Monthly Archives: June 2014

Entertaining English China style

Our Mandarin is not really getting a whole lot better. But our understanding of the kind of English used in China has grown markedly. For example: We might say that our time in Guangxi province was a little frustrating because of all the rain. If we put that in Chinese English it might go something like this:

Province of the Falling skies shroud Scenic spot. Danger Activity!

We’ve made a small collection of especially endearing of entertaining English ‘translations’. I imagine we will share more as our trip goes on.


We applaud this ashtray’s anti-smoking message.


The beauty spot really is a downer, what with it going around prohibiting everything and all.


Our rubbish bin was pretty forward.


I think we all share in this salute, especially if it means less spitting.


This was an advertisement for a gynecology and obstetrics clinic in Kunimng. Good to see some honesty about the value of their hospital. Personalised service also a pleasant surprise for a hospital. And there’s nothing feria!


The range of English slogans on tee shirts is amazing, though most are nonsensical. This one however, pays tribute to a Taylor Swift lyric. The wearer will also be wearing a tee shirt. Meta.

Policy wonk digest – China


  • In Chinese culture some numbers are auspicious, especially the number eight. The government therefore sells street numbers that are especially auspicious, like eighty eight to whomever pays their price rather than the eighty eighth property on the street. This is not a policy that we are especially fond of when trying to find a restaurant that’s supposed to have especially good dumplings.
  • Similarly cell phone SIM cards for numbers with auspicious numbers cost more than ones with negative numbers.

Transforming Chinese cinema

  • In an effort to encourage Chinese culture and fight of the imperialism of Hollywood there is a limit on the number of Western films that can be shown in China. From the advertising we’ve seen, seems like Transformers Four is about the only Hollywood flick on offer at the moment.

An almost familiar housing crisis

  • China is in the middle of a housing crisis. There are a range of contributing factors including demographic change and mass migration to cities.
  • Like New Zealand there is only a small long term rental market and many Chinese are especially driven to own their own property. But, unlike New Zealand a major motivation for this is the inadequate protection of tenants. Laws, or at least their enforcement, massively favour landlords here, enough so to make renting fundamentally unattractive.
  • When I say ‘own property’ that’s not in quite the same sense we understand it at home. What the government gives you is a seventy year ownership right, not a permanent one. It’s effectively a long term lease. This causes problems when, like in New Zealand, Chinese use a mortgage as a way to structure investment, but can’t actually pass on their assets. It must also be harder to liquify as the time limit approaches.

Karaoke and corruption

  • Corruption is a major issue and there’s a lot of talk about how it is holding back economic growth. The government has recently passed laws which prohibits Police accepting gifts in kind (cash payments were already banned). That seems like a pretty sensible idea.
  • The government has gone one step further. Police have also been banned from visiting Karaoke Television bars (KTV). Apparently KTV bars have historically been the place you take the cop you want to ‘entertain’ and have hosted a lot of bribery as a result.
  • Even more inexplicable karaoke regulation, one province banned 37 songs and bureaucrats refused to explain why.

Preferential parking for women

  • A mall in Dalian has created women only parking spaces. They’re painted pink, and extra large, to accommodate what they consider to be womens’ special parking needs.

Crash test dummies

  • In a novel take on safe driving propaganda, there are smashed up cars sitting on pedestals alongside highways. We’re not sure whether they’re from actual crashes or not, nor whether they actually reduce China’s road toll. One bus we traveled on sounded an unpleasant noise whenever the driver went over 80km/h, which was often. Knowing we can get a car to beep when it’s going to fast just further raises my curiosity about another question: why don’t we just build cars that cannot or will not go above the speed limit?

Man wants baby girl, proposes to swap for his baby boy

This seems as a good a place as any to post one of the many baby photos we end up with. Though this baby has actually nothing to do with this post.
This seems as a good a place as any to post one of the many baby photos we end up with. Though this baby has actually nothing to do with this post.

A man in Luizhou posted an ad in a maternity hospital bathroom proposing to swap the baby boy his wife was soon to have for a baby girl. This story caught my eye. The law of large numbers says there are going to be some people doing some strange things in China, but I think this strangeness also speaks to some broader social issues here.

The man already had a son and was keen to have a daughter too. His wife’s second pregnancy ended in an abortion when the family learned, by ultra-sound, that she was carrying a boy. When her third pregnancy was also a boy, the family thought they’d try swapsies instead.

The media focuses on the man who wrote the ad in the hospital bathroom, but it seems his wife was comfortable with the proposal too.

A reporter saw the man’s ad and, feigning interest and the impending birth of a little girl, gave him a call. The man proposed that the pregnant mothers give birth in the same hospital to make the swap easy, and that they never speak again once the transaction was done.

