Archive for September, 2011

Chinese horse drama

I just learned that Mandarin for circus is ma xi – horse drama. I quite like that. That goes back to the horse based shows of the early days of circus. There weren’t any horses at the show we went to see this week in Shanghai, but there were some excellent, very Chinese acts.

One of my favourite moments was when, one by one, FOUR girls appeared hands first out of a ceramic pot (that didn’t look big enough to hold any actual people), then proceeded to walk off stage upside down as it it was the most natural thing in the world. Which I suppose it was for them.

My other favourite act was one that featured motorcycles in a wall of death metal cage. Nothing new there you say- but I don’t mean one motorbike, I mean EIGHT motorbikes in a tiny cage. That registers as Chinese levels of insanity.

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What’s left that’s real?

As part of the whole relocation package of things that have been arranged for us we were offered “Cultural Training”. Oh great I thought. I could just imagine someone wearing comfortable shoes and too short trousers explain to us that things are different in China. Mkaaaay?

As has happened so many times here, I was wrong. Our trainer was a great guy (whose trousers fitted fine) who shared a great deal of his enthusiasm for Shanghai and China. One of the most useful things he showed us was how to spot a fake RMB banknote. This is a fantastically useful lifeskill as there are a LOT in circulation. Some look like they have been badly photocopied, others look pretty good until you check all the watermarks and other security feature. Fakes are so prevalent that every shopkeeper will carefully scrutinise each note you give them.

But as this is China, it isn’t just the notes that are fake. Pretty much everything is. Or might be. Walking along many streets involves running the gauntlet of people selling fake Gucci, LV, Coach bags and watches. Talking to a hairdresser the other day, he said that he imports all his products from Hong Kong so he knows they are authentic. Video shops here are apparently shops selling exclusively pirated videos.

In fact it seems that everything you can buy is often counterfeited – even water. Now I don’t particularly want to buy a Gucci bag or similar, but if I did, I’d be concerned about their authenticity, even from the brand shops. It’s not great when you stop trusting everything.

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Bags you can take on holiday

Take another look at the picture here. What do you see  (apart from the scary eyebrows of course)?

I don’t mean my blue eyes I mean the enormous eyebags. Can’t you see them? Apparently they, and the surrounding wrinkles are enormous, and visible from at least 50 paces.

How did I find this out? Well, every time I walk into a department store or chemist’s shop (Boot’s or CVS or Watsons) all the Chinese shop assistants literally sprint over to me to sell me anti wrinkle cream. It doesn’t seem to be because I’m the oldest person walking into the shops, or because I’m the only foreigner. So maybe my wrinkles, which have previously not given me more than a passing thought, really are crater like.

To add insult, the ladies always show my how they have far fewer wrinkles than I do despite being far older. They all then try to sell me special Chinese medicine to help cure my terrible affliction. Usually they drag me over to their station, plonk me down on a chair then dab some of the special Chinese medicine on one eye. They then show me my reflection to see the huge difference it has made.

I haven’t bought any yet..but I AM starting to get more than a bit paranoid. I did buy some concealer and intend to wear that under large sunglasses every time I go out from now on.  Maybe a hat too, just to be on the safe side…

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Dangerous Tea

Now I have no idea what Kung Fu tea is but I have visions of it appearing out of nowhere in the tea gardens and kicking the &*%^ out of you – a sort of tea based Kato from the Pink Panther…..

In any case I didn’t stay around long enough to find out…

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How to cure driving withdrawal

Giving up driving is tough – although being in the US has been a period of adjustment towards not driving. The US police stopped me pretty much ever time I went over 30 miles an hour so I started driving like a granny everyone else. That’s to say I stopped driving and started using a car to get from A to B.

Being totally without transport is cold turkey for a petrol head. They make it so difficult and expensive to get a motorcycle here that that option is off the table too. I had looked at the electric bicycles and scooters and left feeling pretty despondent – I’m used to over 100bhp at my disposal at the flick of my wrist and I think my toaster has more horsepower than these scooters. Urgh.

But as is proving to be such a regular occurrence in this country. I was wrong. Scooters and electric bicycles, no matter how puny their engines, are actually high occupancy vehicles and/ or freight vehicles.

It’s completely normal to see a family of four riding on a scooter. The father is at the front at the controls, the smallest child stands between his knees, the wife sits behind him and the second child is sort of sandwiched between the parents. Who needs a car? The traffic here is pretty crazy so it isn’t as if you get to go very fast anyway.

You also see a surprising amount of stuff piled onto bicycles, trikes and scooters. It seems that the motto is “where there’s a will there’s a way”. No pile of boxes to large apparently. Here’s the most I’ve seen on a wheeled vehicle so far:

To be fair they have a point –  this is significantly more than I could fit into any of the cars I’ve ever owned. I need to get one of those! Or maybe I should realise my dream of building a motorised sofa…


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Pulling a U turn from the back seat

Before we moved to Shanghai we were told that we weren’t allowed to drive here (something about Westerners being regular targets for car accidents as they are well insured). So how are we supposed to get around? We get a driver…

My first reaction was that we just didn’t need one. The metro network is great and the city is pretty walkable. I also don’t think I’m quite ready to be sitting in the back saying “Home Jeeves, and don’t spare the horses” or whatever people say to drivers nowadays. Some of the people I met when we came out for a visit in April seemed to be pretty dependent on their drivers -using them to get a lift virtually around the corner. Not for me.

Or so I thought.

We have a driver. I use him fairly frequently. So what caused the astonishingly rapid U turn?

Well, I met the driver and he is GREAT.  If you are going to be driven around then you want someone who shows up on time, knows where he is going and won’t get you killed on the way. It turns out that these things cannot be taken for granted. The bonus is that our driver speaks enough English to ensure that you get to the right place but not so much that he understand a lot of conversations you might have on the phone/ back seat. In other words he’s perfect.

So the thing is we sometimes need a driver – the chap has to get to the office for a start, then there are all the trips to the airport, shopping in the supermarket etc – so we have to hang on to the perfect one we have. And to hang on to him we have to use him. In particular we need to use him evenings and weekends so he gets enough overtime not to drop us. That’s the danger you see – some drivers sack their clients if they don’t use them enough. So now I’m actually trying to think up trips that we might do and arranging to lend him to visitors.

Jeeves*: “Can you say U turn?”



* he’s not actually called Jeeves. Duh!

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