Tuesday, January 20, 2009


To be quite honest, I never like going out to bars at night. Although as an insomniac I usually sleep late, I rarely stayed out late at night. I prefer to stay up at night reading books than go bar hopping. Not that I totally dislike staying out late and go bar hopping rather that I am a boring “couch potato” who felt much more comfortable staying home. As such, I “normally” don’t have a night life either during my foreign trips even when during my backpacking trips to Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore. Well, aside from the fact that I don’t have a habit of staying out late at night, almost all of the guided tour trips I had in the past are packed with “old” people, who shun the night life. At the other end of the spectrum like the backpacking trips, I simply don’t have anyone to accompany me to “chill out” at nights. However, this last trip of mine is different in the sense that there are more “hippie youngsters” in the bunch. All in all, there are about 7 of us “youngsters” including me and my sister (and I happen to be the “big brother” literally). Anyway, it was the second day of your trip to Beijing when one of the “youngsters” propose to literally “chill out” in the freezing night (-8OC) right after the day tour ended. He proposes to go to Hou Hai (後海, literally “the back sea”), a lakeside bar – entertainment complex close to the place we are staying at the Grand Mercure Hotel (the former Beijing Marco Polo Hotel) at Xi Dan avenue (西單街). Anyway, I really don’t have much to say about the night life scene in Beijing because of my “limited experience”. However, according to the Wikipedia, “Hou Hai is a famous night life spot because it is the home to several popular restaurant, bars, and cafes. The area is especially popular with foreign tourists visiting Beijing as well as the expatriate community and younger locals”. In spite of what is being said in Wikipedia, I honestly don’t see the so – called “popularity” of the place, i.e., I didn’t see any foreigners either expatriate or tourists (as if I could tell the difference) except for us (me, my sister and my 5 “little brother and sister”) although I do see a lot of the younger locals patronizing the place. Well, it could be that we end up at the “wrong side of the lake”, i.e., the “boring” side of the lake and therefore I wasn’t able to witness the “popularity” of the place. It is that or the weather is simply too horribly cold for any “functioning” night life to exist. At any rate, before we set out to Hou Hai, I had my younger “brothers and sisters” get my phone number as well as Lionel’s, our tour guide (by that time, he already had retired to his home) and the emergency police number in Beijing, 110 just in case everything went terribly wrong and of course, the hotels, address and phone number. I had to do this because I had this feeling that one of the major reason that the parents of these youngsters allowed them to go out in the first place is because they are with me, “the big brother”. Even so, I wasn’t the “leader” of the pack since I was hands down the most boring of the bunch. Somebody else fill that shoe. I was just simply a “chaperon” of sort. Aside from handing out contact numbers to everyone involved, I also brief them about some “rules” of engagement like never leaving somebody behind and going together as a group. Having done that, we all took the cab to Hou Hai. Speaking of cabs, Chinese taxi drivers are a notorious bunch. My very limited experience in dealing with them is simply unpleasant. Chinese taxi drivers are known to overcharge their customers and unless “reminded” upon (or insisted upon depending on the intransigence of the driver), they would seldom flag down the meter. It is probably due to this notoriety of Chinese taxis that the government has required them to install a receipt issuing meter complete with the taxi’s general information so that the riding public can use the receipt as proof when filling a complaint against a taxi driver (so asking for a receipt is a must when taking a cab in Beijing). Also, Chinese regulation allows taxi cab to carry only a maximum of 4 people. Since, there are 7 of us in the group. We are “force” to take 2 separate cabs to Hou Hai. The flag down rate for Beijing taxis is at a minimum of 10 or 11 RMB with additional surcharges after midnight (verification needed). It was around 930 pm I supposed when we got to Hou Hai and boy! The weather is simply freezing cold! My 4 layer of clothing barely kept me warm! The lake at Hou Hai is actually frozen rock solid due to the “mild” cold weather (that is according to Beijing residents, a harsh cold weather would see temperatures at around -20 degrees Celsius) so much so that we saw a lot activities literally over the frozen lake such as skating and “ice football”. My first impression about Hou Hai and probably Beijing’s night life in general is that the night life is not an “exclusive right” of the mid 20s to 30 something yuppies. At the “entrance” of the Hou Hai area, I saw a lot of “old” people, generally those above 50 years old doing some dance lessons with a dance ribbon. Kids are also around the area playing and they don’t look like from the neighborhood (just a hunch). Surrounding the lake on all sides except the front are bars and cafes, and the most prominent establishment (and the one right in front at the entrance) is the ubiquitous Starbucks. Most of the establishment seemed “small”, the biggest I think is just about 100 sq meters in lot area. Some establishments are two floors but most are single story. The streets in Hou Hai (at least in the place that we “landed”) are filled with hawkers and side walk vendors peddling everything from souvenirs to