Wednesday, 3 April 2013

It all sounds like Chinese to me!

A month after we moved here we started our Chinese Mandarin lessons. This was important to us for a number of reasons...

- we wanted to learn a new language
- we wanted to get the most out of our time in China
- we wanted to impress our visitors with our new found talents!

We had a recommendation from a friend of a very good Chinese teacher, called Esther (English name) or Ting Ting (Chinese name). Luckily for us, she is extremely patient, and while at first was very bemused, has now come to laugh at our competitive natures... and sometimes even joins in. She definitely likes to antagonise situations by creating a 'winner' and a 'loser' for different chapters. A common phrase used in our lessons is 'hen hao (very good) Michelle', followed by a quizzical glance at Sam as she tries to make sense of whatever 'words' are coming out of his mouth (no bias, honest!). 

We have two lessons of two hours each work, plus 'homework' which usually takes the form of some listening exercises. I think we may have completed one since November, so definite improvement needed on that front. However we have both just passed our first exam, so we're feeling pretty pleased with ourselves at the moment!

With over 2,000 characters (simplified and traditional), plus 5 tones (4 basic, 1 neutral), you begin to understand something of the challenge we have. On top of that, each region has a very distinctive dialect - for example in Shanghai you have Shanghainese, which you can't understand even if you speak Mandarin! Having said that, there are no tenses, genders or plurals - so a few less things to contend with than learning another European language. Sam is also enjoying learning about English grammar alongside Chinese sentence structure, which seems to be pleasing him no end. 

Now, nearly 6 months in, here are just a few examples of things we can say (and more importantly, have tested our in the 'real world' to some success)...

- Hello, how are you?
- I'm good, and you?
- Where are you from?
- I am English
- I have one older sister who is 32 years old. My mother is called Caroline. 
- How much is that?
- Two hundred and eighty seven kuai
- Where would you like to go? 
- I want to go to [insert road name]
- Turn left at the intersection and then stop at the entrance to the restaurant
- I would like a medium capucino, and a piece of cheesecake. 
- I would like three apples and two watermelons. 
- Can I have the menu please? 
- Can I have the bill please?
- I go to work at 8am, come home at 7pm and eat dinner at 8pm. 
- Tomorrow I will wait for you in the reception of your work 
- At 6pm I will pick you up and will be go and have dinner in a restaurant on Beijing Road
- On Wednesday, 8 September 2014, I will meet friends
- So expensive!!

So, basically fluent!

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Chinese Trivia

Buying a car

Given the unofficial population of 1.7 billion people in China, controlling congestion and for that matter the oil consumption and pollution caused by owning a car, is no small task. In rural China not many people can afford or require a car, but in some of the major cities some novel measures have been put in place. In Shanghai for example, they have turned to an auction system which is held every third Saturday in each month for the sale of roughly 8,000 number plates. Obviously, without a number plate you can’t own or drive a car so the only way to get one is to enter the auction. 

How does someone participate in the auction? First, the applicant needs to go to a branch of Bank of Communications to register (which, talking from our own experiences of banks in Shanghai, will definitely not be straightforward!). There, the applicant puts down a 2,000 yuan (£200) deposit to get an account number and a computer disk. The disk has a program that the motorist uses to connect to the system that allows auction participants to bid, using the account number. The applicant has only three chances to bid, at 100 yuan a pop. Add to that some news I heard from my colleague who said that you can expect to be on the waiting list for years leading up to the point where you can actually bid, and you have a fairly complex process! 

Currently the average price of a number plate in Shanghai is 85,000 yuan (£8,500). Together with the cost of the car, it’s a pretty effective way of controlling things. Beijing takes a different (and surprisingly more fair) approach - instead of an auction they have a lucky draw (China loves a lucky draw) and the number plates are picked at random every month (although if you have the money you can still buy one for 100,000 yuan).

It’s a numbers game

Numbers in China mean a lot. Some numbers have very specific meanings, to the point where they affect everyday life. Take a look at the floors in our building as an example, notice anything odd?

The number four is absent as are all numbers that include a four. The reason is that the number four is synonymous with death, so nearly every building (at least that we have been in) has those floors omitted. Presumably because no business or prospective tenant would buy or rent them.

Another example is when buying a sim card for your phone in China you are given a huge list of numbers to choose from. It's a bit of an event when in the shop as all the people behind the counter gather round watching which one you will pick. The reason is that most people want their phone number to contain 6s (luck) and 8s (wealth). What's also a bit different is that the price you pay for your sim is directly related to the quantity of these numbers that appear in your number. The more 6s and 8s the higher the price, the more 4s the lower the price. Hence you can reach me on +44 444 444 444.


