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.

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“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.

… and the snow comes to Stratford

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I decided to go for a tear down to Stratford last night, and was greeted by the first snowscape of the season when I arrived. Markham has been getting some wet snow, as well as some real flakes yesterday, but nothing that would be permanent.

This is, which means that winter has started seriously in Southwestern Ontario now. The pictures I took this morning turned out wonderfully. Enjoy.

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 connection with lumber kings

It’s a funny thing about family stories – many times they turn out to be true.

ImageOne particularly striking one I remember being told by Grandma Ellerby many years ago, where she recalled, as a child, receiving a gold coin from from an uncle John Booth every Christmas. John Rudolphus Booth, as history relates, was one of Canada’s wealthiest men who was a dominating force in Ottawa, but how was he connected to my grandmother, who was born in Bury, Quebec?

The information that is available now in Google searches is truly outstanding, and it was quite easy to work out the connections.

ImageGrandma’s maiden name was Linnie Maxine Webster, and her father’s name was Samuel Harold Webster. According to the 1911 Census, her family lived with her grandparents Walter and Gertrude Webster in Bury. The Bury Cemetery records identify W. Walter Webster as being the husband of A. Gertrude Booth. The census page shows that Gertrude was 50 years old at the time.

ImageA quick check at Family Search – a good site run by the Mormons – shows an extract from the 1871 Census stating that Alice Gertrude Booth (then aged 10) was living in Shefford, Quebec at that time, but it did not list the complete family. However, a search of the actual census records for that year reveals that Alice Gertrude’s father was Elijah Booth, aged 36 at the time.

It turns out that Elijah Booth, born in 1835, was a half-brother of John Rudolphus Booth. Another person interested in the Booth family history was able to dig up Elijah’s baptismal certificate, which proves the connection.

Which leaves one final mystery: whatever happened to Grandma’s gold coins? She was always vague as to that point in relating the story to anyone in the family.

The Boston connection

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With all the excitement last week in Boston, Jennifer and I couldn’t help but wonder how our niece Cora was faring down there. She’s at Boston College, studying for her JD (the picture above shows her with Jennifer, from our trip there last US Thanksgiving). Her studies are going quite well — of that we had no doubt! — and the family should see a legal beagle emerging by July, who can practice in the US as well as China.

We were rightly concerned, as she is living only some 2km away, on the other side of the Charles River, from the spot in Watertown where the police took down the Tsarnaev brothers. She hastened to assure us that she was safe. That was a relief, because the authorities had ordered residents in her area to stay inside all day as a safety precaution because of the manhunt.

The trip there last November was quite fascinating. It was the first time there for both of us. Jennifer and Cora took advantage of the Black Friday madness on Thanksgiving night, and did not return until just before 7am Friday morning. I had stayed back, because I prefer to be an early riser, and left shortly after they flopped back into their respective beds to head downtown.

The Green Line on the T was quite efficient. The Prudential Center downtown (just a block or so away from where the bombings would occur this month) was quite impressive, and a walk past the Boston Common through the downtown to the harbour was fresh with lots of great stuff to view. I eventually settled on having lunch around Faneuil Hall, and by that time everyone else had woken up and come down to join me. The lunch itself? In Boston, there are really only three choices: seafood, Irish or Italian, and I chose the last. Good call. Check out Bertucci’s the next time you go.

We left on Saturday, choosing to take our time heading back. Some more shopping, a side trip to Gloucester, spending the night in midstate, and heading into upstate New York the following day and driving through the Adirondacks before getting back into Canada and back home. All of the above is definitely worth doing again, and it just might happen when Jennifer’s mother and sister head over here later this year. It’ll be better if our niece can join us as well, before she takes her new shingle and heads back to the Middle Kingdom this summer.