Wednesday, September 26, 2012


Meanwhile, somewhere inside the Chinese army ...


"RIGHT youuuuuu miserable lot - fall in and listen up! Lately, you may have noticed, there's been a lot of talk about the People's Liberation Army in the press. This is of course because our old friend Japan, imperial hegemonist that it is, has been committing acts of gross pig-headedness in relation to those magnificent pearls in the ocean, the pride and the very essence of China, the jewel in the crown of the People's Republic - I speak of course of the beautiful Diaoyu Islands. If this thing with Japan kicks off, we'd better be prepared, right?

"Now, we're a very big army. Biggest in the world! But a lot of those so-called 'experts' from the 'media' haven't been very flattering about us, have they? Especially after those photos of our intensive training exercise leaked out. Remember this?

"We didn't look all that hard, did we?   

"Looks more like a pop video than an  
army drill. Bloody Boyz 2 Men
or something.

"OK it was unfortunate we had to do that under a big picture of a teen hearth-throb, swarthy though he was. Sometimes in Beijing you've got to take what space you can find. Ask anyone who goes ballroom dancing on a median strip.

"But today, there's no mucking round, right?"


"We're gonna ramp it up, and have ourselves some proper war games to toughen you blokes up, y'hear?!"


"Then let's go!"

"First, trying our best not to walk on the yellow
bits because they're poison, we'll march to our
 new facility...

" ... under escort from our armoured division. 

"I want to make it clear we'll stop for nothing,
except in the eventuality that the
little man is red.

"Our new facility will be well appointed, with
places to dry your uniforms ...

"... and satellite TV so we can all watch the Aussie Rules
grand final - live and direct from Melbourne!"

"And then after that, we'll have ourselves a proper exercise. With real guns and everything!

"OK, Private Wang!"
"You're on a stake-out. You need to keep your
weapon at the ready. You hold it up and look
along the barrel."
"Like this, Sir?"
"Like that Wang."

"Private Li, you go with him."
"Yes Sir!"
"This is the classic way to secure an area.
One man looks one way, his partner looks
the other way."

"Now Wang!"


"This isn't just any area, is it Wang?"

"It's not, Sir?"

"No, Wang. It's not just any piece of dirt, is it Wang?"


"It's not just some part of China that we're gonna let someone like Japan come in and take over, IS IT WANG?!"


"It's far more than that, Wang! It's ... It's ..."

"It's a car park Sir?"

"Well no it's not just a car park, Wang. This is our car park.
There are other car parks like it, but this one is ours. This car
park is an inexorable part of sovereign China, which brooks
no interference from any outside force."
"Anyone, Sir?"
"Anyone, Wang."
"Well what's that bloke doing, Sir?"
"Which bloke?"
"Him int he pink shirt, Sir."

"Well he's just having a look. Probably out doing his shopping
or something. 

"What should our attitude be to people like this, Wang?"

"No, no, no, hang on! You don't have to shoot him, Wang. We
don't just go around shooting our own people on big expanses
of inner-city concrete, man! Just leave him be. He's entitled to
watch. It's a free country."
"Is it, Sir?"
"Well, strictly speaking, no it's not."
"Well what then, Sir?"
"It's just an expression, Wang, OK?"
"Got it, Sir. An expression, Sir."
"But it is his army in a way. He's one of the people
we've liberated."
"He looks pretty free to me, Sir."
"Then we're doing our job, Wang. Now get back to
looking mean."

"HARRR! Like this Sarge?"
"Yes, pretty good. Remember, if the Japanese come, we've
got to scare the life out of them, you hear!?"
"We've got to look mean!"
"And tough!""YES SIR!"
"Like we're taking no prisoners!"

"We've got to snarl, bare our teeth and ..."
"Oooh, careful everyone! CAAAAR!"

"Yeah watch out for cars guys."
"Yes Sir."
"Never know what they're gonna do."
"Yes Sir!"
"You pretty much know what the Japanese are gonna do.
Colonise, terrorise, pillage ... that sort of thing. But cars
in Beijing, different kettle of fish."
"Yes Sir."
"Just keep your eyes on ..."
"Oh for God's sake."

"OK, wait til she's gone."
"Almost gone, Sir."
"Safe distance?"
"Think so, Sir."

"Better point your guns away from her just in case."
"Yes Sir."
"You never know when those things are loaded."
"Yes Sir!"
"Now look at her."
"She's what we're all about."
"She is, Sir?
"A proud Chinese person."

"How can you tell, Sir?"
"She's wearing a shirt that's all about
China, Wang."
"She is, Sir?"
"Yes, Wang. I think she may have wanted
the word Workers' up there before the
Paradise, but it's clear what she means, Wang."
"Yes Sir!"
"And we're doing it for her Wang."
"We are, Sir?"
"For her and her like, Wang. We're standing
on a wall, making sure she's free to do what
she wants."
"Like walking through an army drill, Sir?"
"Yes, Wang."
 "In a car park, Sir?"
"Just get back to looking mean, Wang."

