From May 2009

Five Principles To Live By

I’m lucky enough to be able to live in a fascinating country (China) and have enough disposable income to travel when time allows. The other day I unexpectedly received an email from a student in the US who was interested in knowing how I managed to afford to travel so much as it was also their goal once they graduated. What they probably didn’t know is that I actually have a full time job and my blog isn’t really a representative view of my life as whole but this got me thinking about the wider issues of how you can achieve your goals and be successful in life.

Incensed

There are a million and one books and websites you can read about how to improve your life and anything in it (Amazon lists 124,526 titles in their “Self Help” section alone). Likewise there just as many people claiming to know the “secret” to success and so on. Whilst I’m sure there are some useful nuggets of advice contained within these tomes I’m always dubious of anyone doing it for profit and frankly think much of that industry is a con (or a smart placebo).

Shenzhen Book City

I’m not going to make any such claims here but there are a few principles which I have found useful in both work and life over the past few years which I thought I’d share today (for free and with only limited bias!). By no means do I assert these to be original; they’re just things which I’ve picked up along the journey of life so far and may or may not be useful to you personally:

  1. Life can’t be learned in advance; you make it up as you go – when you’re young you expect your parents and teachers to have all the answers. They don’t and nor do you. Accept this and move forward as the best way to learn is through experience which will include both success and failure. Treat failure as an opportunity to improve.
  2. Embrace change and take calculated risks – many people fear change and avoid risks which might take them outside their comfort zone but unfortunately this is the only way you’ll ever make progress. Regret is the consequence of inaction and avoiding change causes stagnation. This is not the same as being reckless with your life.
  3. You can’t please everyone; don’t waste your time trying to – life is short and if you spend all your time trying to make everyone you meet happy then you will just end up unhappy yourself. You don’t have to be rude or unkind about it but it does require some discipline. Likewise don’t expect everyone to always do your bidding.
  4. 80/20 Rule: 20% of effort (input) leads to 80% of results (output) – I’m a strong believer in focusing on the things which provide you or your objectives with the most value / benefit. The applications for this principle are endless; learning how to focus your energy is the tricky part. Delegate or discontinue doing anything outside the 20%.
  5. KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid – I can think of no circumstance where making something simpler isn’t beneficial. Be it designing a product or planning a holiday keeping things simple will lead to a much more pleasurable end experience and less stress/confusion all round. For me the key is to evaluate and reduce then repeat.

I’m still fairly young (24) but it seems with every passing year things become less black and white than they once were which validates my belief that it’s important to keep an open mind when developing a sense of direction. Life is a learning experience and the above is just a list of things which seem relevant to me now; no doubt it will further evolve with time.

What would be on your list? How do these translate to your goals in life?

Hard Boiled Feng Shui

P1020694

In my last post from Beijing (for now) we take a trip to a remarkable new landmark floating behind the Great Hall of the People, colloquially known as The Egg, which houses the National Centre for the Performing Arts. At a cost of 3.2 billion CNY this was no cheap egg to lay and indeed caused much controversy given its location next to some of China’s most holy of holy sites (Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City are also next door).

The Egg At Night

Seen here beautifully lit up at night I stumbled across it almost by accident when its shimmering titanium and glass surface caught my eye at the end of the street near where I was staying. As if a UFO had just landed in the middle of an old hutong it does look rather out of place and locals complain that it’s upset the  feng shui of the area. When viewed from the hill in Jingshan Park you can see why…

time to break out the new lens
Photo by hectorhannibal

Sitting in the middle of an artificial lake, it has been described by the French architect Paul Andreu as “a cultural island in the middle of a lake” and despite its aesthetic incongruity it’s a spectacular structure. Access to the interior Opera, Music and Theatre halls is made possible via an underwater walkway which I was unfortunately unable to enter at the time (a guard said “no” rather abruptly as I approached) but is supposedly as impressive on the inside as it is out.

P1020702

Like so much in China old and new exist in an uneasy sort of harmony which smacks of having a deep identity crisis (or perhaps just bad taste). Beijing has both benefited and suffered from being a foreign architects playground with many examples of hits and misses. I’d call this an awkward hit but possibly misplaced in its location. It will probably never be the icon that the Sydney Opera House is but will undoubtedly serve its purpose admirably.

