Hope in the air

We took the magical modern teleport from Xi’an to Chengdu. 18 hours in a train a bit too much for Rosemary, and saving a day was useful.

I wandered round the airport looking for an English language newspaper. A shiny glossy building with high ceilings, much nicer than Heathrow. Clear layout and signs, clean toilets. Well, I guess Xi’an is the capital of a province of 38 million people, so I don’t know why I was surprised. But I was.

These are the railway stations of our times, as spectacular as the London stations of 150 years ago. And as remarkable in the social change that they are bringing about. Our discounted tickets were about the same price (300 yuan or 20 quid) as the soft sleeper train. Everyone will be flying all over China before we know it. Well, OK, round about 2022.

To try to stop this seems to me impossible. And to have hope without action is pointless. So I wept a bit, hoped that what I’ve read about climate change is wrong, but didn’t believe it. I can take some more Climate Care as a palliative when I get home.

In the end, I managed to find an Asian edition of the Economist.

Warriors or pigs?

Two emperors, roughly 2000 years ago, supervised the creation of their own burial treasures before they died. One (called Qin Shi Huang) created an entire pottery army, in formation, with infantry, cavalry, chariots, archers and a command section. The other (called in various places Han Jing, Liu Qi, or Jindi, I can’t quite work out his name) created pigs, horses, goats, carts, pots, peasants, managers of food supply and representations of judicial functions. Han Jing the yin to Qin Shi’s yang. Which would you take?

Rosemary and I have just taken a lolloping rail route from Shanghai round past the Yellow river in northern China. We passed through Kaifeng – still with bicycles, men playing chess, puppy dogs for sale in the street in cages, OK tourist attractions. The photo of the square by day above, after dark turns into a night market, with hundreds of food stalls selling freshly grilled kebabs, stir frys, geletinous desserts from elephant kettles, freshly rolled filled pastas and thousands of people.

Then Luoyang. In the cliffs of a river near Luoyang, Buddhist emperors and empresses had Buddhas as high as 15 story buildings carved deep into the face of the rock. The photo on the left below is of the river Yi nearby, and the photo on the right of a Heavenly Warrior. Bigger than he looks, 15m tall I think.

We’re in Xi’an at the moment, site of numerous ancient capitals of China. It’s in terms of development all that I had expected Shanghai would be. It feels wealthy, with valuable cars. But it’s also just that bit cleaner, and more relaxed than Shanghai. Bell Tower Square at night feels like an evening square in Italy, well dressed people enjoying the balmy night. The old city walls are still complete, and together with the gardens where the moat used to be form both a landmark and a sense of space.

“These tiles are clean! I wonder if the plaza there pays for them to be scrubbed every day?” “Oh no, it’s because they’re brand new, look even though it’s the evening, the workmen are still laying them.” I was shy about photographing them, but once I did they all started posing with their shovels (photo below left). It looked somewhat ad hoc.

It seems that if you dig a hole more than few metres deep, you’ll stumble upon buried treasure anywhere in Shaanxi province. The cute little lamb on the right is a couple of thousand years old, and was recently found by the Xian Lightbulb Corporation during construction of a new building.

And those two emperors, planning for their afterlives?

The famous Terracota Warriors, found accidentally by peasants digging a well in the mid 1970s, were the treasures of the first yang emperor, Qin Shi. Well worth going to – make sure you see the movie there, which was filmed with a 360 degree camera and gives more useful historical information than the broken English signs. The surprise hit (found via the most recent Lonely Planet, and only discovered at all in the early 1990s) is Han Yangling, the mausoleum of the second emperor, Han Jing. It’s in many ways more fascinating than the Warriors. Much less busy, with time and space to linger. Glass floors going above burial pits, you can see the excavations of all the animals and people close up.

It’s difficult to decide which emperor I’d follow while preparing my afterlife. It’s much more in my character to follow Han Jing, and take enough peasants, animals, equipment and administrative functions to form a new civislisation. But, alas, I know that Qin Shi’s pottery invasion force would plunder it all as soon as we got there. So, on balance, I’d have to defect in this prisoner’s dilemma, and take the army.

Penguins in Shanghai

Most people wouldn’t have seen it, but it instantly caught my eye. I saw this (picture left) last week in Shanghai, on the corner of Shaanxi Lu and Huaihai Zhonglu. It’s an animated advertising hording, which as you can see was mostly black with a cartoon Penguin and the words “Welcome to”. The mirror writing gives away that the Pepsi logo is a reflection of a sign opposite, and is only noticeable in my photo. The Penguin wasn’t moving at all.