Monday, September 24, 2012


The change is complete. I have become “one of them”.

Seven years in China can do this to a person. If you’re not careful, you can go feral, adopting several or one life-changing customs you never expected.

Some expats here start to wear black slippers – outside in the daytime. They are the ones most likely to take up tai chi. Some become serial pamperees, wondering how they ever used to do their own nails or exist without a massage at least twice a week. Some take up calligraphy. Still others have even dabbled in the so-called “dark arts” – Communism and Peking Opera.

Not for me, those strands of Chineseyness. I like good sturdy hiking boots (I even went hiking once. July, 1993). There’s no way you’ll get me out in public acting like a preying mantis. I’d be crap at it anyway. In my previous stint at confounding gender stereotypes – working as a temp secretary while traveling in Canada – I was once allowed into an aerobics class with the other secretaries. I was banished after 15 minutes and told to find some coordination.

I can’t stand massages. Masseurs have a chronic inability to rub me in the exact square millimetre I want, and I leave more agitated than I arrived. And as my wife will attest, I’m horrible company in a foot massage chamber when people start poking the soles of my feet like it’s a good idea. I’m afraid I find calligraphy like watching little strokes of paint dry. Communism has tried and failed. And if I could arch my back and make my hair stand on end, it would happen whenever I heard Peking Opera.

Instead I’ve gone local in one of the most liberating, wonderful ways possible. I’ve become a loony singer.

It’s one of the things you notice about China: people riding by on their bike, singing at the top of their voices for all the world to hear – other cyclists, pedestrians, motorists, alfresco diners. In a strictly controlled country where people mostly shuffle round in an orderly, reserved manner, it’s refreshingly free-range.

I used to see them and wince, embarrassed for their sake. But then I thought how happy they seemed.

They reminded me of “the laughers”. In India once I heard a group of men guffawing outside my hotel. Minutes later I noticed they were still laughing. I looked, and couldn’t see anything obviously funny. I went and watched up close. They weren’t laughing at anything in particular. Noone was struggling to re-describe a situation, or repeat a punchline. They were just laughing. It turned out this is what they did. Every day at the same time. They’d meet up, start laughing, then more laughing begat more laughing, and before they knew it they were in tears and stitches. And then they went off  to work, souls renewed.

Here, people will whiz by singing – sometimes melodiously, sometimes malodorously, sometimes trying and failing to hit some outrageously high notes. They don’t care. In our neighbourhood we also have “Pedestrian Opera Man” – a Chinese gent of about 70 who walks the footpaths in the morning belting out European opera. You can hear him a block away. You wish they all sounded like him, but then again, this is not about pitch perfection. 

In the west, people have sung in their cars for decades. Usually this is with the window up. Even then it takes some courage to keep singing and grooving when stopped at lights beside other motorists.
Here, until fairly recently, the rank and file didn’t have cars. If people felt like singing on their way to work, they did so on their bike. In such a tightly controlled society, this was a way to loosen the shackles with impunity. Still they might not have freedom of speech or association. But they are free to get down.

It's not what it looks like. It's a choir.

Here's another one. They're probably singing techno.

The bike singing habit has crept into
China's performing arts, such as with the
Wang Family Singers, the so-called
Partridges on Wheels.

As opposed to a sound-proof car, singing out loud on your bike takes a little courage. But once you start, you feel let loose indeed. It’s more therapeutic than meditation.

You’ll always remember your first time. I bought a bike 18 months ago, and had been riding for a few months with earphones in, humming quietly. Then one day, inspired by a passing tenor, I thought I’d give it a go.

I started sheepishly, singing semi-audibly along to Manfred Mann’s Blinded By The Light. Gradually I became more emboldened. The volume got louder, and, with the thrill of it all, so did my velocity.

Before I knew it I was flying, positively belting it out – a Jonathan Livingston Cyclist. And as I passed within earshot of what soon accumulates as hundreds, if not thousands, of Beijingers, I noticed one thing about them: Noone gave a damn. Noone looked at me strangely, nor disapprovingly – not even at the bit that sounds like “Wrapped up like a douche another runner in the night” (It’s Revved up like a Deuce, by the way, as in a Deuce Coupe car).

Now, there’s no stopping me. And I have a lot of time on my bike to work on things, like harmonies. I’ll go for the high bits – such as in my most guilty pleasure, Sugar Baby Love - and still won’t get looks when I fail. Another great thing is that this being China, noone knows you’re not supposed to like songs like that. Plus, most people can’t speak English, so I can ride along singing Anarchy in the UK without being arrested for subversion.

