Thursday, June 28, 2012


When you're an Australian expat living in China, half the fun is that when it's freezing cold in December, you get to go home where it's warm for Christmas holidays.
The other half is that in July, when the northern hemisphere is closed for business, you get a long summer holiday too. And so it is that I will be off for the next month - on full pay! Which is to say, the same pay as usual. Which is to say, nowt.
So I've decided to go out with a whimper, rather than a bang. To last you, dearly beloved reader, until I emerge from my coma sometime in August, I have slapped together a very large bunch of photos. No, it's actually a carefully selected, hand-edited, twice-baked collection of images I've lovingly collected in Beijing and compiled in this sweet, sweet album. In fact there are so many, those of us who were alive in the '70s might call it a "double album", a-la Peter Frampton or Ted Nugent or one of those old, old guys.
So, for the next month, for me it'll be no more of ...

... things clogging the roads like this,
the Elephant Man of tricycle loads.

Or this summer version. I include this
because it's actually our transportation
to the airport - the double-decker
rickshaw constructed of milk crates
and string.

Planes, trains and bicycles. My wife bought a new bike
last Sunday. Here it is here outside our apartment,
complete with a random Chinese character in the
top left corner to show we really live in China.

But soft! What's that sticker? I know the men
at the shop might have thought my wife
wasn't much of a bike rider by the way she
test-rode this one, but they didn't have to
make her feel stupid ...

I've tried, but it's pretty hard to get it going the
other way.

It'll be goodbye for a while to silly little signs like this.
These are everywhere in Beijing, along with others
signifying that there's a pregnant woman in the car, or
even one that just says "Mamma in car". These things
always give me pause for thought. Usually that thought
is: "It's a good thing you warned me because I had been
planning to careen straight into you, killing us both.
But I won't now." See, it's seemingly innocuous things
like this that make grumpy old men grumpy.

Now there's something you don't see every day - kids
in a car.
OK now we've got a real problem.

And does this woman need to advertise her negligence
so blatantly?

It's goodbye for a while to things like this ...

Frist things frist: If you're a school photo company telling
people to watch their spelling, just be a bit careful.

It's my favourite clothing brand. Indeed, it is the only one.
Their capabilities don't include spelling, however.

Farewell, too, to otherwise fine-looking
products with screwed-up labeling, such
as this magnificent set of golf clubs from
the good people at Biemlfdlkk.

And it's bye bye to Chinese restaurants like this one ...

Here is a lobster and a crab under Glad Wrap.
I include this because they were still alive.
Hence the "WTF" expression on the crab's face.

And it's catch-you-later to cliched juxtapositions of
new and old Beijing, such as the Bird's Nest stadium
behind this temple, which was constructed in 2008 to
make it look like there was something new next to
something old.

Or how about a five-year-old in World War I flying gear?

I include these because ... they're cute.

To be honest it might be a good time to get out of town for a while. I fear that after nine months of chronicling modern Beijing, I've become a "person of interest" to the local authorities. The other day I noticed them through the window of my 11th floor hidey-hole ...

I thought: "Hey ..."

And then I thought: "What the ...?"

It took them a while but they finally trained their beady
little listening devices in on me. A bit of monitoring of
fearless internet types is to be expected in Communist
China. But what happened next was beyond the pale ...

The operative moved over for a better look, before
I drew the curtains.

The People's Liberation Army does take
its job seriously. They can never forget
Big Brother is watching. And he's
brooding. And devilishly handsome.

It turned out my paranoia was, as always,
misplaced. The man at the window was
one of these guys. They dangle from a
bit of rope on a piece of wood to paint the
town pink.

"Occupational Health and Safety" are our
middle names.

In another workplace matter, I was stunned to
come across this scene when out walking last
week. Collapsed hoardings, bodies strewn across
the footpath ...

With the area roped off, it was as good a place as any to
take a nap, these workers obviously reasoned.

This job too came with sleeping quarters for the
afternoon break. Little wonder they call China
"the Spain of the east".

Speaking of footpaths, I'll miss scenes
like watching masseuses try to learn
roller-blading in their work clothes ...

