January 27th: Christmas. Every Day.

“I wish it could be Christmas every day” sang Wizzard back in 1973, and at every Christmas since then.  Here in China, it is.  Every day in the office lifts we’re treated to the same mix of 20-second snippets of Rudolph, Frosty and a few other Christmas songs.  Interspersed with Gangnam Style.  Every day.

Here in the office, and in most of the shops, Christmas decorations persist.  A few trees have disappeared, but Father Christmas is very much still present in shop windows and advertising hoardings.  Since Chinese New Year is only a couple of weeks’ away, the general consensus is the decorations will disappear following the end of festivities.  Last year the Christmas music in the lifts disappeared halfway through April.  Maybe this year they’ll just leave it longer.  365 days of Rudolph and co.   Christmas every day indeed.


I haven’t been to the cinema in years.  Normally quite happy to wait for the download/DVD/Blu-Ray to become available and watch a film at home without the hassle of, well, other people crunching, snorting, sniffing, coughing, slurping, talking their way through a film*.   But, on Tuesday night, we joined JB and co. at an Imax cinema near the office to watch Skyfall.

No messing about in cinemas in China.  Get in, sit down, watch film.  No Pearl & Dean, no trailers, no movie trivia, no “Please turn off your phone messages”.  Comfy seats, jalapeno flavoured popcorn and a far better experience than I was expecting.  A pretty damn good film too.

I’ve heard other people complain about the “ambience” of cinemas being ruined by the constant appearance of small pockets of light as people check their mobile phones.  I deliberately put the phone on silent (not vibrate) and in my pocket, but I have some sympathy – it’s like an itch for 2 hours: “Check me, check me!”.  I resisted.


Some meat, on a street.  I have no idea what most of it is.

Some meat, on a street. I have no idea what most of it is.

Wednesday night saw the sad occasion of my last regular post-language-lesson pool evening with JB, following the news he’ll be returning to the UK  in late Feb.  We’ll miss JB – always up for a pint and a natter, even if he’s pretty useless at pool.

Felix’s attempts to find a drummer for our nascent band meant a trip to a basement studio on Thursday night to try out a few songs with a new drummer.  Felix’s other advertisements for band members have so far resulted in one promise of true love and another of marriage, so a genuine drummer was a rarity.

Although it’s been great to spend a weekend without getting on a plane and heading out of Shanghai, it’s been a hectic one.  Following a relaxing night in De Refter with Bron on Friday night, we spent most of Saturday afternoon playing Mahjong (or Majiang) with Anny and Frank.  Obviously not for money, since I believe Anny would have easily fleeced us.  I think we’re slowly learning the rules, although the number of tiles we’ve yet to involve worries me a bit (adding complexity to an already fairly complex game).

Saturday night meant a trip to Emily’s apartment to help her celebrate Australia Day.  A little bit of Men At Work, a few Australian food delicacies but sadly no Kylie.  Since we’d been up since 6.47am (the exact time when I was woken up by the nearby building work), a 3am Sunday morning finish wasn’t what we’d planned.  A great party though – thanks Emily!

After a little more guitar playing today, we’ve been out wine tasting (in my case, to be social).  To be more descriptive: we met up with some people in a wine shop to help ourselves to the contents of five bottles of wine.   Not really what we were expecting, but then again, this is Shanghai.  Following a Thai meal with Rachel, Bron and Rachel disappeared off for a massage, leaving me to go home to write this blog.

When the local government reading says "Severely polluted", there is no doubt.

When the local government reading says “Severely polluted”, there is no doubt.

On the way back I could see stars in the night sky.  After ridiculously high levels of pollution all week, this meant a literal sigh of relief.  We can breathe again (for the moment).

*I am not in an airport lounge.  Parity has been restored.

January 20th: The Hong Kong Musical Family

I’m going to try and write this without it sounding like a tribute to Abba’s “Thankyou for the music”, although of course please feel free to hum along as you read.

The Bride and Groom

The Bride and Groom

In the past, I’ve been to weddings where the bride, groom, or perhaps one of the guests has performed a song, but nothing quite like this before.  Over the weekend, Bron and I have been in Hong Kong to attend the wedding of Heather and Adam.  A wedding where it felt like half the guests contributed to the entertainment by singing or playing instruments. And this wasn’t karaoke style amateur singing – all performers had perfect voices, perfect harmonies and sang without ever straying into vocal gymnastic territory  ( (c) Mark Radcliffe I think). Guitarists playing so effortlessly that it took us a while to realise one of players was quite happily still sat at his dining table, avoiding the attention of the stage.

