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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Mommy's Helper

I love to bring Little Boy grocery shopping. He helps me carry stuff. Even when he was in kindergarten, he would rush to pick up the grocery bags... and he would insist to carry the heavier ones. I never understood why because he was short and he was not strong, and he went to heroic efforts half dragging and half carrying the plastic bag all the way to the car.

One had to be quick to ensure that he got hold of a bag that was rather heavy, not too heavy, and didn't contain breakables nor fruits. Over time, I learnt to mentally set aside a group of items that I would contrive to put into the same bag in order that Little Mr Macho Boy could carry it for me.

When he got older (and stronger) and I got older (and developed back problems), it became convenient for me to have him along because he was really able to manage one or two heavy bags. I thought it was a real blessing to have a son like that.

Today, we picked up a wooden towel rack. As I paid up, he moved quickly to pick up the rack and carried it to the car. The sales lady was impressed. She praised him for his helpfulness. The rack wouldn't fit into the car, and then Little Boy said "Mom, it's quite easy to assemble this thing you know. Why don't we take it apart and then put it back again when we reach home."

I wasn't too sure. I dislike all manner of handicraft and DIY (unless of course, I get to eat the DIY). The sales lady was keen to make a sale. She looked at Little Boy and said "This is easy to put together. I can give you a new box of it with screws and an Allen key. He can have some fun."

Hmmmm... that woman knows little boys alright. My Little Boy was only too happy to agree... and so I bought the towel rack in a flat packed box à la Ikea. And then, the sales lady yelled at us as we walked away, "He's handsome too, your boy! All the girls will be falling over himself to get at him!"

I looked at Little Boy's face. There was no expression on it. I poked his ribs with my finger and said "Haaaaaandsome.... eh?" And then Little Boy's face and ears turned a deep red. Oh dear! I am such a meanie... and after he helped me carry stuff too!!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

63 Ganmian Hutong, Beijing

Here are the steamed "jiaozi" we had in Beijing at No 63 Ganmian Hutong. I've never had any like them before. There were 3 of us and we stuffed ourselves to the brim with these for only SGD$4. No... not SGD$4 per person... SGD$4 for 3 people. Ok... I don't eat much but Little Boy sure does and he sure ate, and ate, and ate.

It's a tiny shop hardly 3m by 4m in size, with tiny tables arranged wherever there was space. The kitchen was kinda blackish with long years of grime and a quiet and friendly couple do everything.

The "jiaozi" were just the right size, and the filling was juicy and soft without being mushy. The skin was al dente. The whole thing came straight from the steamer, piping hot. You dip the whole envelope into black vinegar and put it into your mouth. I am quite sure your tongue will kowtow to you 9 times in gratitude for the experience.

I was so inspired by these dumplings that I made my own. They looked simple enough. Minced and seasoned pork... dough skin... What can go wrong?

Well... for one, I thought bigger was better so my dumplings were rather large. The Daughter commented that it felt like eating pillows. Next, I thought very al dente was better so my dumplings had very thick skins. The Husband commented that it was like chewing leather. Little Boy dispensed with all that and went for the minced pork inside, which for some reason, was kinda hard and lumpy.

What was worse was that I served them to guests. The Daughter's friends had come by for day on a rare visit. They'd all been regaled by The Daughter's accounts of Petunia's Kitchen Prowess and were looking forward to a good meal. Unfortunately, I made them eat meat-stuffed leather pillows, and so The Daughter sulkily advised that one should not feed experiments to guests.

Hearing this, The Husband said "When it's my friends, you cook your tried and tested recipes ok?"

Monday, November 22, 2010

House Construction 6: Drops All Over the House

Did you ever notice the 50mm drop down into the bathroom or the kitchen? Mr Grizzly told me that I had to decide how the drops all over the house ought to be. Then a light went on in my head. One certainly cannot have the toilet on the same level as bedroom or living room, else my toes would get wet as I sip my tea whilst Little Boy pretends he is Noah with his ark, in the bathroom.

