Posts Tagged With: Chinese

Hong Bao party

It is sometimes hard to tell if the Chinese are generous or very selfish. On the one hand, they are obsessed with making money, by any means. Sales people are often pushy, dishonest and even aggressive; Taxi drivers will refuse to accept you, if you only want a short ride and landlords will lie shamelessly to get out of returning your deposit. On the other hand they are very generous hosts and will fight fiercely to be the one who pays for a meal. What I realise now is that it is all about the perception and face. They want to be seen as generous, but the generosity can be quite superficial. At our end of term office party I was reminded of medieval nobles throwing coins into the street and watching as the peasants scrambled for a share of the money.

The winter holiday in China in centered on the Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival. In China this is a time when everyone is expected to return home, to visit their parents and grandparents. It is one of the longest school holidays, typically between 4-5 weeks long, depending on whether it is a primary or secondary school. If the foreign teachers are not setting or marking exams, then it can be a few weeks longer still for us. For most people working in China, the holiday is only about a week long. It is not a peak holiday season and most of the holiday is a good tile to travel, except for that one week, when China experiences the planets largest mass human migration, when airports and train stations can each have tens, or even hundreds of thousands of people fighting over tickets. If there are delays from smog or ice, like last year in Guangzhou,then even the thousands of extra soldiers and riot police drafted in for crowd control can be insufficient for the task of keeping order.

My last few jobs were at state run institutions. A public school and a university. At the end of the term we would have a couple of thousand as a bonus before the holiday and we might have a meal. At Bao’yi wai the Chinese English teachers and the foreign English teachers went out for a meal, paid for by the school. The head of the English department would attend, but no other school officials. It was just a time to chat, relax and have fun. At Ludong University nothing was provided, but the foreign teachers organised their own dinner. Here I am in the private sector and things were very different.

The first obvious difference was entertainment. Every group of teachers was expected to put on a performance of some sort. My girlfriend, with the grade 2 teachers, was doing a dance routine. The teachers of other grades were singing songs or performing comedy routines. We were lucky that one of our teachers, Andrew, is a semi-professional singer. He often has paid gigs at the weekends at bars around Shenzhen. We had just planned to let him sing for us. Then two of the American teachers also decided that they would also sing. The organizers were clearly taking the entertainment seriously, as the music teacher was trying to get the music that they would use two weeks before the event. Andrew, however, was unwilling to commit and insisted that he needed to get a feel for the crowd and would decide on the night, which, no doubt, made her extremely frustrated.

The dinner venue was a local seafood restaurant, with the typical revolving tables. We did not have a private room, as our group was too big, but we were not enough to occupy the whole restaurant. the teachers took up a little under half the room, with regular customers all around us. The foreign teachers were meant to be spread between two tables, along with the Chinese English teachers, but instead they just took over one table for themselves. As we had not had any real work to do that day, most of them had been at the pub most of the afternoon and were already a bit drunk. Pretty soon they had drunk everything on the table and were three sheets to the wind.

The entertainment was quite amusing. Crystal, Purdy, Mathilda and some other grade 2 teachers started off with a funny dance routine, that went quite well. Andrew has a powerful voice and sang well, despite how much he had drunk. Richard sand a rap song of his own composition and Angela sang along to Valerie. Then there was a “comedy routine” which I couldn’t understand but which reminded me of old stage acts, like Abbot and Costello etc. Then a few Chinese teachers sang very badly.

A major New Year tradition in China is Hong Bao. This translates as red bag, but in this case refers to red envelopes. At New Year relatives give children red envelopes of “lucky money”. In some places employers also give Hong Bao to their employees. For my last two jobs I was not in the private sector. At the end of the year I got a bonus in my paycheck. There was no ceremony. This was different.

Before the party we had been made to attend a very dull meeting, all in Chinese, with no translation. For an hour the principled droned on at us, before giving award to the top performing Chinese teachers in the school. We were then called up one at a time to be given 500 rmb in cash. This was the first part of the Hong Bao. The rest was via Wechat.