... watched by a slightly less awkward looking

And it's farewell for a while to dodgy DVD
boxed sets, which usually end up on sale in
the markets here for tuppence owing to some
minor flaw in the packaging. Here's a copy of
the excellent HBO series The Wire, which
came across my desk the other day.

See, I wasn't lying. This is the nerve centre right here.

It took me a while to figure out why this show about cops in the gritty drug scene of hard-knocks Baltimore didn't make it to the export markets.

"Yo Bunk! Where we at?"
"Well that's the mo'fo'ing Sydney Opera House right here."
"And the Sydney Harbour Bridge."

Nice photo though. I can see what they were thinking.

And finally ...

It's worth repeating my favourite people-falling-asleep-in-
restaurants shot again. Just to recap, it's mid-burger,
mid-text aaaand zonk!

Monday, June 25, 2012


Hi Readers!

I've spent six years in this wondrous, enchanting country, an ancient land whose cuisine has deservedly become one of the most famous in the world. Among other things it's been an amazing culinary journey as I've learned some of the art and craft of Chinese food.

Some of this getting of wisdom has come as I've wandered the dusty, history-steeped alleys, nooks and crannies of Beijing, from the street vendors who help give this dirty ol' town it's flavours and aromas. Other parts have come from reading news reports and police charge sheets, which touch on some more recent innovations in Chinese food production.

Today I want to share with you some of these experiences with a collection of some noteworthy recipes gleaned in China. Try them at home and hopefully you too will feel the splendour and joy of gastronomy from the often inspiring, sometimes baffling, sometimes spine-tingling Middle Kingdom.

Happy cooking!

1. Lamb sticks
Ingredients: pork, beef, dog, cat, rat, lamb (optional).
Method: take little bits of things and put them on skewers, cook over a barbeque whilst sprinkling herbs, fanning coals and trying to stop some drunken idiot from knocking the whole thing over.

Lamb sticks barbecued on the street at night provide some of the most characteristic sights, sounds, smells and tastes of after-dark Beijing. You might not be aware of it now, but If you've ever staggered out of a nightclub here at four in the morning, then you've eaten lamb sticks. This is an innovative little number, as you can make them using any number of animals. As Deng Xiaoping famously said "Black cat, white cat, it doesn't matter as long as you cover in with cumin." Then again, one investigation showed vendors had taken cat meat and made it taste more lamby by soaking it in sheep’s urine. As for what happens with the sticks, where they come from and whether or not they’re recycled, the folklore is littered with tales.

2. Melamine milk
Ingredients: milk, melamine.
Method: blend, package, distribute, go to jail.

Don't you hate going to a neighbour's house for tea only to discover that her milk has more protein than yours? Or perhaps you’re a large-scale milk producer looking to list more nutrients on the side of your carton than your rivals? This little short-cut emerged from southern China five years ago, when someone had an epiphany upon discovering that there was protein in melamine. Sure it was a chemical agent used in plastics, but should that mean we can’t use it in food and drink? Well, the courts said it should, actually. A lot of people went to jail.

3. Fish-flavoured pork
Yu Xiang Ruo Si is one of the most popular Chinese dishes around. Take some pork, shred it, add some fish-tasting flavouring, onions and fungus, and cook in a hot wok. Some restaurants use chicken instead of pork as it is cheaper. Serve with rice.

4. Beef-flavoured pork
Beef-flavoured pork is a dish which took off about six years ago but has now become less trendy for reasons which aren’t immediately obvious, but which may involve a frightened public and efficacious police force. The idea is that you take a quantity of pork, which is very common here, and make it seem more like beef by simply adding borax. Most of you will have some borax lying around the home. Unfortunately it’s usually lying around in boxes of washing detergent. And it causes cancer.

