Sunday, November 1, 2009

Back in blog land

Ah, I’m back in blog land. The Public Security Bureau (PSB) has tried and generally succeeded in shutting me off the airwaves for quite a while now. Whatever virtual network I used was quickly smote down by the powers that be in Beijing.
The tough censorship in this country is at times infuriating. Strangely I get Facebook messages in my email inbox, but that site as well as so many others (YouTube, Twitter, blogs, many news sites, etc, etc) are banned.
As a journalist operating here there are concerns. Everything I do (including email) is tapped, phone calls 'n all. To illustrate this point, I have the PSB coming to my office from time to time to catch up. The last time they came and discussed recent articles I had written that they'd read. In general they liked them and we discussed them at length. It was only after I left that I clocked the last article we'd be discussing had not even been published yet -- they could only have read it via my email!
Another example of the strange attitude towards journalists here, at a bar the other night I was chatting with a Chinese guy. He was an English teacher and asked what I did. 'I'm a journalist,' I said. Immediately, without a bat of an eyelid, he said, 'Oh, so you're a spy!' I attempted to explain the difference of Western and Chinese media. He was drinking what looked like Limeade. I said that if Beijing says his glass is actually full or red wine, then that is what Chinese journalists will diligently write to their readers where as we in the West would question whether that light green liquid really is red wine. This difference was lost on him.
Anyway, by and large I do keep off controversial subjects up here, but I do find the position of ethnic minorities in China fascinating and have written plenty on this topic and that is contentious. It sounds paranoid, but I have the British Embassy in Beijing on speed dial just in case.
So after a blackout of what seems like ages (a decade ago, no internet would have been no big deal, how times change!) I’m now foot loose and fancy free on the World Wide Web. How? Via the ingenuity of HideIPVPN, genuises who mask my online presence back to Blighty thus circumnavigating the Great Firewall of China. I salute them, thank them and will now return with haste to the wonders of the previously out of reach BBC iPlayer.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Farewell Kashgar

In the earthy confines of an ancient Uighur courtyard house in the heart of the endangered Old City of Kashgar a shaft of sunlight illuminates the deep furrows of an ageing face. In front of me sits an elegant 97-year-old Uighur lady, an ornate shimmering white shawl draped over her head. Given the repression meted out in this Muslim outpost of China her name shall remain anonymous.
Her deep lines on her forehead reflect the tumultuous times she has lived through. Speaking in a quiet croaky voice, perched on a ledge, she recalls the arrival of the Communists. “From then on our lives were never to be the same, for better or for worse,” she says in a hushed tone, anxious not to be overheard by any of the hundreds of spies who mill about town. A shard of light spotlights half her face, and falls to the wall below her and intricate blue and white patterned tiling of the house she has called home all her life.
In 1958, Kashgar was electrified, something that changed daily working habits dramatically.
Ten years later, red guards charged through the old lanes, tearing off women’s scarves, smashing ancient relics and mosques, burning books and pillaging old homes.
“But we survived that,” recalls the old lady. “That was easy with what came next.”
Chinese authorities tore down much of the ancient city wall, a 10-metre-high earth berm, and paved over its moat in the 1980s to create a ringroad. The roar of cars is now monotonous from this lady’s house.
At the end of the 1990s, running water came to the old city. With the onset of the new century though and the whole nation undergoing irrevocable change, redevelopment sped up in Kashgar with many old lanes jettisoned in favour of a wide highway known as Liberation Road that bisects this ancient dwelling.
In 2002, renovations to the Id Kah Mosque commenced. “If they could touch that, well then, we knew nothing was sacred in their eyes,” recounts the old lady. “We knew then that it would only be a matter of time before they came knocking our way.”
During this round of renovations, the traditional bazaar and old residential area in front of the mosque vanished and were replaced by a broad, dull square and giant commercial buildings on the other side of the street. Hanification was in full swing now that the railway was up and running.
My kind host pats the earthen wall beside her. “Look,” she says, “this is a proven way of living in the desert. These walls are cool in summer and hot in winter. What do they know about desert life,” she says dismissively, her wrinkled hand waving weakly to her side.
I spent a month in Xinjiang province in August 2008, an incredible trip, one I’ll remember for the rest of my life, not least the sights, sounds, smell and people of Kashgar. But I know it is a city with little time left. When the announcement comes through earlier this year that 85% of the remainder of the Old City is to be razed to the ground I am saddened, irritated, despondent, but not surprised.
“Because many houses were built privately without any approval, the life of residents is not convenient and the capability against earthquakes and fire is weak,” a report in the state-run local media said. “Our target is every family has a house, every family has employed members and the economy will be developed.”
The fact that these centuries old houses have withstood countless earthquakes in the past unlike, say, the modern cheap rubbish that was blown away in last year’s Sichuan earthquake is, needless to say, not discussed. 220,000 Uighurs are moving out of their beautiful homes. Any house with a red + sign on the wall is due for demolition, not unlike the dreaded star that marked doom for Jews during the Second World War.
In a 2008 book called Kashgar: Oasis City on China's Old Silk Road, architect and historian George Michell described the Old City as “the best-preserved example of a traditional Islamic city to be found anywhere in Central Asia.”
The outcry over the city’s demolition might have been larger had it been where it rightfully belongs, on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, but Beijing never applied to have it certified.
I slurp down the remains of my tea and get up to leave, thanking her profusely for her hospitality. “Now go and tell others of what’s happening here,” she urges me. “Our way of life is coming to an end.” Outside her pink studded door, there’s a red + on the wall. Her days in the old city are numbered.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Cup of copy

Journalists are machines that convert coffee to copy. This rather wonderful description of my profession I saw on Facebook just now and it perfectly captures my August, easily one of the most word-intensive ones I’ve had to endure.
A Hong Kong chum, who I shared this coffee/copy witticism with, added: "...and then back into Carlsberg and so goes the circle of life..." Amazingly, this month has been, by and large, an alcohol free one for yours truly. Strange times, indeed.
My day starts with espresso and by 11am I’ve generally gone through a cafetiere, averaging 500 words a cup. In total, this wildly exhausting month has seen the best part of 50,000 words churned out. Caffeine intake has been horribly high to the point whereby I swear it makes no impact and yet people look at my crazy, strained, hopping eyes and beg to differ.
Though I am now heading to Europe there is no let up – September’s output is going to keep baristas happy everywhere – at least another 40,000 words.
Time to put the kettle on.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Football tribalism