We chat, or Weixin, is a very popular social networking app from AliBaba. As well as being used for messaging people, micro-blogging and sharing articles, it is also commonly used for shopping. Many businesses in China offer discounts if you pay online, with Weixin or Alipay etc. It is fast, convenient and not really all that secure. It also has a Hong Bao function.

You can send a Hong Bao on wechat, to transfer money to one person. You can also use it to transfer money to a group of people. You set how much money you will give, how many people can receive cash and whether the amount will be equal or random.  The Chinese prefer to give random amounts and usually set the number of recipients to less than the number in the group. Anyone in the group will get a notification that they have HongBao. When they click the envelope, they get a share of the money (If any is left).

This is what was used at our party. When we arrived, everyone scanned a code to join the party wechat group. During the party the head principle got on stage and announced that he was sending us all 8000 rmb of HongBao. People got poised by their phones, ready to click the envelope for their random share of the cash.


At intervals throughout the rest of the party, other principles and school patrons got up on stage. After being introduced the announced how much money they would be giving away and everyone got poised on their phones. Later on a few teachers send small amounts of money to only about the first 10 people in a group of 150 or so. The teachers would be clicking away, only to get a message saying “better luck next time”. In the scramble for the loose change that had been thrown down virtually, they had been too late.

It was these small packets of Hong Bao, where not everyone would bet anything, which made me think that it was like the gentry casting down a few coins for the beggars to fight over, or Jack Nicholson as the Joker. In total I got nearly 1000 rmb from the whole evening, which was a nice added bonus, but even with the 500 in cash it was less than the bonus that I had been given without any ceremony at my previous jobs.

The principles and patrons of our school were no more generous than my previous employers, but they wanted to make very big deal of showing off their generosity and letting everyone know exactly how much money they were giving away. As Thomas Fuller said “Lavishness is not generosity.”


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This is Halloween in China

Last week we were celebrating Halloween at Yunding school. International schools and language training centers in China tend to put a lot of effort into staging events for western holidays. It is a way of showing that they are giving the students a chance to experience western culture, although they tend to do it in ways that are not at all western.

A week before Halloween they decorated the classrooms. More effort was put into doing this for the primary children, with parents contributing time and money, coming in at the weekend to help decorate. This also meant that Chinese teachers were coming in at the weekend, unpaid, to decorate the classrooms.


During the week we were asked to have Halloween themed lessons. Teaching about Halloween, singing Halloween songs, doing Halloween crosswords and word searches and watching Halloween movies (but nothing too scary. In my case, I showed them the original Ghostbusters, which was very popular)

The school had planned a Halloween party for Friday 28th, because they thought it would be better at the end of the week, rather than the start. Each class was asked to prepare some activities which the kids could try. Surprisingly nobody did bobbing for apples, as they thought it might not be hygienic.

On Wednesday one of the school principles decided that the party would be organised like a Chinese school sports day, with the classes parading past a stage in costume and performing a small dance routine in front of the school directors.

The teachers were all required to be in costume too (except for one NewZealender who told them to f*** off and refused). Some of us took a minimalist approach, while others bought cool costumes. The best was Ed, who decided that Halloween should be properly scary and made himself zombie make-up from latex, fake nails, flour and face paint.


The classes paraded in age order, followed by parents and then teachers. Each class was expected do do some sort of dance routine together, but the teachers were only told that this was compulsary on Wednesday evening. This gave them just over a day to prepare. Unsurprisingly most of the routines were lame. The music was often completely inapropriate for Halloween. The best performance involved the grade 11 teacher gunning down his undead students. The students then had to line up in their classes and stand to attention for what followed.

A couple of teachers were asked to speak about the meaning of Halloween (some of the foreign teachers went in school uniform, as their costume). This was followed by a “costume contest”. Primary students, middle school students and foreign teachers went onto the stage in pairs, to show off their costumes. However there was no actual judging, no scores, no winners and no prizes.