No telephone service providers offer voicemail on their tariffs. Quite frustrating on a work level and it also means that most people will answer their phones no matter what the situation; cinema, quiet restaurant, important meeting etc. One solution to this is an app called wechat where you can record your message and send it over to your friend in a similar way to whatsapp. Watch out, i'm pretty sure this will be coming to Europe in the coming months. You heard it here first!!

Guess the numbers

A bit of audience participation now, can you guess the numbers that these hand gestures represent? The only clue we will give you is that they are all under 10.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Chinese New Year

Like everything else in China, our blog shut down over Chinese New Year! In terms of size, CNY is by far the largest celebration in a very comprehensive list of public holidays. A sea of red descends on almost every city, town and village. Families get together, a lot like we do at Christmas, with the major events being eating and travelling across China to visit many different family members. There are some traditions that are a bit different though, including;

Eating mandarins
Cleaning the house
Decorating the house
Buying new clothes
Fireworks (lots of them to drive away evil spirits)
Hongbao (little red envelopes stuffed with cash)

Now, after the final celebrations (and another night of continual fireworks) last Sunday, the blog is back – refreshed, rejuvenated and ready for the Year of the Snake!

After a brief dash home to London and back, via Amsterdam and a (simulated) trip to space (that’s another long and pretty unpleasant story..), we set off for a our first experience of China outside of Shanghai. The destination was Guilin and Yangshuo, both situated in the Guangxi Province, close to the border with Vietnam in Southern China.

Here are our highlights and a ‘guide’ for any future visitors…

Choose Your Guide Carefully

We were very lucky to be offered the services of some of our Chinese teacher’s cousins who were back in their hometown for the holidays. On the first morning, we walked into the hotel lobby looking for someone named ‘Elwing’, who had text me to say she was wearing yellow clothes and had a purple bag. We spotted her straight away, but she just pointed us towards a guy, who then walked us to his car. We thought it a bit odd as she had been very chatty on text, but during a conversation with our ‘guide’, we found out that Elwing had to work today so he had been drafted in instead. Despite us not really discussing where we would visit, the decision had been made somewhere down the line that we would be taken to the rice terraces in Longsheng – not a problem for us, as they were on our list of places to see anyway. We settled into the two hour drive and were starting to admire the scenery as we headed out of the city… until I received a text on my phone from Elwing asking where we were…

Elwing, our guide in Guilin
After driving back to the hotel and reuniting our driver with his actual, paying clients for the day, we set off with a bemused Elwing, who was wondering how we could have been stupid enough to go off with the wrong person. The rest of the day was a success!

We also hired a guide a couple of days later in Yangshuo. The scenery was stunning, but a lot of the roads and villages looked very similar, so we thought it best to hire the services of someone who knew where they were going on our six hour trek.

Mo, our 'tour' guide in Yangshuo on one
of his many cigarette breaks
As a side point, it’s useful to update on the Chinese view of ‘holidays’ at this point. Physical exercise is not conducive to a relaxing holiday – when we’d told friends in Shanghai we were spending five days in Yangshuo, they looked at us perplexed – what will you do for five days in Yangshuo?! Never mind the endless treks, bike rides and mountains to climb in this area of outstanding natural beauty… there are apparently not enough attractions with flashy lights to occupy the average tourist there for so long! But, we were encouraged that there were at least companies putting on the sorts of activities that we had in mind.

When our guide arrived at the guest house to pick us up, we became less encouraged. Without wanting to cast judgment unfairly, it didn’t seem like this fragile 70-odd year old would be the best suited for a six hour trek. However, after clarifying the trip we thought we had booked was in fact the trip we were going on, we set off… with some trepidation.  A few steps in and my fears had been confirmed. This was going to be a six hour trek, that should actually take three hours! I’m really not exaggerating when I say we walked at a child’s pace, with Sam then having to take his bag at one point in an attempt to move him along a bit faster!

See the Guilin ‘sights’

 Michelle and two pagodas  - Guilin
(Banyan Lake)
Guilin is famed for its rice noodles – created when (Northern China) invaded the south and couldn’t get hold of the noodles to which they were accustomed. The ingredients to make them weren’t available either. So they used the ingredient that is plentiful in the area and created their own version.

We spent the rest of the day wandering around the ‘attractions’ of Guilin in the drizzly rain. As hinted to above, Chinese ‘attractions’ have a specific criteria. They require either: lots of decorative coloured light, a tour guide shouting into a megaspeaker or some resemblance (if you squint and have an overactive imagination) to real or make believe animals. If it isn’t adorned with bright flashing lights, possible to view en masse or shaped like a dragon, they can’t understand what you would see in it.