Well... it turns out that these are important decisions to take before the house foundation can be laid. Since we're somewhere up in the North of Singapore, the soil quality is rather good enough that we are laying footings and not micro piles. Holes are dug out in the red earth. Soil is compacted therein. And huge slabs of concrete are poured out and cast right in the holes. I think I have 11 slabs in all.

Next, trenches are dug from slab to slab and more reinforced concrete is poured out to form the underground beams. These beams connect up the footings, so a sort of concrete matrix is created underground to hold and anchor the house. The height of the beams and the kind of drops will be reflected already in the beams, because the beam needs to be cast lower where the floor drops down. Hence, it was already necessary to decide how much of a drop I wanted from dry to wet kitchen... from kitchen to toilet... from living to patio... From patio to car porch. Phew! So, for readers about to build a house, be warned. Building a house isn't just about great design. Since you're gonna be living in there, you will be the one stepping up and down everyday so you need to know your daily practical habits or risk getting irritated by your own house till kingdom come.

I went around looking for 50mm steps... 100mm steps... and 150mm steps. Then I stepped up and down and up and down until I knew the feeling. Then I listed out all the drops all over the house... imagining how I would move from room to room... inside to outside. We were all stumped by how high the 1st storey was to be above ground level. How to imagine something that isn't there?! Mr Grizzly is a trained civil engineer. Not many contractors are, you know. Mr Grizzly took out his surveyor's instruments and when we found that the neighbour's living room floor was 300mm above ground level, it helped us to decide.

A word of advice though, for those of you who will be reconstructing... Make these decisions BEFORE your architect submits plans. Else, you may need to resubmit and that costs another $3000. This is because the URA is sticky about the maximum height of your house. Happily, I had enough unused roof space under the sloping roof such that by reducing the slope of my roof, I could raise floor of my 1st storey by 300mm without exceeding the house height previously submitted to URA.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Steel Magnolia

There are 8 of us. Our friendships span more than a quarter of a century. We've seen each other through boyfriends... through weddings... through births... through breast enhancements... botox..., meeting up every year to show off happy bits of our lives and seek sympathy for the unhappy bits.

When we met up last night, I could not help feeling a knot form and twist in my stomach when I heard what H was going through. Way back when, H was every teenage boy's dream girl. Even today, grown men who knew her then (now married to other women) reminisce starry-eyed of her famed beauty. Long black hair, large eyes, porcelain complexion... H looks like a China Doll and exudes an aura of vulnerability that makes others worry for her. Actually, she looks pretty much the same today.

But this is a woman who has 4 kids. After her husband's retrenchment, she struggles to make ends meet by running her own business... whilst breastfeeding one child, coaching another special needs child and tending to the other 2. I have to worry about Little Boy and I find that tough. I wonder how she manages 4 kids whilst also being the breadwinner. It's even more heartbreaking to see how she keeps her anguish to herself because she does not want to burden her husband unnecessarily. With all that she is doing, she wishes still to be her husband's emotional pillar.

Therefore, it is amazing that after thousands of years of human civilisation, people still think of women as the weaker sex. In post-war Singapore, how many women have had to bring up 5, 7 or 9 children single-handedly after the death of her husband? Thanks to wave after wave of retrenchment exercises, how many women are family breadwinners whilst still fulfilling the traditional roles of supportive wife and loving mother? How many women have to step up to take on the responsibilities of their men when the needs arises, whilst not relinquishing the responsibilities their men married her for?

Life is unpredictable. Men don't choose to die. Men don't choose to lose their jobs. And when a husband is out of action, from somewhere inside of her, the wife must find the resources to do everything and be everything. As years upon years of history flow past, generations after generations of genteel white magnolia flowers with fragrant and delicate petals become steel magnolias in the wake of earthquakes, of economic crises... and of wars. Everywhere in developing countries, micro-loans to women allow them to build businesses that feed children and grow the economy.

Are we weaker because we cry so easily? Are we weaker because we are physically smaller? Are we weaker because we don't compete for fame and glory? Are we weaker because we don't fight wars? Are we weaker because we look prettier? Are we weaker because we tend to find satisfaction from supporting our other halves?

