Return to the Celestial Kingdom – March 2014

With our nephew Han-Han
With our nephew Han-Han

After five years (only two for Jennifer), it was time to return to China, in time for our niece’s wedding reception. An amazing experience, but more on that later. We covered a lot more ground than that while we were here.

“If you have not walked along the Great Wall, you are not a great man.”

GreatWall 2004 Summer 1

The weather was actually quite good for March there—our in-laws said everything was running one month early this year. Everything was also dry—Beijing only had one snowfall this winter, and that was just a light dusting. Quite different from our experience, where many places are still cleaning up after the December icestorms!

On our first Sunday there, we headed up to Badaling (north of Beijing) to see the Great Wall. Some of the sections have quite a steep pitch, but the walk was worth it, as Chairman Mao‘s quote above says.

Badaling is about an hour’s drive north of Beijing, and many of the city-dwellers have secondary residences up in this area. Much like cottage country back home, but much more mountainous.

Badaling_Expressway_Climbing_Jul2004

“Heaven above; Hangzhou and Suzhou below.”

Having about a week to spare before the big event, the two of us headed down south to see Hangzhou and Suzhou, in Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces, respectively, just outside of Shanghai. They really are that beautiful, and the flowers were all coming out then: magnolias, cherries and forsythia! This took some getting used to, but we coped.

It’s said that a definition of a good life in China states, “Be born in Suzhou, live in Hangzhou, eat in Guangzhou, die in Liuzhou.” (生在苏州, 活在杭州, 吃在广州, 死在柳州.) When I passed this on earlier, one of my brothers said, “Don’t tick off all the items on that list!” I assured him that Liuzhou was nowhere near the route!

Hangzhou has a very lovely setting on the east side of the West Lake (which has mountains on the other three sides). The lake is surrounded by parkland and promenades that go all the way around. There are temples and tea plantations in the mountains, and our tour on the first day made sure we stopped at them all. By the way, the tours do steer you toward the more expensive shops, so be careful where you do make your purchases.

Suzhou had a more exotic setting: scads of gardens, lots more temples, mountains to the west, and a huge network of canals throughout set in a grid. Suzhou is called either the “Venice of the East” or the “Venice of China” (depending on whether you want to compare it with Bangkok in Thailand).

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On the Friday night before we headed back, we went over to the Suzhou Industrial Park to see a spectacular water fountain festival set to music. Here’s a snippet of that from the beginning of a presentation that lasted more than 20 minutes!

The main event

The G1252 high-speed train entering Suzhou North Station, for our trip to Qinhuangdao.
The G1252 high-speed train entering Suzhou North Station, for our trip to Qinhuangdao.

We had to go back north over to Qinhuangdao, so we took the high-speed train. At 300 km/hour, we covered a lot of countryside in six hours, going through Jiangsu, Anhui, Shandong and Hebei Provinces. The high-speed network is absolutely stunning in its efficiency and extent, with all the lines dedicated to passenger traffic only, and all set on concrete pillars above grade. And there are more lines currently under construction to spread the net out further! Why can’t we do something similar back home?

京津城际铁路-天津北站

We got in to Qinhuangdao around 6:30pm on Saturday, and were immediately whisked over to a dress rehearsal for the reception that was taking place right then—for 125 people! One of the initial speeches noted that the wedding was attracting international attention, as noted by our presence there. I was given five minutes’ notice to make a speech, which may or may not be on the professionally produced DVD they’re making to mark the occasion. I was mortified…

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The reception itself was an amazing affair, with 500 guests. I’m told by my brother-in-law that that is a middle-of-the-road affair in China these days, as some get up to 1000 guests! Together with the professional audiovisual crew, professional singers, tables absolutely sagging with food, shouts of “Ganbei!” (Bottoms up!) throughout, the bride emerging from a giant red lotus to walk down the aisle. I am still struggling to describe it all, but perhaps I should wait till the DVD comes out, so you can believe your own eyes…

Covering Beijing

There were other invitations for us to go out when we returned to Beijing, from friends of Jennifer’s from her days at the China Atomic Energy Authority. Mr Li and Mr Du, nuclear scientists who are now retired, treated us at a restaurant near the Olympic Green that had calligraphy inside that had been written by Zhou Enlai, who was Mao’s right-hand man 40 years ago. Beijing cuisine features Peking Duck, which is quite rich. Considering we also had it the day before for Jennifer’s birthday, we really had to watch what we ate for the next few days!