The man’s scheming came to an end once the reporter contacted Police, who issued him with a warning. It isn’t clear what law he might have been breaking (nor whether that’s actually the basis on which the Police do there thing in China).

I’m conflicted about this. On one hand I’m struggling to see the harm of what the man was proposing. Indeed, this way both babies may end up with families who want and love them. It’s a funny kind of cross-surrogacy.

But there’s something intuitively troublesome about the commoditisation of children this arrangement implies. I’m also not wild about the idea that parents will necessarily have a fundamentally different experience raising boys and girls, which the man’s desire to ‘collect the set’ implies.

The sex of kids is a big deal in China. Under the One Child Policy, rural Chinese families are entitled to have a second child if their first is a girl. In other circumstances abortion (or infanticide) is used so the family gets the sex, normally male, they want. This phenomenon is pronounced that there’s a documented over-representation of males in younger generations. There are tens of millions more male offspring than there should be, demographically speaking.

While I try and resolve my thoughts about the baby swap I will say this: for a government to socially engineer the number of kids that parents have, and to at least tacitly endorse practises that see the sex of those kids engineered too, it seems hypocritical to say this man from Luizhou can’t do the same.

A day at Chinese cooking school

I asked Fiona what insight I should share about our cooking class today. “That it was excellent,” she said. That is my key message.

We started out in the market shopping for ingredients. Toting cane baskets we worked our way through the fresh produce and spices. Our meat had been pre-procured from a supermarket, but apparently in China it’s fine to buy meat from open-air markets if you do so in the mornings. Freshness is ensured by daily slaughter. I never really thought a sentence with the word slaughter would be comforting, but that one is. In what is hopefully a further indicator of hygiene in these parts, raw pork is eaten as a delicacy.

Most Chinese food we consume in the West is from the Cantonese school of cooking. Hong Kong Chinese, who are Cantonese, have had more freedom of movement than their mainland counterparts, so they were the ones who went out and set up smorgasbord restaurants and Chinatowns around the world (including in Peru). Other cuisines are a long way from what we tend to think of as ‘Chinese’. For example, cuisines north of the Yangtze River seldom features rice.

The menu we cooked was mostly representative of Sichuan cuisine. That’s the one with the peppercorn that makes your tongue go funny.

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Basically Master Chef

The kitchen we cooked in was very Master Chef. It included some pretty sweet cleavers. I had dreams of confounding judges with perfectly executed macaroni cheese in response to every quick fire challenge, and nightmares that one of the eight cookers would be voted off the island after each of our three dishes.

The first dish was a salad using dry tofu. I’m not a big advocate of tofu, but in its defence it does tend to take on the flavours you put with it, and we used, among other things, an exceptional sesame oil. Continue reading A day at Chinese cooking school

Dilly Daliying

We’re spending some time in Dali. It’s a bit like Martinborough – nominally rural, laid back and charming, but you know, Chinese. Which means it has throngs of people walking its cobbled streets and following its ancient walls. So maybe it’s more like Martinborough on fair day, but even then you’ll find fried octopus kebabs instead of sausage sizzles.

Dali is known as one of the relatively few Chinese stops on the ‘banana pancake trail‘ – the places where Western backpackers could come and hang out, absorb some culture, but still get an agreeable breakfast. Only these days Dali has also been discovered by the Chinese domestic tourists who must outnumber us foreigners a hundred to one.

The time of year partly explains the tourist crowds. The academic year has just ended so there’s lots of students, and lots of others taking summer holidays. It feels pleasingly summery here. The fruits we’re eating are what we’d have around Christmas at home –  grapes, cherries, plums and peaches – though they taste more like they come from someone’s backyard than from New World.

The light also lingers late here, a combination of the time of year and Beijing’s edict that all of China be in one timezone. Just south of the border in ‘Nam and Laos their sunsets are an hour earlier. The long days provide ample opportunities for touristing. We spent yesterday cycling through rice paddies and small villages. Today we went and moved with the massive crowds at a local market. Tomorrow we’re doing a cooking class. It’s all pretty idyllic.

I’ve photos to post, but the wireless here, in combination with the systems we use to circumvent the Great Firewall, means uploading them is painfully slow.

Colour China diverse

I think New Zeralanders tend to think of China as homogenous. Massive, but homogenous. We’re guilty of this. It’s part of the reason that China has been further down our list of priorities than destinations in South East Asia.

There are good reasons we arrive at that conclusion, but we’re wrong. At home Chinese food is presented as a single cuisine full of fried rice, noodles and spring rolls. Here there’s so much variation that it’s grouped into four or more separate, regional, cuisines. For the record, virtually the only place we’ve seen fried rice on a menu is in hostels catering to Westerners. One went so far as to call it ‘Western style fried rice’.

