Tuesday, December 10, 2013


Hi Readers! Here's my column from That's Beijing/Shanghai/Guangzhou magazines this month. Merry Christmas!

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THIS family has big plans for Christmas. First we're going to euthanize Santa. Then we're going to hang on a beach in Vietnam.

It's probably time. I've never been to Vietnam before. As for Santa, our eight-year-old Lani has started asking awkward questions, like "Daddy, are you a liar?"

Perhaps not that pointed, but the inevitable question about the North Pole's most famous resident came up over dinner last week. Since there was a six-year-old also at the table, I made the very clever parent move of telling Lani that we would "talk about this later". I then winked at her and slashed my throat.

Only with a finger, mind you. I don't find these parenting situations that troubling. But it is probably time we labelled as "fiction" this tale about an exotic place where lots of not very tall people work feverishly to make presents for the world's children. For one thing, everyone now knows that place is called "China". For another, there are some fantastic other Santa-ish Christmas tales around the world. As citizens of expat-land's cultural melting pot, maybe we should try a few.

There's the Russian one. Just to confuse things, Russia's "Santa" delivers presents not on Russian Christmas (January 7) but on New Year's Eve. He goes by the name of Ded Moroz.

Now, I don't want to claim our Christmas is any more jolly, or point at Russia's famous national vibe of melancholy, or misère de vivre, but goodness their main spreader of joy sounds perilously like "Dead Morose".

Ded Moroz sounded to me like a heavy metal band. Or perhaps a stun grenade. Or a used condom. But the internet said it meant "Grandfather Frost". When you become a grandfather in Russia, straight away they just start calling you Ded. I can see walking sticks being shaken angrily everywhere. As for Moroz, there was confusion.

For clarification I turned to my friend from the gym, Roman. He's not Russian but he is from Estonia (motto: "If it's not exactly Russia, it'll do til we get some"). As me and my fellow large bald man sat naked in the sauna talking about Santa, I finally found understanding. "Moroz" is actually the term for when the temperature drops below about minus 10 Celsius. So really, Father Christmas in Russia is more like "Grandfather F***ing Freezing".

Russia also has none of this North Pole business. Ded Moroz lives in Veliky Ustyug, a town of 32,000 people a few hundred kilometres north-east of Moscow. You can probably see him there in the summer doing whatever Russians do - trimming his roses, running an export-import business, etc.

The Russians in fact have two people said to dish out presents. The other is Babushka. It's Russian for "grandmother", but this Babushka is special.

One night, as the snow fell heavily in mid Russian winter, this very old lady was sitting by the fire in her cottage when there was a knock on the door. It was THE three wise kings of the east. They were wise enough to know the son of God had been born in what is now Israel. But apparently they were still hopeless with maps.

The kings told Babushka what had happened, and said she should go with them to meet Jesus. As she stood in her doorway while the kings beckoned her out into the snow, without a moment's hesitation Babushka looked up at them and cleared her throat to speak. She said "Nuh", and closed the door.

The next day she remembered she was supposed to go out and do something, or find someone. "Was it Jeff? Gene? Ooww!" she groaned. Though vexed, she headed off from house to house asking if the occupants had seen a "baby" or a "saviour" or "something like that". One after the other, the residents all said "NO DEAR!" Perhaps to avoid embarrassment she decided to leave them presents, and has been doing it ever since.

Ded Moroz, complete with hair and beard.
No, just kidding. He's supposed to be jolly, remember?

This is him.

No really, this is him. He doesn't look so bad.
He delivers presents with the aid of a young
female companion. This Ded Moroz appears
to live by the motto: "Why have one when
you can have two?" But don't get the wrong
impression. She's his granddaughter, who
goes by the distinctive name Snegurochka.

Spurred, and upset, by the thought there might be
someone in Russia more popular than him, the
the country's Grand Ruler Vladimir Putin recently
made a snap visit on Ded Moroz in Veliky Ustyug.

Putin watched enviously as Ded Moroz told him
it wasn't enough to merely achieve amazing feats -
whether they be delivering presents across Russia
in just one night, or changing a constitution to
prolong your presidential power - but you should
try to be liked as well.

Putin said he was grateful to Ded, but would reserve the
right to have final say on his "Naughty or nice" list.

Meanwhile this is an artistic representation of
Babushka. They do like to rock hard, these
elderly Russian Christmas figures.

Luckily an artist was present when King Balthasar
explained to Babushka: "Yeah I think we got a bit
stuffed up around the Khyber Pass".

I'd heard the Dutch Christmas had a crazy twist. So I grabbed the first Dutch person I could find, a man called Fred at a friend's wedding, and asked him. It started with a shock. There was no reindeer.

"Well Santa Claus turns up with his whores," he said, as I spat my beer all over him.

I liked this Santa better than ours already. I pictured him in a sleigh, jacked right up at the front, with a set of really big speakers booming out something a bit more gangsta than Jingle Bells.

"No, his HORSE," said Fred, more clearly.

Still the story was astounding. The Dutch Sinterklass used to be a Greek bishop in Turkey sometime in the first millennium AD. He retired to take up the position of Dutch Santa, residing in ... Spain. No one is sure why he lives there, but my money's on the weather. Where would you rather live - the North Pole, Veliky Ustyug, or Spain? Especially if you're the wrong side of 1,000.

Usually Sinterklass goes around with a much loved colored man named Pieter, who is more commonly known as Black Pete. He is usually depicted in all sorts of garb, like curly hair and made up red lips, and performs functions like distributing candy. By the look of him it wouldn't surprise if his roles also included tap dancing and singing "My Mammy". In fact there are usually a handful of Black Petes, who since the mid 19th century have been called Sinter's, umm, "servants".