5. Glow-in-the-dark pork
Chinese menus abound with dishes with quirky names that tell a story, like “Explode the stomach dumplings” and “Government abuse chicken”. Glow-in-the-dark pork is, however, just pork that glows in the dark. Simply take some pork and blend thoroughly with a phosphorescent bacterial additive which makes it glow blue on the plate, for God’s sake. This was pioneered in some restaurants in China in 2011. It made the papers, government officials insisted we had nothing to worry about, so we all said “fair enough, then!” and went right on eating. This dish is from the same culinary family as “Radiant popcorn and mushrooms”, except the magic ingredient there is fluorescent bleach.

The lamb stick stand - where
"mmmm" meets "hmmm?"

Some Chinese milk industry innovators as the country
remembers them best - facing charges in a court of law.

This photo from shows some of that good
old phosphorescent pork, and what happens to your fingers
if you touch it.

6. Illusion eggs

Eggs are eggs, aren’t they? No they aren’t! In this land of unending food surprises, they’re sometimes little egg-shaped things that are made out of chemicals, gelatin and paraffin. Not related to the equally-scary sounding “Hundred-year-old eggs”, their discovery in China in 2009 stunned the food world – mostly because after you go to all this trouble to take the chicken and health concerns out of the equation, you still end up with an egg that’s about two US cents cheaper to produce than a real one. Still, they don’t go off. They also assuage fears that eggs are a bit yucky because they come out of a chicken’s butt.

7. Twice-cooked buns

Again, not a rough translation, but buns which are made by taking a bunch of stale old buns which are past their use-by date, throwing them into a vat with water and flour, and making a batch of new buns with them. It’s a technique pioneered by a Shanghai Shenglu Food Company in 2011. Or at least that’s when it became public knowledge. It might have been going on for years.

8. A-hundred-times-cooked oil

Perhaps you’re not content to have your cooking oil imbued with merely one flavour? Perhaps you just don’t like spending money? Well, after you’ve cooked with oil, simply gather it up and use it again. Sometimes this may involve a bit of work, say, going to the drains behind or underneath restaurants to scavenge the used oil and re-bottle it. Like many a good recipe, this method appears to be a zealously guarded secret, as few people admit to using it. However, an undercover investigation by a university team in the city of Wuhan in 2010 estimated one in 10 of all meals in China were cooked with such recycled oil. The State Food and Drug Administration then issued a nationwide emergency ordering an investigation into this so-called ‘sewer’ oil scandal. Meanwhile a group of around 100 food industry representatives in the city of Zhejiang last month emerged into the public eye for taking a strong stand in opposition to this sewer method. Instead they were found to be making cooking oil by squeezing it out of rotten, maggot-infested meat offcuts thrown away by abattoirs. Then they got arrested.

9. Off-the-top-of-your-head sauce

Add a twist to the world’s most popular flavouring – soy sauce – by making it from human hair! Ingenuitive, frugal sauciers from a factory in Hubei province were found to have pioneered this technique in 2005, using hair clippings swept up from barber’s floors to distill an amino acid to put into soy sauce. We all wince together.

10. Aromatic, cheeky pigs’ ears

Want to eat something resembling pigs’ ears but can’t get the real thing? Really? Well OK, you might try this: Take some gelatin and some common household sodium oleate and hand-craft them out of that. You’ll have sodium oleate if you have soap. This is what some canny retailers in the eastern province of Jiangxi were found to be up to last month when a shopper complained that the ears she bought smelled funny when she cooked them. Pigs’ ear experts pointed out these substitute ears were easily identifiable because the real ones usually come with blood vessels and hair, which sounds a lot more appetising.

11. Shiny radiance cabbage

Take cabbage and combine with an ingredient widely consumed by people in China, formaldehyde. Apply the latter liberally to your cabbage, thus keeping it  looking fresh and shiny for the market. Influences for this dish include Mao Zedong, who had several bottles of formaldehyde poured down his throat to preserve him just after he died in 1976. Not to be confused with other shiny vegetable standards such as “Pesticide Bean Sprouts” and “6-benzyladenine beans”.

A still shot from the undercover sting which uncovered
the so-called "Recycled bun calamity". China is the
acknowledged world leader in food scandals, but has
announced a five-year-plan to reduce them to no more
than 500 a month by 2017.