Western Chinese Wedding

Cake Couple

Last weekend an old university friend of mine got married. By chance she and her husband live in Guangzhou (1 hour away from Shenzhen by the fast CRH train) so I was fortunate enough to be able to attend. If you were expecting something traditionally Chinese then I’m afraid you may be disappointed. Most Chinese couples today choose something akin to the western format, in style if not substance anyway.

Here Comes The Bride

It was a civil ceremony witnessed by a local official held at a nice hotel and luckily the weather was good enough to hold it outside. The ceremony began with the couple processing in together (not escorted by the father) and presided over by a host (who even sang a song later in the evening!). It was all in Chinese but someone helpfully translated for me 🙂

Toasting Parents

The couple gave short speeches about how they met and their appreciation for each others family after which the parents gave their blessings to the match. They exchanged rings and vows (written by themselves) then drank to the health of the parents. In China when two people get married the bride effectively becomes part of the grooms family and subject to doing their bidding. You can understand why the “cruel mother-in-law” is a frequent theme in Chinese literature.

Throwing Wedding Bouquet

Just before the end of the ceremony there was the very non-Chinese throwing of the wedding bouquet which got some of the girls very excited! This was followed by a tasty western-style buffet dinner and some games. The couple then went round to each table in turn to give a toast. If there a large number of guests friends of the couple will help with the drinking to avoid them getting completely drunk!

Hongbao "Lucky Money"

Instead of giving wedding presents guests give “Hongbao” which are little red envelopes containing cash (the same as is given at Spring Festival). The red colour is supposed to symbolise good luck and happiness. The ones shown above are some I have collected – many shops (IKEA, Coca-cola, Mc Donald’s etc.) were give out branded versions during the holidays.

A pleasant day was had by all and I wish the happy couple the best of luck for the future!

Beijing 2009: Then and Now

Two years have passed since I spent three months in Beijing in 2007 and it only seems like yesterday that I was writing a series of posts about how Beijing was changing in its mad dash to get ready for the 2008 Olympics. Of course the games are long over but the city has been forever changed by its passing and on my first return two weeks ago I was surprised at the extent of the transformation. Using photos I snapped on previous visits (and a few more I found online)  I’ve put together a few comparative impressions from my fleeting visit…

Pollution & Traffic

Upon landing at Beijing Capital International Airport we were greeted with the all-too-familiar blanket of smog suffocating the suns light casting a grey hue over the city’s many architectural monstrosities. Whist initially depressing things cleared up for the rest of the week with almost-blue skies giving much better visibility than I ever remember in the past. A wander through the Forbidden City and up the hill in Jingshan Park visibly confirmed this:

Forbidden City from Jingshan Park – March 2008

Forbidden City from Jingshan Park

April 2009

Overlooking The Forbidden City

What was an invisible haze in early 2008 is now a beautiful vista in 2009. Whether it would be like this everyday is another matter but with this sort of view the imagination runs wild. I quite fancy the job of Emperor if it comes with a palace like this!

Hall of Supreme Harmony – March 2008

Undergoing Restoration in the Smog

April 2009

Forbidden No Longer

Aside from the much improved view the restoration work has now been completed on the centrepiece of the Forbidden City. I hesitate to use the word “restore” as its not so much preserving the original as it is replicating and rebuilding to reproduce the original look which is a sad reflection on China’s obsession with new being good and old being bad.

As for the traffic – it’s just as bad, if not worse, than it ever was. Taxi drivers are still rude and unhelpful.

Restoration

When climbing the Great Wall at Mutianyu previously there was a certain point at watchtower 20 where you could go no further due to the deterioration of the wall (and a man stationed to stop you!) but over the past year they seem to have done a big restoration effort and are opening up further sections:

Mutianyu Great Wall – March 2008

In Need of Restoration

April 2009

After Restoration (2009)

I didn’t have time to climb the new section but it looks exciting. The nice part about Mutianyu is the relative lack of people compared to Badaling which is the main tourist site being closer to Beijing. The quickest way to get there is by a bus from near Xuanwumen subway station.

Subway

The Beijing subway used to be somewhat of a groaning monster under the streets which was neither comfortable nor convenient to use and invariably overcrowded most of the time. This has mostly changed with the advent of an automated ticketing system, new/refurbished trains and additional lines to ride on making the city much more accessible. There are still too many people but this is more bearable now that the trains have working AC:

September 2006

DSC_5597
Photo by Tan Yu

April 2008

P1020444

Weirdly they are still insisting on scanning everyone’s bag as they enter the station which seems more of a token act than a real security precaution. It’s almost like nobody has told them the games are over or that now ticket checkers are no longer needed that the staff have been blindly given this job to keep them employed. Whatever the reason it’s a bit of a hassle and bottleneck.

