping coffee.
This sounds great for the offspring of a journalist (yes, we often deal in facts) and a doctor (facts designed to scare the crap out of you). And it usually is. I’m learning more these days than I ever did at school, thanks to some “weird but true” books which arrived recently.
This is a beautiful part of being a parent to a six and a five-year-old. On one hand we’re supposed to know stuff, like how to complete a tax assessment, untangle a ball of string, or lose thousands of dollars on the stock exchange. But what’s more fun? Learning all that, or that dolphins sleep with one eye open?
There are some stunning facts out there, all being delivered with the gusto of a child who thinks they’re the most amazing things ever.
There are short, smack-you-in-the-face facts: Crocodiles can lay 80 eggs!
Facts that need more explaining: Bolivia has two capitals!
Facts that can frighten: If you dive to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, you’ll be squashed like a bug!
Facts you just can’t believe: A blue whale is almost as loud as a jet engine, but a five-centimetre pistol shrimp is louder than a blue whale!
There are ewy facts: Sweat smells because it mixes with bacteria that live on our skin. What's more, the average person performs 14 farts a day!
There are gooey facts: Nose hairs trap dirt and dust, then mucus forms around it and that’s what snot is!
And there are more complex facts: “Hair, which is protein, goes curly when sulfur atoms form a disulfide bond which bends the protein. The more sulfur a person has, the curlier their hair will be.”
I hate these ones, for they are inevitably followed by one or more questions. “Daddy, what’s sulfur? And what’s a disulfide bond? And what’s protein?” These are the only occasions in this family you’ll hear the words: “Just wait til your mother gets home!” The best I can offer is that there must be sulfur in bread crusts.
Sometimes I’m the one asking the questions, like “What the hell is a tarsier?” or "Instead of trying to turn that broccoli into a diamond, could you just eat it please?"

A tarsier, yesterday. They can't move their
eyes, you know! If they're not endangered,
then they probably should be.

Tiger Father home hints: Save money on
those cash-burning diamonds by taking a
piece of broccoli like the one above and
turning it into this ...

It's true. It happens! Anything made
of carbon can be turned into a diamond.
In this case, simply take your broccoli,
put it between two diamonds, expose it
to extremely high pressure at 2000 degrees
Celsius (3,632 degrees Fahrenheit), and
take cover in case of an explosion.
TIP: Before you start, prepare a special
laboratory worth millions of dollars!

The other fact about diamonds is that on the planet
Neptune, it rains them! Yes, it showers girls' best friends!
When I discovered this (I mean, when I discovered
it in a book), it was the most gobsmacking thing I'd
ever heard. I gushed the fact to a nerdy doctor friend
 of my wife's when I met him for coffee soon afterwards,
and as if this was the most mundane news of the day he
responded that there must be lots of carbon in Neptune's
atmosphere. "Well, yeah, obviously mate," I said.
Without word of a lie, the very next day I noticed
a racehorse running by the name of Diamond Rain.
I bet on it, and it finished third-last. Fact!

The trouble is, like earthquakes, there’s no predicting it. A fact can hit you at any time. I’m rushing to get the girls dressed for school and bang - “DADDY! ANTS DON’T SLEEP!”
I’m cleaning the chocolate from Evie’s mouth before mum gets home and it’s “Daddy did you know there’s a hotel that looks like a dog?”
I tuck Lani in and whisper ‘Goodnight’ and it’s “Daddy – a great white shark weighs the same as 15 gorillas!”
“OK, goodnight.”
“A French woman lived til she was 122!”
“Good …”
“And a clam lived til it was 405!”
“… NIGHT!”
Last night I was at the end of my tether. “EVIE! If you don’t finish you’re dinner by the time I count to - “
NOW LISTEN … Really?”
It’s hard to recover from a non-sequitur like that.

This is one of those so-called "facts" I struggle to believe.
Here is a beach.

And here is the universe. Pointy-headed boffins in white
coats all insist there are more stars than grains of sand on
the whole earth. But just look at the beach! There must be
hundreds of grains of sand on it. And that's just the ones
on top that we can see. And it's only one beach.
Yesterday, my wife smugly said the theory was easy to
believe because we're talking about something, in the case
of the universe, which is infinite. But I countered by asking
what if the earth's grains of sand came to infinity plus one?
I know that stumped her, because she left the conversation
then and there!   