Police invited the media to witness the contraband seized
when they busted a major sewer oil operation on Beijing's
shady east side. Under traditional methods, the oil is
scooped up from drains around restaurants by artisans
known as "unscrupulous criminals", then filtered, bottled
and sold at a budget price. At least they filter it!

Police in Jiangxi confiscate an amount of artificial pigs'
ears. Police estimate mobsters from Hong Kong now control
more than 90 per cent of the counterfeit pig ear market.

* We have to put warnings on everything these days, so here goes: Please don’t really try any of this at home, even if you’re a certified lunatic.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012


Two things about shopping in China:

1. Call them myopic, but a lot of Chinese vendors don’t seem to see the big picture. For example, given the choice of ripping off the buyer to get a good price right there and then, or trying to build a relationship with someone who could give them custom for years to come, they’ll take the instant gratification nine times out of nine. And instead of working with a buyer to find what might make them really happy - what retailers know as the building-a-relationship-with-the-client strategy - they tend to believe more in the THAT-THING-THERE-RIGHT-NEXT-TO-YOU-THE-FIRST-THING-YOU-CAME-PAST-IN-MY-SHOP-AND-SO-NOW-BUY- IT-GIVE-ME-MONEY-GET-OUT-OF-MY-SHOP theory.

2. The Chinese people don’t want you to feel foolish. This could mean a loss of face. So whatever you try on, if you imply that you like it, they’ll gush and ooh and aah about how good it looks on you in a bid to snap shut the deal. This could involve you wearing anything from a baseball cap to a feather boa last seen on Elton John. The vendors are not sure if we really like things or not. For, like that old warning about snakes being more frightened of you than you of them, the Chinese feel it is we, Johnny Foreigner and Wilma Whitewoman, who are inscrutable.*

As is often the case in journalism, only one thing is clear. And that is that these two things combined can only add up to one thing: There is a real danger of shoppers walking out of a market looking ridiculous, particularly if you’re a man who doesn’t care much about how he dresses any more, or, put another way, who is married. You know how bars can be charged for sending people away extremely drunk? Alas there seem no such laws stopping retailers sending people out of their shops looking like complete idiots.

Occasionally I like to put all this to the test, particularly if – and this can really happen sometimes – I’m out shopping with my wife and I start to show symptoms that I’m really, really bored.
Just such a thing happened when I accompanied the said Leader of the Opposition on an expedition to buy glasses. While she was trying on what seemed 1000 pairs of glasses, but was probably only in the low hundreds, I intrepidly launched a proper journalistic investigation dubbed the HOW STUPID DO I HAVE TO LOOK IN GLASSES BEFORE SOMEONE SAYS ANYTHING sting.

Warning: The results are shocking and some readers might be disturbed by them. But we present them here as a warning to wives everywhere behind the Bamboo Curtain.

It's a funny thing with glasses. Of all the world's
people, you'd think the Chinese would be the
unquestionable experts in the field. Yet I was
told by one white-coated eyewear technician
that I looked "very handsome" in these, and
that they "matched the shape of my face" very
well. My wife conceded they at least met my
forehead well since I have an eyebrow ridge
that "really sticks out", and knuckles that
"really drag on the ground", etc.

"Very handsome!" I was told. I then began to sing
Crocodile Rock and was told I sounded "very handsome".
"These suit your face very well", I was told.
I asked the assistant if she was sure, and
was told "very much so".

I decided it was time to up the ante ...

By God they sell some out-there specs here.
I guess with so many people wearing so many
glasses, they have to cater for all tastes. But
seriously. The shop assistant seriously said
she could see me in these. Indeed, if anyone
could pull it off, it was me. Also, if I was the
type of man-about-town who enjoyed
welding ...

Finally, we had a winner.  I put these on and
while she ummed and ah'ed at first, the
assistant eventually suggested these might not
be the soundest purchase I could make.
My quest was at an end.

Finally, I returned home with the pair I was allowed to buy.

They might have been from the men's or
women's section. Again, with the vendors
here it doesn't really matter. At least I was
convinced I looked like a habitual winner.

