Feb 23, 2008

Fireworks recap

This week finally marked the end of the lunar new year fireworks madness in Beijing. Officially, fireworks were allowed from lunar new year's eve to midnight of the fifteenth day of the lunar month, which was this past Thursday. Here's a quick photo sampling of what was available within Beijing. Of course, the really good stuff, like firecrackers that look like toilet paper tubes stuffed with black powder, are available in Hebei province or out in the countryside.

Here's a fireworks stand with the officially permitted fireworks in Beijing. They had some semi-illegal stuff behind the counter.

Various small mortars being sold with creative names:

无敌先锋, the "invincible vanguard".

太空游行, the "outer space journey".

满园春, I think this one is named after the idiom 春色满园, which describes how a garden is full of spring beauty and scenery.

火树银花, "fire trees and silver stars", named using an idiom describing a place decorated with lanterns and banners, or the glitter and brightness from setting off a bunch of fireworks.

花好月圆, "nice flowers and a round moon", this one is named after a Chinese idiom that is a figure of speech for happiness and satisfaction, often used to congratulate newlyweds.

万业兴隆, I think this one has to do with guaranteeing thriving business.

Feb 19, 2008

Viewing some Beijing apartments

The lease on my apartment was about to expire recently, so I took the opportunity to see some other rentals in the area before I renewed. I wanted to see what I could get for the same price range as far as comfort level, location, cleanliness, and size. So I contacted some rental agents, who were posing as landlords of course, through some Chinese language web sites. For those of you that don't know the scam, rental agents charge one month's rent, charged directly to the renter, for low-end apartments, or charged to the landlord, and then added to the monthly rent. The end result is that apartments are about 10% more expensive than they would have been without the rental agent.

First, a short digression. Dealing with rental agents stirred up my past memories of these parasites that control the Beijing rental market, and it made me think, "Beijing rental agents are more despised than lawyers are in the US, what if we did a find-and-replace on some old lawyer jokes? I bet it would work out nicely." Check this out, I did a quick modification of some traditional lawyer jokes from this page, and most of them converted pretty very well:
Q: What do you call 5000 dead rental agents at the bottom of the ocean?
A: A good start!

Q: How can you tell when a rental agent is lying?
A: His lips are moving.

Q: What's the difference between a dead dog in the road and a dead rental agent in the road?
A: There are skid marks in front of the dog.

Q: What do have when a rental agent is buried up to his neck in sand?
A: Not enough sand.

Q: How do you get a rental agent out of a tree?
A: Cut the rope.

Q: Do you know how to save a drowning lawyer?
A1: Take your foot off his head.
A2: No. Good!

Q: What's the difference between a rental agent and a bucket of shit?
A: The bucket.

Q. What's the difference between a rental agent and a gigolo?
A. A gigolo only screws one person at a time.
Now back to the original story. I saw some apartments over the course of a day or two, and it was highly educational. In summary:
  • By my quick calculations, Beijing rental prices have gone up 20% or so over the past couple years.
  • In Beijing, you can't swing a dead cat without hitting a rental agent
  • There are some real shit holes out there being rented for a lot more than they should.
Here's a recap of my day's adventure viewing apartments, which started at around 8:30 in the morning. Floor areas sizes and prices converted into American for your viewing pleasure.

Apartment 1: 700 ft², $420 per month, 6th floor, no elevators.
Slogan: "The cardiovascular fitness apartment."

This place was pretty decent inside. It's long and skinny (板楼), with windows facing both north and south (南北通透). Problem was that it's in the middle of an area infested with Korean students (韩国人猖獗), and it requires walking a good 10-20 minutes to get anywhere. Plus I think it would get tiresome at some point living on the sixth floor with no elevators.

Apartment 2: 488 ft², $538 per month, 12th floor of a relatively new high-rise
Slogan: "Pinching pennies so hard that Lincoln screams."