Odd isn't it?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

You Know You're Old When...

You know you're old when The Daughter borrows your clothes and looks better in them than you do.

The Daughter found a holiday job in an office. She was told to observe the dress code. This means, no jeans... no cargo pants... no slippers... no t-shirts. And so, The Daughter has nothing to wear and came raiding my wardrobe for stuff to tide her over the next 4 weeks.

She has never been easy to dress. At 9 months, she had formed her own notions on which rompers were more comfortable. On shopping trips she had been known to toddle off in another direction when she spied me coming towards her with a pretty dress. Much time was spent trying to catch her and making her stay still whilst I searched for nice and festive wear (that were somewhat uncomfortable). She would wear the purchase only ONCE at Chinese New Year and never again. She spent much of her childhood in shorts and 'A' line skirts because she could never well tolerate wearing dresses that were tighter at the waist. In essence, for her, clothes must be there but feel like they aren't.

Clothes are chosen for tactile properties, not visual. And favourite t-shirts are still worn for comfort even if they look tatty. The second time The Husband ever scolded her was to tell her "You dress in a way that makes people think I cannot afford to dress you!!"

So, yesterday night, I felt like I had hit jackpot as she paraded in front of me in the various dresses I had accumulated over the years, but had outgrown. It was like playing Barbie doll (with a sulky Barbie... but better than no Barbie at all). With much rolling of eyes and complaining about low-cut this and too fat that and not my style and trying on clothes is tiring, she and I managed to construct a work wardrobe to last one month at work. She did irritate me enough at one point though, that I humphed and declared that SHE was borrowing MY clothes and if she complained anymore, I ain't lending.

But well, with a mother's biased judgment, I must say that my baby looks really really really pretty!!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Youths Need Purpose? No, They NeedED Love

In their book Freakonomics, Harvard researcher Steven D. Levitt and his journalist friend, Stephen J. Dubner argued that the massive drop in crime rates of the 1990s in USA can be attributed to a ruling passed in January 22 1972, allowing legalized abortion in the USA.

The authors write that "as far as crime is concerned, it turns out that not all children are born equal... Decades of studies have shown that a child born into an adverse family environment is far more likely than other children to become a criminal. And the millions of women most likely to have an abortion [are the] poor, unmarried, and teenage mothers for whom illegal abortions [were difficult to get]. They were the very women whose children, if born, would have been much more likely than average to become criminals. But because of [the ruling supporting legalized abortion] these children weren't being born. This powerful cause would have a drastic, distant effect: years later, just as these unborn children would have entered their criminal primes, the rate of crime began to plummet".

Commenting on the recent gang fights, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan noted that if youths had a sense of purpose, they wouldn't get violent. The question is... "How does one inculcate a sense of purpose in youths?"

Lost youths without purpose in life are a product of a society where parents work all day and are never around. As the income gap grows, lower and middle income parents will need to work so much harder just to keep up. They have little capacity to save. Without adequate savings there is nothing to invest. Neither do they have time to invest in their children. Unless there are grandparents or uncles and aunties to fill the gap as mentors to the family's children, these children grow up untethered to any anchor... unloved... unsupported and afraid.

These children grow up in adverse circumstances. There is no one at home to comfort them when they are scared. There is no one to turn to when the world has been unkind. Indeed, their own parents, stressed out by their low-paying jobs, may often be the most unkind to their own children. To really get at the root cause of the gang fights, it isn't police effectiveness that should be questioned.

To understand why youths set upon youths with parangs in Singapore, one needs to turn the clock back 20 years and examine the gradual development (or lack thereof) of the children's relationships with their parents. We should be questioning an economy which devours work lives voraciously such that parents are never there when the little ones need them. And in this day, where ties to the extended family are so much weakened, children grow up without adequate parenting. Recent data shows that juvenile delinquents often come from relatively well off homes where BOTH parents work long hours. In the local context, adverse circumstances may not be a dearth of money resources, but a dearth of time resources.

