From the Tiger Father's mailbag ...
"Dear Tiger Father,
I am new to Beijing, and know a lot of people who are new to Beijing as well. Or at least this will be our first spring here anyway. As such, could you tell us if we will soon see millions of bits of white fluff floating through the air, getting in our noses and eyes, etc etc?
If so, perhaps you can fill us in on some of the details - like what it is, what causes it, and so forth, whilst making some jokes along the way?
Oh I know! If you've actually written something about this already, perhaps you could simply repeat it today, allowing you to get on with other writing projects that are demanding urgent attention? Then you can get back to giving us fresh stuff on Thursday.
Look, if you feel really guilty about it, why not repeat something else you may have written about spring last year as well that we newcomers might not have seen yet? I'd assume not much has changed in a year, right? Maybe add a couple of touches to make it look like they're updated, and throw in a couple of new bits down your right hand column.
Yours in obsessive infatuation,
See the two bits below, and some new bits on the right!
PS: You might have noticed ads have appeared on this site. Some are for dating sites, specifically for Asian women. Just so you know, it's nothing to do with me, OK? The ads are auto-generated by google. Either they don't know most of my readers are heterosexual women, or there's some new wild thing going on that I, as usual, don't know about. So, err, carry on!
Sunday, April 28, 2013
(May 1, 2012)
Last week I returned to my hard-nosed journalist roots and broke the news that spring had sprung.
Well you know what journalists say – a week is a long time in (insert topic here). In this case, a week is a long time in Beijing - including when it comes to the weather, sometimes.
In the space of a few days we’ve been slung from the bucolic wonder of fragrant spring blossoms to Beijing’s peculiar, distinctive and really bloody annoying period known as “mao mao” season. It doesn’t last long, so let’s dub it “a mini-season”, because the media also love to dub things.
I’ll explain what mao mao is in a minute. For now let’s just say it involves transsexual trees, so it qualifies easily for the “weird China” file.
First, let’s just have a detailed run-through of Beijing's climatic obstacle course shall we? Historians believe it explains why Kublai Khan chose it as his capital in the first place, thinking any bloodthirsty conquering types would have second thoughts after checking the forecast.
Here it comes - head for the hills everyone!
Looking like a low-budget '80s rock video,
it's mao mao time again.
In the summer, it’s boiling. Beijing sits on a plain surrounded by mountains on three sides, or what topographers call “a big letter C”. This helps trap the heat and makes the place brain-crampingly hot. The lack of wind at this time assists in keeping the pollution confined to this bowl too.
In winter it’s freezing. Temperatures frequently range from just below zero to “Oh-my-God”. This is often accompanied by an icy north-west wind usually rated by the weather bureau as sufficient to blow a dog off a chain. Last January, Evie and I found ourselves out walking when it was minus 15 with a wind chill of minus 23 (that’s five and -10 for fahrenheiters). In these temperatures, Australian children will usually burst into tears. Often it’s because they’ve just seen their parents doing it. Evie and I rushed home to find another Australian, our houseguest Dobby, who had gone out without his hat. He was now home resting his head. On our oil heater.
And it’s dry. Suddenly, we all look like oil paintings, in the sense that our skin cracks up. Simply exiting a car is fraught with danger, and not for the usual reasons of unorthodox traffic flow. The routine is: 1. Brace for the cold. 2. Brace for a static electricity shock (expect several of those a day). 3. Don’t slip on the ice. 4. Then worry about other drivers.
It snows, but not enough to leave a lasting white coat, just some frozen grey/brown stuff. Unless of course the government tries some cloud seeding to spark precipitation. This inexact science sometimes causes huge dumps of snow that catch everyone unaware and send them into a tizzy, like when Beijing airport had to close the day we were trying to leave for a beach holiday.
Not too far back the weather statistics were a state secret. No doubt the government feared if people knew how cold it really was here, they’d all leave.