My personal highlight – “Uncle Danny”, with his five-song-in-one tribute to the newly married couple.  A man so talented he can hum a trumpet impersonation  whilst playing the guitar, and reappear later on on the keyboards.  And the drums.

With the groom sporting a bright yellow Mohican-style hairdo and the bride opting for blue hair, this was never going to be a traditional wedding.  Ending the night in a bright-red rockabilly-style dress (her third outfit of the night), Heather looked fantastic.

Heather, Me and Bron after the do

Heather, Me and Bron after the do

I have never been to a wedding quite like it.  And although some of the music isn’t what I’d choose to listen to at home, it was sang and performed with such passion that even I managed to temporarily discard my musical shackles and enjoy it.  This was a wedding without awkward silences or restless attendees, so enthralled were the guests by superb performance after performance. To be an architect of skyscrapers, a top executive, a millionaire banker: these are jobs people aspire to, skills people long to learn.  But nothing can bring such simultaneous joy to a room full of people as can music**.   As Adam’s Dad (keyboard player extraordinaire) said to me after I revealed I played the guitar “Whatever else you do in life, don’t ever stop making music”.

Shackles are back now though.  Abba, you can b*gger off.

A great reason to visit Hong Kong, with our three night stay compensating for our very brief previous trip (about 4 rushed hours with JB on the way to Macaw).  Carmen entertained us on Friday night with a visit to another great seafood restaurant and an excellent, smokeless* whiskey bar. A balmy 18 degrees meant t-shirt weather for me and a cold-weather warning for the locals.

Hong Kong's Avenue of Stars

Hong Kong’s Avenue of Stars

On Tuesday, our favourite loony hyperactive American returned from her extended holiday in the US, so a spicy celebration was in order over at Sichuan Citizen.  Shanghai without Rachel is far too safe and sensible – where else would you find a lady who washes dishes wearing sandwich bags to avoid damaging her hands (but still managed to cut a finger on a glass)?  Rachel describes it as being part of a little Shanghai family.  Definitely a weird family, on extended holiday in a strange but brilliant country.

And with yet another Wednesday evening defeat to JB at pool, Shanghai once again settles into relative normality.

*Take note Shanghai small bar establishments: I will drink more if I can actually breathe.

** One day I’ll do a comparison of my blogs written outside of airports with those written in a heightened emotional state in airport lounges.  Written as my  conscious brain tries to ignore the message of panic being offered up by my primeval subconscious given the journey that is about to take place.  All whilst never quite ignoring the irony that this feeling is known as “fight or flight” syndrome.

January 10th: Pretty Boy


What should occur at an annual company annual dinner?  In the UK: a reasonably formal dinner, or perhaps a party arranged by a specialised events company, replete with their own entertainment.  In China: the staff have to make their own entertainment.  And so, ignoring any random karaoke appearances or backing vocals for miscellaneous bands over the years, on Thursday night I made my first public singing appearance since I was about 10 years old. For one night only, I appear live, singing to just short of 150 people.  A duet, no less, with Haze, our lovely (but unforgiving – see below) receptionist.

A Chinese song (but with the chorus in English), my task was to memorise two verses of Chinese lyrics and sing them with a passionate yet earnest face whilst never quite being able to ignore the fact the song is called “Pretty Boy”*.

Much practice was required, resulting in the somewhat surreal experience of sitting in a meeting room with Haze on Christmas Day, declaring my undying love for her via the medium of Chinese lyrics.  On the night: I managed one verse from memory, the other from a piece of paper secreted away not so secretly in my hand.

“You forgot the words!”, exclaims my singing partner after the event.  I did, it’s true.  A video of the performance exists, and is available for a very reasonable sum.

Other acts on the evening included a rousing rendition of Angels by Tim, JB and Grace, and a strange but brilliant version of Chinese Blind Date.  We had a few excellent dancing performances and some truly bizarre ones.  Bronwen escaped somewhat on the night, having her brief solo spot amongst the Marketing team’s song stolen by Nancy.  I say stolen – I don’t think Bron was too upset.

And so how did I get roped into singing this beautiful duet?  Whilst walking past reception a few weeks before Christmas, Kiwi (one of our HR ladies) asks: “Paul, would you like to sing a song with Haze?”


“Because she needs somebody to sing with at the company dinner”

I think this is called walking past reception at the wrong time. Or maybe the right time.  It was nerve wracking, but I have to admit to enjoying it. Maybe just a bit. Sometimes China can be utterly brilliant.