Thwack, bang, crack, capow.
In the movies when they punch people, the sound is very perceivable of fist hitting skin yet in real life when someone throws a punch the sound makes no more than a dull thud at best.
One Saturday a year or so ago in the UK heading back from watching my team Charlton Athletic lose 2-0 at Ipswich, the train I was on got delayed quite quickly due to rioting in a carriage resulting in severe damage necessitating police action. It was merely a precursor of worse to come. Getting back into London I dived onto the Northern Line and made my way to London Bridge where I then waited on platform 5 for my 8.38 down to Paddock Wood.
Three West Ham fans walked past, turned the corner and were heading to the loo. A mirror copy of them - fat, bald, pointed face, unhealthily white but with a light blue Millwall shirt on - turned to one of the West Ham fans and sneered, “You’re scum”.
“What’s that, mate?” replied the West Ham fan. “West Ham… scum,” came the rasping reply. These two teams are old foes. Quickly the atmosphere on the platform turned dark.
One of the West Ham supporters tried to keep it civil but the Millwall fan kept baiting them. Eventually two of the Hammers lads drag their most aggressive mate away and head to the loo. But, as they approach the door, he hands his friend his stuff like his phone and glasses and says, “Don’t worry, I’ll be back in a moment.” He swivels round, walks up to his nemesis and plants a huge punch on the Millwall fan’s face. The scuffle starts.
The antagonism had been big and all three West Ham fans lay in to the Millwall guy who quickly falls to the ground. He’s getting kicked, he’s getting punched. He stands. The whole platform sways and is watching horrified at proceedings. He gets up, his face bloodied. He spits and a couple of teeth clatter onto the platform. The West Ham fans have taken a bit of a beating too and their faces look puffy. The Transport Police are called. The skirmish continues in and out of a train carriage, delaying trains.
These two teams brought football into dispute once again this week with massive carnage over at Upton Park. It is sad that something so tribal and yet so frivolous as football continues to cause such damage to the reputation of this country, damaging our bid to host the 2018 World Cup.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Running man

I’ve loved running since I came to Asia. Hated it before then, mind. Could never think of anything more stupid. Now though I love it. It’s a time to reflect, get your thoughts in order, have strong creative ideas, get fit and enjoy the endorphin rush at the end – a free high! Anyway, of late I’ve been seriously getting back into it as part of a healthy month involving no booze, plenty of fruits, the odd juice fast and a quarter marathon a day – and, for my sins, I am signing up for the London Marathon. The daily quarter marathon, though repetitive, I now find pretty easy. So yesterday I did something other than my normal flat urban route, heading to the stunning countryside around Binhai Lu in southeastern Dalian. I Google Mapped the route ahead of time.
That run taught me I am not invincible yet -- the proverbial wheels really came off. It was my first big hill run for ages and ages and left me knackered. The rugged park area was incredibly steep and most people get ferried in little electric buggies or at most they walk small down hill stretches. Gumbo here is running for Britain and it’s a scorcher so I take my top off. Things do jiggle on my body, for sure, but it’s a definite improvement over a month ago, the previous day's juice fast and that morning's subsequent ass like a Japanese flag certainly keeping things more trim.
Having risen from sea level to 900 metres -- which is a darn steep old climb -- the road then starts to weave down and down super steep and I'm thinking, “Oh ok, I've seen Google Maps, this will get to the coast then I'll be able to whizz left along the coast and back home.” Anyway, I'm running and running, down and down, even overtaking these electric buggies. Now running downhill for a lengthy period always makes me uneasy. Running suffers a reverse Newtonism -- what goes down, must go up. Anyway I get to the bottom where there's a couple of hundred people queuing up to take them back up the hill. They all applaud as I go past them … then disaster strikes. Google Maps in China is, of course, out of date the minute the satellite passes by. There's a huge great construction site where my road back home should have been. It's blocked off which means I have to go back the way I came. Gingerly I turn around, knowing there's 200 pair of eyes on me. It's now a face thing, I know I've got to pony up, look nonchalant and get cracking. I set off, muscles already screaming, and get up half way back up this incredible hill, out of sight of the crowd at the bottom who have cheered me on, taking pictures and videos of this giant, hairy beast, before I walk – or more rather hobble - the remaining 6 clicks or so. The London Marathon mercifully is still seven months away.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Russian randonée