This place was in a pretty nice development with a lot of upper-middle class local families. I even saw a girl driving a BMW in the parking lot. The main problem is that the couple that owned this specific apartment very obviously purchased it as a rental-only unit. They've never lived in the place themselves. They invested the absolute bare minimum in the internal plumbing, fixtures, and furniture. Check out the ratty cheap couch covered with a Jo-Ann Fabrics bargain-bin remnant:

And here's the bathroom that looks like the deserted chamber in the first Saw movie where the guy cuts off his foot:

Apartment 3:
646 ft², $405 per month, 4th floor, no elevator
Slogan: "Well worn, lots of character. Dirty mop water aplenty."

This was another north-south facing apartment, but it's pretty old. I'd guess 15 years or so, which due to the local construction techniques, really shows its age. The nice thing was that it's a very lively community. Outside there were lots of vegetable and food vendors. Nearby was a small community heath clinic with outdoor giant color posters of every flavor of IUD, as well as a pictorial time line of a developing fetus.

This particular apartment was a bit too-well lived in for my taste. When I visited, the previous tenants, three senior citizens, were still there loafing about on various beds and sauntering around in bathrobes with their hair in curlers. There were leeks and sunflower seeds and watermelon seeds everywhere. I think this was a group of regular pack rats. If I lived there, I'm sure I'd discover lots of hidden treasures that they'd stashed. Needless to say, this place would require extensive decontamination with a solution of bleach and water before I were to move in.

A well-worn kitchen.

Is this a romantic bathroom? Check out the stagnant, dirty mop water.

Apartment 4:
377 ft², $488 per month, 11th floor of a brand new, hotel-style apartment
Slogan: "I'm a greedy douche, and I'm not embarrassed about it."

What a waste it was to see this place. It's basically a hotel room that someone has purchased as an apartment and is then renting out. Although an efficiency unit may be warranted in a place with scarce space, like New York City, I don't think it's necessary in Beijing. On top of that, there's a tiny tiny refrigerator, like you'd have in your college dorm room, and a small induction cooker rather than a gas stove. Oh yeah, and they plan to kick out whomever is living there at the end of July this year in hopes of finding a sucker to rent it for $140 per day during the Olympics. This landlord gets the Greedy Douche Award.

Apartment 5:
753 ft², $488 per month, 2nd floor, no elevator
Slogan: "Avian Flu Redux: Ground Zero"

This was an older community, 10 years or so. The apartment blocks looked like burnt-out Detroit crack houses from the outside, but the inside of the unit I saw was decent. Check out this window of a nearby apartment :

The guy was raising every kind of nasty bird you could think of in the windowsill of his apartment. It's sealed up with old newspapers, cardboard boxes, and plastic so they can't escape. Is this where you want to be living when the next avian flu outbreak hits?

Here's the Cabrini-Green staircase leading up to the unit:

Check out the nice sturdy door so that local gang bangers can't get in. To either side are the two rental agents poised to jump on the landlord as soon as the door opens, like jackals on a fresh kill.

Apartment 6:
818 ft², $530 per month, 4th floor of a white-collar Chinese style apartment high-rise
Slogan: "The a-hole landlord."

This was a nice, white-collar Chinese high rise community. This apartment, however, wasn't cleaned in the past three years as far as I could tell. It was used by a ragtag office gang, and there were bundles of Ethernet cables strewn everywhere. Broken, dirty desks were shoved against the walls of the empty apartment. The bathroom had a tub, which is unique for China. Most places have only a shower.

From what I've been told, girls really enjoy soaking in a hot bath. I'm sure this decrepit bathroom would really set the mood. I think the pungent orange juice dripping down the wall, and the rotten, splintered plywood above the faucet would really work wonders.

As an added bonus, the landlord of this apartment was a complete cheapskate. I asked if he had plans to clean up the huge mess before the prospective tenant moves in, and his response was something to the effect of, "Say what? That's the responsibility of the new tenant." To his credit, he did mention he'd purchase a bed frame and a couple cabinets for the unit. I wasn't surprised to hear this vacant apartment had been on the market for a pretty long time, over a month and a half so far. This is not the guy I want to be renting from.

Apartments 7 and 8:
431 ft², $488-558 per month, brand new, hotel-style apartment
Slogan: "The upscale flophouse."