What's more, with these you don't have any problems
with lenses. This is part of a big trend in China of young
people wearing glasses without the glass bit. Again it
might just be me, but if I was living in a country of this many
glasses-wearers, and I happened to not need glasses, I'm not
sure I'd opt for frames. But I may just be a fuddy-duddy.

Thanks for tuning in readers. Next week we'll continue our Shopping in China series with a special report: How to spot a conterfeit Bentley. See you then!

* The Chinese also think we Caucasians all look the same as well. Seriously. But since this is Photo Phun Phursday, I'll save that for Sweeping Generalisation Saturday.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012


Time to brush up on our slang, idioms and other parts of the world’s most used language – Mandarin. First, the important bits.

ER NAISecond Milk. Well that’s pretty straightforward I guess. You have one cup, then you go back for seconds and … Oh no, not quite. What it means is one’s mistress, as in, a really lovely way of saying your wife is the first or No.1 supply/tank/urn/vessel of milk, and your mistress is the auxiliary canister. Look, it’s a charming language that goes way back, OK?

XIAO SANLittle Third. Just say a man happens to have two mistresses, this is the second one. We’re not saying this is a common occurrence or anything, but they have felt the need to come up with a name for it.

XIAO BAI LIAN Little White Face. The boot’s on the other foot here, gender-wise. If an older woman takes a young toy boy, this is him. The white face part doesn’t imply he’s kept indoors out of the sun for m’lady’s pleasure, but that he’s an innocent. Of course these mature women had better watch themselves, for fear of being called a …

LAO HUANGGUA TU LU QI – It’s mutton dressed as lamb or, an old cucumber painted green.

DAN’R TIAO’R – (pronounced da’are tee-ow). Another from the relationships family. It’s what you call the two men who have married two sisters. My Canadian brother-in-law and I use it together with glee, when our Chinese wives aren’t present. You know those cliched pictures of a Chinese man with a bamboo stick across his shoulders and two buckets dangling from the ends? The stick-and-buckets ensemble is a dan’r. To tiao’r it is to support it. Thus dan’r tiao’r is the term for we two men, bearing the burden of the sisters, or “deadweights” on either end of the stick. As a stay-at-home husband, I always think of this when I go out and blow my wife’s paycheck.

FAN TONG ­– Food bucket. You could use this to describe a bucket that holds food. But it’s also what you call someone who’s completely useless – they don’t contribute much but still have a mouth which needs feeding. Read Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Mr Darcy: Oh Elizabeth - be mine! Say you will! Elizabeth: To be honest I’m torn between you and Mr Collins. I could go either way. Mr Darcy: What?! What could you possibly see in him? The man’s a complete food bucket!

WANG BA DAN – This is perhaps the worst insult you can hurl at someone. Worse even than a food bucket. You’re calling the person a turtle’s egg. Shocking, I know. As with a lot of Chinese, though, the meaning is between the lines. Turtles tend to have lots of eggs. The message here is yo mamma is a bit on the licentious side. A lot, actually. Right - enough of the smut. Let’s clean it up. Oh OK one more.

DA FEIJI – I swear I only include this not to peddle more filth and grime but because it shows linguistic imagination, even if it’s a touch bizarre. It means shoot at (da) aeroplanes (feiji). It refers to the act of male self-help, a one-in-a-bed sex romp, a menage-a-un. And it assumes the performer is lying down. It may be a touch boastful about the man’s powers, but not to worry.

YU HE XIONGJIAO BU KEYI JIAN DE – A fish and a bear’s paw can’t meet. Got it? Good.

My brother-in-law Paul, relaxing in
his backyard in Beijing, yesterday.

Hmmm ... Yes well we know what you've
been up to young lady! No wonder you
didn't want to show your face.

JUST KIDDING – That fish and bear paw thing? It’s the equivalent of “you can’t have your cake and eat it too”. You can’t have it all, expressed as “you can’t get these two things in the same place, this fish and this bear’s paw”. It’s often used in short-form. Say someone is telling a man he can’t have his wife and mistress too, they might just say “fish and bear paw” and not be looked at strangely. OK, the inventors of this phrase have never watched Discovery Channel shows about grizzlies scooping up those sex-crazed salmon in Canada, but we get what they mean. Sort of.