I’m a little bit scared, to be honest. What if the brain really is like an attic full of boxes, and when one box goes in another gets pushed out? There are boxes in my attic my wife would rather I threw out. Not the ones containing ex girlfriends. More like the one holding cricket statistics, or the one with the names of all the winners of the Melbourne Cup, Australia’s biggest horse race. But you can’t choose which boxes are tossed. What if tomorrow I learn that a hurricane weighs as much as 160 million rhinos, but forget how to ride a bike? Or I might forget the date of my wife’s birthday? At least now our kids have given me an excuse.
Their little heads are so filled with wonder. As I’ve mentioned before, we don’t feel we need other little pieces of wonder not so easily explained by science – like the Easter Bunny – to fill our children with awe.
My wife had it half this way as a child. She once asked her mother what a rainbow was and was told it was a staircase to heaven. Her more scientific father overheard and barked “WHAT?!” He then made her sit through a lengthy spiel involving the colour spectrum and light refraction. Well, she was three after all.
My dad had some interesting facts for me. I once asked where the dirt track behind our house led. For years afterwards I believed it went all the way to Sydney, 600km away. I also believed that if you gulped beer you would simply blow up. Now I too am a parent, I can put these facts down to the fact my dad just couldn’t be bother … err, has a cheeky sense of fun.
What’s more, a strict adherence to the truth can get boring too. Like my dad, I have some facts I stick to with our daughters. My wife rolls her eyes, but I will keep aloft the torch that says warts come from touching toads. I also like to remind my girls each night that if they don’t eat their vegetables they will, as night follows day, get scurvy. If they sit too close to the TV, their eyes will go square. Kissing boys will of course lead to myriad unspeakable horrors.
We actually have a double whammy going at home in that a series of joke books have arrived lately alongside the fact books. It’s like watching the news read by Don Rickles.
Let’s not list the jokes, for they suck. But to give you an idea of our house at present, try:
Knock knock.
Who’s there?
Interrupting geek.
Interrupting ge …

Fact: Dogs can get worms by licking their paws
after walking amongst worm eggs. Fact: Dogs
can avoid this by wearing shoes, however they
must first have a special kind of owner. I snapped
this stylish mutt in Beijing last week.

Some facts, yesterday. If you took all the facts announced
in our home last week and laid them end to end they would
stretch 12,500 kilometres! Or, to use the only truly globally
recognised measuring system, that's 125,000 football fields. 

PS: Yes, the facts listed above are all true. Recommended reading: National Geographic Kids “Ultimate Weird But True”. And “The Big Book of Why”, by Time for Kids.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012


She's happy because her shirt says
"Get off with his hands".
Now ... oh I give up.

Of all the wacky clothing you see in Beijing, this one defies explanation the most. If it's describing what men do in their spare time, surely this was the first fashion designer in history to think this was a groovy sort of pastime to convey on a shirt. Or maybe it's directed at young women as a safe sex message? Any ideas? Love, the Editor. PS: Many thanks to Liora Pearlman of Beijing for seeing this and accosting the young lady for a photo to send to me.

And can anyone explain this Beijing eatery? In the middle
it's a pair of praying hands above a serving of hot chips.
"Bless us, oh Lord, and these thy fries ..."

And there's nothing like a relaxing day in
the park, but should you have several
emergencies ...
My favourite is the bottom one. Presumably,
if you're not really really bursting, you can
just make you way to the standard toilet.
Thanks to Robyn Searl for these two pics.

You see plenty of what we might call
surprising wedding photos in China.
Normally, I don't like to comment.
It's their big day and all. But ...
Whilst in tropical Hainan Island
recently, we saw one of the most
surprising wedding shoots ever.
The bride wore a soft pink silk and taffeta dress ... 

... while the groom stuck with a classical

The groom is not likely to be needing this
latest example of funny undies, found
on sale in our hotel. At bottom right it shows
these are XXXXL size. But in the middle
it just says it straight.
Cosmo Underpants ... for Fat Men. 


What are mothers' bags made of?
What are mothers' bags made of?

Tissues and wipes and everything nice,
A tube of hand cream, hair clips, loose cash, a highlighter pen,
Six more tubes of hand cream, two muesli bars, a memory stick,
A padlock with key, a pack of "Bee" brand playing cards,
A miniature tea-pot, an orange plastic Noughts-and-Crosses game,
A balaclava ...

A teaspoon, a ping pong ball, a toy chicken,

A red, smiling pick-up stick, and of course a sterile scalpel.