Early on, Dutch Santa and the Petes would turn up, and if children had been good he'd reward them with presents. If they'd been bad, they would be punished by getting no presents. They would also get a good kicking and a beating from Santa. If they were especially bad a Pete would bundle them into a sack and they'd be dragged back to Spain to a mysterious - but presumably wretched - fate.

Since the 1950s, however, this tale has been softened up. Now if children are naughty Santa only pretends to give them a good kicking and beating.

The Dutch story - which is replicated in Belgium - is so bizarre it has caught the attention of more and more people in recent years. These include people from the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights. They couldn't help noticing the story might be a wee bit racist, especially since people playing the Petes in Christmas parades wear "blackface" make-up.

Hopefully the Petes will soon be retired, replaced by a more universally loved breed of Christmas helper. For as the old saying goes - you're alright as long as you've got your elf.

Sinterklaas and some Petes at a Christmas parade.
Defenders of the Pete tradition say it's a harmless
bit of fun that delights parade-goers every year ...

... such as these merry revelers at one such event.

We Australians even have our own slant on Christmas.
According to some accounts, when Santa descends on
our country, he is flown around by a group of rare Albino
kangaroos, or "Six White Boomers" as a song goes.
This might be because his reindeer faced a month in
quarantine because of Australians strict importation
laws and fear of foot and mouth disease.
This parochial story hasn't really caught on, however.
For starters, kangaroos bounding through the air would
give a much rougher ride than reindeer ...
OK, I'm gonna stop now, or all these Christmas story ideas
told to our ever-trusting children might just start to seem
a bit absurd.

I'll leave you instead with a more normal image of the pure, unadulterated Santa known and loved by most of the western world.

Merry Christmas to all!

Wednesday, October 9, 2013


Hi Readers!

The leaves are turning yellow and soon another pleasant, all-too-brief Beijing winter will be upon us. Your humble chronicler of life in the capital has been busy away from this blog over the summer, but that doesn't mean I haven't been collecting photos of some of my favourite Beijing things, because I have.

Here they are in no particular order or theme, in another of my intermittent posts on this blog which, I can sincerely promise, will bob up from time to time.

Yours etc,



From the "more is more" school of Chinese interiors
comes this waiting room at a certain Beijing family fun
attraction, set off by what appears to be a stunning original
Madonna-and-God type of painting ...

... but which is in fact one of those Marilyn Monroe and
Osama bin Laden ones.

What's with Osama here? Perhaps its because in a country where you'll find a rarely-found level of respect for Hitler, they do love the audacious (as again shown by the interiors above).

Here, as another example, are some playing cards I found
for sale in the "History's Most Notorious" section.

It'd all be enough to make officers at this police station fly
into a frenzy, but perhaps they were too busy enjoying
their new "Magical Kingdom" wing.

It had this man up in arms. Unless he was upset about
another tawdry car parking effort. Or unless he was just
carrying a pane of glass down the road.

Nope. Just exercising.

Further down the road, I found some other Beijing sights, like people getting their wedding photos done ...

... and enterprising traffic-light merchants
trying to hit up impulse buyers.

Phone jacks! Turtles! Alive, alive-oh!

Vendors like clumping things together here, as with this cartoon section.

Never before has Elmo rubbed shoulders with Cartman.

Family Guy meets Baby Einstein.

We all know how marketing works but, really, we're sick of restaurants making over-the-top claims about themselves.

This posting seeking work as a maid is a little more
(PS: This is not from a helpful niece. The Chinese word
for "maid" - Ayi - is also the word for "aunt".)

Pushing my buttons ...

... in an elevator.

Elevator marketing is big business here. Often it's ads
telling women how badly they need plastic surgery. This
one breaks away from Chinese adages about learning. 
It declares that "Beauty changes life", not stupid old study,
which has clearly bored this wrinkly old bat to tears.

Mind you, I'd be bored too if all my English-language
books had been printed backwards.

In the same lift, from the same plastic surgery mob, a week later ...

Now with added vertebrae.

Or how about we take one woman, and swap her for
a different one!

After trawling through some old catalogues, we found some of the above model's previous work.

Pretty sure it's her.
Close enough.

Still vaguely connected to marketing, a catchy name for a bike is everything ...

Whilst in cars, you can't go wrong with some sporty-looking writing on the side ...

... written backwards. Alas while Race Car is
a palindrome, Racing is not.

Car buffs might like some other things in Beijing.

It looks like I've squeezed the photo.

But I haven't.

This one takes the cake.
And the Fred Flintstone award.

If you moved home from Beijing in the summer, you might miss some other kinds of vehicles.

Like the ostentatious motors of wealthy locals fond
of driving around with no number plates,
whilst not giving a toss ...

... and double-parking.

Here's another.

And another.

This one's from the "I'm f*cking parking here!" file.

They're an innovative bunch...

... including when it comes to car safety
for little ones. Of course if you've already
spent many thousands on a new car, why
go the extra 200 for a baby capsule?
What you can't see in this shot is the
toddler strolling around on the back seat.

You might also miss perplexing instructions for kids' modeling kits ...

... which tell you, in step three, to basically figure it out
for yourself.

And there's one sight of summer that everyone who leaves here will miss ...

People getting about in their jammies!

If you've bought a new pair of
pyjamas, it seems a shame that
only those in your house will
see them.

The toddler's dressed. The adult is
in her jammies. They do do a lot
of things in an opposite way to the
west here.

If it's not the sleepwear, it could be something else.

But whether it's plastic bags or some other kind of head covering, you can only admire a people who give so few shits about what anyone thinks of them.