Archive for May, 2007

798 – Dashanzi Art District

May 31, 2007

Last weekend I made a trip to Dashanzi, which used to be a factory that once employed some ten thousand people, but now is not used anymore. A few years ago artist started to use the large production halls that were now longer needed and turned them into art studios and galleries.
The factory area is also called 798, what made it a little bit difficult for the driver to understand where we wanted to go as “98” is pronounces the same way as “bar”, but at early afternoon we were definitely not heading for a drink but to watch some interesting pieces of art.

Laundry at 798
Factory backyard? Art gallery? You never know… This was a still existing laundry.

The factory was built in the 1950s, actually with the help of (East) Germany and some of the equipment needed for the construction was shipped to Beijing all the way with the Trans-Siberian Railway. By now there are little remains that there once were more than 10000 workers laboring in the huge halls, but here and there one can catch a glimpse on how it might have been looking at the time when the factory was a model factory with special benefits for its workers: When we explored the area, we saw a still running laundry emitting white clouds of steam or an old blackboard were absent workers’ names were notes among other things.

But there was a lot of new, modern or even avant guard items placed in the area, the contrast with the old factory building was making it even more interesting. Furthermore the large halls that often looked alike were filled with so many different artwork, one could not even be sure whether the dozing security guard was meant to be part of the artwork.

Graffiti at 798
Artwork was not only inside the halls but also on the street walls.

Outside and inside the halls were still remains of large slogans from the Mao era, some like “Long live Chairman Mao” (毛主席万岁) seemed to be renovated. However, in one exhibition there was even artwork about the slogans of the one-child-policy or to promote working together in harmony – slogans that are still common on house walls in China’s rural areas. I guess these lines cannot not fully reflect the special atmosphere, Christine, who visited 798 in April did a better job than me. If you can read German, you should check her post.

The Space Gallery at 798
The “Space Gallery”, one of 798’s most important and biggest galleries.

Although by today the factory is described as an insider’s tip in every travel guide, we therefore assumed that it now longer is a tip only given to insiders – but we were wrong. Even if it has turned into a tourist area to some extend (the galleries do have more or less large signs, the prices written out in some art galleries are exorbitant and the menu in the “spacy café” had Chinese captions next to the English), the original spirit has remained and foreign tourist are not by far not the only visitors as we had suspected, we could see quite the contrary as the majority of the visitors were Chinese. As Chinese, they tended to take a lot of photos – well, fair enough, I need to admit the we took quite a few shots, too. I will upload some to my Flickr account soon.
As the factory area is quite big and the day we went there the weather was incredibly hot, we only saw part of it and will mostly go there again at some point.


The Chinese stock market is following the weather – It’s getting hotter and hotter

May 27, 2007

During the past weeks I have read several articles about the rising Chinese stock market. Besides that I attended an informative lecture at Beijing University about “non-performing loans and bubbles in the China economy” by Jack Rodman. The lecture was part of a series about finance in China by professor Michael Pettis. Unfortunately I did not know about this most interesting series before, next week will be it’s last session, I need to check if there are other lectures offered at Beida. But a student already told me that there are other English lectures coming up, so I’ll keep an eye on the schedule there.

When the Chinese economy started to pick up speed, the stock market in Shanghai that was opened in 1990 had a four year period where shareholders would not be happy about their assets: Although China almost had a double-digit GDP growth each year from 2001 to 2005, the stock market did not bring the investors big profit. But then the market slowly picked up speed and since then has more than tripled. I created some graphs to show this development.

Until the end of 2005 the stock market was rather going down than up but then started to pick up speed.

This success and the easiness of this way to make money had brought new investors to buy stocks, some of them with very little money and with very high risk because they are bringing all their savings to the stock market. Along with the rising temperatures in Beijing (yesterday we had well over 30°C) one can watch the high amount of money flowing into the market: $9.1 billion have been transfered from staving accounts to stocks in the first quarter of 2007.
And although the China Securities Regulatory Commission urges “stock exchanges, securities dealers and related authorities to educate investors about the risks of stock market investment”, not all people are aware of the risk with investing in stocks. Some are taking it as a replacement for gambling that is outlawed in China, but others are blindly following the trend of making money without the need to do any labor. I’ve found a very interesting story about this development – sorry, it’s only in German.
Students at Beijing University I have talked with are a little more careful and although they don’t have any stock investments at the moment, they are “planing to do so in the future”.

It seems everybody in China nowadays has dreams about a good future and become wealthy. In Chinese there can be easily made a word game out of this, as “qian” can mean “future” (前) as well as “money”(钱). With this word game, some people even released a new version of the Chinese national anthem, when the main goal of the country is not to “march forward”, but the “make money”.

So far there have been only small backdrops that could not stop the rise.

Unfortunately the experiences form the past and other countries have shown that the peak is reached when everybody is going to the stock market. The German newspaper “Die ZEIT” recently called it the game of finding “the dumbest fool”, the one who is investing at last. The game of buying stocks and selling at a higher prize does work as long as there is someone who is willing to pay a higher prize. China traditionally has a high savings ratio, so there potentially is a lot of money that could still flow into to market.