I don’t think Rosemary had any idea why I suddenly stopped and whipped my camera out to photograph it. It’s a brand thing and a cultural thing. To a whole group of idealogues in the computer industry, the Penguin logo represents freedom, community, and control. All valuable things, in a world exponentially screaming out of understanding. Unfortunately, the logo also means that something had gone wrong with the hoarding. Not exactly a great advert for Linux, the computer “operating system” which the Penguin represents, to see it rebooting on one of the busiest intersections in China. But encouraging that it is being used as an embedded operating system there.

We went past again a few minutes later, and animated adverts were spinning over the display once again. Optimistically, I thought maybe it was just starting up for the evening. However, I think I saw it a few days later in the day, and it runs all the time.

Shanghai, goodbye


It’s always a bad idea to have expectations. There’s been lots of hype about how fast Shanghai is developing – accelerating out of poverty, and into a world class city. And it’s true – Rosemary was here 20 years ago, and is amazed that you now can’t cross the road without being killed, that everyone is fashionably dressed, rather than in Mao costumes. However, I had higher expectations. This is because I’d been to Kunming, far away provincial capital of Yunnan, and was surprised how developed it was. So I thought Shanghai would be more like Tokyo than Bangkok.

Actually, it is quite dirty. There isn’t the century-long burnt in elegance of a European capital, the clean efficiency of a Japanese megalopolis, or much culture backing the poverty, as in Bangkok. Shanghai has old-style department stores with goods and prices that people don’t want. It has no large open spaces. There are lots of new buildings, but they don’t look like they’ve been built terribly well. The forest of new skyscrapers are (to me – Rosemary liked them) tacky, and the main city is badly laid out.

We went to the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall (it’s in the wing roofed building, SE of Renmin square) where the government tried to impress with descriptions of the greening of Shanghai, and new housing areas being built in the mud flats to the East across the river (Pudong). There are new trees and bushes planted everywhere, on the side of every road and in every corner. Which is great, but they are regimented, like they have been placed by an engineer – if plastic cleaned the air, they’d have used that instead.

I am impressed by the graphical style, for example in adverts. Perhaps partly because I don’t understand them! The picture above is of a typical example. Chinese writing has some beautiful fonts, and they have lots of stark white backgrounds, with colourful, uplifting images.

We went on a cruise along the Huang Pu river, up to where it meets the larger Yangtze. This was a great opportunity to see Shanghai’s real function, as a sea port. Hundreds of derricks lined the coast, and the river was full of boat traffic. Typical, and most curious, were the boats people lived on (picture right). They had their washing hung out to dry at the back, and zipped up and down on cargo errands.

We left Shanghai the day before yesterday, on a soft sleeper train to Kaifeng.

Child of the atom bomb

Imagine it’s May 1945, the war in Europe has ended, and the Americans have captured (parts of?) Okinawa, the tropical island in the very south of Japan. Allied air raids are starting over Shanghai.

Your husband has been sent by truck with your belongings, and you are with your two daughters, aged 3 and 6. You’re being marched by Japanese soldiers part of the way from one internment camp to another. You haven’t been out into the streets for over 2 years. You’re probably suspicious, afraid. Where are you really going? Will you continue to be treated tolerably, as you have been the rest of the war? Will you and your family survive?

On Saturday morning, we went to visit the site of an internment camp where my mum, her sister and their parents had been held hostage by the Japanese at the very end of the war. This was Yangtzepoo camp (on modern Yangshupu Lu), the second camp they had been in after Yu Yuen Road camp. Judging from the meter on our taxi, the march from the Bund to the new camp was 6km.

To our amazement, we found the camp not only intact, but thriving. It’s near the river, the Yangpu Bridge flyover arching past along Ningguo Road. The photo above is of Rosemary in front of its heritage architecture plaque. It’s called the Sacred Heart hospital, as it was before the war. The guard was very friendly, and let us wonder all round – it seemed a modern, clean, hospital. Well sign-posted in Chinese and English. The photo below is a detail from the ceiling in the main building. I took lots more photographs which we’ll put up somewhere when we get back.

We walked back, following the route of the family’s forced march 61 years before. It’s now a run down corner of Shanghai with tiny cramped shop/house hybrids and street food. We walked past the waterworks, which is a fantastic set of old crenelated buildings, well maintained, re-pointed and landscaped with flowers. You can’t get in, it is very much still in active use.

So, what was the new camp like? It was worse than the old one. Cramped, and left in a terrible state by the Japanese soldiers who had been using it as a barracks. The soldiers had moved into the old camps the internees had just left. They were afraid that the Americans were about to bomb them. Fortunately, the war ended and the internees were released before any bombing.

My grandfather always said that the atom bomb had saved the family’s lives. If the war had dragged on for even a short while longer, the Americans would have almost certainly bombed the camp, as they thought it was still a Japanese barracks.

So, this leaves me in the unenviable position that if it weren’t for the nuclear bombs, which killed over a hundred thousand people and introduced the world to its most devastating weapon, then I wouldn’t exist.