The rest of the afternoon the kids were free to play games. The best was the inflatable maze, which Ed hid in and scared some of the young children.




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Around Erhai

The area around the shores of lake Erhai has several other towns and villages, which collectively form the “city” of Dali. It also has the iconic three pagodas, a couple of historical film villages and some beautiful scenery. The Cang mountains offer interesting places to hike, with the cable-cars up the mountain offering easy access to the peaks.

Anyone who has ever joined a tour group in China will no doubt have experienced the same frustration at the way the tours are nearly always run. The tour group will usually stop at overpriced outlet stores on their way both too and from their destination. Meals are often included, but are usually barely edible. You can expect to be hurried through the sightseeing spots, while left to linger for ages at souvenir stalls. In Yunnan the tour groups have an even worse reputation than in most parts of China, with guides demanding that tourists spend an extravagant amount at the shops they visit and threatening to not let them back on the bus if they haven’t spent enough.

The other place this happens a lot is with Chinese tours to Hong Kong, although in Hong Kong the excessive actions of tour operators is more likely to be punished, if they are called out on it.

But it isn’t just Hong Kong.

The other side of this is the atrocious behavior of some tourists, but I am not going to get into that here.

This sort of thing didn’t quite happen to us, but our guide to the Stone Forest did rant a lot about how she needed her commission from the shops to live, threatened to have us black-listed, so that we could never again go on tours in Yunnan and and said she would be checking our receipts at the store on the way back.

Admittedly, most Chinese tour groups have started having two options for tours now. The standard, cheap tours with lots of shopping, and more expensive tours without shopping stops. Foreigners on the cheap tours are expected to pay more, as they are less likely to persuade us to buy things we don’t want.

In the Erhai region the local government has started a service which allows tourists to avoid all these issues. It is a government run double decker tourist bus service around the shores of Erhai. The buses start and finish at the coach station, south of Dali old town, stopping at all the main tourist sites around the lake. These buses run about every half hour and a single ticket allows tourists to hop on and off at any place on the tour. At quieter times of day there are mini buses sent out to pick you up from the various stops (you can call in advance to arrange a pick up time). The guides will tell you about the places you can see along the way and tell you a bit about local culture etc. It costs about 98 rmb per person for the day, so it is much cheaper than taxing a taxi, but more expensive than the regular bus services. However, it is faster, more direct and much less crowded and more comfortable than the regular bus services. You need to pay for your own entry fees into anywhere you want to visit, but it is a very nice way to see the area.


We decided to book tickets for the sight seeing bus. The bus stopped at the end of Yuan street, at the same bus stop that we had arrived at. Near the bus stop and town gates you will see a lot of touts, trying to get you to book places on their tours, or stay at whatever hotel they work for. We were not sure exactly where it stopped and asked for directions, but were told that the tour bus did not exist. This was, of course, a blatant lie, but the sight seeing bus has been taking a lot of business away from the tourist companies, so the touts hate it, which is why they tried to persuade us that it did not exist.

The first stop after the old town was the Three Pagodas of Chongsheng Temple. This is the most iconic spot in the Dali region and is generally seen as the symbol of Dali. We decided that it would probably take too long to look around the whole site and still see all the places we wanted to around the lake, so we returned here the day after taking the Erhai tour bus.

The next stop on the Erhai bus tour was at Xizhou ancient town, an old village on the north-west shore of Erhai lake. It was about 18 km north of Dali and has a completely different in feel to Dali old town. A single street ran from the bus stop to the center of the village, where there was a museum, the Yan courtyard, a tourist center and several old buildings. The shops lining the street displayed a lot of art and crafts, but unlike Dali, it was pretty quiet and not expensive. You could pick up some lovely local snacks and flower filled ice cream very cheaply. I would have loved to spend more time there, but we were trying to see as much of the lake area as we could in one day.