Dr Vivian Balakrishnan's analysis lacks depth. He should push his analysis beyond "lack of purpose". Why do these youths lack purpose in their lives?In essence, when you find your purpose in life, you find something you deeply care about. If no one cared about you when you were small, it's hard not to be afraid... and lost. How to have a purpose in life when deep inside, you're still that frightened little boy? Frightened animals are violent animals. Fearful people are also quick to anger and violence.

It doesn't help that the educational syllabus in Singapore is so challenging that reasonably intelligent children minus parental kindness and emotional support, have little hope of succeeding. They don't do well in school because they lack access to family support that helps them cope with stress.

We waste talent that way. These kids grow up thinking they're dumb when they're not. And before life has started for them, they have scripted for themselves the role of failures in life. And when you think you're a failure, it's hard not to fullfill the prophecy... and to be tempted to take the lawless route in order to make a living.

Make it easier for parents to spend time with their children. Fix the work-life balance problem in Singapore. Fix the legislation so that men and women are truly equal (i.e., it's alright for men to pull childcare duty... and men can claim maintenance). Help Singaporeans be better parents.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

House Construction 5: Making A Dirty Video

A minor public sewer runs through our property. The PUB requires that a pre-condition video to be taken of the inside walls of the sewer. Any damage that pre-exists the construction of the new house will not be our accountability. It seemed quite straightforward at first. I thought someone would simply crawl into the sewer with a video cam and voilà... done!

But noooooooo... Life happens and life ain't simple. Not by a long shot. When the sewer was opened, an entire Singapore population (inclusive of foreigners and PRs) of cockroaches spilled over onto the floor in a black writhing mass before they regrouped and came rushing at me.

I ran.

Understandably, no human can crawl down there. A mobile remote controlled CCTV is put in instead. That looked quite simple still. What can't technology do these days eh?

But well... It turned out that it was absolutely necessary to open my neighbour's manhole to put in the camera. Due to some fate of layout design, my neighbour's manhole is found in her kitchen. The good woman gave my contractor a good piece of her mind. Poor Mr Grizzly Bear stood there uncomfortably and waved PUB's letter ineffectually at her. Instead of the intended effect of calming her, the letter waving made things worse. My neighbor thought he was threatening her with an official looking letter when all Mr Grizzly was trying to do was to assure her that he was not some robber trying to enter her house. The whole situation kind of went up in flames.

He was told, "You WILL not enter my house and let loose those cockroaches into my kitchen. How dare you peek over my back wall you lout!? How DARE you talk to my maid when I am not looking... you cur... you skirt chaser... you maniac!?" or some words to that effect.

"But... but... but Mrs Lee!" The Grizzly explained helplessly, waving his big paws at me. "Mrs Lee, she has no doorbell! The only way to get her attention is to wave at her over the garden wall... What did I do wrong?!"

It was hard to explain. I quite understood my neighbour's fears. I mean, no woman would take kindly to being peeked at over the garden wall, and no woman would embrace the thought of a few million cockroaches in her kitchen. But Mr Grizzly Bear was just doing his job and trying his best to be reassuring using a piece of paper with PUB's logo on it.

Nonetheless, when you look like a grizzly, even gentle growls of peace can be misconstrued. Between Mr Grizzly Bear and my neighbour there was a HUGE gender gap, and The Grizzly was deathly afraid of the damsel.

Eventually, one thing led to another and I ended up having cardamom flavoured milk tea (yummy) in my neighbour's kitchen. I had smoothed things over nicely. The damsel was no longer looking daggers at The Grizzly. The Grizzly was looking distinctly happier as he guided his workers through the process of sealing the manhole in such a way that not one cockroach would escape when the camera was put inside. He's a smart one, The Grizzly.

Things were looking good. But the camera team never arrived that day because the camera had chosen just then, to break down. I volunteered to send my antique video cam down but was told that with all the filth down in the sewer, my camera wouldn't survive the trip. Robust specialist cameras used to extreme environments were required. Hmmmph! I thought, "If those cameras were all that robust, why did it break down?"