Chinese family history

Almost as soon as we got off the plane on Wednesday, Rosemary (my mum) dragged me from the tourist trap of the Bund, into some overcrowded, grimy backstreets hunting for the derelict cathedral where her parents were married and she was christened. The magnetic levitation train from Pudong Airport was great fun – not because it travelled at 431 km/h, the fastest train in the world, but because at some points the earth around us seemed to rotate at what felt like, but could not have been, an unnerving 45 degrees. It turned out that we were tilting, but so exactly as we cornered that you couldn’t feel any force.

In 1842, shortly after a war about opium (which sounds too inocuous, let’s just call it heroin but with fewer laboratories), the British and other western countries gained effective territorial control over parts of China. In 1923, short of work, my grandfather came from Dublin to Shanghai by slow boat to work as a chemist for Shanghai Municpal Council. In 1930, short of adventure, my grandmother flitted through Canada and Japan before settling in Shanghai to teach Physical Education at Thomas Hanbury Public School, just north of Soochow creek. There’s a love story here, but I’ll tell that another time (probably if I ever catch the trans-Siberian express).

We found the cathedral, where they later married, in a pretty bad state, which upset Rosemary (the photo, right, sets it off in a good light, so as not to distress too much). There were small trees growing out of the brickwork, and junk piled up in the entrance. Buildings and walls set closely round it, ruining the grand space it occupied originally. The guard was friendly and let us poke about, we’ve found them much less hostile than Rosemary did 24 years ago when she was last here. There was a posh Chinese language Christian bookshop near the entrance, and the junk turned out to be for renovation work.

We also found the old council building (photo left), and nosed inside. It’s lucky that the guards are friendly now, as it seems Rosemary won’t let any fear stop her from access to family history. It was grand inside, and there were lots of old framed photos of the building under construction, and of speeches from the balcony (see photo) to celebrate when the Communists took over rule of the city in 1949. My grandfather worked in here. He did lots of different things, mainly to do with water pollution, but also, for example, helping to develop tarmac suitable for the local weather.

Everyone puts their own interpretation on places. To the signs made by the government, everywhere is a Communist memorial – where the first party congress was, how much they are doing to clear up the environment. To my mum, everything is the old Shanghailander in her – architecture from a grand age, bridges that Japanese soldiers marched them over, streets where her mother used to shop. I’ll give my take on Shanghai in another post.

東南西北 (DongNanXiBei, EastSouthWestNorth)

A week on Tuesday I’m going to China again. Starting in Shanghai, which is on the East coast in the centre, at the mouth of the Yangtze river. I’m travelling with Rosemary, my mum (who I spent a few weeks with in Japan three years ago; see the last few articles here). We’re going to head for Chengdu, route still to be decided. Email me or post comments if you have suggestions, particularly if you know anybody living in China who could show us around.

Think for a minute, what have you read about China in newspapers and magazines recently? It’s almost certainly very distorted, a Western view of this rapidly changing, ancient country. I’ve been watching out for better sources of Chinese news. The best best place is EastSouthWestNorth (scroll down to “section 3 of 3: Blog posts” for the meat, and for the RSS feed). A guy in Hong Kong translates important mainland Chinese news stories and blog posts into English. Highlights from the last few months:

Roland Soong, who provides this vital, tenuous link between the Chinese and English language Internets, has also translated an article about himself. (Also thanks to Dan O’Huiginn for reminding me that it is easy to spend too much time reading in English. He proceeded to investigate Mongolia, South Korea and the Czech Republic more thoroughly).

Rush hour, six minutes from my window

A woman with a pink crash helmet baby on the back of her bicycle. A cycling man with a red rucksack. A fast helmeted man overtaking a cute girl, overtaking a pair of friends. Depressed looking woman in a long coat riding away. Sporty man talking on his mobile cycling to my right. Two friendly small-backpackers with short (but below knee) trousers. A green sports utility vehicle. A man in a yellow flourescent jacket, with a pannier. Another fluorescent jacket, but helmeted, and this time with sunglasses. A peroxide blonde. A couple of indistinct people. A girl in a bright purple top, and shorts. Long haired guy, cycling, must play jazz. A family, with two little girls, walking (first walkers for a while). A tough, young, bearded, fun, australian like guy with a green rucksack. Somebody with a small plastic carrier bag hanging of their handle bars. Two friends (sisters?) one younger than the other. A black coat, rucksacked man man pushing his bicycle, accompanied by a jolly grey coated woman. Fluorescent yellow bicycle clips. A chinese girl, in technical trousers. A besuited asian carrying one end of a metal ladder, the other end a short blonde white girl. A rush of eight cyclists of all types, in one direction. A couple of walkers. A cycling girl the other way, in a super green checked coat. Three girl friends in trendy clothes.

Who is your birth Lord?