laser point pen. Included in this crowd are the employees of the different bars trying to lure or entice passersby to visit their bars. They are generally young, well – groomed, pretty (the ladies of course), and quite fashionable themselves. To me, they don’t seem to be bar employees at all but rather sales people/models. And oh by the way, these are people are quite pesky and insistent! They would follow you all the way trying to convince you to go their bars to the point that you felt that they are quite harassing already. Most of the bars are empty with only a handful being jam packed. I don’t know as to why is that the case but it could be that we are at the “boring side of the lake” or that we are early for the “formal” start of the night life (it was around 930pm then) or it was because the economy is bad and people are just avoiding spending altogether or it was because the weather is too cold for any functioning night life to exist. At any rate, we straddled through about half of the perimeter of the lake in search for a “nice” spot before we all decided to return to the front and picked the most “popular” bar nearest to the entrance of the lake. It so happened that the bar we chose has a Filipino band singing English songs. The bar was cozy but not “posh”. It looks so – so rather than “groovy” (that is if I understood the term, groovy at all). The drinks are well I don’t know expensive? I mean the cheapest drinks, which included bottled water, shakes, and juices (which me and my sister and the youngest in our group ordered) and beer cost 50 RMB or roughly, Php350 or US $7. Aside from me, my sister and the youngest in the group (I don’t drink. I’m no teetotaler but I definitely don’t drink. I only drink when very, very close friend of mine ask me to, otherwise nobody can get me to drink), the other youngsters ordered beer, Tsingtao beer, one of China’s popular beer brand. The bar also carries the more expensive wines like Jack Daniels and the likes, tequila. The price tag I think is around 1500 RMB (?, verification needed) upwards (Php10500 or US $250). We sat at the table directly in front of the rather “small” stage. At first, the Filipino band (they are 3 of them in the band, 2 lovely young ladies and a middle age guy in his late 30s perhaps) didn’t realized who we are but after overhearing us speak in Filipino, I could see their face grinned and they acknowledge us at the stage in Filipino (apparently, they so missed the Philippines that it’s a welcome sight for sore eyes to “see” us there). About this Filipino band, I was surprised to learn (and actually hear them) that they can speak phrases of fairly accurate Chinese Putonghua (普通話, the official Chinese language). They speak in “Chinese” whenever they are asked by the staff to acknowledge or “special mention” some bar guests (and who said Chinese is difficult to learn). This band is fairly popular I guess among the patrons of the bar because Chinese or more specifically, Beijing Chinese dig American music and this Filipino band sang quite well. One of the youngsters actually caught a few patrons “attempting” to sing along with the band. During the break in the performance, we got to chat with the band members and I was surprised to learn that there are many Filipinos who are working in Beijing and many like them worked as band musicians in Beijing bars and I thought Shanghai has the most number of Filipino bands “rocking” the town. Anyway, about the patrons of the bar, I observed that most of the patrons are in their 20s and 30s. They are mostly white collar workers who probably came by to unwind after a stressful day at work (it is only but logical to see such a demographic crowd in a place like this given the price tag of the liquors). Most of the patrons came by in small groups of somewhere between 2 – 5 people. Surprisingly, a number of the patrons actually came to the bar alone! Too many lonely people in Beijing perhaps? The crowd is quiet, not boisterous, although some of the younger patrons do get a bit noisy when drunk but generally, the atmosphere is pretty quiet save of course for the song that band is singing. It is as if everybody in the bar is paying close attention to the music except for “me and my group” (apparently, we’re the noisiest in the bar). Most people in the bar are in my point of view, don’t really care about who is sitting beside you, i.e., they’re not that nosy and they simply don’t care. I mean I saw a couple probably in their late 20s engage in a steamy “make out” session right inside the bar beside the window and totally oblivious of the crowd around them. I mean the couple has been going on with their steamy session like for an hour of our duration of stay in the bar. In fact, they’re still at it by the time we left. Yet, nobody seemed to feel “scandalized” or even remotely felt “uncomfortable” with it. Public display of affection isn’t a common “thing” in Asian countries like the Philippines. The same thing goes with China. I mean I never seen couples in China “kissing” in public before. However, inside the bar, things seemed to be less “inhibited”. Probably, it’s the alcohol or maybe, bars are the principal place for a make out session in China, well, at least in Beijing. It is just a guess though. We left after an hour or so of fun, light conversations, and good music. My impression of the bar scene in Beijing though this is no expert opinion since I’m no expert at all when it comes to bar hopping is that the place is small and cozy, the music is good, the place is generally quiet, the crowd usually just mind their own business, and the beverages are expensive. Not of much of a party atmosphere, I would dare say (as if I knew what a party atmosphere remotely looked like).