Regular readers (as if!) might recall the concept of flâneuring around a city, namely going for a random walk, taking the first right, then the first left, next right etc, an idea given to me the other day by someone on the conference circuit in Shanghai. The word flâneur was coined by Baudelaire meaning a random stroller. Being such an evocative language French has a wonderful word for hiking – randonée – which sounds similar to random. Anyway, a couple of weeks back after the breakfast of a lifetime in the opulent surroundings of the Grand Hotel Europe in St Petersburg I went on my first random walk, and it was marvelous.
The hotel is world class, scene of countless movies, and, lucky for me, I’ll be back there in six weeks. It was quite a drag to take myself out of its luxurious embrace but keen to break my flâneur duck and walk off all that sour cream with the caviar I headed out onto a cobbled street lined with black, tinted windows Mercedez and took my first right and then first left, adhering to the random rules.
As luck would have it this simple act takes me onto one of the most famous, glorious streets in all of Russia – and indeed Europe – Nevsky Prospect, a commercial throughfare dotted with glorious historic buildings, the heart of the city commissioned by Peter the Great. It’s a wide street, as so many are here, and to get to my next right down Sadovanya Street I have to pass under a subway, littered with tourist stalls.
The right side of Sadovanya Street is lined by a light yellow colonnaded building. Part of the joys of being here in summer are the jaw dropping, revealing sights on every pavement, the local women, especially nearer the richer centre of town, strutting around in very little. Repeatedly I find my head craning around in amazement as one beautiful creature, all cheekbones and endless legs, follows another.
I cross the road to take the next road on the left by the Calvin Klein Jeans store. How times have changed here since my only other visit, back in the latter days of Yeltsin in 1998. The city centre is clearly richer, brands fight for position and there’s way more cars and consequently traffic. The upside of all of this is that the ancient buildings are in better shape than before and there are less overt signs of tramps and beggars. I take the left down a small diagonal road, Krilova Street.
At the end I take a right onto Ostrovskoga Square. Gorgeous yellow palisades abound and there’s a large theatre with statues peering from the walls ahead. Peter the Great insisted on painting so many buildings such wonderful pastel colours to get over the monotony of the bleak Russian winters. To my left is an inviting leafy park but I’m sticking to the rules like I’m the Dice Man or something and the rules say to go right here. After a couple more turns around the square I’m onto a boulevard, symmetrically designed with more yellow colonnaded giant buildings on either side. It’s a quiet part of town, at least it is on the Wednesday morning I drop by.
It really is a stunning city – my first equal fave alongside La Paz in Bolivia, though they are both very different. Bah humbug to all this Venice of the North crap. St Petersburg is a city in its own right and beyond comparison.
A bridge up ahead across a river looks tantalizingly out of reach according to my new random code, until I look more carefully at the way there – left, right, left as proscribed does indeed take me to the 18th century bridge, left around a roundabout, right along the water and left onto the bridge; dark storm clouds the only impediment to the otherwise picture postcard 360 degree view.
Afterwards, it’s a right along the water on Poutanki Street, the day beginning to warm up.
Up ahead a sign clearly states the next left is a dead end but the code dictates left. I take it regardless. The street is packed tight with large deep yellow and pink edifices. A lengthy queue of swarthy men waits for some government office to open.
It begins to rain. Bugger. Why didn’t I bring my swanky hotel umbrella with me?
It isn’t a dead end. There is no premature death of my first random walk. I can make out a bus crossing a road in the distance, 500 metres or so ahead.
I turn right through some grimy housing complex. Russian techno music blares out of one window, a number of neighbouring panes are cracked. The paint on the walls is peeling. This is more like the St P of yore.
A man in overalls walks towards me carrying a large rusty scythe. I take a left onto Djamvulu Street. A 50-year-old lies sprawled on the street, shitfaced. A comrade comes and yanks him up. He can’t walk straight. In fact, he can’t walk at all, quickly squatting back down, his capped head resting on his trembling knee.
Russia holds many demographic records, not all good. For instance, no place on earth has a greater disparity between male and female life expectancy than here – 13 years being the gap. Why? Alcohol. The average male lives for just 53 years in this country. 53, for Christ’s sake! The average vodka consumption in the population – the average of everyone that is, including babies – is 50 bottles a year. On my previous trip to Russia, I wrote about an especially alcoholic morning of toasts and clinking of shot glasses in Vladivostok. One of the characters in that particular chapter of my life was dead a month after I met him, his liver pickled like kimchi.
On a street corner my eyes alight on a poster for some scantily clad buxom young things – the Troika bar. Ads for sleaze in this town are commonplace. A typical walk in the city centre will involve turning down five or six business cards for escorts.
I take a right onto Zagorodny Street, past the Jazz Philharmonic Hall. I check what’s on in the evening – Konstantin Mamonov on sax, niiiice. Perhaps I’ll go and check him out. (I don’t – vodka and a nightclub put paid to that cultural idea).
Turning left I pass a supermarket and inhale the sweet smell of fresh fruit. An ad on a bus shelter exhorts youngsters to sign up for a glorious career in the navy.
My next right is into a park – ahead of me the yellow glow of a McDonald’s sign juts out. I can’t help but think of the Economist’s great way of tracking global currencies – the Big Mac Index, how prices of Ronald McDonald’s most famous offering compare to home soil in the US. Russia has been hit hard by the downturn. Oil and gas comprise 90% of the Russian economy. All fine ‘n dandy during most of this decade when demand from abroad has been booming and prices sky rocketing. Come the downturn though and the appetite for gas, especially from Europe, has dropped, as too have the prices for oil and gas. The curse of being an energy economy – a phenomenon well known through out the world – has come home to roost, the ruble dropping off quicker than Lidia’s sequined robe at the Troika Bar 300 metres behind me.
At the entrance to the park an old man reads the local paper pinned to a shelter for all to read communally just like in China.
A monolithic ugly 1960s concrete theatre sits in the middle of the park. The commies sure didn’t have the design aesthetic of the tsars.
Taking a left in the park I reflect on my less stressed eardrums. It’s nice to be away from the groan of the incessant traffic momentarily.
The roar quickly returns though as I take a right onto a busy main road called Marata. There’s little to commend it, which has been a rarity on the walk thus far. As I jot this thought down I almost walk into a muddy puddle, sidestepping in somewhat theatric fashion at the last moment. I pass a dodgy DVD shop. The illicit DVD trade is a mainstay of the Russian mafia, and one who’s supply chain I am interested in covering at some point, albeit at arm’s length so no mafia lead is inserted at high speed into the back of my head. It’s a rotten place to be a journo here, just like in China too.
I’m thirsty.
There’s train tracks at the end of the road. It takes me back to 1998 again and how I arrived in this great city, drinking vodka with Russian sailors on a train ushering in my 21st birthday. Yesterday I turned 32. The rolling stock looks just as old now, while I have definitely aged too – grey hair on my temples beginning to take root, a 36 waist now, rather than those svelte 32 or 34 days.
I head left onto another grimy, drab road walking parallel with the tracks. Two ladies on little ponies clip clop past.
The day before a concierge at the über flash hotel had produced a map saying everything I needed to see was “here” – drawing a neat, tight circle around the hotel. “It’s all within 15 minutes walk,” he had said. What he said is true in that the centre is the spruced up, most stunning part of town but this randonnée gives me another point of view.
An old man in a black leather coat shuffles ahead of me, stops, looks up, turns around, grunts, his vivid blue eyes looking dazed. He’s walking the wrong way. I’m just walking the random way.
An Asiatic women walks past, weighed down with her daily groceries. Her presence is a reminder of the vastness of this nation that straddles two continents and takes up to ten hours to cross by plane, and God knows how long by road given the pathetic Russian infrastructure whereby there are no motorways outside of St Petersburg or Moscow.
Turning right, I walk alongside a waterway and under a bridge, train tracks overhead. Looking down, the water sure is murky. Russia suffers from appalling environmental mismanagement. A couple of dilapidated factories in the distance might explain the toxic H2O.
I’m now well clear of the glitz and glamour of central St P and into the industrial suburbs and still rather thirsty.
A dumpy woman with bright red hair walks past. Her green tshirt says amusingly: “Don’t bother. I’m not drunk enough.” Having dabbled in the tshirt business myself, my imaginary riposte tshirt would read: “Don’t bother. I’m not blind yet.” I chuckle to myself at my mean sense of humour and carry on.
A left over a bridge and a right along the same waterway, a sign telling me it’s the Obvodnoya Canal. I think I can guess where I am on the map that is burning a hole in my pocket but until I stop I cannot look at it – that’s a rule I just made up to add to the randomness.
Still, the end comes quickly, my thirst winning the argument. Two thirds of the way down the street I see the magical sign KAΦE. Time for a coffee and a sit down. It’s basic inside but I spy the all important espresso machine and plonk myself down. Amid the formica the back wall laughingly has a photographic wallpaper of a grand old library full of mock shelves stuffed full of leather bound tomes. Everywhere in this great city has delusions of grandeur.
The middle-aged bufoned proprietress shows me exactly where I am on the map; essentially in the bottom centimetre of the central map due south of the hotel. It’s been a great hour and three quarter stroll.
I must have walked along 50 to 60 streets to get to this coffee shop yet to get back takes just three throughfares and 40 minutes.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