We were also treated twice by Mrs Gao and Mr Li (they are married to one another, but China does not have our concept of the “married name”). Her daughter Shan-Shan recently married, so that was the reason for our celebration. It also turned out that Mrs Gao’s niece, Jiang Yilun,  is on the Chinese women’s curling team, and played third at the women’s championships held at Saint John, NB this year. She’s quite an accurate player, and is slated to become their skip next year. I know she’s accurate, because curling was being broadcast on CCTV-5, the national sports channel! Canada had better watch out…

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We also got to see Tienanmen (天安门, the “Gate of Heavenly Peace”, which is regarded as the symbol of China itself), Tienanmen Square, the Forbidden City and other sites. I went out on my own to look inside the National Centre for the Performing Arts, the Capital Museum and Peking University. All quite stunning, and the scale of it all is staggering to our minds.

We also learned that Chairman Mao’s portrait at Tienanmen is replaced every year, in order to keep it looking fresh. I could swear it looks younger than the last time we were over in 2009.

Tiananmen Mao

The Forbidden City itself is a series of concentric circles, which were designed to make it exceedingly difficult to gain access to the Emperor back in ancient times. If you sweat it out, there is a lovely large park to the rear.

Gugun panorama-2005-1

During the last weekend of March, the cherry blossoms popped out in Beijing, and the best place to see them is at Yuyuantan Park in Haidian District. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

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Thoughts about China

There are some things that really stick out from the trip:

  • Family and friends were all courteous and graceful, and it was a pleasure to meet up with them and to catch up with the ones we hadn’t seem in a long time. That was more obvious for Jennifer.
  • Parents take education very seriously around here. School starts at 7:30am and goes until 4:30pm, and parents are expected to drop their children off and pick them back up at those times. Instructions are sent by SMS to the parents as to what homework their children must complete for the following day. There are also supplementary classes on the weekends for gifted children, and our nephew Han-Han is one of those. Another thing: children are regularly weighed at school, and the parents are advised if their children are exceeding expected body weights. Violators will have their PhysEd marks reduced proportionately to their excess weight!
  • Mandarin is almost exclusively the language for everyday life. English is taught in the public schools, but many people (including those in Jennifer’s university class) have stopped using it over the years, as it is not really necessary. This was brought home during one conversation in which Jennifer was talking about lasagna back home, and everyone else looked puzzled. It turns out that it is translated into Mandarin as “thousand-layer noodle.” You know what? English is not afraid of ripping off words from other languages, but Mandarin insists that any new concept be converted into its terms.
  • Western-style food is available, but usually at a premium. You can get coffee, but at three times the price for half the amount, and it is way too sweet. Besides, you can get a quart bottle of beer for less than the price of that coffee! McDonald”s meals are generally the same price as back home. Go local whenever possible.
  • Recordkeeping is meticulous there. When you purchase rail tickets, you need to supply your ID card or passport, and its number is printed on your ticket. When you check into a hotel, your passport info is scanned and sent to the local police. When we arrived in China,we had to declare the address we were going to be staying at, and, if we stayed anywhere else that was not a hotel, we would need to inform the local police within 24 hours. It’s obvious they want to keep tabs on you at all times.
  • There are similar burdens on the locals as well. When you work in China, a personal file—the dang’an (档案)—is created that follows you around from one employer to the next, and, if you don’t have one, it means compulsory retirement at age 50! Similarly, the hukou (户口, ie, household registration) has significant impact, as it affects where you can live and how you will be taxed. Vehicle registrations are also kept under tight control, with availability restricted through lottery (in Beijing) or auction (in Shanghai). Offroad parking spaces are sold separately from accommodation, and can prove quite costly.
  • The media is controlled, and I can confirm that there are restrictions on what is available on the web. The New York Times and CBC News are blacked out, but the BBC, amazingly, is not, so we were able to keep tabs on the developments arising from the MH370 disappearance. Newspapers are thin but cheap, and there are two English-language papers as well (rather dry reading), but they are only available where foreigners really congregate. Our neighbourhood (Taiyanggong) was not one of them. CCTV does lay it on quite thick if there was a big state occasion happening that day, or if some important official was appearing somewhere in China. I still can’t believe that any crowd can clap that fast!

The return home

As always, all good things must come to an end. That happened on 1 April, when we were taken back to Beijing Airport for the flight back. Miao-Miao and Jeff (the happily-married couple) came with us to see us off. The flight back was 12 1/2 hours, but the jet lag has been affecting us for a week now, and it’s only now that our sleep times are approaching normal.

What did we come back to? It sounds like the usual crap was still occurring in Toronto, and there was lots more cold and snow that we missed. At least, I missed it: Jennifer’s the warm-weather person!

When will we return? Jennifer’s mother is turning 79 next year, and Chinese tradition marks birthdays by the year in question, as opposed to the specific date, so it’s her 80th year that we will be marking that fall. Stay tuned.

The holidays have ended for our guests…

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It’s hard to believe that twelve weeks have gone by! The in-laws returned to China at the end of August, and they are safely back in Harbin. It’s now time to look back at what we did, even though they may have complained that too much water was involved. (With Southern Ontario’s dominant features including the Great Lakes and cottage country? Well, yeah.)