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


On the evening of the first day of my stay in Beijing, Lionel took us all (the entire tour group) to watch a “Kung Fu” show at the Red Theater right after a rather “tasteless” dinner (that is according to the opinion of one of the tour members which most likely reflect the sentiment of virtually everybody else). My first thought about the “Kung Fu” show was that of a Chinese martial arts exhibition but it turned out to be completely different. The so – called “Kung Fu” show was in actuality a “westernized” version of the “old” Peking opera (京劇). The use of the word Kung Fu (功夫) was just a marketing ploy to pique the interest of foreign tourists since most of us are just simply agog over Chinese martial arts. Anyway, Peking opera (or the modern word, Beijing opera) is actually an old Chinese opera theater invented some 400 years ago during the Ming dynasty (明朝). Before the advent of films and the television, the Peking opera was the single most popular entertainment medium for both the masses and the nobility including the imperial family. Its popularity still continues during the republican period (民國時代, ca 1911 – 1947) right before the Japanese invasion in 1939. At any rate, with the introduction of the movies and television, such “ancient” art form began to decline as people prefer much “colorful” entertainment media. It would have gone the way of the dinosaurs if weren’t for the recent “reinvention” of the medium. “Old” Peking operas is a play utilizing popular Chinese stories and legends such the “Monkey King or the Stories of the Travel to the West (西遊記)”, the “Romance of the Three Kingdom (三國演義)”, and others. Within the play, there is high pitch singing (similar to European operas), witty conversations (highly poetic in their sentence construction in some instance just like their European counterpart), drama (again similar to their Shakespearean cousins), and plenty of fighting scenes a.k.a. the “Kung Fu” part of the show (which our European counterpart lacks). Actually, the Kung Fu aspect of the Peking operas aren’t really Chinese martial arts fighting (ok, the Kung Fu fighting as the song goes) at all. Instead, it looks more like a choreographed “dance” or “acrobatic stunts” with actions (arm actions and legworks) that we all associate and identify as Chinese martial arts moves. In short, it is a dance that masquerade as true Kung Fu. The Kung Fu show that we saw that night was a true blue Peking opera in every aspect of it except that it comes with huge twists and major renovations that makes one rethink that whether or not that this show is an upgraded, “modernized” version of the Old Peking opera or simply an entirely new art form, one that is a successor to Peking opera’s illustrious past. The show we saw that night was titled, “The Legend of Ching I”. The story is about a boy who was send by his poverty stricken mother to the Shao Lin Temple(?) to become a monk and escape from poverty. The boy was very afraid and refuses to leave his mother’s side not until he became enthralled by the fighting prowess of monks displaying their Kung Fu. At which point, ching I resolved to become one of them. He became a monk and labored hard to become the best Kung Fu fighter. As time went on, Ching I grew up and became more enamored to Kung Fu to such an extent he became such an excellent practitioner of Kung Fu at a very young age. However, his very success waylaid him from the path of true enlightenment. He became arrogant and corrupt and drawn to temptation to such an extent his way in life. As such, the abbey of the temple refuses to give Ching I the permission to partake the “test” in order to become a true Kung Fu master. The “test” was actually physical combat with the best Kung Fu fighters of the temple. Disappointed, Ching I actually thought of giving up his quest until he discovered the true meaning of enlightenment (as in the Buddhist sense of enlightenment). He regain his composure and was soon allowed to take the “test”, which he manages to pass albeit all the hardship and challenge. After that, Ching I became a true master not only of martial arts but also of the spirit. He eventually succeeded the old abbey in latter’s role and had a young disciple himself. He uses his life story as a lesson for his young apprentice on matters of humility, patience, perseverance, and enlightenment. The story sounds familiar, right? Strangely, that’s the feeling I got after watching the play. The story seemed to resemble a lot like a popular Hollywood movie, Star Wars or to be more exact, the story strongly resembles much like the story of Anakin Skywalker a.k.a. Darth Vader. One could say that the Legend of Ching I is actually a 16th century Chinese version of the story of Anakin Skywalker. The only difference is that our hero, Ching I returned to the path of enlightenment while Anakin Skywalker was seduced by the Dark Side of the force and metamorphosize into Darth Vader. And this is actually one of the interesting innovations and twists that I am talking about, a “western” style plot. Another major change in this “deviant” art form is the language used. All throughout the more or less 2 hour play, the language used during conversations and narrations are in English! Not only that, it is in FLAWLESS English! The Chinese language are used sparingly and only during the singing part of the play. The use of English is actually not a surprise since this is again due to marketing reasons. I mean this play is meant for foreigners/tourists who couldn’t understand a word of Chinese (quite ironic because the majority of those in the theater that evening are either Hong Kong Chinese or Filipino Chinese; only a handful are actually westerners). What is surprising here is intention behind the use of the English language during the play. It meant that the producers of