OK, your mission for today, should you choose to accept it, is to find out who your birth Lord is. This is a special mission.

My birth Lord is Richard Rogers of Riverside (biography, Parliamentary record). He was born on the same day at the end of July as me. He’s a famous architect, responsible for the Pompidou Centre (picture right). More recently his career has flopped, as he designed the Millennium Dome! He’s in the Labour party, doesn’t vote much, and has once or twice rebelled on Terrorism. He sticks to his special skills when talking in Parliament, always on subjects like planning and urban renewal. I’ve written him a polite letter to find out his views on the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill.

Instructions for finding your own birth Lord:

  1. Go immediately to WriteToThem.com’s new Lords edition.
  2. Where it says “birthday” enter your birthday.
  3. You will be told which members of the House of Lords have the same birthday as you. Clearly, they must be the ones that represent you in Parliament!
  4. Click on “Find out more about Lord … (new window) on TheyWorkForYou.com.” to learn more about your birth Lord. If you have more than one birth Lord, you’ll need to click on their name first.
  5. See what party they are, scroll down to read their speeches. Click the link in the right sidebar to read their Wikipedia biography.
  6. Blog about your birth Lord, you can pinch the format I used above.
  7. Ask five of your blogging friends to in turn find and post about their birth Lords.
  8. Bonus points: Write a letter introducing yourself to your Lord. At least make sure you don’t forget your birthday, so next time you need to write a Lord you know who to write to!

Sit back, relax, and enjoy that new found glow of democratic accountability all day.

(Confused? Read the mySociety Open the Lords day announcement here. No idea what a Lord is? Read here.)

Four unusual hobbies

A while ago, over a period of a few months, I happened to come across a whole set of activities which are quite different from the normal day to day of society. It’s difficult to describe what they have in common, so I’ll tell you about them first, and try to explain it after.

  1. Urban Exploring

    Spelunking is historically done in natural caves, but those all seem a bit prissy and green to these modern city people. Instead they break into ruined hospitals, brave university steam tunnels, explore abandoned sea forts and numerous other places.

    Most have a law abiding ethic – trespass is the only crime they commit. Instead they look after the places that they go. Learn about them and document their history. Take only photos, leave only footprints. People all over the world self-organise and do this. Slightly illegal, slightly dangerous, but fun, new, real.

  2. Space Hijackers

    These “anarchitects” came to fame in 1999 with their Circle Line Party. It looked like an ordinary tube train, but between each station 150 normal looking commuters suddenly burst into life – sound systems, disco lights, refreshments and dancing – only to go quiet again at the next stop.

    They’re organised, with a secret mailing list and forum, and I like to imagine there’s an artist’s studio where they hang out somewhere in East London to hatch plots and build radio-jamming two piece suits. There’s a new Singapore branch, trying not to let the wait until 2010 for the Singapore Circle Line to be built hold them back from other projects.

    Not sure exactly what they do yet? See if you can learn to Spot the Hijackers.

  3. Confluencing

    These guys have arbitarily picked some random points on the earth (those with exact integral longitude and latitude) and are collaboratively visiting all of them, taking photos facing north, south, east and west. Scroll round the huge worldwide map for the results.

    This may seem a bit fluffy after urban spelunking and space hijacking, but rest assured if you pick the right points you can fall out with border guards and have to work out a way to enter a military base (they were only allowed to photograph facing north-east).

    Confluencing reminds us that here are lots of spaces in the world in between the tourist attractions, and our normal daily routine.

  4. Guerilla Gardening

    So, what you do is you enter somebody else’s property without their permission, and plant seeds. Maybe put daffodils in an unloved corner owned by the electricity company, or turn a dis-used lot into an allotment for the year. For bonus points come back again and again to water and prune your plants, or to defend them against slugs and to eat your harvest.

    This is great, because although it is illegal, it is indisputably good. It subverts property rights (by questioning your right to own land you do not tend) and makes the world prettier at the same time. So much so, that this year it’s gained enough mass media coverage to be in danger of stopping being hip. But heck, if it takes Richard and Judy to get advertising account planners to illegally water lavender in their hundreds, then I’m all for it.

So what’s the interesting link between all of those? Here are some things they have in common.

  • They’re all (at least partly or potentially) illegal, and yet they’re reasonable things to do. They’re in those edge spaces where the law has grabbed too much territory, where things which are fun and good and life affirming aren’t allowed.
  • They can be done by anyone, without a big central organisation. Sure, you have to be able to afford to buy the compost or the GPS device, but that’s about it.
  • There’s no commercial gain involved, no consuming of goods or services.
  • They reclaim space as public space. More and more of our land and world is controlled and limited. Property rights work and make sense, giving us private space. But excessive control of shared spaces impoverishes us all.

What other things can you think of that are like these four? (Answer in the comments below)