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Visiting Jennifer’s cousing’s family was high up on the agenda, but other destinations were also in the works…

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We headed to the southernmost part of Canada, at Point Pelee National Park.

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There was a relaxing experience at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Hamilton.

And a great excursion to the Sandbanks Provincial Park in Prince Edward County.

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Jennifer took time off to have a “girls’ run” over to the States to see the Finger Lakes.

We head up to Muskoka, focusing on the Bethune National Historic Site in Gravenhurst.

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And I had to take them up to where I grew up, so we headed to the Limehouse Conservation Area to get a taste of the Niagara Escarpment before going into Acton.

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I hope their memories prove to be pleasant ones. I know we enjoyed having them here.

My first corporate investigation

Canadian Glass was in the flat glass industry (as opposed to hollow glass, which is glass containers). Margins have always been half-decent in that business, and, if you minimized your cutting losses on your jobs and negotiated good payment terms with your suppliers, you were always assured a good living. However, if you did not keep these in mind, the results are disastrous.

I learned that the first week I started there, when Alf came into my office and told me we were flying to Montreal the following morning. One of Charlebois’ customers, Starr Glass, had just ceased business, and our receivable from them exceeded $60,000 (quite a considerable amount of money at that time). Not only that, our parent (Pilks) was in to them for more than double that amount, and they wanted us to report on the total situation.

Why all this concern? You have to appreciate the differences that existed then in how bankruptcy laws were applied across the country. Before the federal bankruptcy rules were standardized in 1992, provincial rules of civil procedure applied with respect to when a creditor could appoint a receiver to come in to seize a debtor’s assets. Common-law jurisdictions in Canada generally required about 10 days’ notice before such a move could be made, but no notice was required under Quebec’s Code of Civil Procedure.

Starr Glass had cash flow problems, to put it mildly. Not being in a position to secure further financing from more traditional — and legitimate — financial institutions, it sought a loan from an “alternative source” (ie, the loan sharks). Still having cash flow issues, the principal tried to stiff them, and they stiffed him — he was assassinated, and one of Starr’s creditors sent the receiver in immediately to seize the assets.

We arrived at Dorval airport, and were met by Jean-Pierre Ross, Jacques Bellemare, and Régent Millette (the credit manager at Charlebois). As it was close to noon, we went first to a local brasserie to discuss the affair over lunch.

Alf asked Régent to update us on the issue. Régent said, “Don’t worry, I pulled our glass out of there last week. I received a telephone call advising me that it would be a good idea if I did!”

And that was that. Under the terms of acquisition that were in effect from 1979 under the Foreign Investment Review Act, Canadian Glass and Pilks had to manage their operations separately from each other as if they were third parties. Pilks did not have as good a series of connections in the Quebec construction industry as Charlebois had, and thus were out their money.

After lunch, we went over to Charlebois, which was on Boulevard Coûture in St-Léonard, where I got acquainted further with everyone. The only other person I can recall from those days is Gilles Grégoire, who was Charlebois’ sales manager (quite a character in his own right).

That was an eye-opener, and quite the beginning to what proved to be a very dramatic and exciting time at that company.

When printer’s ink coursed through veins

If you are reading this, I am dead.

How’s that for a lead?

Guarantees you read on, at least for a bit.

When you hear that a reporter has written his own obituary and it’s been published, and all the competing papers tell you where to look to read it, you know you have to get the paper and read it for yourself. Such is the case for the obituary of Peter Worthington who died yesterday, that appears today in the Toronto Sun. The Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail also published their obituaries about him today as well.

There’s a lot more copy being filed and published by other people who have worked for and with him, and all is worth reading – besides, everything they’re saying about him is true.

I can only comment about my own experience of reading his work over the years. Our family read the Toronto Telegram, and Peter Worthington was the best of a very good lineup of reporters that paper had, before the Bassett family closed it down in 1971. I still believe it to be the most intelligent newspaper that ever served the Toronto market – it was said that teachers preferred to read it more than any other paper that existed then, and I agree. The competition between the Tely and the Star made for wonderful reading when I was growing up, and it was a joy to pick up when you came home in the evening.

The stories that Peter filed were from everywhere in the world, and there was a lot happening in the 1960s. I particularly remember a story he filed when the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, where he detailed how he was able to find a teletype machine that still had an unblocked line to the outside world so that he could file his stories!

In 1971, one day after the Tely closed, the Sun opened up – the last major profitable newspaper to be established in North America, and the third to serve the Toronto market. Peter was the first editor, and he continued to write for the Sun until now.