the show are planning to go “international” and become an international Chinese opera, not just merely your everyday, neighborhood Peking opera. As a matter of fact, according to the show introduction, the play had already stage outside of China on some occasions. Another “renovated” feature of this opera compared to the “old” Peking opera is in the use of the props. The “old” Peking opera doesn’t use much props if not any at all except for the costumes and the background (which is just a painted picture of the story’s setting). This modern incarnation however uses plenty of props as well as a clever manipulation of stage light to the extent one has a feeling that this is more of an extravagant Broadway musical rather than a “staid” Peking opera. Furthermore, there are some scenes in the play that display ballet dances and acrobatic moves reminiscences of the acrobat show that I’ve watched also in Beijing during my first trip some 1 ½ years back (see the blog article “Old” Beijing dated May 11,2006). So there it is. We have an art form that combines elements of the “old” Peking opera, European ballet, American Broadway musical, western plot devices and lots of Kung Fu. Despite that, make no mistake about the nature of this play. This is a Chinese play hands down because the theme and the philosophy behind the play are unequivocally Chinese. Themes like the Sino – Buddhist idea of futility of worldly life, and the meaningless of existence permeates throughout the play. Overall, I say the play is quite entertaining and good. I don’t know about how others specifically the westerners perceived the story however judging by the show’s longetivity, which according to the introduction is already on its 2600 + runs already since late 2006. I say the show must be quite popular among foreigners/tourists. Although, it could be argued that tourists are generally “forced” to watch the show because it is a “standard” part of the tour itineraries, I would dare say otherwise, that it’s popularity are genuine. My reasoning behind my observation has lot to do with recent “trends” in another entertainment medium, that of Hollywood movies. The recent trend among Hollywood movies, if one is perceptive enough is the “seeming” proliferation of Chinese elements in recent popular Hollywood movies. If you carefully look at Hollywood movies nowadays, you would notice the appearance of “Chinese” faces in the casts, the connection of events and things related to China as if the general sub – conscience are abound of it, and lastly, the subtle addition of Kung Fu in any fight scene. Now if such “trends” in movies are popular with western moviegoers, I don’t see any reason as to why a “westernize” Peking opera such as this one who is quite attune to western preferences and taste wouldn’t be popular at all. After everything that is said about this play, something kept nagging me until now. Have I witness an emergence of a new art form? Or I just merely witness an aberration of what looks like a new art form but which in fact is just a mangled westernized modernized 21st century upgrade of an old art form? Whatever it is, I had a sense that “this” art form would blossom further in the future.

Saturday, January 10, 2009


The morning after the shopping expedition at Wangfujing (王府井) in Beijing wherein I bought 7 books, I received a surprise gift from of all people, Lionel Wang, our Beijing tour guide. Well, it started the night before when Lionel saw the books I’ve bought and was impressed that I could actually read Chinese and is also a book lover as well as a history enthusiast. And at the following day, he presented to me as gift, the manuscript of his written work, part one of his historical fiction/romance short story. You see, Lionel is not your typical tour guide. He is actually an amateur writer. Ok, he is a writer wannabe. He probably liked fiction, the historical romantic type with settings in China (judging from the topic of his choice). And he writes during his free time, which in itself is a tough act considering that he is married and he has a day job. Writing is no easy stuff. Anyone who likes to write can attest to that. Inspiration to write can’t be turned on as pleased like that of turning the tap water faucet on. There are many a times when one would be staring blank at the screen and can’t figure out what to write much less how to. This is further aggravated when you’re tired from working your ass off the whole day taking a bunch of giddy and demanding tourists around Beijing and coming home having to fulfill familial responsibilities. Anyway, a bit about Lionel. He is probably in his early 40s. He is a Manchu (滿族), the ethnic group that constitutes the ruling elites during the Qing dynasty (清朝), China’s last imperial dynasty. His ancestors belong to the blue banner (正藍旗), one of the Eight Banners (八旗), a socio – politico – military organization of the Manchu during the Qing era. Since his surname is Wang (王, the Fookien – Chinese pronunciation is Ong) and he is a Manchu, I surmised that he is probably of royal decent since Wang is a Han Chinese (漢族, the ethnic majority) surname and not an ethnic Manchu surname and in many cases in the past, the imperial descendants of former dynasties usually adopted the surname Wang as an emphasis that they are of royal lineage. It is either that or that his ancestor maybe actually a Han Chinese surnamed Wang and that they are “incorporated” into the Manchu Banner system during its early phase of conquest of China sometime in the 17th century. At any rate, it is safe to say that his forebears are of aristocratic descent. Lionel is actually quite fluent in English and he could actually speak a few words in Filipino, which is very rare. He would always belt out the words, “Dito Tayo” whenever he wants the tour group to assemble. At times, he would call out, “Kain Tayo”, to enthuse the