We had arranged a pick-up from that village, but rather than a double-decker bus, we got a minibus. It was clean and comfortable. There was nobody else to share with, other than the driver and the tour guide. The next stop should be the butterfly spring, but it is a pretty seasonal attraction and was said to not be very interesting except in the spring, when it is full of butterflies. We skipped that and went on to a local god temple, which offered a nice view out across the lake.

The main stop after that was the ancient town of Shuanglang. Shuanglang was a lot dirtier and less developed than Dali. The bus stopped on the north edge of town. There is one main road running through the town, lined with shops, restaurants etc. Off to the sides were narrow alleys and residential areas. A lot of the buildings look very old, but it has a much more lived in feel to it, more like the market street in other Chinese cities than a tourist town. The main attraction of Shuanglang is the Nanzhao Folk Island (南诏风情岛), which is about two miles from the north end of town. The streets through town are all narrow. The main road is only a single lane road, with no pavement, that most traffic is prohibited to use. As soon as you get onto the main street you will see people queued up for the tourist carts through the town to the waterfront. It is 10 rmb per person and you can ask to hop on or off anywhere along the route. We didn’t realise how long the road was and found that no matter where you get on the fee is the same. There are also a lot of bike and moped hire shops catering to tourists. The result of this is that pedestrians, bikes, mopeds and tourist carts are all trying to use the same lane, making it a bit dangerous for everyone.

Food in Shuanglang is a lot cheaper than most of the places in Dali and we were impressed by the quality. We only had one meal there and had gone for some fairly simple Chinese dishes. The price was about what I would usually expect to pay in China, but they were a lot more generous with meat than most places I have eaten in China. We were also impressed by the staff. My girlfriend left her phone charging in the restaurant and the waiter came after us on his moped to return it.

Off to the right we passed a turning towards Yujidao (玉几岛), which is a more tourism-oriented area of Shuanglang. Yujidao is a small peninsula crammed with old houses, temples and guesthouses. All along the road we saw lots of old women wearing traditional local clothes. Shortly after that the road forked again. The turning on the left would go towards the south of the town, while the right took us down to the waterfront.

Here is an interesting blog I found about Shuanglang:

There is a ferry service for 50 rmb taking visitors to the Nanzhao Folk Island. The large tour boat that takes tourists around Erhai lake also stops here, to allow passengers to visit Shuanglang.

The island has statues of local gods and other local mythological figures. Before crossing to the island you can see the large white statue of Guanyin Acarye, also called Akalokitsevara of Acarye the local goddess of mercy and patron deity of Yunnan. The first statue that you see after getting off the boat is Mother Shayi the fisher girl, the legendary mother of the 10 tribes of the Nanzhao people. The island is landscaped with fake waterfalls and has a large white building in the center, a hotel called the Nanzhao summer Palace. At the far side of the hotel is the Square of the Patron Gods. The main patron god is Duan Zongbang, a commander of the Nanzhao state, now revered as a god. Various other historical heroes and mythical figures, now revered as gods, have smaller statues. There is also a small amusement park on the beach and the Taihu Rocks and a View of Fishing Families. Seeing all the sights will probably take around two hours.

Erhai lake has various other attractions which we did not have time to see, except as we drove past. The last bus from Shuanglang leaves before 5.00 and the last couple of buses will not stop as they continue the remaining 2 hour journey around the rest of the lake.

As we passed along the coast we had a nice view of Little Putuo Island (小普陀). It is the smallest island located in the east of Erhai Lake, close to Wase Village. In the Ming-dynasty Little Putuo Temple was built on the island. The temple has two floors, one is for worshiping Buddha Bodhisattva and the second is for worshiping Avalokiteshvara.

We almost failed to notice the huge tower on the eastern shore of the lake, until we were well past it.

Once you reach the modern Xiaguan region, at the south of the lake, there are still more attractions, such as Erhai Park, located in the southern tip of Erhai Lake. Standing at the lake edge, it is a steady climb up with 270 stone steps leading to two viewing decks – the Observation Pavilion and Long Corridor where stunning Erhai Lake vistas await. No entrance fee is needed to visit Erhai Park.