It goes from freezing to boiling ridiculously quickly. There’s a good week or two between the extremes in autumn and spring. But more wind comes in at those times, often bringing Beijing’s other constant, the dust.
Originating out in the Gobi desert, the dust is incredibly fine and gets everywhere. It blows under doors, which is unsurprising, but also gets in through closed windows, which makes you wonder. It gets on your skin and between your teeth, and it coats cars, bikes and slow-moving pets. It’s like something Dr Seuss invented.
And, again, it usually comes on a formidable wind. When Evie was two she was literally blown over by a gust as we left a birthday party. It's something she will always remember, partly because her party lollies went scattering along the ground.
Considering the weather generally, tourist chiefs could do worse than adopt the slogan BEIJING … At least it’s flat! It would attract cyclists.
And in spring, if it doesn’t blow dust, it blows mao mao (little hair). These are little white seed-bearing balls of fluff which grow on Beijing’s 3.2 million willow and poplar trees (that’s according to the 2005 tree census. There are stats for everything here).
It could look lovely, like walking amidst softly falling snow without the cold. But softly falling snow doesn’t go up your nose, or into your mouth causing coughing fits. Or in your ears, eyes and hair. Or your home, in restaurants, or mounting up in piles on footpaths etc. With other weather terms like El Nino already taken, Beijing environmental scientists call this annual phenomenon “the Tyra Banks effect”, for something that “looks nice” but is “a complete pain in the arse”.
One man shields his son from the mao mao onslaught
in this globaltimes photo. OK that's a bit alarmist.
They don't exactly hurt ...
... but they do cause people to look a bit odd, like these
women I captured out for a stroll near our home, which
happens to be beside a canal flanked by willows.
This is also by the canal.
The culprit, up close ...
... and seen here playing "catch the mao mao".
At least mao mao gives Evie a new game
each spring. For Lani, however, it brings
... and it's also a bugger if your hair is made
of velcro, like mine.
But if you ball it up and put it on a stick, the kids love
eating it! No I'm joking of course. It's fairy/candy floss.
Being married to a doctor, I know for a fact that you
shouldn't eat mao mao. If you swallow the seeds it
makes you pregnant.
When Mao Zedong said "Let a hundred flowers blossom" he probably didn't have this in mind. Rumour has it mao mao is a side-effect of the planting of vast numbers of trees some years ago for a city greening project, which planners did not anticipate would, for a couple of weeks each year, look more like a whitening project.
Whether that’s true or not, Beijing authorities have taken action to limit the “white-bit count” of some the city's air which, to be fair, already didn't have a lot going for it before mao mao came along.
To this end, and I am not making this up, operations have been mounted to give thousands of these offending trees sex changes. The poplars and willows in question have male and female types, and it is only the latter that produce mao mao.
"We have to change all female trees into male ones in order to stop the production of catkins," Li Xuan, a spokesman for the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Landscape and Forestry, told Beijing website globaltimes.cn.
This can be done in two ways: injecting medicine into the trees, and grafting the tops of male willow trees onto females.
The trouble is, Li said that after two to three years the trees start producing mao mao again, with the sex change process apparently wearing off. It seems this is something Beijingers will have to live with for a while.
Mao mao and some raised red lanterns. What Beijing's all
Unless it's more about mao mao
and statues of lion/doggy type
Or perhaps it's more about mao mao and electrical wires.
See how the white stuff coats the canal.
Mao mao and a Mandarin duck! Top that, all you
"quintessential Beijing" photographers. This was a real
scene I happened upon. I didn't throw the duck
onto the canal for the purpose, I swear. This was
taken within 100 metres of my home. In fact,
all of these shots were. For if there's one thing I've
learned while doing this blog it's that the key
to a good photo is you shouldn't have to
go far to get it.
Mao mao is also visible in this shot, which I
had to take with a hidden camera whilst
discovering a major troop mobilisation
yesterday near the corner of San Li Tun
Road and Liang Ma He South Street.
Moments later the battalion attempted to disguise
itself but soon realised they were fooling
noone and continued their long march.