I was more than a little sad and frustrated as I thanked my lovely neighbour for her tea and her hospitality. We were all too embarassed to importune the poor lady again... and there is only so much I can do to smooth things over. I should have invited her to tea instead for all that I was doing to her.

Happily, we found another neighbour (a man) with whom The Grizzly could chat man to man... and thus it was that we made our dirty video for the PUB.


Friday, November 12, 2010

House Construction 4: The Neighbours

The old house is entirely gone. Roof and walls and all. Not a trace left!! I arrived just in time to see a mangled mass of steel support being loaded onto a huge truck. I suppose the contractor can sell that back to steel recycling agents? I dunno. Anyway, neatly stacked in a corner were long, straight and thick steel rods to be used in the new construction.

Meanwhile, exciting things have been happening. The man-sized pneumatic jack hammer had broken up the old house into small bits for loading onto the truck and discarded. The next door neighbour with whom we share a wall, popped by to tell us that the heavy vibrations had made a small crack in her plasterboard. Our big and tall grizzly bear of a contractor said "No problem! We will fix that!"

Our neighbour was so sweet too. She said, "Why don't we wait a bit and see if any other cracks appear. You can then fix everything altogether." We had made a concerted effort earlier (the contractor and I) to keep on the good side of the neighbours. I had earlier dropped a letter with my mobile number in their letterboxes. And the contractor made an effort to be friendly and courteous, as well as considerate when hacking and drilling. He went over to inform the neighbours of exactly when he would be making a ruckus and he scheduled the demolition work tightly so that it could all be done quickly within 2 days. Nonetheless, the neighbour's dog was still so stressed that it spent 2 days behind a big flowerpot in the garden and refused to go into the house.

It was good that my Quantity Surveyor had ensured that the necessary insurance coverages had been effectuated. Proper insurance requires a pre-condition survey of the neighbours' houses. This way, it becomes very clear whether a neighbour's problem was pre-existing or not. The contractor has to make good any damage to the neighbours' houses at no extra cost. This should be stipulated in one's building contract. And if the damage is severe due to his best efforts, the insurance will cover the damage.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

John Ping: Driver

I was curious about whether Chinese people missed at all living in a democracy. So I asked John Ping, our driver, a rather tangential question. After all, I'm not sure if politics is at all a sensitive topic in China.

Me: Has there been any change in political system in China?
John: No, no... there has been no change and that is a very good thing, because when there is political revolution, life is not good.

John makes it his business to drive tourists out to the Great Wall of China, and other places in the outskirts. Much of what we wanted to visit was within reach by subway, and I quite enjoyed walking in the invigorating autumn cold. Plus, the subway costs 2 yuan flat no matter where you go. Getting to the Summer Palace costs three people 110 yuan but coming back to the hotel by subway costs 6 yuan for 3 people. And it is a very clean subway too compared to subways in London, Rome and Paris.

We hired John to get to 2 places: the Great Wall and Zhokoudian Village (where we viewed prehistoric caves and sabre-tooth tiger skeletons). We paid about 700 yuan for each 2-way trip. He charges 600 yuan, but we gave him a nice tip of 100 yuan for having been such a good host. You can find his contact details here.

Now, back to politics... frankly, most of the Chinese people don't care what political regime controls the country as long as they can make a decent living, and can move around safely. And the Chinese population is a generally happy one. Many have seen their standards of living and purchasing power increase over the past 2 decades. Many have been able to progress above the poverty line. People like John Ping (at 50 years of age) started life earning less than 100 yuan a month. Today, he owns a fleet of cars, employs freelance drivers and eats once in a while at expensive restaurants like Dadong. He dreams of expanding his business. His life holds hope for a better tomorrow.

When I spoke to the cross-eyed toilet cleaner and the retail assistant in the hotel, there was much the same sense of optimism. John told me that many are very poor in the rural areas of China but what I could see was that even the very poor in Beijing had fair hopes of a better tomorrow.