group to either lunch or dinner. A perennially jolly guy, Lionel would always amuse us with his wise cracks about his “tigress” of a wife (we actually have the opportunity to meet his wife and inform her about his wise cracks about her, hehehehe). He is a Catholic and is a native of HeBei (河北省, the province wherein Beijing is situated), which is only logical given that his banner ancestry (most of the Banner people lives in and around Beijing for the most part of the 200 year Qing rule) and he lives in Beijing for a long time now. Anyway, the very instance that I received the manuscript of his work, I was to be quite honest dumb struck. I simply don’t know what to do. It is then I remembered my history (that I studied). In times past, aristocrats (the only ones who can afford a good education in ancient times) both in China and in Europe would host a party and invite friends and peers to the party and hand out his latest written works be it, a poem, a prose to everyone in the gathering. It is a marked sign of honor to actually receive such a personal gift from the gracious host and the guests would go about reading “the work” of the host and offer their opinions and suggestions on the latter’s work. Although time has passed and things have undoubtedly changed over the years, this practice is still being continued in literary circles. Having remembered this, I graciously accept his “gift”, set aside the book I was reading that morning and began to assiduously read his work. Lionel’s work is a 12 page historical romance fictional short story. Though historical fiction/romance short story is not really my forte or more aptly, a book that I don’t want to be caught dead with, I nevertheless plough through (my favorite fiction books are all Science Fiction and a few Wuxia novels, 武俠小説, a.k.a. Kung Fu novels and the books that I like the most are those laden with analysis, scholarly works of immense knowledge). Lionel’s short story is all about concubinage, a detestable practice; illegal because Chinese family laws throughout history doesn’t recognize it but is socially and morally acceptable in Chinese societies. The historical setting of the fiction is set right after the fall of the Qing dynasty and into the early period of the Republican era. The title of the fictional story is 暖被窩兒, which loosely translates to as “Warming the Bed and Blankets”. The protagonist of the story is a sweet, young innocent girl from the province who is never named in the story. Lionel told me the reason that the protagonist is not named is because he wants to put emphasis on the lowly status of women like her in Chinese society at that time (that however would prove to be a weak point in his writing because one has difficulty to ascertain as to when the protagonist is in the conversation or has entered the picture). The story begins with the protagonist being “bought” by a wealthy but childless jade merchant in Beijing who also happens to have 2 wives (still living), ostensibly to “warm” his bed at night (to be unambiguous about it, the protagonist is his sex slave) whenever he is on business trips away from home. Eventually, the relationship evolved and became one of affection and love. Later in the story, the protagonist bore the wealthy, childless lover of hers, 2 sons. The wealthy guy dies near the end of the story and she is left with the care of their 2 children, which she successfully manage to rear to adulthood. The story ends when the children turned into teens. Well, at least that is the first part of the story. Due to the nature of the story, the content is a bit sensual. Ok, sexually explicit at times (graphic in some parts?) but the idea of the story, the theme is pretty rich and powerful. As such, it could be elaborated further into a novel instead of a simple short story. Too bad, Lionel, the author probably don’t have enough free time to write because though the piece is well written, it needs further development, I mean, the story needs further development to become much more vivid than it is. Anyway, in keeping with the literary tradition, I gave a few suggestions and comments of mine to Lionel in a polite and nice way of course. Not that I’m a literary critic of some sort but as a responsibility that comes attached to the receipt of the gift of his manuscript, I felt I had to. Whether or not he accepts my suggestions and comments, well, that is his prerogative. At the least, I fulfill my part. Besides, I don’t have plans to take up literary criticism as a career. Well, it is my hope that someday I would be able to read a complete version of the story written by Lionel as he plans to publish his work sometime in the future. By then, I’ll probably ask his permission to translate and publish it in English, perhaps; that is of course, if I have time to write at all by then.
It is during the time when I was reading Lionel’s work that I came to realize how much I owe my readers (of my blog) my sincerest gratitude for their patronage. I write to share my thoughts, my ideas, my views, my feelings. And honestly, I never well, didn’t care much if somebody actually read what I am writing. I just publish it. If people want to read it, so they read it, it’s free anyway. I never went out of my way to track the readership of my blog nor promote it nor advertise it. However, over time, I do get responses in the form of messages and comments from friends and strangers alike indicating their appreciation of what I’ve written on my blog and I felt I’ve haven’t thanked them at all. So here it is, I want to thank everybody who read my blog, those who have send me messages expressing their appreciation of my writings, those who posted their comments on my blog, their very helpful and to all those who just silently read my blog over the years. I thank you all. You may never know it but it feels GREAT to be appreciated. Thank you again.