Thankfully the Americans were onto it,
monitoring the troop movement with
their latest spy craft.
(April 18, 2012)
In one of his most inspired moments, Morrissey, that most miserable of British sods who used to front the band The Smiths - wrote the following:
It’s so easy to laugh, it’s so easy to hate,
It takes strength to be gentle and kind.
It’s one of my favourite lines, and one I like to quote to my daughters. At the same time it’s one I don’t apply to myself exactly all the time in the writing of this blog. This is what I like to call a “double standard”.
Yes it’s easy to poke fun at Beijing. If it were hard, no doubt I wouldn’t do it. For some other lines I quote to my daughters include –
Never do today what you can put off till tomorrow.
If at first you don’t succeed, lie on the couch and watch telly.
China can be a challenging place for a westerner. But thankfully, lots of things happen here to make you smile, or laugh out loud, and I try to document some of them. I don’t think I’m ever guilty of being churlish, petty or nasty in trying to see the funny side, but I do like to call a spade a spade.
And right now, to dish out some credit, the spade is looking quite lovely. For finally it is spring!
Yes, that most wondrous season is here, or in Beijing’s case, those four or five days between freezing cold and boiling hot when the blossoms come out to give Kublai Khan’s old home town a makeover. And then we get a big thunderstorm like we did last night to wash and blow them all away. But nomatter, for a few days there it was a brilliant patchwork of colour. Let’s have a look shall we? Hmmm?
There - see the blossoms?
That's enough of that mushy nonsense. Now here's some other signs I saw on my walk.
Do NOT walk through this park if you're
acutely paranoid ...
... or prone to self-loathing.
Back to the blossoms. They really are spectacular. So
hard to imagine during the long, bleak winter.
Blossoms, willows, bridge,
reflection, soldiers. The lot!
Looks like an ad for God's sake!
These ones were out too, though to be fair,
they are plastic.
Then there were these blossoms by a canal, which
reminded me - Beijing is also a great place if
you like wire.
Now I don't mean to highlight a downside, but perhaps
some of Beijing's wiring could be fixed up a little bit?
Just so it's maybe not so unsightly, or life-threatening?
I'm no expert, on anything, but my dad the electricity
man says this is actually a phone line, so kids won't
get shocked if they want to play skipping games
with it. But my wife the doctor says it is
a strangulation hazard.
I'm not sure why but in Beijing, if your piece of wire is
a bit long, the trick is to just coil it up till it's the right
length. I used to think this arrangement beside the
Golden Pineapple youth hostel was one that would
draw my dad's most bitter professional scorn.
But then I saw this one. Dad says that
in the trade, the technical name for it
is "a rat's nest".
Whereas this is what's known as
"a friggin dog's breakfast".
This looks quite neat really in comparison
to some others. To think someone actually
knows where all these wires go ... is just
way too optimistic.
That yellow bit is not a short-circuiting
captured on film but is in fact the sun,
sweetly filtered by some of the city's
Here the workers were getting creative,
with a production sympathetic to its
Chinesey surrounds. I think they were
attempting one of these ...
It's a fancy little Chinese knot called a
Zhongguo Jie, which means, err,
a "Chinese knot".
I'm thinking I could get rich if I could
just import the only thing they don't
seem to make in this country -
This one I call Pig Pen from Peanuts.
It's not all wire though.
And at times this merging of with nature can look
This looks like an unfolding tragedy. But no,
Dad says it's another phone line. I noticed
this a week ago and when I went back
yesterday it was still there. So maybe
it's meant to be like that. If you pick up
the dangling end and hold it to your ear
you can still hear Mrs Zhou going on about
the woman from downstairs.
My study of old Beijing: An alleyway
and some bikes. A wire runs through it.
Wednesday, April 24, 2013
THURSDAY NEWS REVIEW
I sit around all day surfing the web, trawling for hot news stories, looking at funny photos, playing games and stuff, so that you don’t have to.