Consider also that the Beijing government charges only 2 yuan per pax for any distance travelled. Such a policy means that those who travel short distances subsidize others who travel long distances. This helps the poor.

You see, folks who live far from the city centre do so because they are poor and cannot afford accommodation close to the city centre. For such folks (too poor to stay close by) transport is a necessary expenditure that can take up a relatively larger percentage of earnings. And yet, it is poorer folks like these who MOST NEED to accumulate resources so that (according to conservation of resources theory) they can invest resources to protect themselves against resource loss and resource depletion (i.e., the poverty trap).

Unlike housing, transport is an essential that is not vulnerable to speculation, and people MUST travel to work. The Beijing government charges a 2 yuan flat rate for subway travel. This helps the very poor save money. What the Beijing government did with their subway system has clearly the interests of poor people in mind.

It is thus unseemly that we have lately restructured public transport fares to be "fairer" and that the elderly who use to enjoy subsidies now have to pay their fair share. This does not bode well for the income gap. It is thus ironic that in Singapore, we have become so enamoured of the Western values imbibed from USA (that every man shall be accountable for his own actions and life)... we forget that even the fingers of our hand come in different lengths, and that some fingers help out where others cannot do.

John Ping shared that in the last decade, crime rates have fallen. Travelling around the country is safer. Robberies have become less commonplace. Whilst the enterprising Chinese people will find more than one way to swindle... and creative swindling is fairly commonplace... violent crimes are not. It is thus ironic that youths wielding parangs are no longer afraid of the Singapore Police Force.

What happened to us? Where is the strong and stubborn government who thinks through carefully how to make life better for poor people, and cares not a jot about what the West says about no holds barred free speech... democracy... and all manner of strange ideologies that neither common Singaporeans nor the common Chinese care about? Generally people just want peace, wealth and family. Who cares whether a regime is fully democratic or communist or socialist? The test of the government is in the eyes of the poor. Is there hope? Are there opportunities? Or do I see myself get left behind as the country powers ahead?

House Construction 3: Sanitary Ware

The once a year Grohe sale came on. We mistakenly thought that IMM had the largest Grohe showroom put up by Asia Excel. We rushed over only to find that too many items were out of stock. For those who want to buy taps and such, go to Interior Affairs at 29 Tai Seng Avenue. It has 28,000 sq ft of European bathroom and kitchen display all decked out with Grohe and more Grohe.

Go there and drool.

The sales girl at Grohe - Asia Excel is not strong on product knowledge. She told us that Grohe products are not sent for PUB certification. The sales lady at Grohe - Interior Affairs knew the products very well, and was able to show us that Grohe products are PUB certified. For those of us reconstructing a house, PUB certification is important or your house won't pass inspection. It is important to get proof of certification too. Make sure you buy products that are at least one tick certified.

We asked the sales girl at Grohe - Asia Excel (where stocks of the Grohe sale had almost all run out)whether other shops might still have stocks of sale items. She was not at all forthcoming with information. I suppose she hoped that if we believed that stocks had run out all over Singapore, we would be motivated to buy her not-on-sale items. Whatever it was, we didn't take the bait. So, if you wanna buy Grohe, people at Grohe - Interior Affairs give vastly better service... have a wider range... and have a lot in stock.

It was also there that I had my moment of epiphany. I realised that space is the ultimate luxury. The idea that less is more can't come close to the idea that nothingness is actually the ultimate declaration of having arrived (not only in Beijing as I had noted in a previous post, but everywhere else in the world). If I become filthy rich one day, I will get me a bathroom with ultimate simplicity and wide expanses around my bathtub. And I will have a bathroom the size of a 2-room HDB flat. Yup! Filthy rich!

Anyway, we grabbed wash basin mixers, shower mixers and kitchen sink mixers for the whole house for unbelievable prices!! It does require some compromises when it comes to design. The latest designs are more expensive. Happily, I am a woman of no taste, and I like Grohe because I know it won't leak or fall apart over time. So I picked simple designs from yesteryear and carted them all home. And now I sit like a hen atop a mountain of chrome plated taps, clucking.