At home our interaction is so overwhelmingly with Han Chinese that we probably don’t even know there’s such a thing as Han Chinese. All I really knew of Chinese ethnic minorities, other than Tibetans which is a slightly separate issue, was a vague memory of a token minority dance item at a Beijing Olympics ceremony.

Bai and Muslim women shop and sell at Yunan's largest market.
Bai and Muslim women shop and sell at Yunnan’s largest market.

The Han make up more than 90% of the population and hold most of the political and economic power. But the remaining ten percent still amounts to more than a hundred million people. The government officially recognises fifty six separate minority groups. Other groups are still fighting to be recognised as minorities. The ethnic minorities tend to cluster around China’s periphery.

We’re currently in Yunnan province on China’s mid-southern frontier. Viet Nam, Laos, Burma and Tibet are all within a (long) day’s travel. This morning we visited the largest market in Yunnan. The Bai ethnic minority was verging on the majority there. They account for less than two hundredths of China’s population, but there’s still two million of them. They dress in a traditional way that’s reminiscent of indigenous peoples we saw in Latin America. In fact I have to try hard to avoid using Latin American categorisations, calling the ethnic minorities indigenous and the Han the colonists (or even conquistadores) because that’s not correct. Everyone’s indigenous here, more or less.

There’s also a visible Muslim minority in Yunnan. Sometimes it takes me a beat to realise I’m looking at Arabic script rather than Mandarin characters. The Muslims bring their own cuisine, which is very much to our tastes. Today we recovered from the hubb-ubb of the market with a freshly cooked kind of roti bread filled with honey. Historically the Southern Chinese Muslims, like the Uyghur people, have suffered from religious discrimination. These days it seems the government preaches freedom and equality, but that may be primarily lip service. Minorities still suffer labour market discrimination and are overwhelming poorer than the Han majority.

A new air war in the Pacific: should Tonga be flying a Chinese plane?

If you’re a conscientious New Zealander planning a trip to Tonga you might visit If you do, you’ll find this comment:

Tonga’s domestic airline fleet currently includes an MA-60 aircraft.  This aircraft has been involved in a significant number of accidents in the last few years.  The MA-60 is not certified to fly in New Zealand or other comparable jurisdictions…  Travellers utilising the MA-60 do so at their own risk.

New Zealand’s criticism and the media that has gone with it has hurt Tonga’s tourist industry and its domestic carrier Real Tonga. It sounds like the MA-60, a gift from China as part of an aid package, has now been grounded.

There’s nothing about this that isn’t highly relevant to my interests: Airliners, overseas aid, geopolitics, and China. It’s all I can do to avoid turning this post into an episodic saga.

The Xi’an MA-60 is a cheap and cheerful Chinese built turbo-prop. It was based on the An-140 a Ukrainian aircraft, but its been updated with Western engines and avionics. Orders for the MA-60 have come from within China’s orbit, or carriers generally inclined to buy regional aircraft at bargain basement prices. Think Laos, Zimbabwe, Indonesia and, now, Tonga.

The MA-60 is kinda funny looking, to be fair.
The MA-60 is kinda funny looking, to be fair.

New Zealand was not best pleased when the MA-60 arrived with a gift card saying “from China, with love”. China’s aid to Tonga began in 2006 when it offered super cheap finance to help Tonga clean up from a nasty spate of riots. Its been peddling influence ever since. Tongan bureaucrats get scholarships to learn mandarin and about governance Beijing style.

On top of concerns about China’s foray into the Pacific, the arrival of the MA-60 and the start up of Real Tonga spelt the end for an Air Chathams’ subsidiary that had been flying to Tonga’s outer Islands. Oh, and the MA-60 is possibly, you know, dangerous. Continue reading A new air war in the Pacific: should Tonga be flying a Chinese plane?

Truth in translation – China and surveillance


We came across this inadvertently truthful translation while waiting to board a cable car into the mountains above Dali. This is probably the sign they should display just past Chinese immigration. Since my very brief brush with Chinese censorship I’ve been looking in more detail at the Chinese state’s surveillance apparatus. It’s stunning.

They’re watching…

China spends about as much on internal security as it does on its military. This from a country with a standing army of 2.3 million and a recently acquired aircraft carrier. The roughly $11 billion USD spend/year pays for police, state security, armed militia and about 20 million CCTV cameras.

When the CCTV project was started in 2005 officials named it Skynet with no apparent sense of irony. More truth in translation. Officials claimed in 2012 that they would use the cameras to end self-immolations by Tibetan protestors and members of Xinjiang’s secessionist movement. We’re especially interested in the latter because we’re headed out Xinjiang way in a few weeks. Their protestors are continuing to set themselves on fire, successfully, some even in Tienanmen Square last October. Probably need more cameras, then.