Elephant trunk hill (can you see it?) - Guilin
China Fir Lake - Guilin

Climb to the top in Longshen

The rice terraces in Longshen are well worth a visit – and turn an impressive array of colours depending on the time of year. Although we ended up going with a tour group due to a last minute change in our travel plans and ended up experiencing a range of gimmicks along the way (including ‘long-hair village’ – does what it says on the tin…), the real highlight was the view from the top.

Take it easy in Yangshuo

There are a couple of ways to travel to Yangshuo – a 4 hour boat ride down the Li River, local bus or taxi. We arrived back too late from the rice terraces, so hopped in a car for a 90 minute drive to Yangshuo.

Yangshuo countryside 5 mins from our guest house and the view from the top of Moon Hill
We were staying outside of the main town, so were completely surrounded by mountains, rivers and fields. As well as the ‘long’ walk, we hired bikes, visited an old Banyan tree (a Chinese attraction that was slightly more appealing than Dragon Cave and other similarly named affairs), and went on a raft down the Dragon River (it’s actual name, not a gimmick). It was so nice to be out in the countryside and the scenery is really stunning… definitely worth visiting again when the sun is shining!

A little break whilst our guide tackles
one of many obstacles
Not a bad view from our 
bamboo raft

Pimp my ride bamboo raft equipped with umbrella
On our penultimate night, we went to the famous light show in Yangshuo - directed by the man behind the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony. Sam was secretly excited about this at it presented an opportunity to try and shoot pictures in the dark, something we have always struggled with! The light show features a cast of over 600 people and is set on the Li River amongst the limestone mountains.  

Now it's back to work until the next holiday - the morbidly named 'Tomb Sweeping Day' - we did say it was a pretty comprehensive calendar of holidays!!

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Iona's Guest Post: A Lawyer's Guide to Shanghai

Iona came to visit Shanghai! Here are her (professional) thoughts...

I'm back in snowy Montreal after a week-long adventure: first giving intellectual property training in Manila and then visiting Michelle and Sam in Shanghai. My visit to Shanghai was my first to China. My overwhelming first impression of Shanghai (in addition to agreeing with LJ that everyone seems constantly be hanging laundry) was that the shops seemed to outnumber the people. Well, not quite: Shanghai has a population of 23 million so it stands to reason that there would be a lot of shops, but I was still in awe. Corner shops, food stalls, designer stores, independent clothes shops, pet shops, high street fashion retailers, luggage shops, tourist shops… you name it, Shanghai sells it. If you did need to urgently buy a pet budgie, a pair of longjohns and a bowl of rice (and who wouldn't?) I am certain that you could easily do so in any part of Shanghai. Of course one of the things that China is notorious for selling is counterfeit goods, which for most of us girls means fake handbags. 

Before going to China I was asked by someone who shall not be named to purchase a fake handbag. Of course I threw my hands in the air: "I can't do THAT!" Why not? Buying a fake handbag in Shanghai would have been so easy. There are a number of "fake markets" which I didn't feel the need to visit; I did however go to Yu Yuan Market which is a confused mash up of any city's China town with Disneyland. A China town within a Chinese town if you will. It is a labyrinth of shops and eateries and yet more shops, stuffed full of tourists and tourist tat. Men accost Westerners with the words "bag or watch?" and a scrap of paper with a picture of a designer bag and watch to reinforce the point. I did not follow any of these men back to their bag and watch lairs, but it was obvious that that was the place to haggle over a fake Mulberry.

We know it's wrong to buy fakes, but why? Under English law (and Chinese law is likely to be very similar):
·       Handbags (indeed any garments) do not generally attract copyright protection (but DVDs do).
·       However handbags do generally bear trade marks: Louis Vuitton is the obvious example as his bags are plastered with "LV", but all designer handbags have something that shows you who has made them. The reason that people buy knock-offs is because they want everyone to think that they have a designer bag, so the knock-off must bear the trade mark too. Making or selling a handbag with a designer's logo on it infringes that designer's trade mark.
·       That said, buying a handbag not made by Chanel but with Chanel's logo on it does not infringe Chanel's trade mark. It is not infringement of intellectual property to buy a knock-off. Loop hole?
·       It is illegal to import infringing goods into the UK. Loop hole closed (sort of).

So actually, I'm fine to buy the fake handbag (I still wouldn't, I'm too much of a goodie two-shoes), I just can't take it home with me.