In the footsteps of Hitler

The other day I trod in the footsteps of both Adolf Hitler and the last Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II. I was having a gander around a palace by the Neva river in stunning St Petersburg that was occupied by an uncle of Tsar Nicholas. It was suitably sumptuous and, in fact, I will be attending a private reception there next month (what a show off!). Anyway, on the second floor was a series of interconnecting rooms with a thick, rich, grey carpet with Beaujolais red patterns (pictured) in each room. This carpet, measuring some 60 metres by 10 metres, has been at the foot of key moments of the 20th century. It was originally laid down at this palace before moving to the Crimea at a summer retreat used by the tsar. It was nabbed by the Nazis in 1942 and taken to Hitler’s bunker where it was trampled on by increasingly agitated and cranky Nazi high command before mass suicide and Soviet victory whereupon the carpet was taken back to its original home in St Petersburg.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Selling like hotcakes in Moscow

You know you're staying in a flash hotel when ... (Part II)

When ex-US presidents (normally George Snr and Bill C) are schmoozed in the lobby photos by the invariably balding Swiss sounding GM of the establishment in the rogue’s gallery of mugshots … along with the odd selection of C celebs – Dolph Lungren anyone!

You know you're staying in a flash hotel when ... (Part I)

You find a note such as this tucked into the highly prized bath robes

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Bacon 'n caviar

The sonorous melodies of the harp reasonate around the gilded, stunning room. In front of me as I come in lie a mound of strawberries and three bottles of champagne on ice. I make my way to the centre of the decorated hall, gazing up at the ornate stained window ceiling and the beautiful lighting. To my right a pile of caviar sits waiting with my name on. This is elegant luxury defined. It also happens to be my breakfast dining room for today and tomorrow here at the Grand Hotel Europe in wonderful St Petersburg. Whoever came up with that dietary manta that one should eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper may well have had the Tsar-tastic brekkie I just wolfed down in mind. And even I thought it was too decadent to have champagne at breakfast!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The tragic plight of the Uighurs

Yining sits to the very far west of China. Carry on a little bit and you’ll hit Kazakhstan. To its east are wonderful grasslands. Life there though is a tinderbox with fear and loathing visible on the streets.
Yining, or Ghulja as the Uighurs call it, was the site of a massive 1997 Uighur rising that saw thousands protest and a very bloody response from the authorities with many human rights organisations suggesting the number of violent deaths that followed hit four figures.
When I went there nearly a year ago I came across greater repression than I had experienced anywhere, and that includes North Korea. Police, army and local militia roamed the streets armed to the teeth looking for trouble. We were stopped every second block, our papers looked at, our bags checked and our digital pictures scrutinized. 11 years after this massacre and the city was still a powder keg.
Urumqi (pictured with riot police), the capital of the province, is an 11-hour bus ride east. As far as I can make out the authorities there reacted violently to a peaceful demonstration Sunday and massacred indiscriminately. We will never know the full death toll, but believe me when I say you can add a zero to the official 140 toll. The Uighurs have never received the same international attention that Tibet does for its harsh treatment by Beijing. Urumqi will now suffer the same long, drawn out tortured fate as Yining. There are times when I hate China.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Calling Mike Hill

Bit of a bizarre post one, given the modern digital age we live in with Facebook, Skype, etc. Anyways, Mike, saw your comment on this site to get in touch -- can't find your contacts anywhere so email me when you can: -- I am in the UK for the next couple of weeks

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Diamonds aren’t forever

After a year of first class treatment from the lovely folk at Cathay Pacific my top tier Diamond membership of their loyalty programme ran out a few days ago. I’m now relegated to Gold, the Championship as such, which let’s face it is a whole lot better than where Charlton Athletic find themselves. I can honestly say though I hope I never attain that Diamond card again. Don’t get me wrong, the perks these past 12 months were wonderful. The flashest airport lounge imaginable, upgrades galore, lounge access even when not flying Cathay, ludicrous baggage allowance … the list goes on. But what one has to do to become Diamond, phew, that’s an effort. In a 12-month period you need to crank out 120,000 miles with CX. To put that in perspective, HK to London is just over 6,000 miles. It’s alright if you are a highflying exec, as taking business class gives you double points. Your humble scribe here though has never coughed up the cash to sit up front in the plane so 120k worth or miles meant that in that particular 12 month period (June 2007 to June 2008) my feet barely touched the ground, home on Lamma was a place to shower, unpack and repack. Frankly, looking back on it, travelling that much ain’t good for the mind, let alone the environment.
Still, as I sit here writing this – in transit with Emirates at Dubai airport – I could really do with that Cathay lounge...