The question is: When will is the weather and the stock market become cooler? And how? Will it become cooler like after a thunderstorm with a brusting bubble or is there a slow decline in temperature?
Our Chinese teacher told us that the Chinese government would be able to control the market – at least to some extend: As the state is still the (main) owner of many companies, it can be selling or buying stocks to keep the prizes stable. But so far the state has been a profiteer of the bullish market since its shares have increased their value. Although members of the government are denying the existence of a bubble, it is questionable if the state really is interested in buying stocks at a high prize after the peak has been reached? Wouldn’t it be in the interest of the state to sell its shares at a high prize and use the money useful? And if the country would pursue such a strategy, why was it possible that the markets have gained more than 50 percent this year?

Pirated movies in China

May 26, 2007

Why don’t Chinese students go to the movies very often? Although sometimes the movie tickets are quite cheap e.g. at Beijing University’s cinema, but at the regular ones you are required to pay more. Often you even have to pay more than to buy the DVD, so Chinese students prefer to either download the movie or buy a copy of the DVD, prizes are about 7 to 17 yuan, less then $2. No wonder the movie industry is not really happy with the situation in China, pirated movie DVDs are the norm, not the exception.

Movies are sold in a Hutong street in Beijing

Pirated movies are sold in a Hutong street in Beijing.

Furthermore the copies are usually quite good, so why would one buy the more expensive version, that is available only months after the movie hits the movie theaters if the cheaper DVD is not inferior to the more expensive one? I am not going to discuss the Chinese attitude on copying in general (in ancient China the high officials were expected to be able to precisely copy calligraphy works and the Chinese character for learning (学, xue) also means “to imitate”). Anyway, the recent concessions China made to the US after being threated with a lawsuit are most likely to fizzle out, as other bloggers point out that this will only be a temporary solution to calm down the US delegation.

One interesting approach to confront the problem was recently made by Warner Bros. when it release the Chinese movie “Crazy Stone” (疯狂石头, trailer here). Just two weeks after the movie that takes place in Chongqing and copies is inspired by the story of Ocean’s Eleven, the official DVD was released and sold for just 10 yuan. That way it was useless to buy pirated DVDs and made the movie highly profitable.

Military first

May 20, 2007

In contrast to many other countries the military in China is not under the direct control of the state, but the troops of the People’s Liberation Army are committed to the party (CCP). The army is the one in the world by the largest number of active troops and although according to the statistics, there the ratio of armed forces to the whole population seems considerably low, every know and then one runs into a group of soldiers in their uniforms. Even when they are doing sightseeing with their family it seems to be common to wear uniform, at least I saw several army personnel in the Summer Palace.

Soldiers near Tian’anmen
Soldiers near Tian’anmen Square.

Why do they were uniforms in public places? Actually I don’t know, but I might have a guess: It’s to their own advantage. Besides receiving the respect of other people, if they are easily identifiable as member of the army, admission is reduced at tourist sites, people are encouraged to have soldiers enter buses first (“Pregnant and servicemen first”) and in train stations they even get their own waiting hall so they don’t have to share the limited space in the regular, often noisy and crowded waiting halls with the regular passengers.

Waiting hall for servicemen
Soldiers enjoy the comfort of a separate waiting lounge.

How does the military recruit? There is no military draft in China, however all university students are required to take part in some military training (Junxun, 军训) during their first summer holidays. Our teacher told us, that at that point students seem to be most obedient, on the one hand because they are still relatively new to the university and the youngest students on campus, on the other hand, the weather during the summer holidays usually is very hot, causing the students to not risk any conflicts with their teachers in the training sessions. But my language exchange partner told me, that the weeks of military training went by relatively fast – without any great effort he managed to get the (unpopular) service behind him.
Both male and female students are required to take part in the program to continue their studies, so most students nowadays see it as a necessary evil and try the best to turn it into a (fun) holiday program with their friends to the largest possible extend.

Students in uniform during military training on campus
Students in uniform on campus.

Rou Chuanr – Meat sticks and other snacks

May 14, 2007

Every evening right outside of our block, several stands selling food are mysteriously appearing at early evening. Most of them are on the back of a bicycle, there is all kinds of food and other stuff sold. This evening there were people selling clothes, but the main items were for food: Besides fruit, noodles and baozi (my favorites are the xiaolongbao) there were some pancakes and meat sticks. On other day there sometimes is other food, including boiled eggs or “maodan” (毛蛋) that I had once. Actually when I had it, I wasn’t aware of what I was eating, but I think it did not taste too bad.

This evening I had a jianbing (煎饼), a pancake that is similar to the French crêpe and is filled with an egg, spring onions and other herbs. Jianbings are very common in the streets of Beijing and for just 2 yuan (0,20 Euro) you can get one.

Mantou and meat sticks
Mantou and meat sticks.