That paper is still going strong, although I think it has been watered down somewhat since it was taken over by Quebecor several years back. It strikes me as looking more and more like Le Journal de Montréal (their own original flagship paper). Even so, the Toronto newspaper market is served by four papers these days, and is probably the healthiest news market in North America.

That is not to say that there aren’t any problems. The 24/7 news cycle has really changed the game, and the trend to read news online has encouraged the tendency to filter out news articles that do not coincide with a reader’s point of view. That is rather sad – I still prefer to pick up a paper and read it from end to end, and enjoy the serendipity of discovering a story about something I have never considered before, and being enlightened in the process.

There are still a few papers around that reward such effort. The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal are always worth picking up, and I enjoyed picking up any of the British papers whenever I had the chance (not recently, to my regret). It will always be worth the effort, because printer’s ink can never be removed, once you have been struck by it.

When I marched on Parliament Hill

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It was 40 years ago next month that I decided to have a really adventurous summer. For the princely sum of $75/week, I joined the Governor General’s Foot Guards for the summer, and was in the Changing of the Guard on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, and took part in sentry duty at Rideau Hall.

Our basic training began at CFB Petawawa on 3 May, and the first ceremony took place on 24 June. It went on until Labour Day, and we were stationed at CFB Rockcliffe during that time. The GGFG, together with the Canadian Grenadier Guards from Montreal, formed the Canadian Forces Public Duties Detachment that was charged with organizing the event. We were all post-secondary students, all male, with some NCOs from the regular forces that had the grim duty of drilling us into shape.

What do I remember of those days? The basic training was rough, and we didn’t get our first pay until six weeks in. On the other hand, the wet mess was cheap – I do remember Canadian Club rye being sold as a premium shot for 45 cents! (That was before the CRA started forcing the Forces to pay excise duties and HST.) I also remember being compelled to donate blood for the first time, with RSM Landry exclaiming to us all, “You will give blood!” And then we went to the wet mess afterwards, because the rumour was out that the alcohol would hit the blood stream faster. I can assure you the rumour was correct, but not as it was so dramatically put. And the songs we sang – the English ones were truly ribald, but the French ones were much more musical, and this one still stands out:

Chevaliers de la table ronde,
Goûtons voir si le vin est bon;
(Repeat)
Goûtons voir, oui, oui, oui,
Goûtons voir, non, non, non,
Goûtons voir si le vin est bon.
(Repeat, ending with slightly different melody, before proceeding to the next verse)

There are some renditions of this that can be found on Youtube, but they are rather slow and folksy. I would recommend ♩=90 as a good beat, with an enthusiastic crowd in the bar.

I also recall the time we staged a performance of our ceremony for the veterans that were receiving treatment at the former National Defence Medical Centre. When we were talking with some of them afterwards, it turned out that many were veterans of the Boer War. Their memories were still excellent, and one of them entertained us with his singing of “The British Grenadiers“:

Some talk of Alexander, and some of Hercules
Of Hector and Lysander, and such great names as these.
But of all the world’s great heroes, there’s none that can compare.
With a tow, row, row, row, row, row, to the British Grenadiers.

There was also the experience of being invited by the Governor GeneralRoland Michener at that time – to attend a garden party at Rideau Hall. A different experience for me, to be bumping into what are now called the 1%.

There have been changes since to how the event is organized:

I’ve always wondered what happened to all those reprobates I was associated with back then. I’ve never heard tell of any reunions, but it would be interesting to find out some day.

Reflections on the Fragrant Harbour

It’s a dreary day here, raining with the prospect of the temperature dropping to freezing by evening. Ah, such is April in Toronto…

It was around this time in 2004 that I ventured for vacation to the other side of the world – to Hong Kong (香港, being the “fragrant harbour” of the title). I have always liked to vacation abroad for my holidays, but the pound and the euro were getting quite expensive at that time, and the airfares and hotel rates in China were really a bargain in comparison. I had also not taken a vacation in a year and a half, and a break was definitely in order.

And I was amazed. It was an Air Canada flight, switching planes at Vancouver, and the headwinds did slow us down on the way over. We arrived at Hong Kong International Airport (Chek Lap Kok, or 赤鱲角) at 7:15pm on 20 April, cleared Immigration and Customs, took the Airport Express to Central, the shuttle service to the Excelsior Hotel at Causeway Bay, checked in, and flopped down on my hotel room bed. At 8:45pm! Something was definitely going right.

The following seven days did not disappoint. Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, Lantau, the various parts of the New Territories – I covered them all. And I fell in love with the territory. I returned every year until 2007, adding trips to Macau, Taipei and Shanghai along the way. My admiration for the Middle Kingdom only grew, and it blossomed into several wonderful friendships, leading to my marriage in 2008.Image

After marrying Jennifer, we went again for me to meet the in-laws in Beijing and Harbin in 2009, around the Lunar New Year. And the adventure continues.