Destruction

The saddest part of my trip was seeing the newly rebuilt Qianmen street that has taken the place of some fascinating old hutongs which have been almost totally destroyed. I’ve written about this specific act of cultural vandalism before so I’ll try not repeat myself but it makes me feel quite sick at what they’ve done.

Qianmen – March 2006

Qianmen
Photo by mikeccross

March 2009

South of Qianmen
Photo by olgainchina

Disneyfication:

..the processes of stripping a real place or event of its original character and repackaging it in a sanitized format. References to anything negative are removed, and the facts are watered down with the intent of making the subject more pleasant and easily grasped. In the case of places, this typically means replacing what has grown organically over time with an idealized and tourist-friendly veneer…

I know which one I prefer.

Beijing is undoubtedly a more modern and easier city to navigate for all its recent changes but in the process of modernisation a big part of the old China has been lost to be replaced with something frankly more generic and fake which is a big pity. I only hope that the country can wake up to saving what it’s got before it’s all lost.

Olympic Birds Nest

Birds Nest

For the first time since its completion I finally had a chance to see Beijing’s centrepiece National Stadium dubbed the “Birds Nest”. On both of my previous visits to Beijing in 07 & 08 I had wandered around the perimeter of the building site to get a glimpse of this striking steel lattice structure but had never been inside before. Getting there is pretty easy using the  subway line 8  spur.

Looking Down

After purchasing a ticket (50 RMB) though a gap in the iron railings which surround the stadium you’re basically left to wander around the stadium freely, which has been left pretty much as is was, complete with thousands of red and white seats sitting expectantly in neat rows. It’s an awe inspiring structure which is as impressive in the flesh as it was on TV but you have to wonder what on earth they can use it for now, other than a tourist attraction.

Olympic Seating

It was evident by the somewhat haphazard approach to the way in which the area has been opened up to tourism that the Chinese authorities didn’t really have a plan about what to do with the stadium and other facilities once the 2008 Olympic games were over. Right now it’s a bit of a white elephant, albeit a beautiful elephant!

P1020545

I’m sure someone could think up a creative idea about how to bring the place back to life. For starters they could so easily play highlights of the games on the enormous screens which still hang dormant at either end of the stadium and give a little history about the construction process etc. Even better would be if they were able to put on some sort of daily re-enactment of the opening ceremony which I’m sure would pull in even bigger crowds.

Water Cube

Sadly the chances are that it’ll be allowed to slowly mould or be turned into a gigantic shopping mall which is the mainstay of modern Chinese urban planning. Whatever the future holds the Birds Nest and the neighbouring Water Cube are triumphs of creative and imaginative architecture and I only hope they wont go to waste.

2 Minutes in Beijing

Fit for an Emperor

Below is a short video I put together from shots I took during my trip to Beijing last week. It’s nothing fancy but hopefully can give those who’ve not visited a small taste of the grandeur of some of the main sites there. As the country’s cultural and historic centre Beijing is not to be missed if you visit China and a good place begin exploring the country as a whole (although somewhat misleading if you expect the rest of it to be like this).

I’ve not had much time to pay attention to the technicalities of shooting video yet but hope to improve in the future. Like taking good photos it needs time and patience which are often lacking when you’re travelling with others hence why I sometimes prefer to go alone. In this way you also have a bit more space to soak up the atmosphere and go at your own pace although in general I’d prefer to share the experience with others.

Yawn

…whilst for most the scenery is spectacular for others it was nothing special!

Exotic Street Food

Night Market

One of the great things about China is the staggering variety of snack food available on most street corners for a couple of yuan and differing from region to region. Whilst hygiene standards may be questionable (most of them are illegal) I’ve never had any problems and quite often enjoy getting some spicy dry noodles or a meat stuffed pancake on the way to work.

Scorpion Sticks

Wangfujing night market (王府井小吃街 in Beijing) has an exotic selection of insects, sea creatures and even scorpions which can be deep fried to order. I have a feeling that most of this is just for the sake of tourists who screech when they see the scorpions twitching on the sticks they have been harpooned on. I didn’t take my parents (who were visiting) here as I thought it might be a little too much for them!