The real penalties are, supposedly, for those that supply the fakes. According to a guide published by the UK Intellectual Property Office, under Chinese law you can get up to 7 years in prison for manufacturing or selling infringing goods, up to 15 years for operating an illegal business, and up life (or the death sentence!) for production and marketing of fake or substandard goods.
With those kind of deterrents, why is it is still so easy to buy fakes in China? 

One reason is that, as Michelle and Sam have highlighted in this blog, China is a frustratingly bureaucratic country. Hoops must be jumped through and documents must be rubber stamped in order to achieve anything. European brand owners often find it too difficult to a) register their rights and b) enforce those rights in China, so just don't bother.

This is linked to the fact that although China has recently stepped up its enforcement initiatives, insufficient resources are allocated to the task. To give some perspective, in 2007 there were fewer than 1,000 copyright officials in the whole of China, a country which then had 1.3 billion people. Handbag sellers often have a legitimate shop front with a back door through to the fake goodies, which they can close if the authorities get close. Anyway, with infringing software and pharmaceuticals to deal with, the Chinese authorities have bigger fish to fry than the fake handbag merchants.

As I have said it is not illegal to buy a fake handbag, though it is illegal to bring it into the UK. With that in mind I would be interested in hearing your thoughts. In today's society the culture of "free" is pervasive: would you choose to make the most of what's on offer in China by buying cheap and fake? Or, along with fake tan and fake eyelashes, do you think that fake handbags are just a bit cheap and nasty?

More on IP: I regularly contribute to the 1709 blog on all things copyright related; my most recent blog post is (fittingly) on Gangnam Style and the culture of free.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Hot Pot

People that know us well are probably a little surprised by the absence on here of a topic that occupied a large proportion of our time in London. We love food! Whether browsing menus, cooking ourselves or eating out… it is something we enjoy immensely and are very passionate about.

Being in Shanghai hasn’t changed anything. In fact, with a whole new choice of restaurants on our doorstep, our obsession has probably only increased. Not only do you have the whole array of cuisines that you have at home, you also have many different Chinese cuisines to try and experiment with too – there’s Yunnan, Szechuan, Cantonese, Tibetan, Shanghainese… just to mention a few. On top of that, our cooking time has (sadly) seen a decline… apartments don’t come with ovens, western ingredients are harder to come by and are very expensive and most of our time isn't spent in the flat… which means eating out has become even more of a hobby.

I think it’s fair to say that our weekend adventures, while taking in many new sights of the city, usually centre around a new restaurant we want to review, brunch we want to test or cuisine we want to try. Trying to write down all those experiences is a daunting task! I think we’ve probably been putting it off as a) we’re too scared about starting and not being able to stop (we considered making this a food only blog at one stage) b) we’ve been so overwhelmed by what we’ve experienced already that doing justice to it is hard c) we don't know where to start.

So now it’s time. We’re just going to jump right in! And where better to start than with a very Chinese evening out…


So far, we’ve taken all our visitors to our favourite Hot Pot, and visited it ourselves a couple of extra times with local friends too. It’s a really fun evening out, not just for the food. Hai Di Lao Hot Pot is renowned for its customer service, along with its food, and it doesn’t disappoint. While you wait you are kept fed and watered with something that resembles popcorn, watermelon and some sweet, sweet Ribena type drink (plum juice). You can also have your shoes shined or take a trip to the free nail bar while you are in the ‘queue’. The entertainment doesn’t stop there… Throughout the evening, you are treated to a display of ‘noodle dancing’ – a guy spinning around and twirling the noodles before dumping them into your Hot Pot.

Once you’ve sat down, your table is adorned with little touches to help you stay safe and comfortable. A plastic apron - so you don’t spill food down you, a cover that goes over the chair with your bag on it - so it can’t be pinched, a clear plastic bag for your phone - so you can still use it but it doesn’t get dirty on the table and a glasses cleaning set - so you can clean them when they fog up from all the steam!

The Hot Pot itself is more like what we would call a fondue. You have a choice of two broths – we’ve tried spicy Szechuan (which makes your tongue go numb in a strangely addictive way), tomato, green pepper and ‘normal’. Then you pick your ‘dips’. Everything from the ordinary – sweetcorn, a million different types of pak choi, steak, noodles, chicken, yams, to the less ordinary – unidentified fish balls, chicken heart, duck feet, animal organs… To complement your Hot Pot, you can also make up your own sauces from a huge array of flavours on offer. My usual is a mix of sesame oil, celery, spring onions and soy sauce, but that’s keeping it reserved!

All in all, it’s a really fun night where you can easily while away a few hours… we'll be taking all our future visitors there too!!