Strange brew

Yesterday I read an article on the Beeb’s site about North Korea making a TV advert about a product, not a person (as in the Kims) for once. The product was one I am intimately familiar with - Taedonggang beer. I would have posted about it yesterday but of course I was in China where Blogger continues to be blocked. So here I am on a stopover in Dubai. Time for a quick rehash of the wonderful tale of this now briefly famous beer.
Back in 2000, the Dear Leader, known to be fond of a tipple or 10 (he is allegedly Hennessey Cognac’s single biggest customer) decided the proletariat deserved a better brew. Having been long-term importers of China’s Five Star beer, Kim Jong Il wanted his Stalinist state to have its own standout beer.
He cast around for a brewery and in November, 2000, using a German agent, answered an advert and spent a reported £1.5 million purchasing the venerable Ushers brewery. The 175-year-old brewery located in Trowbridge, Wiltshire in the west of England was dismantled and moved lock, stock and barrel 8,500 km east to the eastern suburbs of Pyongyang.
Strange but true – but then in 1976 in similar fashion Kim’s father Kim il Sung (still president despite being dead for 12 years) bought and imported a Swiss watch factory!
Back in 2000, Peter Ward, the director of Thomas Hardy Brewing and Packaging, the owner's of Ushers, said: "When they first approached us I thought they were South Koreans and I was a bit shocked when I discovered they were from the Communist North." Once he had got over the shock and was reassured that a) the North Koreans would pay and b) would be using the technology to ferment yeast not germs (the two practices being similar) the deal was done and 12 North Koreans headed to the brewery to help take it down and move it away to Asia.
State media at the time noted: “The respected and beloved general, who is always deeply interested in further improving the people's diet, took a benevolent action for constructing a modern brewery in Pyongyang.”
Thomas Hardy Brewing bought the Ushers plant after the brewery closed in early 2000. Ushers began brewing in 1824 and was best known for regional ales such as Best Bitter, Founders Ale and Mann's Brown Ale. The Ushers brands are now brewed under contract in Dorchester.
Suggesting the Dear Leader’s urgent thirst troops of the North Korean People's Guard were deployed in the construction project "for the purpose of completing a quality factory in the shortest possible period of time," according to the North Korean Central News Agency. “All combatants mobilized to the construction are carrying out the struggle of loyalty day and night with the fervent desire to make a report of loyalty to the respected and beloved general after excellently constructing the brewery,” the news agency reported at the time.
But installing this comparatively hi-tech facility was no easy task for this incapacitated state.
The wonderfully apocryphal story, told by more than one DPRK old hand though impossible to confirm like so much else in this nation, goes that after much jigsaw assembling of the factory, the first pint was poured to much excitement. The brown, none-too-fizzy liquid that poured forth came as rather a surprise. ‘That’s no lager,’ wondered the employees in unison as an incomprehensible award winning ale poured out of the taps. Germans were immediately called in to install state of the art stainless steel piping and out of the taps a few weeks later poured lovely crisp lager that would not have been frowned upon in even the most discerning Munich beer hall.
However, the story didn’t end there. Failing to pay their bills, a common DPRK trait, the factory ran into difficulty six months later needing extensive repairs, something the German engineers were not prepared to do. Cue the age old North Korean feat of reengineering – the end product being Taedonggang Beer – named after the River Taedong which flows through the centre of the capital and is unquestionably, despite the alleged tinkering, the country’s finest beer.
The Korea Workers' Party organ Rodong Daily said that year that with the 500,000 barrel a year brewery completed, Pyongyang citizens now enjoy this fine beer, and that "they are unanimous in speaking of its quality."
As of the middle of 2002, those rich enough could buy this brew, which comes in distinctive 650 ml green bottles with a logo of a bridge. But at 50 pence or so a bottle this and every other beer in the country are far too much for the average citizen who earns no more than a couple of dollars a day. Since launching, perhaps down to austerity measures, the alcohol content has dropped from 5.7% to 3.5% yet this straw-coloured drink makes for a delightfully crisp, refreshing, light brew when served cold – not a problem in winter when temperatures regularly hover around the -10 degrees Celsius mark.
Alongside this and only available at certain microbreweries and the ‘luxury’ Koryo Hotel is the dark Taedonggang ale with a voluptuous, rich caramel flavour.
Now, give the friendly folk at Koryo Tours a bell to go to the reclusive east Asian state soonest for a surreal pint.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Fear and loathing in Dandong

You've haven't been to Dandong in Liaoning until you've experienced Real Love -- the best disco in China bar none. With its bouncy floor, hard core drinking DJ and dingy surroundings it is a legendary haunt. What's more, it's impossible to miss. Get out at the train station, gaze up at the giant rusty red statue of Mao and follow the finger where the Great Helmsman is pointing. As the big man said, you can't have a revolution without a party.
Once inside green laser lights and techno music collide. Be warned, as you near that dance floor you are putting your liver in harm’s way. Few Westerners make it up to this cool slice of northeast China that shares a river border with North Korea. Fewer Westerners still make it to Real Love. So the novelty value of seeing a laowei bouncing up and down on the jolting disco floor is often too much for the DJ to resist.
The last time I hauled my lanky two metre frame there, all of a sudden the music stopped, the chubby DJ pointed towards me and beckoned me to his lair in front of a hundred or so bemused locals, who’d had their dancing suddenly interrupted. Operation Embarrass The Foreigner then swung into action.
A beautiful dancer handed he and I a bottle of warm beer. He urged me to down it. Was he mad? Did he seriously know who he was messing with? Me, the gigantic Asia correspondent for Beers of the World magazine against this runt. Bring it on, biiiiitch! But before I’d even swallowed the first gulp of the rather ordinary amber nectar his arms were aloft, victorious, having downed his bottle in literally a second flat! The crowd were delirious – the local having thrashed the giant marauding foreigner.
Alright, game on, I thought. You’re just a little bit rusty, Chambers, now go show him who’s boss! We were each handed a second bottle. Marks, set, go. Once again, the crowd roared their appreciation as the DJ sunk his beer before I’d barely made an indent on mine.
Jesus, this guy’s good, now might be the time to slink off, stage left with my tail between my legs, having admitted defeat, I thought. The DJ and his adoring fans were having none of it though. He bayed for a third and then a fourth bottle while making me repeat some no doubt idiotic words in Chinese into a microphone. He could have just come in from a week from the Sahara the way he downed that fourth brew, as I toiled much to everyone’s amusement.
By now the DJ could see I had had enough, but there was time for more humiliation. A fifth bottle each came out. My stomach had that distended Ethiopian thing going on. Thrashed soundly for a fifth time, I walked off stage to huge applause. My prize for the ritual humiliation was sitting back at the table – a six pack.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Pop stars passing in Shanghai