Thursday, January 08, 2009


Exchange rate:
1 USD = 7.3 RenMinBi (RMB) or Chinese Yuan
1 RMB = PhP 6.67
I soooooooooooooooooo hate shopping! And it so happen that in my recent vacation trip to Beijing, the tour guide set us out to not one but FOUR shopping tours in and around Beijing! The first expedition is to a 168 like tiangge type of mall, the second and the last shopping expeditions is at WangFujing (王府井), Beijing’s premier shopping district and the second most popular shopping district in all of China next to Shanghai’s Nanjing East Road while the third shopping destination is to a Jade Factory en route going to the Great Wall. Anyway, good thing for me is that I am an avid book lover and Wangfujing has one of the largest Chinese book store in Beijing, Xin Hua Bookstore (新華書店, which happened to have a branch here in Manila however, their book collection here in the Philippines sucks). The book store is also one of my favorite places in Beijing. In spite of that, I didn’t spend all of my “allotted” shopping time in the book store. This is because my sister is with me and like most women, she do like to shop, or more precisely, window shop. So, I struck a deal with her (on our second shopping expedition). I get to spend the first half of the allotted 2 hours of shopping time to buy my books (which I did! Bought 7 books for 341 RMB; Great deal!). Other than that, in most shopping expeditions where there is no book store in sight, I had to “endure” shopping. It is not that I dread shopping so much because it is “shopping” (as in the act itself) rather one of the reasons that I don’t like shopping at all aside from the fact that it is quite boring, (I really wonder why some people would find shopping an enjoyable experience, in fact, I strongly doubted that the word “enjoyable” is by any means a proper adjective for shopping) is the fact that I tend to “analyze” the business. Unlike most mortals who see the glittering store front, the merchandise on sale, and the price tag, I on the other hand, see business models, marketing positioning, merchandising policy, and overall business strategy (and of course, the beautiful sales ladies but that is a different matter). As a matter of fact, this window – shopping spree in Beijing has afforded me an insight into the Made in China products and brands (mostly fashion apparels). On our first shopping expedition right after landing in Beijing, the tour guide, Lionel bought us to San Li Tun Yashow Clothing Market (三里屯雅秀服裝市場?), a tiangge like mall near the San Li Tun Embassy Area. At that time, I really don’t have any appetite to endure the 2 hour shopping spree at the tiangge mall, so my siobe (little sister) and I decided to skip the tiangge or the bargain mall in favor of window shopping at the next door, ultra “modern” shopping mall. Incidentally, speaking of bargain hunting in one of China’s tiangge, this activity isn’t for everybody especially not for the faint – hearted ones. Bargain hunting in China is only for the prodigious ones. This is because bargain hunting in China is so incredulous and damn outright, a rip – off! Take for instance one of our fellow tour mates, she bought a hand bag in the San Li Tun Mall that is selling for 300RMB, which is very expensive but she was able to bargain it to 50RMB! Despite that, that particular tour mate of ours felt that she was cheated because she felt that she could have bought it for 30RMB. In another incident, I pick up this 2 set music CDs of Chinese classical music in a boutique shop. The sales lady quoted me a price of 200RMB but immediately and voluntarily lowered it to 150RMB. At 150RMB, that is something like PhP1000. Naturally, I balked at lofty price tag and had the good sense to back out from it and during my brief stopover at Shanghai on my way back to Manila, I discovered that the same CD set is selling at 88RMB right inside the airport! Outrageous, simply, outrageous! It seems that the bargaining’s rule of thumb (in China) of offered price divided by 2 and then less 10% afterwards in order to get the fair price is no longer reliable at all. Anyway, back at the next door, ultra modern shopping mall. I find the place really nice and it should be, considering the huge number of expensive brand - stores that had opened shop in it. And this is what really surprises me. It is not the sheer number of expensive brands – outlet store that I’d seen in this mall and in some other places in Beijing (most notably Wangfujing) and the rest of China as well that surprise me but the fact that this huge number of expensive brands could co – exist! I mean in a “small” market, one expensive luxury brand is just one too many in a crowd but having ALL the major luxury brands to co – exist in China speaks volume about the size of the luxury market here. It is said that the Chinese are zealous consumer of luxury since ancient time. This is due in large part of the cultural concept of “Face” (面子). As the saying goes, one can lose everything but not the “Face”. If your peers drives a car, you better have one as well else you stand to lose face. Furthermore, you don’t simply just going to have a car. You must have a car brand that matches with your peers’ car brands as well if not better. No wonder, China is the world’s fastest growing luxury market. It is funny however because a few years back during my last trip to Shanghai – Beijing. My tour guide then told me that the Chinese government imposes a hefty 40% consumption tax on luxury goods (verification needed). It was so hefty that local Shanghai Chinese felt that it is much cheaper to actually take a plane to Hong Kong and buy the luxury item in question and came back home right after the shopping spree. I don’t know if that anecdote is true or even still applicable but judging from the proliferation of luxury goods stores in China, I say that myth rings a bit hollow. Apparently, sales must have been good for foreign branded goods (both mid and high end) that finally, I saw local Chinese brands coming out in the market (most notably in Wangfujing district and in other places like Xian). Local brands especially the mid – end and the high – end ones are conspicuously absent during my several trips to China over the years (it is that or maybe I just so hated shopping that I avoided shopping altogether and may have missed the “change” altogether). It came to a point wherein when one thinks of brand in China, it usually means foreign brands and luxury brands and Chinese products are usually seen as cheap “stuffs” bought in tiangge. Funny, how such a predicament should have come to exist in the first place. I mean China is the world’s factory and most of the luxury items sold in China are most likely “Made in China”. Yet, there is no Chinese brand that purveys the top of the line, superior quality Chinese made products until recently. Hazarding a guess as to the reason behind this rather “late” conversion, I had to say that this has to do with the sputtering Chinese export being felt the past couple of years due to an appreciating RMB. As export markets become less lucrative to local Chinese companies over time, it is only logical for them to start to look for greener pastures and nothing is more convenient than the domestic scene. As the saying goes, better late than never. Chinese brands however aren’t exactly popular even to the local consumers. A friend of mine who happens to frequently shuttle between the Mainland and the Philippines mentions that Chinese brands are perceived by the local Chinese as “inferior” in every category compared to its foreign counterpart, which is quite ironic since the foreign brands might also be made in China. In spite of this, local Chinese brands do have a following among locals if judging from the fact that they are still “standing” however, I suspect that locals would almost always prefer foreign brands that is if they could afford it. It is probably due to this “fetish” for foreign brands among the Chinese buyers that local brands almost always adopt a “foreign” sounding brand name to the extent that they look practically similar to their foreign competitors. Furthermore, majority of the Chinese brand names are in ENGLISH without a Chinese name counterpart! What this reveal is that Chinese brands are exhibiting some degree of sophistication here however their ideas are far from original and creative. The few brands that sports a Chinese brand name counterpart along with their English brand names has English brand names that sounds well, how should I say, hilarious and totally “beyond this world”? For example, I’ve seen a pizza parlor whose name is PALATABLE PIZZA. Geez! With that name, I won’t even come 10 feet near it unless of course, I’m dying of hunger and there is no other alternative within a 100 mile radius. Other than that, I won’t travel thousand of mile just to eat a “palatable” pizza! If I am to ever to eat a pizza in China, it should be a GREAT pizza not just a palatable one! Another example, a hotel in Beijing (3 stars maybe) is named Yi Bi Si (宜必思), which could be loosely translated to “unforgettable”. Yet, the English name of the hotel is written as IBIS, which in Arabic is the word for “Satan”. Talk about cultural bobos. Even with purely Chinese name brands, some of the names are left to be desired. There is one shop in Xian which apparently sells clothes to “plump” women calls itself 肥太太, literally “fat wives”. I can’t really imagine seeing any decent women be caught dead in that kind of joint. Excellent marketing strategy (on targeting plump women as a market), really bad branding. It is quite clear that Chinese brands are in need of hardcore professional brand consultants that would help improve their image from just simply an imitation or from being lame. It is also just as apparent that Chinese brands are far from being international brands of note. To date, the only Chinese brand of international renown to my knowledge is Lenovo, the 4th world’s largest PC maker that bought out IBM PC some years back. Other than that, I can’t think of any. However, in my point of view, it would be only a matter of time, say 10 years perhaps before Chinese brands began “invading” the world just like the Japanese brands during the 80s and they would, given the manufacturing muscle of China, the fast technological evolution of it’s factories, and the growing sophistication of it’s marketers.

Friday, January 02, 2009


Note: To better understand this article, please read first my previous article, “Old Beijing”, dated May 11,2006.
It was 2 ½ years ago when I first visited Beijing. Back then, Beijing was just an “old” romantic city in the midst of a construction frenzy in time for the 2008 Olympic. My latest visit however had astounded me beyond my imagination. Beijing has changed so radically that I could barely recognize it. So much so, that I even thought that I was in fact in a different city altogether. However, I wasn’t in a different city. This is Beijing – post Olympic. It is a Mega City filled with tall buildings, glittering Shopping Malls, new Apartment Building Complexes, wide boulevards, and paved avenues. In addition to that, the buildings here in Beijing are well “aligned” and looked neat, most likely, a product of well thought-out urban planning. In fact, looking from the window of a plane several thousand feet in the air, one could easily recognize the geometric neatness of the cityscape. It seemed that all the construction frenzy that I saw 2 ½ years ago had not only been completed but several dozen more structures must have been added to Beijing, embellishing a proud capital eager to show to the world. One of such structures is the conspicuous sub – way stations that dotted around the city. Also, unlike before, one can no longer see the bicycles roaming the city streets instead, cars literally choked the streets. There are so many cars out in the street that the traffic is already as bad as those in Manila (I was getting a bit impatient waiting for the traffic, which I didn’t felt during my trip in 2006) even though Manila has lesser roads and highways within the city limits. Even the sanitation facilities received a massive upgrade. Long gone are the stinking neighborhood toilets that cater to the locals and in its place are malls and fast food