Wednesday, February 6, 2013


Of course, it's all very easy to poke fun at a place like Beijing.

In fact that's the main reason I do it.

But really - just start with the climate situation. In January we came through the worst month of pollution on record, or Airmageddon as it was dubbed. Some attempted to dub it Jairnuairy, but that was declared too clever by half and rejected by dubbing chiefs.

On Monday we had a large dumping of snow, called Snowmageddon. Snow is at least exciting here because whenever it falls it feels like the first time snow has fallen.

I mean that in a bad way. Airports close, the traffic is diabolical, everyone runs around screaming "What the hell?", the economy grinds to a halt, et cetera.

Furthermore, last Thursday it rained briefly, the temperature dropped, and Beijing was coated in a sheet of ice that was extremely slippery. This day appeared to avoid a serious dubbing, but shall henceforth be known as Icemageddon.

In any case we've been experiencing a climatalamity. And this morning, as the kids and I rode our bikes to school, it was -16 degrees Celsius, with a wind chill of -22 (or 3 and -7 to the old fashioned). The forecast for Sunday - Chinese New Year's Day, or the first day of Spring Festival - is for a high of -4 and a low of -12 (25 and 11 Fahrenheit). So "Happy Spring", or "I'd Hate to See Winter" everyone!

We are now in the last few days of the Year of the Dragon, who has worn the crown with distinction for the past 12 months. On Sunday, in a glittering ceremony in Beijing, she will hand over to another reptilian favourite as we welcome in the Year of the Snake.

My Chinese wife is keyed up to go watch a traditional lion dance on Sunday morning. Personally, I've seen them and they don't really do it for me. Real lions dancing - maybe. A bear riding a bike? I'm in. A parrot riding a miniature bike? I love those. Plus they're about as Chinese as lions anyway. But - two blokes in a lion suit, with all that noise? I think I'll mark the occasion instead by staying warm inside and paying homage to this:

Yes, we own one of these now. When
you've lived in China long enough,
you're bound to pick one up somewhere.
Funny thing is, they're actually a
product of China's reviled neighbour
Japan. Yet the maneki-neko are seen in
every Chinese restaurant throughout
the world, and many Chinese homes.
See? Can't we all just get along?
Can't we, or at least you two, be united
by a love of the single-flap eyelid,
or a loathing of the knife and fork?

Still, you don't live in China for 2,463 days, as I have, if you don't find parts of it at least in some ways attractive or vaguely tolerable. For instance, on Snowmageddon, I went out riding to see what Beijingers get up to in the cold, and I found ...

Snow circles!
For years, scientists have been baffled by
what causes these mysterious patterns in
the snow. This one appeared by a nifty,
volunteer-made ice rink on the canal by
our compound. Is it a mere piece of
geometric whimsy? An ancient pictograph?
I was thinking it could be the Chinese
character for something, like 'the', but I
figured it wasn't complicated enough.
What are they? And who causes them?
New Year spirits? Aliens? 

Turned out it was this guy, out to brighten
people's days. Gaw bless 'im.

Provided you rugged up, it was a nice
day for a walk ...

Or a dance, as this woman felt.

Elsewhere, it was a day for the
ancient pursuit of ice fishing.

See what I've done here? Old guy?
Old ways? Shiny big modern building?
Changing China? Hmmm?

Some other men fishing by the big red sticks, which look
great in the snow. Alas you can also see possibly Beijing's
ugliest building, the Kunlun Hotel. I chatted with the
fishermen, and it turns out they don't catch much. And
when they do, they're usually about two inches long.
But maybe that's not really the point. As a man fishing
in waist-deep surf in Australia told me one night, it's
cheaper than seeing a psychiatrist. (If he wasn't holding
a fishing rod, everyone would have thought he was nuts).

I'm no expert photographer, but I do
know the key to taking photos in China:
Get a bicycle into it!

Apart from bikes, the Chinese love fish
tanks. Here's a man practising tai-chi by
balancing a fish tank ornament on his foot.

And just across the road...

God the Chinese army are poor aren't they?
Here a soldier goes through a drill using
a broom instead of a costly real weapon.

Gearing up for a post-Apocalyptic war with
Japan: Broom-to-broom combat.

Or perhaps they were just sweeping up
snow. This ice-cream-parlour-shaped
building is in fact the Embassy of

In winter, Beijingers keep warm by
eating roasted sweet potatoes, cooked
and kept warm using a 44-gallon
drum with a coal fire in it.

Then there's the hot soup vendor and
of course, in the background, a man
selling pineapples.

People and birds got to enjoy the snow together.

Not sure what was going on here.

And then this made my day. I thought: "How poignant that
though our cultures might be radically different, some
constants of human existence transcend boundaries".
Then I wept.

Last weekend, we escaped the Beijing cold, and went
somewhere colder. The Great Wall village of Gubeikou
is only an hour's drive from sparkling Beijing, yet here
they are, grinding flour the old school way.

Then, also in the old school way, they put our children to
use with some hard labour.

Hand-pushed grindstones and Chinese sword dancing. It's all happening!

It's an ancient form of expression as old as China itself.
A kindly local explained the dance was expressing the
sentiment: "Bugger off foreigner! And move your car!"
After we left, these and the grindstone women all went
inside and watched 3D TV and played Playstation.

Back in the 'Jing ...

It's Chinese New Year's day on Sunday, and that can mean only one thing ...

We're hoping people observe this in our compound. The
15-day Spring Festival is without doubt the noisiest time
on earth.

Noone's quite sure what this road sign means, however.
It's up all year round. "Don't drive here in an angry car"?
"Or in an exploding car"?
"With planks of wood falling on it?"

The fireworks vendors have sprung up on street corners.

You can pretty much buy any sort of
firework you want, from 'penny bungers' to
massive New-Year's-Eve-on-Sydney-Harbour
style pyrotechnics, all available to be
held in your hand and fired at buildings,
across roads, etc.

That's all for this week. China will now close down for it's big New Year holiday. And as I always say, when China closes down, so do I. But only for a week. Back on February 18.

In the meantime, below is what we artists get away with calling a reprise, or a regurgitation, of what I did last year to explain what Chinese New Year is really all about. Enjoy. (And don't forget, if you're bored next week you call find all sorts of old posts in the Popular Posts and Archive sections to the right).


  1. hahahaha
    yet another fun post!

    I was expecting you to write about feng shui and when I saw the lucky cat, I was excited.
    But :(
    Anyway, Happy New Chinese Year!