*Not my choice of song.  Not exactly my style of music, but in China, these kind of choices aren’t always available.  The memory of singing a song called “Pretty Boy” in front of many people will always amuse me.

{I’ll post more images of the night soon.}


January 13th: A Little Snow and Ice




Exactly how much of a change in temperature does 60 degrees feel like? From around 35 degrees in Bangkok less than two weeks’ ago to colder than -25 this weekend in Harbin.  As a species, we humans are pretty adaptable.

Around 500km from the Russian border, north west of Beijing, Harbin is a city famous for its annual snow and ice festival.  And nutters diving into near-freezing water in a cleared area of an otherwise frozen lake (2 metres thick of ice).  Of those appearing in swimming attire and braving the water,  I don’t think any were below 50 years old and most appeared over 60.  Whether this means the youngsters are too scared or the older folks have spent their entire life preparing for the moment is a bit of a mystery.

Sun IslandBronwen made a fairly decent gnome snowman a couple of years ago (small in height but not in stature, commanding the garden as he did) and this took some time to create.  The sheer size and intricacy of some of the exhibits in the Sun Island Snow Sculpture Park felt like they must have been years in the making.  Walls of snow tightly packed and sculpted into remarkable, perfect detail.  Some of them not just for visual effect either, with a snow castle allowing its visitors to climb to the top and then proceed down a snow slide in a rubber tube.  Most people holding on tightly, Bronwen holding on less so after being unceremoniously shoved down before having a chance to grab the tube’s handles.

This being China, the tranquil nature of the snow sculpture park had to be interrupted at some point.  And why would you not have 30 or so completely random mascots (Tigger, a few Tellitubbies, Porky Pig, etc.) dancing to Gangnam Style?

A Siberian Tiger

A Siberian Tiger

Since Harbin is in the north of China, a Siberian Tiger Park seems appropriate.  Our guide proudly declared there to be over 1000 tigers living there, and we’d been told in advance we were able to purchase live animals to feed to the tigers. Live animals of unknown species or origin.  Nobody in our group decided to do so, but the tigers weren’t going hungry.  The staff provided live chickens, dangled on wooden poles, hoisted up and down to both torment the tigers and torture the chickens.  Whilst seeing the tigers roaming relatively freely is an incredible sight, and one could argue live food is what they’re use to eating, killing a chicken doesn’t seem like much of a challenge.  Other animals (to select as food) were apparently available; I can’t say we were too upset we didn’t get to see that particular sight.

After a couple of hours out in the cold it’s obviously great to get back to the comfort of our luxury transport.  15 degrees it said on the digital thermometer inside the coach, which would have been wonderfully warming if true.  At -9 degrees we discovered the thermometer didn’t have room to show the “-“ sign when showing minus double digits.  Although, to be fair, it did reach +9 at one point.

In disguise - Yael, me and Nicole

In disguise – Yael, me and Nicole

We spent Saturday evening at Harbin’s Ice and Snow World, which was kind of like a world of snow and ice.  Chaos to get in (Chinese-style queue*) and chaos to try and experience the sights (you may well climb the ice mountain to slide down the ice slide but do not dare hesitate on your way up).  The ice slide could have done with being little more icy, since I spent half the journey down straddling a poor Chinese bloke in front of me as he became stuck in front whilst Bron and Nicole became impatient behind.

With the temperature approaching -30, I think most of us were glad to eventually retreat to the hotel despite the incredible displays on offer.  There’s only so much you can take in whilst your feet gradually switch themselves off.

Unfortunately one of the group suffered an injury after sliding and falling backwards onto his head.  A night in hospital in Harbin and a slow trip back to Shanghai awaits (since the doctors did not want him to fly).  At the time of writing, I hear he is feeling much better and a second scan has apparently revealed all is OK.

We awoke early on Sunday morning to experience the majesty of the previously mentioned snow swimming.

We made our way back to Shanghai via a very busy Harbin airport on Sunday afternoon with many tourists making their way back to warmer climates.  This meant the many layers of clothing had to be removed whilst in the airport, and many people having the same idea: head to the two solitary locker changing rooms (getting changed in the airport toilets would have been unthinkable – I checked).  With a Chinese queue forming, we gave up and practiced national stereotypes by getting changed without waiting for the lockers: Bronwen and I hid behind some kind of cleaning vehicle whist Stefan (German) just got changed out in the open.  Gabrielle gracefully discarded anything unwanted whilst maintaining both dignity and her Canadian coolness.

It was 5 degrees in Shanghai when we landed on Sunday night.  It felt tropical.