I’ll hit the lows in some Johnny Cash numbers, including some odd-sounding backing vocals. I’m thinking it must sound strange to be out walking and hear a big foreigner riding by yelling “BA DOOBY DO-WOP WOP”, or it’s near-relative “BA BA BA, BA BARBARA-ANN”. But if I do get looks, they’re usually smiles.

Of course singing on a bike in China can pose dangers.
These two sounded like Julie Andrews when they passed
me. They came back a minute later sounding like
Tom Waits.

But generally it's great fun, apart from all the traffic. This
man was presented with this bouquet after a particularly
stirring performance from La Traviata.

Chinese cyclist Gong Jinjie says singing while riding was
a key to her success at the London Olympics. Here, she
powers to victory in the individual pursuit during a
rendition of one of her favourite 70s hits, YMCA.

Mind you, most Chinese athletes are known
for their wonderful sense of rhythm.

This is what's known in China as the rhythm section,
seen here awaiting his lead singer.

This man sang falsetto.

The air drums. Seriously, anything goes.

There is even a bike singers' brotherhood. One young loony was riding along beside me last week giving a quite decent performance of local pop. I felt I had to show him I understood, and gave him the thumbs up.

“You sing very well!” I said in Chinese.

“Oh thank you,” he replied. Alas, duly encouraged, he launched into some Peking Opera, the kind that sounds like a man has his thumb caught in a vice, and rode away with an “Eee eeeee EEEEE!”.  At least he looked a lot better than he sounded.

I’ll try opera, country, rock and pop. If it helps the rhythm of your cycling, all the better, such as Kraftwerk’s Tour De France. For an extra boost, riding no hands and singing adds on average 25 per cent more joy.

But I haven’t gone completely mad. There are some things I won’t attempt, like scat jazz. Mind you, that shouldn’t be attempted by anyone anywhere. (Another good thing about China is they can just ban stuff like scat jazz).

And you should never attempt spoken bits of songs, like when Elvis says “I wonder if … you’re lonesome tonight?” Singing out loud is one thing. If you’re riding along talking to yourself then indeed you will be looked upon as a bit mental. And in the Elvis example, you might get slapped.

So now I sing along the streets of Beijing with all the elan of a zealous convert. I heartily recommend all other cyclists to join the singers-on-wheels club, in China or wherever you are. It beats a massage hands down.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


... a collection of things from the 'Jing, gathered while out riding my bike this week. And what better to start with than this autumn's must-have accessory ...

We husbands have all been there ...
"Honey - does my butt look too small in this?"
Just what do you say? Now, just hand
her these, on sale at all good fake arse
outlets now. They're sexy, comfortable,
invisible AND perfect!

Wonder if he knows why westerners keep
licking him.

There's a message for all us in there! Somewhere.

The Levi's Young Guns aren't as young as
they used be. Maybe she should start
shopping at ...

It's a kids' store: Because big or small, there's
a little bit of the 60-year-old in all of us!


Under there somewhere is a person.

Another load that came past me.

No pressure on here. For the uninitiated, the lines on the
road don't seem to work as well here as in other places.

As mentioned previously, transport here comes in
 all shapes and sizes. Pretty sure he picked this
one up at the circus.

And sometimes transport looks like this - a taxi
for one. These are very common and, ooh, fairly

And here's another collection: Car,
motor scooter, bicycle and pram.

But don't panic - the pram was empty.
Baby was held up, literally, for
a toilet stop. 

Strictly speaking, it's a bike lane. These are
located beside many roads in Beijing. They
are also beside perfectly good footpaths, but
people don't seem to notice those. What
happens next is the wheelchair doesn't
miss the baby's puddle. 

Speaking of transport, motor scooters continue to remain one of the strongest sources of quality Chinglish ...

They may have advanced technologr, butt it dosnt inclde

Now that's just throwing words at the problem.

Speedboating? For when you like the thrill of travelling
fast over water but you only own a scooter!

SARD - Get it, and it will just improve you.

Down at the construction site.

As is this. Watch for odd-looking black things terracing
your head.

More workplace guidelines. They say you shouldn't text
on the job, particularly if you're employed as a pianist. To
be fair, he still sounded OK. But maybe he was over it
and needed a nap.

If you're going to take a nap at work,
which is pretty standard here, make
yourself comfortable, like this
alfresco barber.

But for napping at work, nothing beats a job as an
attendant at a bouncy castle.

And finally ...

This proves three things: 1. You can take an
OK and even kinda artsy photo while riding
your bike (provided you touch it up later).
2. Dongzhimenwai Street does indeed
run east-to-west as I said on Monday.
3. The sun is big.

* More next Monday readers with who knows what!