BU MING FEI XING WU – It flies but it’s not an aeroplane. In fact, it’s not clear (bu ming) what it is. So it’s a “not clear flying moving thing”, or as we’d say, a UFO.

WAI XING REN – The little green people in the bu ming fei xing wu. We people from a country (guo) outside (wai) of China are called wai guo ren. Beings from further afield are called wai xing ren, or “outside star people”.

ER BAI WU – Two hundred and fifty. This can be just a number. But it’s also a very common insult for someone who’s a bit strange, who seems like they’ve got a bit missing, particularly those prone to saying inappropriate things as if they’ve suffered frontal lobe damage. But why 250? Numbers feature in a lot of Chinese slang. Still, I asked many Chinese people who know the expression, but none could tell me the origin of this quirky little one. Finally an explanation arrived from my dan’r tiao’r. In the old days, Chinese copper coins were strung together through the square holes in the centre. Originally, 1000-worth was called a diao. Half this much was a ban diao zi, which also became slang for someone with inadequate skills. Now, if you’re even less sharp, or a bit loopy, you might only be worth half as much again. So bad is the connotation, superstitious vendors hate selling goods for 250 yuan in markets. It's always fun to bargain up against yourself, from 240 to 250, just to see what they'll do. They'll usually take 240.

This National Geographic photo of an
American black bear catching fish shows
the Chinese might be right. The old proverb
says nothing about beer, however. 

An old Chinese coin, a long time ago.
Put 250 of these together and you'd
be mental.

CONGMINGDE NAODAI BU ZHANG MAO – This one’s a personal favourite. A clever head can’t grow hair. Note the term for head here is “the old brain bag” – nao being “brain”, and dai referring to “bag”. 

ZOU YUE ZI – Sitting for the month. This could be used to describe what I do when the World Cup is on. But it in fact refers to the period after giving birth in which a woman, according to old but still widely-practiced Chinese beliefs, is meant to stay inside and refrain from bathing, washing her hair, brushing her teeth, reading, watching TV, and in general practise a form of austerity that makes the Jesuits look like the Rolling Stones. It’s all supposed to protect the body, ravaged as it is by childbirth. Welcome to the joys of motherhood.

Chinese has a lot of four-word sayings known as cheng yu, such as:

DUI NIU TAN QIN To play the harp for a cow. You’re playing to the wrong audience. It’s like putting pearls before swine.

JIU NIU YI MAO Nine cows, one hair. If you have one hair among nine cows – God knows why nine, and not 10 or 100 – it’s the same as a drop in the ocean. They’re obsessed with cows, these people. Seriously, you’d swear they were Indian.

NIU – Cow. We know that already. But the meaning here is ‘good’. In a previous glossary, we brought you niu bi, meaning “the cow’s vagina”, which is slang for something that’s very good. In other parts of the world you might say “the cat’s pyjamas” or “the duck’s guts”. What also happens is people now simply use “cow” for “good”. So if your child paints a painting and you think it’s great, you might say “Very cow, junior!” or “Hen niu, junior!”

I found this photo which appears to confound centuries
of Chinese wisdom.

LUAN QI BA ZAO – Chaotic sevens, rotten eights. Numbers again. Closely related to qi shang ba xia, which means the same as our “I was at sixes and sevens”, but literally translates as “I went up sevens and came down eights”. If it’s not your mental state you’re talking about but your belongings, use luan (chaotic) qi (seven) ba (eight) zao (rotten). As in “You’ll have to excuse me. My house is a bit chaotic sevens and rotten eights at the moment”.

QI LU ZHAO MA Riding a donkey while looking for a horse. You’re with someone, a lover or a spouse, who tends to remind you of a donkey. This will get you around for now, but you’re keeping an eye out for something better to upgrade to at the soonest opportunity. Again, they’ve come up with a saying for this.

* Pssst: The pic of the bear really comes from the website of, your one-stop shop for all weird wooden bear carvings, located perversely in Granite City, Illinois.