More overpriced hotel-style apartments. Check out these blood sucker agents waiting around for me to make a decision. The jovial fellow to the far left was with the building's property management office. I think he was annoyed we woke him up from his siesta to show us a couple units.

Again, a totally inadequate kitchen. A little induction cooker hot plate is fine for ramen noodles, but not sufficient for my cooking requirements.

In conclusion, not finding anything that gave me enough inspiration to move, I renewed my lease and I'm planning to stay there for now. I feel more educated about the Beijing rental market, and I'm content to go on making condescending remarks about the rental agents.

Feb 18, 2008

Ice festival

Here are some of my photos from the ice festival in Harbin. As you're enjoying these from the comfort of home, imagine walking around at night for a couple hours in -8 ºF weather to view these man made wonders.

Here's the top of the seemingly safe ice slide. You pick up an amazing amount of speed going down this ice luge track while laying on a flimsy plastic sled, and then crash into a mound of loose snow at the very end. Here's a short video I made of a person sliding down. You get knocked around quite a bit into the walls of the luge. If you're one of those delicate vegetarian-types, think twice before trying this thing out, as you're likely to get bruised up.

At the bottom:

In Harbin, you could tell where certain visitors are from based on what they are wearing. For example:
  • People from southern China: ski jackets, thick ski pants, moon boots, hats, mittens, the works. They look like the little boy Randy from A Christmas Story that gets all bundled up by his mother, and when he falls over on the ground he's stuck like an overturned tortoise.
  • People from Beijing and nearby: winter clothes, gloves, winter hat. Relatively normal winter gear.
  • Northeastern people: sport coats for guys, skirts for girls; no hats or gloves for anyone. These are the equivalent of the "cool kids", jocks and cheerleaders.
Here's a photo of a local girl at the ice festival. Northeastern Chinese women (东北妞) are very hardy. Note this particular girl's sturdy legs and immunity to frigid temperatures. She must have many suitors.

Feb 11, 2008

Ice bar

I was able to visit this novel ice bar in the pedestrian mall of downtown Harbin. Check out this news story on it.

The walls, bar counter, tables, and benches are all made of ice. Even the shot glasses are molded out of ice.

You can get slightly overpriced beef or lamb kabobs.

Russian vodka is CNY 30 a pop.

You can enjoy your meat kabobs and vodka while sitting at an ice table covered with...

...a German Shepherd pelt, or...

...a mutt pelt.

As we left the bar, I talked to this little dog outside the entrance in Chinese, "Don't go in there, little dog, they'll probably make you into a tablecloth".

Feb 7, 2008

New cocktail recipe

This past Wednesday was lunar new year's eve and the first vacation day of the week-long Chinese New Year holiday in the PRC. Accordingly, Tuesday evening was drinking night. After some whiskey and beer, I had a great revelation for a localized mixed drink using local Beijing ingredients. I've written about it on my Chinese blog.

There's a health tonic sold in China called 脑白金, "nao bai jin", meaning "brain white gold". It's promoted especially heavily during Chinese New Year as a gift product. It's a pretty simple mixture, containing basically melatonin and oligosaccharide. The commercials are pretty entertaining. They feature two computer-generated senior citizen cartoon characters of ambiguous ethnicity dancing around to some catchy tunes. My favorite is the the one where they are dressed like cowboys. Check out one of the commercials here.

The basis for my drink recipe is to combine 1/3 Naobaijin with 2/3 Beijing Red Star erguotou liquor (56% alcohol), serve in an old-fashioned glass, and then garnish with a lime peel. Maybe someone will try this cocktail out and let me know if it's drinkable.

Feb 5, 2008

Pączki pączki

Outside of Halloween, one of the best holidays has to be Fat Tuesday. Accordingly, I prepared by buying some delicious Chinese pączki. They had some localized flavors, of course. Instead of plum, lemon, and raspberry for the filling, you had a choice of savory fermented tofu paste, gelatinous pork trotters, and minced donkey placenta.

I hope you can tell I'm kidding. Chinese don't get anywhere close to making edible donuts, let alone pączki. In fact, outside of Poland, Detroit, and Chicago, I've not seen commercially-prepared pączki anywhere.