This has been the second time I have been in Shanghai when a world famous musician has died. The first time was far sadder for me. George Harrison kicked the bucket on December 1, 2001. He was my favourite Beatle. Quiet, unassuming, he lived in the shadow of the great Lennon-McCartney writing combo – as so many from that decade did; step forward Ray Davies. Yet his Beatle contributions were among the very best the quartet ever recorded. Greats like While My Guitar Gently Weeps and Here Comes The Sun have withstood the sands of time. In the 1980s George was the greatest influence in the supergroup of all time, The Traveling Wilburys. Just before he died Harrison made a stunning album called Brainwashed, which saw him hit creative peaks not seen since the early 1970s, and All Things Must Pass. In short he was a genius.
I was in Shanghai when I learned of his passing. Together with a commercial colleague we went out that night on yet another massive pub crawl. At every stop we demanded the pub play something by George Harrison. However, dingy the bar, however Shanghainese, we were adamant that the pub had to pay a loud homage to Harrison. We must have cleared out endless pubs with our drunken rants for Harrison homilies that night.
Fast forward seven and a half years and I’m sitting down on day three of a conference, opening up my laptop, lazily slurping my first cup of coffee and an events colleague of mine tells me Michael Jackson is dead. ‘Fuck off,’ I retort, dumbfounded. ‘I’m not kidding,’ she says, heading to the BBC homepage. Sure enough, there he is, warped, white Jacko, dead at the age of 50. I get in a taxi later that day. The Chinese radio station is playing Jackson tributes 24/7 and so begins the bizarre media deification of a man they helped satanise in the 1990s. Both Google and Twitter crashed on the day of Jacko’s death so great was the volume of traffic. Apart from the pair of them dieing while I was in Shanghai, the other link I guess they have is that in the 1980s Jackson bought up half the Beatles back catalogue, quite literally for a song.
A week on and Jackson’s departure still leads the news, every Tom, Dick and Harry comparing his passing and life as greater than that of Lennon’s and Presley’s. It’s become one of those mega news events – a where-were-you-when-x-happened type event. People, get a grip!

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The flâneur

Right, left, right, left, right and so on. No doubt taking his cue from Luke Rhinehart’s novel The Dice Man, a recent acquaintance told me in Shanghai how he goes about exploring cities these days. For years much of his travel has mirrored mine: airport, plane, airport, taxi, hotel, conference, taxi, airport, plane, airport, sleep. Sick of this routine this peripatetic tycoon decided to make an effort to be different and see a unique slice of each city he visits. Now, when he gets a spare moment (and he always makes time – at least two hours) he heads out of his hotel and takes the first right, then the first left, then the first right and so on. This wonderfully random way of exploring appeals to me no end and will no doubt form the basis for many future blog posts, as (doff of the cap in Paul French’s direction for this lovely word coming up) what Baudelaire might have called a flâneur -- "that aimless stroller who loses himself in the crowd, who has no destination and goes wherever caprice or curiosity directs his or her steps".

Monday, June 29, 2009

Oink, oink

The door of the airplane opened. Four masked men strode in. The one in front raised his gun, pointed it at the forehead of the air steward nearest him, and pulled the trigger. The steward survived. His temperature was deemed okay. Swine ‘flu and the associated paranoia from 2002’s SARS epidemic had driven authorities in China to new levels of extreme fear mongering. As each and every international plane touches down on PRC soil a team of four, clad in white forensic overalls, surgical masks and best of all ski masks (!!) enter each plane before anyone can leave. It’s like a scene from a low grade Hollywood disaster movie. The temperature guns are pointed at everyone’s forehead. Anyone slightly suspicious gets a second actual thermometer check. Then we are allowed to proceed. Leaving the plane, we’ve filled in a form saying we have no life-threatening lurgy, which another masked official takes ahead of passports. Pig paranoia preeminates.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Sweat fest

Returning to Hong Kong this past Saturday was a quick reminder of why I hate Junes there; because you still have another three months at least of extreme humidity to put up with. Now in years past I have gradually got used to the return of the humidity as it permeates the atmosphere from April onwards. This time I flew in from London, headed into town, up and out of the Airport Express and past all the ludicrously priced shops of the International Finance Centre and headed out of my hermetically sealed existence of the past 16 hours onto an external elevated walkway. Hong Kong's offices are the coldest in the world, while outdoors have some of the highest humidity levels anywhere leading to curious common pneumonia occurrences. As I pushed open the glass door to head outside I noticed the T1 sign was up -- a typhoon was circling in the area. The oppressive heat hit me, smothered me really from head to toe. BOSCH --- it invaded every pore of my body straight away, hitting harder than a Springbok tackling a mauled British Lion. When typhoons hover, the air around Hong Kong tends to get sucked out of the atmosphere; the humidity climbs to 98%+ and even the hardiest, sinewy of locals has a sweaty brow. Within seconds my body taps switched on, perspiration popping from every part of my body. The alcohol from the flight is coming out neat and staining my shirt. This time of year is like walking in a sauna 24/7, with tshirts needing urgent changing all the time. This past weekend was about as bad as it gets. Time to get the hell out of here and head back to the cooler climes of the mainland.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Through the Looking Glass – China’s Foreign Journalists from Opium Wars to Mao

Quick plug to my old chum Paul French’s latest book called Through the Looking Glass – China’s Foreign Journalists from Opium Wars to Mao. Paul, the Old China Hands’ Old China Hand, examines the convulsive history of the old China press corps from the first newspapers printed in the European Factories of Canton in the 1820s through the 120 years of change, war, convulsion and revolution that led up to 1949. The story starts with a Sunday afternoon sword wielding duel between two editors over the opium trade and ends with a fistfight in a Shanghai jail over how to report Mao’s revolution.
Like journalists everywhere, the old China press corps took sides and brought their own assumptions and prejudices with them but a fair number also brought their personal hopes, dreams and fears along too. They certainly weren’t infallible; they got the story completely wrong as often as they got it partially right. Most did their jobs professionally, some passionately and a select few with rare flair and touches of genius. They were all too often flamboyant and gregarious characters; sometimes dodgy and dishonest; sometimes obsessive and manic. More than a few were drunks, philanderers and frauds and inevitably there was the occasional spy. They changed sides, they lost their impartiality, they displayed bias and a few were downright scoundrels and liars of the first order. But they were never anything less than fascinating.
You can catch Paul around the region. He’s normally funny, occasionally abrasive and worth listening to. Here are his book tour dates.