I also enjoy the meat sticks – the person who is roasting the meat stick is usually very nice and welcomes you with “朋友 – 吃什么?” – “My friend, what do you want to eat?” One can choose between various kinds of meat sticks: mutton, beef, pork, sometimes also cuttlefish and all parts from chicken like wings, waist, skin and heart. They are also selling mantou (馒头) a bun that is grilled as well. Some of the grills are using coal leaving a dense cloud of smoke around them, others prefer using gas for the barbecue.

Meat sticks are grilled in the streets of Beijing
Meat sticks are grilled in the streets of Beijing.

In Chinese the meat sticks are called rou-chuan (肉串), but in the Beijing dialect there is added an -r added at the end, turning the last character into something that more sounds one is trying to suppress coughing. Anyhow, I get the feeling the more one is mumbling, the better one is understood. By the way, the Chinese character for that stick is “串”, doesn’t it look like two peaces of meat are stuck onto a stick?

Preparations for 08/08/08

May 11, 2007

The “Bird’s Nest” and the swim hall are the two buildings that are getting the most media attention as they are interesting pieces of architecture and will host some of the most watched fights for gold, silver and bronze medals. But there is a lot of other construction going on in Beijing that has to be done until August 8, 2008 (08.08.08) when the Olympic games will be declared open at 8:08 pm. Seems like some of the planners really believe in the tradition that the “8” is the lucky number in Chinese…

Beijing University - The new tabletennis gym
Behind the basketball court new facilities to host the table tennis competitions are being built.

Smaller events will take place at some universities’ campuses. Beijing University will be host of the table tennis competition. Too bad I’m not studying in Beijing next year, imagine I could watch an Olympic event just after class. Right now when standing at the fence near the construction area on campus, one cannot determine how the building will look like once it is ready, but at there’s a picture on the web.

Construction site for Subway Line No 4
Construction site for “Subway Line No 4”.

But the largest construction goes by mostly unseen: Beijing’s subway net will be drastically expanded by next year: From next year on, it is planned to open a new subway line each month! But at the moment one can only see some of the large holes along the future railway tracks. They are even labeled by they name since it takes so long for construction.

2008 Olympic’s mascots
Beibei, Jingjing, Huanhuan, Yingying and me – Nini is somehow cut off.

Earlier this week I visited the mascots for the Olympics at a store with all kinds of Olympic merchandise next to Tian’anmen square. I don’t want a judgment on their appearance, you can see them from up close here. Their names are the characters for “Beijing Huanying ni” – “Beijing welcomes you”.

Rock in China – A visit to the “Midi-Festival”

May 9, 2007

The Midi-Festival is the biggest festival for rock music in China. For four days all kinds of people gather at Haidian Park just one block off of Beijing University and listen to rock, hip hop or techno. Up to 80000 fans were populating the park, chatting with friends, playing card games or were throwing Frisbees, camping with their tents, drinking beer (quite cheap, only 5 yuan or 0,5 Euro of a large cup), or strolling the small streets in the park where CDs, T-shirts and other more or less useful items were sold.
This year the festival was co-sponsored by Greenpeace China, an organization which still is quite unknown here and were accepted as an environment organization in China not to long ago. One of the last acts we saw was to record the new greenpeace anthem, it was fun to be in the big crowd, everybody was singing “Go Green, Greenpeace!

Fans at the Midi Festival
Camping at the festival.

The most exciting thing in my eyes was not exactly listening to the music, but to watch the people attending the festival. There were young Chinese punks (碰克 peng-ke in Chinese) wearing clothes that usually can not been seen in the streets of Beijing and some extravagant Mohawk hair styles. But on the other hand there were couples who were not looking as if they are attending a rock festival. Some of the people valued the “peng” (碰) in the Chinese punk to much, it means something like “bump into”. I was surprised how crazy some Chinese were into pogo, and it sometimes really looked a little dangerous.

Fans at Midi festival
Enthusiastic fans during a rock performance.

The bands playing were very different in the style of music. There where foreign bands with putting more weight in their show than in their music, Chinese bands and individual musicians performing at the small stage for alternative music. At each stage the spirit was a different one: People were sitting in the grass in front of the experimental stage and relaxed while others were doing pogo at the heavy metal stage.

Band playing at Midi Festival
Chinese band with an exceptional clothing style.

One of my favorites were the Tookoos, unfortunately they were only playing for some twenty minutes. But at there homepage one can download some of their songs. Some of the other bands were not that well, but there was always time to skip a band and wander around the park area and watch people…
Another thing that caught my attention is the topics that the bands are mentioning in the songs. Some foreign bands were using some critical views of society while most Chinese bands were singing about love or their everyday live (at least from what I could tell by the announcements they made before playing a song), so the rock movement is very apolitical in China. However, a friend told me that at a break between two acts, some video clips were shown, one of them was “Pushed Again” by the German band “Die Toten Hosen”, the video includes some footage from the 1989 incident on Tian’anmen and I’m sure it usually would not been shown in China.

At the end two links: The first one is a news report about the festival, including some interesting facts about its history, the second one is a blog post by a Canadian who describes the atmosphere quite well.