Below: pączki filled with what?

So of course I had to make my own pączki. I used this recipe with some tweaks, although it seems like most pączki recipes are pretty much the same. It's a basic fried donut dough recipe, and then the filling is up to you. It shouldn't be a big surprise if you've ever made your own donuts before. I filled mine with a raspberry jelly I derived from some preserves.

Despite the dangers of playing around with 350 degree oil, it's very rewarding to make your own donuts or pączki. Some of the benefits:
  • I wanted big, fat pączki, that blow up like little spheres, not the supermarket pseudo-pączki that look like their regular donuts. This is easy enough to accomplish when you're doing it yourself.
  • The raspberry filling I concocted tasted better than the high-fructose corn syrup filler stuff they put into the mass-produced pączki. I left the raspberry seeds in the jelly, since I think it tastes more like fruit and less like Hostess pie corn syrup filler that way. Emeril would have you do otherwise, but I wouldn't take too much advise from him anyway.
  • There's nothing better than eating a hot, unfilled pączek right out of the frier. Note that you should probably let it cool for about 10 minutes so you don't burn the sh*t out of your lips. The dough will still be cooking inside the browned crust even after you take it out of the oil.
  • I'm not a huge fan of pączki glazed with thick, white fondant. It seems too much like Dunkin' Donuts to me. My preference is powdered or granular sugar for the coating. For a fried donut like pączki, I like the taste of granular sugar better, so I used that. I'd leave the powdered sugar to more delicate stuff like crêpes or chrusciki.
  • I've fried donuts in canola oil in the past, and it just doesn't cut it for flavor. I fried my pączki in peanut oil this time. It adds a nice, subtle flavor that goes especially well with the raspberry filling. Commercial operators are for the most part going to use plain vegetable oil because of the nut-allergy complainers, so you're not going to get this unique flavor outside of your own kitchen.
Work in progress: a risen pączki dough ball and a just-finished, empty pączki.

Feb 2, 2008

Inappropriate music

Inappropriate music story #1:

While riding the Beijing light rail after work one day this week, I was just getting ready to plug into my iPod. Just then, I heard what sounded like the beginning of an old-school N.W.A. rap song being played nearby. The newly-installed LCD televisions in the light rail car, which normally show Chinese government propaganda and news to captive audiences, was showing clips from a local variety show. They had just started a clip showing a dance troupe bouncing around to "Straight Outta Compton", by Ice Cube and his N.W.A. brethren, lyrics uncensored and at full volume. For those of you who didn't come up from the 'hood listening to this genre, as did I, you can check out the original video for the song on YouTube.

Standing in the middle of the crowded light rail car with families, old people, and children all watching this broadcast, a grin came across my face as I heard Ice Cube yelling, "Straight outta Compton, crazy motherf*cker named Ice Cube". My grin got wider still as I heard "Goin off on a motherf*cker like that; With a gat that's pointed at yo ass". By the fourth mention of the word "motherf*cker", I started to chuckle out loud and more than a few people were staring at me.

The video eventually cut away before we got to hear from MC Ren and Eazy-E, which was just as well, since we were just getting to my stop.

Inappropriate music story #2:

A while back, I was sitting with a friend in the McDonald's near the west gate of People's University, in Shuang An. It's a fairly upscale area right near the Friendship Hotel, with quite a few foreign visitors. There's a Häagen-Dazs, a 4-star movie theatre, a Pizza Hut, and a bunch of other multinational chains.

The two of us were sitting in the McDonald's in the early afternoon, and just like the subway, the place was full of young families, kids, and seniors. Suddenly, McDonald's started to blast over the public address system what may be the most inappropriate song ever for families, "My Neck, My Back" by Khia, the uncensored version. Remember, we didn't even get to hear this unedited version over the radio back in the US when it first came out. How very fortunate we are, indeed, to be living in the wonderful open society of the People's Republic of China. (Note: Here is the YouTube video, skip it if you have sensitive ears)

As far as the McDonald's incident goes, I was conflicted between feeling downright embarrassed for this huge mistake that McDonald's had made, and feeling highly entertained at how clueless the restaurant management and patrons were.