…over your shoulder when you Facebook

Then there’s China’s internet surveillance and censorship. The Great Firewall of China blocks sites where content is considered objectionable, or those who refuse to submit to specific censorship. Its the latter that has gotten, for example, Facebook banned and spurred Google’s ongoing dance with the Chinese state. It also uses something called Deep Packet Inspection to block access to single pages when specific keywords are detected. Sometimes a user’s internet connection will be severed for a short time as a kind of retaliation for searching for things they shouldn’t.

The telco industry structure reinforces the internet as a state apparatus. Broadband access is rented from a state owned or state-controlled company.

China says that about 42% of its citizens are connected to the internet. But it is an internet like no other. Of the 564 million estimated netziens less than 10% are on Facebook and fewer still on twitter. But about 90% use the Chinese social network Weibo. Google ranks as the third most popular search engine. Angry Birds though, is still a hit.

It’s interesting that there is a Facebook audience given it’s ostensibly banned. Even with cutting edge technology and two million state employees monitoring microblogging, the firewall is eminently widely circumvented. Thing is, though, the Firewall needn’t be perfect to be effective. It’s basically a panopticon. Even from my own limited experience I can tell you that searching for Facebook and arriving at an indecipherable page of Chinese characters instead has a chilling effect. The implication that all your browsing might be monitored makes you self-censor.

China in a supermarket

Visiting a Chinese supermarket today was like a microcosm of our experience in China.

At first it just felt massive and overwhelming and we found ourselves searching out for things that were familiar. In supermarket terms that meant a small cheer when we recognised international brands. But after we got accustomed to our surroundings it became a thoroughly interesting and entertaining experience. And also great value for money.


The reason for our visit was to stock up on snacks. So we made a beeline for the helpfully labelled ‘Snack’ section. But unfortunately we couldn’t find a single thing that we recognised. Nothing. So on we went in a more vague and wandering fashion. We found Australian salt, ridiculously priced at less than fifty New Zealand cents. We also saw some New Zealand milk and, on the outside, couldn’t see any problem with it.


We hit our stride once we found the confectionery section and managed to pick up some breakfast items for Fiona too which may turn out to be what we hoped. Or not. We bought two kinds of plums, because they’re the cheapest fruits here, and nectarines, because they’re the second cheapest. Our grocery mission fulfilled we were free to check out some of the more entertaining offerings in the store.


If you thought rotisserie chicken was excellent a) you’d be right and b)  you should check out the Chinese equivalents: duck, pig snouts etc. There was also some kind of wriggly worm looking thing. Oh, and massive tanks of live fish.


Live things in the supermarket, as you can see, makes a highlight when you visit with grandma. These frogs were just sitting there in big glass tanks, blinking their eyes and not moving much. We hypothesised that they couldn’t move because they’d been fed so much. When I first saw them I laughed and a helpful shop attendant corrected my amusement with his gesticulation. First he sliced the air, like a meat cleaver would chop the head off of a frog. Then he rose his hand to his mouth in the universally understood “this is for eating” motion. Then he smiled with a satisfied grin.

I had half a mind to buy a boiling frog to further disprove the apocryphal tale that frogs won’t jump out of a pot of slowly heating water, and will die instead. This is a lie.


And then we visited the perishable snaking aisle. Maybe they miss-spelt snack? Maybe they were referring to the noodles in the corner of the fridge? Not clear.

At check out we were surprised that we weren’t given, and nor could we buy, plastic shopping bags. You’re supposed to bring your own, apparently. Just one more Chinese microcosm to finish our supermarket trip – it can feel quite progressive and modern here, even if that modernity is distinctly foreign.


Kissing fish

The sign said there were five reasons to submerge your feet into a tank of fish that would nibble at them. Then it listed four.


The first was that your feet would become smoother because the fishes would bite off all the excess ‘cuticle’. That was kind of true. After about twenty minutes of being molested by several dozen ‘kissing fish’ our feet did indeed feel smoother.

Second, they said, it’ll feel like a massage. Actually what it felt like was extremely tickly. Those little fellas sure know how to wriggle. I actually had to consciously take deep breaths to stop from squirming. It took about ten minutes to get used  to the sensation and only then was I prepared to uncurl my toes.

Third was something about the fish killing microscopic bacteria, probably like avian flu or something. Alas I have no way to comment on this. So we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and say we’re now Ebola free. Well, at least our feet are.

Fourth, claimed the signage, the experience would give you inner peace and joy. That was a lie. See extremely tickly above.

Overall pretty entertaining though. Would try again (maybe). Also left me wondering whether there’s any other more important grooming issues we could get fish to tend to. Nail cutting? Shaving?