Then we went to three shops to choose toilet bowls, wash basins and heaters. I found it funny that we were choosing sanitary ware so early in the project, but it seems that this is necessary in order that the sanitary piping can be planned.

We had initially wanted to do apple to apple comparisons by picking out model numbers, and then going to another shop to compare. Except for Claytan toilet bowls, which everyone carries, the other brands are carried by different shops. When I picked house brand designs, it was absolutely impossible to find the same thing in another shop. No way to do apple to apple comparisons.

So we decided to proceed differently. We picked the designs we liked best in each shop and looked at the total sum quoted. We gave some weightage to how much we liked each of the sets picked. In the end, we found Poh Joo most pleasing to our tastes and its prices weren't too far off from what the other shops charged for their sets.

We did a right and proper analysis too... tabulated everything in an Excel spreadsheet and walked through the individual prices and each total... and we considered each individual design for it's sex appeal.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Dadong Beijing Roast Duck

Eating at Dadong was a feast for eyes and palate. As you enter the restaurant, stately and elegant young women worthy of an emperor's harem line up in 2 rows to welcome you. They are beautiful. You can't help ogling... except that I caught one lady digging her nose as I turned my head from one row of beauties to admire the other row of beauties. These beauties don't serve you. Their job is to walk gracefully in front of you to show you to your table. Eye candy sashaying the guests from door to table.

A good looking young man brings the duck to a side table, and carves it like maestro right before your eyes. Every flick of the knife precise. Every movement with masculine grace.

Voilà the duck all cut up into slivers.This dish can be named "Pleasures of a Thousand Cuts".

Toasted sesame seed hollow cases.



Saturday, November 6, 2010

Beijing's 2 Faces

We were in Beijing this past week, staying at Park Plaza Wangfujing. The hotel is a 30 minute walk away from The Forbidden City and is right smack in the middle of a district that fairly glows with opalescent opulence.

There I was in my fleece sweater, blue jeans and Nike shoes staring goggle-eyed through the clear glass windows. I know shops like these exist along Orchard Road, but seriously... our shopfronts with their limited space lack the grandeur of these Beijing luxury stores. Space is a luxury that rich people in China can afford. And what took my breath away was not the gleaming Rolls Royce being appraised by 5 men and 2 women, but the amount of space around the car... and the height of the shopfront ceiling.

Whilst the poorest of the poor stay in a cubicle next to a public toilet hardly bigger in square footage than a Rolls Royce, the Rolls Royce sits in the middle of a huge white expanse large enough to strike one dumb and speechless.

I kid you not.

After some exploration, we found our way into the back alleys of Beijing - hutongs wide enough for a single car where families stay and raise their kids. It was here that I saw a woman cooking dinner at the entrance to an open door. Inside, in plain view, there was a bed, 2 young children and all their meagre belongings hanging from the walls. All of that was stuffed in a space hardly bigger than a Rolls Royce. Above the door was a sign - "Laundry Woman". An old woman so wrinkled and small, she looked like a cricket, sat in the failing light of the evening hawking scraps of paper with the word "dragon" on them.

The contrast in lifestyles was so stark within a distance of less than 500m, that you couldn't help but notice, especially since the Rolls Royce was on the street in front of the hotel and the laundry woman and cricket lady was on the street behind the hotel.

If we wanted Peking Duck at the best Peking Duck restaurant in Beijing (Dadong), we crossed the road in front of the hotel. It cost us about $120/= to feed 3 people to bursting. If we wanted steamed Beijing dumplings, we went out the back door and went a little ways down the alley. The steamed Beijing dumplings were the best I had ever eaten. It cost about $4/= to feed 3 people to bursting.

The steamed dumplings were so good that I developed serious cravings for them over the next few days. I also craved the Peking Duck. The Park Plaza Wangfujing Hotel was very well situated indeed because from there we could experience the 2 faces of Beijing.