*A vague queue unless somebody happens to just walk to the front at an opportune moment.

January 2nd 2013: New Year, Thailand Style

Bron on the Chao Phraya river

Bron on the Chao Phraya river

There’s a point at which my natural aversion to trusting anyone who approaches us whilst on holiday may well border on paranoia.  But in Bangkok, was it really just a co-incidence we happened to be intercepted by a guy with “Tourist Police” on his t-shirt who flagged down a passing tuk-tuk and “persuaded” him to take us to see three major tourist sites for the low price of 40 baht (about 80p).  And after the first site  the driver insisted he would miss out on an annual bonus unless he took us to a particular jewellery shop after seeing the sites.  And that a random bloke in site number two (a very quiet temple) just happened to start speaking to us about the very same jewellery store – they do such great deals that he “buys lots of jewellery from there and sells it to Ernest Jones in London for a big profit”.
A remarkable string of co-incidences or a very elaborate and well-worked tourist scam?
We didn’t buy any jewellery.

And come on tuk-tuk drivers:

  1. If I’m carrying a map and pointing to it, I know broadly where I am.   You can’t say “We are here” and point to somewhere completely different on the map in an attempt to charge us more money.  And…
  2. Saying “the river taxi isn’t working today so I can take you directly back to your hotel instead” isn’t going to work if we’d already taken the river taxi earlier the same day.
Honesty in PatPong

Honesty in PatPong

Bangkok then.  A wonderful world of extremes in which the spiritual mix with the seedy; the Monks mingle with the masses (and the Buddhist Monks are so ubiquitous in Bangkok that they have their own immigration lanes in the airport).   A city in which we can be refused entry to a palace in the daytime due to our inappropriate clothing (we had the temerity to wear shorts in 30 degree heat) and yet at night inappropriate clothing (and behaviour) seems to be nigh-on encouraged.

A fascinating place though – three nights wasn’t enough to do it justice.  And checking into a hotel at 3am is never a particularly good idea, especially when the hotel reception claim we can only have our room for one night before having to move rooms.  30 minutes later, the stubborn Brits won out and we were given an upgraded room for the three nights.  And what an upgrade – it was more of an two-bedroom apartment than a hotel room.

We thought whilst in Bangkok it made sense to try out a Thai massage, and ignoring anything dodgy (we went to a reputable place), a full body massage turned out to be just that.  My ears have never felt so good.

Our expectations for excellent food were also met – Indian food for breakfast (not sure why it was available, but not complaining) and some superb Thai food in the evenings.

White Temple in Chiang Rai

White Temple in Chiang Rai

So after our brief stay in Bangkok we flew up to Chiang Rai in the north of Thailand to stay at Le Merdien’s resort hotel (not too far away from Chiang Mai, which seems to the tourist location most people are familiar with).  An excellent resort despite some seriously laid-back service (apart from the manic French director of food who seemed to be trying to compensate for the apathetic approach of his staff).

The ladies at the farm

The ladies at the farm

And so for our main reason for visiting Thailand: earlier in the year, Andrea had invited us to spend New Year’s Eve with her extended family on a small, relatively remote farm about 45 minutes away from the hotel.  A farm co-owned by Andrea’s brother and his family, which led to a gathering of people from many parts of the globe.  An evening discussing cultural matters with a Thai lady from the north, politics with an Iranian man living in San Francisco, and the perils of voluntary work with a lady originally from Ellesmere Port.  From watching the sunset over the farm to perhaps the world’s most dangerous fireworks display at midnight (those fireworks accidentally planted upside-down quickly turning the “oooh” of those nearby into an “AAAH!”), a fantastic evening of entertainment, food and drink.  Local Thai cuisine mixed with classic burgers (and a ridiculously spicy salad) meant we were in no danger of going hungry.

4pm on New Year’s Day and Bronwen finally had her wish of getting me to take relax by a swimming pool whilst on holiday.  Although my idea of relaxing and Bron’s are somewhat different (Bronwen sleeps, I try to work out how to record music on an old Korg synthesiser on the iPad).

New Year’s Eve definitely made up for our rather subdued Christmas Day.  Working on December 25th isn’t something I want to do again – with most expats gone and the event understandably not meaning a great deal to the local guys, it really did just feel like a normal day in the office.  Elouise and Ryan came over on Christmas Eve for a Christmas meal (pre-cooked by a local firm), complete with crackers thanks to Marks & Spencers.   We’re all in agreement that this is hopefully a once-only event.  Next year, one way or the other, we should be back in the UK for Christmas.