Sunday June 7 – Book Launch – The Glamour Bar
Through the Looking Glass – China’s Foreign Journalists from Opium Wars to Mao

The Glamour Bar
6/F, No. 5 The Bund (corner Guangdong Road)
RMB 65, includes a drink
To book: 6350-9988 or


Monday June 8 – The Suzhou Bookworm
Through the Looking Glass – China’s Foreign Journalists from Opium Wars to Mao

The Suzhou Bookworm
Gunxiufang 77, Shiquan Road, Suzhou
RMB30, includes a drink


Tuesday June 16 – The Beijing Bookworm
Through the Looking Glass – China’s Foreign Journalists from Opium Wars to Mao

The Beijing Bookworm
Building 4, Nan Sanlitun Road, Chaoyang District, Beijing
RMB20 (members); RMB30 (non-members)

Wednesday June 17 – The Bookworm at the Yin Yang Community Centre
“Girl Reporters” in China

The Bookworm at the Yin Yang Community Centre
The First Courtyard, Hegezhuang Village, Chaoyang District, Beijing
Tel.: 6431.2108

Thursday June 18 – The China Foreign Correspondents’ Club
Through the Looking Glass – China’s Foreign Journalists from Opium Wars to Mao

Hong Kong

Monday June 22 – Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club
Through the Looking Glass – China’s Foreign Journalists from Opium Wars to Mao

HK FCC, 2 Lower Albert Road, Central, Hong Kong
Time: 11.15
Tel: 852 2521 1511

And for us up here in lovely Dalian, he’s coming to the Brooklyn Bar probably in the first week of July.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Bulldozing history

Out of the darkness a hazy grey midday’s light crept into the lift as it made its way up the outside of the swish Hyatt on the Bund. This swanky hotel sits in an area of Shanghai – the North Bund – that is only now receiving the full attention of property developers. The scene from the ascending lift was all too depressingly familiar. Scars – 50 feet deep – were all that remained of huge plots of land where once had been characterful close knot sixty-year-old dwellings. The odd island of yore remained surrounded by blue fences, cranes and construction noise and mud.
In Shanghai the local government has protected many of the large old buildings while totally bowing to the avarice of property developers when it comes to old style accommodation. The city is a mess right now as it hurtles towards hosting the World Expo next year. Once locals have had time to look around after the dust settles, they might just regret the out and out pursuit of new dizzying skyscrapers. New office blocks I am reliably informed are only 35% taken up at the moment. This rash of overbuilding has also hit the sprawling hotels with occupancy rates at leading five star establishments now hovering dangerously low around 30%. Some day, someone will learn: less is more.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Wofe

Setting up on the mainland as a small independent concern is no easy task, harder still if you happen to choose a second tier city such as my new home, Dalian.
About a year ago I set up a bank account in France. I remember walking away from the place, my wrist aching thanks to the incredible number of times I was asked to sign pieces of paper – something like 50 in all.
All this though was merely good practice for the bureaucratic assault that is China. In Hong Kong we take for granted just how simply everything works. Setting up a mobile phone service, for instance. Five minutes and away you go. Trundle down to China Mobile on the other hand and prepare for a good hour’s hanging around.
Rent was admittedly quite straightforward – and wonderfully cheap.
Which then brought around the issue of company registration. This is a minefield. But it was a battle I had to win to ensure decent visa status. I was aiming to set up a WOFE (Wholly Owned Foreign Enterprise, pronounced woofee) rather than a representative office in the knowledge that come another Beijing immigration crackdown as witnessed in the run up to the Olympics I would be safe.
However, being a penny pincher I simply refused to splash out exorbitant reams of renminbi on the myriad company registration firms, who charge an arm and a leg essentially to fill in forms and sit in long queues. No way. I’d do this myself.
I located the right office in the centre of town for the initial batch of forms. A pile of dense Chinese documents was presented to me from the austere grey surroundings of the tax bureau. A friend helped me fill them in. Signature count: around eight. I handed them in a few days later. A burly bloke with acne scars and a gruff demeanor took one look at them, mumbled something about filling in one line incorrectly and plonked the papers back on my lap. He returned to his tea while I sought out a new batch of forms. I found out that any firm registered in Dalian has to be monikered with the opening word Dalian (eg Dalian Acme Co). This was proving difficult and my near non-existent Mandarin was stretched. I relented after a while and sought help.
A friend up here who is a bit of a government fixer said she’d help out for 5,000RMB – under the half the normal third party charge. Plenty more signatures scrawled and we had successfully crossed the first hurdle.
Before proceeding to the Foreign Commerce Bureau – another giant, dull edifice this time on the outskirts of town, we had to have a contract with an accountant and office rent secured. Odd, I thought. Jumping the gun a bit to lay down cash for office space when you are not guaranteed a company. But, now into the swing of things, and not at all surprised by the diktats of Chinese bureaucracy these two parts of the jigsaw came together quickly.
Round two of the signature express – this time for the Foreign Commerce Bureau – saw our next batch of papers rejected thanks to Gordon Brown. Since I had started the registration process, I had slapped down 10,000 pounds as my registered capital for the firm (you need to show 100,000 RMB or equivalent as a minimum). Months down the track and London was being referred to as Reykjavik-on-Thames, the pound was worth a pittance and I needed to up my stakes.
This then done, we were presented with a gold and red embossed certificate of approval. Though looking the part, this document only serves as a certificate of approval … of the application. We were about half way down the track.
The process then moved to the municipal government for their approval.
Sitting in queues in government offices has been very good to catch up on my reading.
As I write this I have been embroiled in this messy process for nearly five months. I am now just about complete. Days spent in tax bureaus, chop making holes in the wall, foreign currency centres and then the Bank of China and finally I am up and running.
It has by no means been easy but in the long run this will all prove worthwhile. It has proved to be the biggest bureaucratic test of my life and a handy insight into the sprawling apparatus of local government.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Winter delight