joints, hotels, and fancy restaurants with supposedly clean and modern sanitation facilities (they still stink though because it wasn’t properly maintained). Even the star rating system of public sanitation facilities are fast disappearing, leaving only popular ancient tourist spots like the Forbidden City complex to sport such an “ancient” relic. Speaking of the Forbidden City, in the “Old” Beijing, the center of Beijing is the grand Tiananmen Square (天安門廣場) and the resplendently colossal Forbidden City (紫禁城) including its environs. In the New Beijing, the center of this universe is the Olympic village represented by the massive Bird Nest and the breathtaking Water Cube. While both landmarks provided dignity to such an august place like Beijing, the Olympic Village ostensibly lacks the romantic atmosphere of the old wonder that it replaces. Clearly, modernity has triumphed over history. The enormous facelift that Beijing has undergone has left it unrecognizable to an occasional traveler like me but strangely, the New Beijing looked so familiar to me not because of the ancient jewels that are left standing in the midst of this modern jungle rather the post – Olympic Beijing looked surprisingly like another Chinese city, Beijing is beginning to resemble Shanghai. In fact, one can say that Beijing has been thoroughly Shanghai – nized. Except that, in Shanghai, the architectural structures are more stylish and imposing while in Beijing, the buildings are less towering and a lot more staid. Even so, it is quite easy to see the shadow of Shanghai in Beijing. With this huge burst of modernization in the characterization of Beijing, Beijing has definitely joined the ranks of the great world cities of the modern age. It can now be compared to cities like London, New York, Shanghai, Taipei, and Hong Kong. Despite that, the New Beijing seemed to lose something that old one had. It no longer looked romantic. Call me a romantic fool but I liked the “Old” Beijing better. Outside what used to be the old city walls is that great battlefield of the old where together the invaders and the defenders consecrated the ground with their blood……….. That same spot now is inhibited by huge malls and fancy hotels. KFC and McDonalds, parking lots now stands in the ground of those who have fallen some centuries past. Sigh. The old Hutong (胡同), Beijing’s back alleys where one could see the low lying tiled houses of the old is fast vanishing like an endangered species. These ancient houses are actually an eye sore (and I definitely agree) but their disappearance to give way to newer buildings seemed to have permanently altered the character of the “Old” Beijing more than anything else. And the haze, that toxic cloud of pollution; it used to look romantic and picturesque whence the sun sets or rises among the trees and the old houses. Now, the same haze, the smog that covered the skyline emanating from tall chimney stacks in and around Beijing has become an irritating symbol of the “New” Beijing. Alas, what can I say. This is Beijing.

Thursday, January 01, 2009


It was drizzling when I got back to Manila last night (December 31,2008) but that is way, way much “cozier” than the freezing cold temperature (-8oC) that I’ve experienced in Beijing (北京) and in Xian (西安). Besides, there is something about Philippine New Year celebration that I always liked. There is the noise, more noise, a heck lot of more noise and the dangerous neighborhood firecracker spree that one can’t find anywhere like it in any other places in the world. Anyway, I took a vacation this yuletide holiday with a tour to Beijing and Xian (December 26 – 31). It was the second time that I’ve been to Beijing in 2½ years and my first to Xian. It was also the first time that I got to spend winter in China though there, I didn’t get to see any snow during my trip. Nevertheless, it was damn freezing cold even with 3 – 4 layers of thick clothing, 2 socks, thermal clothing, and gloves. The wind is especially harsh. For not only the wind aggravated the coldness, it was also dry and abrasive. In fact, the wind was so abrasive that I felt I’ve undergone a diamond peeling session every time I’m out in the open (which is quite a lot during the trip). And the fact is, I’d never asked for one nor been to one (diamond peeling). I was traveling with my sister during the trip along with 16 others, mostly families. The food during the trip was not really good unlike during my first trip to Beijing except of course for the long waited for Peking Duck at Quan Ju De (全聚德), which I really dig and missed. Don’t get me wrong, we were treated to five star hotels and restaurants every meal during the stay except that our meals are strictly under budget to the extent that we (me and everybody else in the tour group) felt that we are in a 5 star restaurant eating a one star meal. In fact, we are damn sure that the local KFC in Beijing or the Dad’s Buffet Restaurant in the Philippines could have been better than the food we had during the trip. Well, regardless of the disappointing food, my trip in Beijing – Xian is generally enjoyable and exciting except that whence before during my first trip, I was more of an adventurer and an explorer; in this trip, I was like everybody else, a tourist. Not that I’m less enthusiastic in my recent trip than my first trip, it’s rather that I felt less inspired and eager. Probably, it’s the weather, or maybe the food, or maybe it’s because of the fact that I had something else in my mind lately, or maybe, it’s because I’m “older” or maybe, it’s because I don’t have a little girl named Megan to bring cheers and add fond memories to my trip. Despite that, I had an added novelty in my recent trip. I actually had a “night life”, well, two to be exact. Whence before in my first trip, I was in my hotel room by 9 pm and be already asleep by 10. In this trip, I got to “stay out” or more aptly, “chill out” till 11pm. It helps that we have more youngsters in this trip (almost all of them are born in the early to mid 1980s except for me of course) and that they are a bunch of “gimikeros”. It was a nice vacation, a fitting end to 2008.