OK, that last item might be specific to doctors, or the clinically neurotic, or in the case of my beloved wife, both. But for heaven's sake. We dads, even the primary care-giving types, stay pretty minimalist when it comes to the belongings we lug around. The above haul was what was found when my wife set aside last weekend to clean out her handbag. It's true, you might never know when you'll need some hand cream. You would think it's fairly obvious when you leave the house, however, whether or not a balaclava might come in handy.

A study in Australia a few years ago found the average woman's handbag weighed a hefty 2.3 kilograms (five pounds). In light of this statistic, and the evidence above, I am thinking of nobly starting a public awareness campaign. It will be called the "For God's sake clean out your handbag!" campaign.

For one thing, it might save women all over the world back and shoulder pain. More importantly, it would save husbands an estimated 1000 man-hours per year spent waiting around while their wife rummages through her bag looking for keys, tissues, ringing mobile phones and toy chickens.

That handbags can become dark, mysterious recesses beyond reasonable contemplation was borne out a few years ago when my wife found a full-sized hammer in hers. She had no idea how it got there, and so directed her questions to the defendant, ie me. After some nervous minutes, I remembered I had put it there three weeks earlier before a joint trip to a hardware store, to remind me to buy a second hammer. And after three more nervous weeks, I manfully confessed this to my wife. Still, if you can't notice a hammer in your handbag it's time to clean out your handbag, I always say.

Any other handbag hammer horror stories or such like out there? Who's ever reached into their bag and felt something they didn't expect, like a cherished family pet, or a squishy banana or nappy? Tell your tales below. As always, the best story could well win a prize!

Monday, May 14, 2012


I couldn’t find a needle to push into my eye, and my wife’s Air Supply CDs had been totally, exhaustively ruined.
“I know!” I said. “Let’s play Monopoly, kids!”
When you sit in those pre-natal classes, grinning nervously while clutching your teddy bear with his ill-fitting nappy, and the serene woman in charge says the main thing you’ll need as a parent is patience, she’s talking about Monopoly.
It’s one the of the world’s great board games - one of the earliest when it was introduced in 1936 and for me, the best. Throw in a six- and a five-year-old, and a game of Monopoly can be both the most fun yet most excruciating few days you can spend, bittersweet as a mouthful of ice cream and roadkill.
I like to make an early start, so yesterday I had my morning shower and shave and we set up the board. Of course this must be on the floor. Using a table adds four-to-six hours to the average game, spent watching the kids get down and try to find their dice/token/card/cash/snack/drink/lucky toy et cetera. These things never just fall to the floor. They fall, bounce on their edge, and deflect off under the nearest cupboard. Then it’s an excuse to go find the torch, and so on until you find yourself looking skyward and counting to 100.

An original UK version of Monopoly, a game
with a rich history. It was brought out on both
sides of the Atlantic by Parker Brothers in a
brave move during the depths of the Great
Depression in the mid-1930s, and proved an
instant smash. In China the game was banned
soon after Mao Zedong's Communists took
charge in 1949. It was replaced with another
game called Socialist Utopia, which never
really took off since anyone purchasing
property was subjected to a struggle session
and beaten. 

Next, the money is doled out. The kids like to count it out themselves, all one thousand, five hundred dollars of it. I usually make a coffee while this is being perpetrated. Then I assess the cash grabs, sorting the honest mistake-makers from the mini-Madoffs (still the best name for a fraudster ever). 
The playing field leveled, we choose tokens. At least this is easy. Evie's always the dog, because she is one. This is a rough-sounding way of saying she was born in the Year of the Dog.
Lani is always the bag of money, because she was born in the Year of the Capitalist Pig. No, she’s a rooster, but one who seems to have embraced the concept of this competition, lock, stock and bankroll. When I asked why she chose the bag, she insisted it was merely because "I like its shape". I suggested the shape would be less appealing if there were less money in the bag. Remember this is the girl who, in the way some people find God, suddenly found the Tooth Fairy after months of denying her existence, having learned she left cash for teeth.
We used to roll dice to see who went first, but it often reduced the game to farce before it began. Someone would roll and make a move before I could explain why we we rolling, leaving me trying to prise Pall Mall out of their hands while they sat there screaming. Now it's youngest first.
We start. Evie rolls a six. It's The Angel Islington. I know it's the Angel Islington. I can recite the board easily. "Let's go - Angel," I call. "Wait I'll count it myself," says the five-year-old. 
With kids, you have to understand the fun is broken up as one part buying properties, one part collecting rent, and 99 per cent rolling dice and ‘walking’ tokens.
"One … two … three … four … five … six!" She's somehow on Pentonville Road. Or visiting jail. Or Mayfair. I always TRY to let her count it out again more carefully. But this time I recall it’s the very first move of the game, and a rough calculation of how much time will be required at this rate usually leads me to break out in hives. 
And on we went, the kids happily rolling and acquiring, me striving for that balance of helping, railroading, and maintaining our food and fluid intake.