Woke up, drew back the curtains and gazed out at a snowy urban scene. While everywhere in China from Shanghai south tends to warm up post the Lunar New Year, up here in Dalian February is traditionally the coldest month.
Part of the reason for taking so darn long to move of Hong Kong was that I had become a southern poof. This is my first winter this decade. In Hongkers one quickly becomes used to the fact that winter simply does not exist – the slightest drop in temperature bringing out a ridiculous display of thick North Face jackets.
Dalian sits exposed on the Liaoding peninsula, overlooking and buffeted by both the Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay.
The other day I went outside having just washed my hair. I stepped out into the curious vortex of wind that is my building’s entrance and within five seconds I could feel ice forming on my bonce. As I stepped gingerly on the tricky ice outside my gaffe, behind me all of a sudden a loud, protracted female shriek echoed around the buildings. A well wrapped up young woman behind me was pushed 10 metres, sliding, along the ice by the fierce wind.
And yet here really is not too bad. The thing is Dalian is very dry, so the worst cold does not go to your bones like you get in other cities like Shanghai. And besides in New Zealand recently I bought a possum fur hat and that really can withstand any cold.
The forecast for tomorrow is heavy snow. I might have to pull a Dr Zhivago to get to the airport on time.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Supermarket Sweep

The Chambers family has always been highly adept at the Carrefour supermarket sweep. Traditionally, it was the final port of call prior to taking the ferry back across the English Channel. Car doors would slide open, we’d be armed with a slew of francs (latterly euros) to unleash a battalion of trolleys. The family would march into the giant hypermarché. Wide aisles stacked high of just about everything lay ahead of us. Everyone had their own tasks. Timing was of the essence. We had a ferry to catch in a couple of hours. The organized side of the parental unit (Mum) would have a long list of household items that are just better value on the Continent. The focused side of the parental unit (Dad) would traditionally head to the alcohol department bringing my big brother for muscle. 10 cases of beer and a triple figure of wine bottles later (plus the obligatory giant pot or three of Maille Dijon mustard) and a three foot long receipt would fizz out of the till. Our car would have beer crates for seats and would be close to pulling a wheelie all the way back home in Kent weighed under by the then illicit volumes of booze we’d hauled across La Manche.
Fast forward a decade or two and I encounter a Carrefour experience of totally different proportions. Here in Dalian I have a lovely little abode in the centre of town. There were a few things I needed to kit it out though, plus I fancied doing a bit of cooking so I trooped down to the local Carrefour. Phew!
There’s simply no way of doing the fabled supermarket sweep here in the cavernous depths of this supermarket on the outskirts of Zhongshan district. The sheer volume of people wielding trollies makes for tough navigation up and down the aisles.
I am bamboozled by choice. Pick up a sauce pan or washing up liquid and an employee sidles up and suggests a different brand, giving a lengthy, keen rationale for her choice, not that I can understand her argument.
Anger spills over regularly among both customers and employees. A lady is irate that she hasn’t been served soon enough at the meat counter and vents her spleen, her decibel rant rising across the hectic shopping commotion. Unlike in Europe, say, the people behind the meat counter giver as good as her, a mass argument breaks out until she is escorted away.
It’s bumper trollies as I make my way to towards the fruit and veg section. It takes a while to find any bags to put the fresh produce in. Once secured, and lots of veg later, I then have to get it weighed. There’s a gaggle of people pushing and shoving to get their stuff weighed. My long arms eventually get the job done.
Staples that I take for granted in Hong Kong and Europe either do not exist or are prohibitively expensive with limited selections. Cheese looks like becoming a luxury up here. And amazingly for a country so famous for cha, a good tea bag is tough to find.
The checkout queue is haphazard. I eventually get out, head home and decompress with a calming cup of tea. The trick I have learnt is never, ever to go there again on a weekend, weekdays during work hours is easier.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Oasis in the concrete jungle

There’s nowhere quite like Shamian Island in the whole of China. Shanghai has the Bund, Xiamen has an island full of ancient colonial buildings too, but it is old Canton that one truly feels concession China as it used to be.
Guangzhou for the uninitiated is full blare noise and grime – a real wake up call from the pleasant surroundings of Hong Kong. Though Cantonese and proud of it, it feels like the real China as soon as you step out of the plane or train – a noisy attack on your senses. All of which makes Shamian Island all the more special. At the turn of the 20th century this little haven where was where the enfeebled emperor allowed foreigners to set up base and trade with China. The Swires and Jardines funneled their opium through here. The deal etched out was that the island – a narrow wedge between two rivers – was fair game but Joe Foreigner could not step foot off it. Up sprouted wonderfully sturdy colonial style buildings amid spectacular trees.
Go there now and little of this heritage site has changed. Sure, there’s the 28-storey white giant that is the White Swan Hotel, Guangzhou’s first five star and to this day best known hotel. Bar that though little has changed. Statues dotted everywhere depict yesteryear, plaques on buildings denote who was who a century ago. It’s quiet, which after a headache inducing day around town is a God-send. It’s leafy and it’s retained its dignified air. These days the majority of foreigners visiting this tiny strip of land – probably no more than 1.5km by 500m – are Americans here to adopt kids. Stalls garner business by offering free pram rentals. Western adults stroll the avenues as new parents – their Oriental offspring bemused by their hugely changed circumstances. All the restaurants here are top notch, Lucy’s is a pleasant bar to sup a beer as the dusk sets in and the banks of the Pearl river switch on a gaudy storm of neon. The annex of the Victory Hotel is a top place to stay at under half the price of the White Swan. An even better bargain is the Guangzhou Youth Hostel, whose rooms will surprise those brought up on a the European or American equivalents of the YMCA.
Before moving to Dalian I used to enjoy bookending my China trips from Guangzhou. The airport there is the best in the mainland with cheaper fares than Hong Kong while the train station is the starting point for countless exciting adventures. And after a rough few weeks away the civility of Shamian was and still is a joy to behold.