Starfish Sticks

You don’t see a huge number of people actually trying them, myself included, and none of my Chinese friends I asked would dare either. Most people opt for the more typical foods like barbecued kebabs or caramelised fruits. There was also a locally produced yogurt which was very refreshing. I’m curious to know where they get all the scorpions from – do they farm them somewhere?

Night Lanterns

If you’re looking for a more authentic experience then it’s probably best to head into the depths of one of the many, but rapidly deminishing, Hutongs in Beijing where some of the best street food is to be found (minus the creepie crawlies). I’d recommend the area between Xidan and Hepingmen metro stations (west of the opera house) where many small and cheap restaurants can be found.

Ode To The Great Firewall

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 updated for 21st Century China (and my current mood):

thorns on green
Photo by wvs

Oh Great Firewall shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
No, I shalt compare thee to a thorn in my backside.

 
Thou art more restrictive and more disruptive.
Rough connections do shake the darling congress of March,
And 1989’s memory hath all too long a block.
Sometime too hot the eye of CPC shines,
And often is Youtube’s complexion dimmed;
And every post from BBS sometime declines,
By chance, or golden shield’s changing course, untrimmed;
But thy eternal censor shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that power thou ow’st,
Nor shall freedom brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.

So long as men can browse, or hands can type,
So long lives this, and this gives frustration to thee.

A Symphony of Lights

Victoria Habour

Every night at 8pm in Hong Kong the buildings along the Victoria Harbour waterfront are illuminated in a vibrant light show known as “A Symphony of Lights“. Even without this novel spectacle there is nowhere else in the world where you can see such a astounding scene of the same magnitude. I never get bored of gazing out over the water to the endless line of twinkling skyscrapers clinging to the edge of Hong Kong Island which appear so calm yet are a hive of activity for its 7 million inhabitants.

P1020375

There is something truly magical about this city which conceptually lies between East and West, torn by its turbulent history and aspirations for the future. Perhaps my Britishness and it’s colonial roots are what draw me here but every time I cross over from mainland China into the SAR I can’t help but feeling that it’s a special place and a testament to human accomplishment.

Victoria Harbour Light Show

The best place to see the show is from along the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront between the Avenue of Stars and the Hong Kong Cultural Centre. The view from Victoria Peak is also spectacular but best seen on a clear day/night.

Tiny HK Hotels

After 10 days of wandering the streets of Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Beijing I’m back with pleanty of tales to tell and a few new videos in the works as well as lots of photos to share.

Home to many a rich banker, Hong Kong is not a cheap city by any standard. A while back I saw a list of supposedly affordable HK hotels but at $1400 HKD per night I’m not sure who’s idea of “cheap” these were. For me budget options would be more in the $200-300 range (without it being a Chunking Mansions dive) of which there are plenty to be found if you don’t mind sleeping in somewhat basic accommodation.

Lost in Hong Kong

Based on the recommendation from a friend I recently stayed in the Hong Kong Holiday Guesthouse (Argyle Street) in Mongkok, Kowloon for two nights. At only 2 minutes walking distance from the MTR in a vibrant part of the city it’s pretty convenient and for only $200 HKD per night cheap by any standard. It was a little hard to spot as there were no obvious signs outside but once you’ve navigated you way to the 6th floor of the building you should be OK.

Tiny HK Hotel

There are some caveats I have to point out; what you basically get is a windowless box to sleep in for the night with a tiny bathroom and little else. The room was clean with air conditioning and internet access but the building it’s located in is pretty old and dingy (not the sort of place you’d want to be if it ever caught fire). This is not for the claustrophobic or those looking for panoramic views but for the intrepid traveller on a budget it’s ideal. It may not be the Marriott but I guaruntee it has more local character – once you turn out the lights you wont notice the difference anyway!

Tiny HK Bathroom

Another similar option nearby is Ka Wut Villa (Sai Yee Street) but it’s on a busy road so if you’re a light sleeper you may want to avoid. If you have a larger budget of around $700-800 per night then The CityView in Yau Ma Tei is a good option (3 stars), providing a more spacious experience in comfortable surroundings. Please leave a comment below if you can recommend any other reasonable places.

Space in Hong Kong is limited so the price of decent hotels is always going to come at a premium but if you’re prepared to be flexible then it’s still possible to stay in the centre of the city on a reasonable budget.