This is a Paris version I found for sale in a Beijing market.
I'm not sure why it wasn't exported, but I shall be taking it
up with Paker Brothers immediately.

I have many Monopoly memories from my childhood, which I often drift into during lulls in current games: Of my older brother Graeme being conservative, astute and above all merciless. He ended up being a banker in real life. Of my sister Sandra always buying Old Kent Road because she felt sorry for it. Or of me, as the youngest, being told - and believing - that swapping my Mayfair for Graeme’s Whitechapel Road was a golden opportunity. Usually it was a golden opportunity to escape a punch in the arm. I was poor but I still had my health.

I was daydreaming about such things yesterday when the moment was shattered by Evie getting up, stumbling and sending the board and its many bit and pieces flying. Such seismic events are usually unintentional but equally inevitable. Add a bit more playing time while pieces are re-gathered, and everyone thinks back to who had what.

A drama ensued in one such moment in a game with two adults and four kids. I accept that when you play with four kids, you get what you deserve, but at any rate, one child grabbed a money pile which wasn’t her’s. It was a lot smaller than her old one, but she liked her new one more since it had more pink $5 notes than yellow hundreds. If you read the moves in the newspaper the next day it would have gone:

CAR rolls six.
CAR pays BATTLESHIP $14 rent.
CANNON goes to have her turn but says she can’t do so without her magic wand. Spends five minutes looking for wand.
WHEELBARROW moves eight squares and buys Bow Street, then realises she forgot to roll dice.
DOG gets up and kicks the board flying.
THIMBLE claims wrong pile of money.
RACECAR says THIMBLE should swap back the money and should listen to RACECAR because she is THIMBLE’s mother.
THIMBLE leaves and sits under the table, citing hurt feelings.

On the one hand it might seem folly to enter into such a game with people lacking fundamentals such as balance, the ability to add and subtract, and an understanding of the concept of money. Then again my wife loves it because it’s the only time in China that she’s able to bargain successfully.

“Evie – I’ll give you Euston Road for the three yellows and $200. Done? Thank you.”

China may now have a 'modern' version, but beside the
man's front foot you may notice that instead of "Super Tax"
or "Luxury Tax" as in the UK and US versions, it's just
a plain old responsible "Salary Tax". Still, the game remains
a good teacher about life here, particularly the part where
you can pay a bit of money to get out of jail.

Our children like to buy properties according to one golden rule of acquisition, known as “What’s my favourite colour?”*

I urge them to buy everything they land on. For one thing, all properties come in handy for trading. But more importantly, nothing sends shivers down my spine faster than hearing the word “Pass”. The kids then start shouting “Auction! AUCTION!” as I fall onto my back with my head in my hands.

This time it’s Bond Street, which normally goes for $320. Evie started the bidding with an “Uuuuuuuum” that was ominously long.

“Five dollars!”

Lani does what she can to end the auction then and there.

“Six dollars!” she says.

I go off, have another shave, then return.

“One hundred and eight!”

“One hundred and nine!”

The girls used to insist auctions must run their natural course without being expedited by intervention from the regulatory authorities, i.e. me, through mechanisms such as a $50 minimum bid. But lately they have acquiesced to my pleadings as they became more aware that I might kill myself.

If I ran the zoo, our games would look like this.

Things would be all nice and neat and
clearly understandable

If the kids were in charge ...

So on we’ll go, rolling, tapping, dealing, trading, collecting rents, laughing and crying, until someone wins. That someone is always Evie. For us, she’s the “lucky one” every family seems to have. She also cares the least about whether she wins or loses. God it's infuriating.

I’m told there are faster versions made especially for children, which take about half an hour. You can also speed up a standard game by dishing out some properties first. But where’s the fun in that? At least this way we all know we’ve been through something – something fairly demanding, quite exasperating, but overall very rewarding. We don’t do it that often, mind. I’m not completely mad.

* REAL Monopoly tip: Make sure your favourite colour is orange. For it’s not big bucks Mayfair and Park Lane (Boardwalk/Park Place in the US) that are necessarily the best. The oranges are statistically landed on most often, and so usually reap their owner the most money. This is because of players being sent to jail and having to start again from the purple and orange side of the board. Dice combinations mean they are then more likely to land on orange than pink.