Eventually we returned to the bus station, near the South Gate of Dali old town, feeling quite satisfied with our tour. I am completely happy to recommend it as a way of getting to know the area, early on in a vacation to Dali.

There are, of course, other options for visiting the lake. Cycling around the lake is popular, although it would probably take even a strong cyclist two days to complete a circuit, depending on how much sight seeing they did on the way. Rental cars and mopeds are also available and then there are the cruises across the lake.


More information can be found here:


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Three Pagodas, Dali

One and a half miles north-west of Dali old town was the Three Pagodas of Chongsheng Temple. This is the most iconic spot in the Dali region and is generally seen as the symbol of Dali.

The main pagoda, known as Qianxun Pagoda (pinyin Qian Xun Ta), reportedly built during 823-840 AD by king Quan Fengyou (劝丰佑) of the Nanzhao state, although probably built later that century, is 69.6 meters (227 feet) high and is one of the tallest pagodas in China’s history. The central pagoda is square shaped and composed of sixteen stories; each story has multiple tiers of upturned eaves. There is a carved shrine containing a white marble sitting Buddha statue at the center of each façade of every story. The body of the pagoda is hollow from the first to the eighth story, surrounded with 3.3 meters (10 feet) thick walls.

The other two sibling pagodas, built about one hundred years later, stand to the northwest and southwest of Qianxun Pagoda. They are 42.19 meters (140 feet) high. Different from Qianxun Pagoda, they are solid and octagonal with ten stories. The center of each side of every story is decorated with a shrine containing a Buddha statue.

The Chongsheng Temple was once the main temple of the kingdom of Dali. It was destroyed during the Qing dynasty, but in 2005 it was rebuilt as a vast temple complex, which stretches out over miles.

In 1978 the area was cleared, in preparation for restoring the pagodas, and more than 700 Buddhist antiques, including sculptures made of gold, silver, wood or crystal and documents. During repairs in 1979, three copper plates were found at the bottom of the steeple which recorded the exact years of previous repairs, those being 1000, 1142, and 1145. Many of the artifacts found during the restoration are housed in the two museum buildings, a little way behind the pagodas.

Beyond the museums, further towards the mountains, you will find a couple of Ming style halls containing gift shops. The first is the old bell tower, followed by the Yutong Avalokitesvara hall. The balcony upstairs in the bell tower offers a good view back at the three pagodas and forward, towards more temple buildings.

After these two halls you pass through the portal of Chongshen Temple and there is a large courtyard, followed by the main temple complex of Chongshen temple. When we had first come through the entrance we immediately saw a large queue for the electric tour bus. The bus bypasses the pagodas, museum and first two halls, to drop tourists at the base of the temple complex. The buses seemed to be used almost exclusively by tour groups, who were rushed to this point, half way through the complex, led into the first two temple buildings and then rushed back out again.


The rest of the temple complex followed a fairly regular structure. There would be a large temple building, with a large cult stature inside. To either side would be two smaller temple buildings, with statues of minor gods or eminent monks. Behind the main hall would be steps, leading up to the next temple building. As you progress through the temple complex you pass through five main temples, before reaching the last temple. Around the outside are a series of ancillary buildings. The first temple is the Heavenly King Hall, followed by the Maitrey Hall, the Eleven-Faced Avalokitesvara Hall, The Hall of Mahavira, The Pool of Nine Dragons Bathing the Buddha and the Ecuoye Avalokitesvara Pavillion, a memorial archway and finally the Lakeview Tower.

My girlfriend was getting tired by the time we reached the Eleven-Faced Avalokitesvara, so we didn’t see all of the complex. It felt pretty huge and as the halls looked very similar and since you could not see what else remained of the complex it seemed to go on forever.

Outside the temple were a lot of people selling overpriced fruit, drinks and trinkets. Just across the street from the car park the same fruit and drinks could be bought for less than half the price.

It is a pleasant place to visit. The areas close to where the tourist carts stopped were pretty crowded, but if you head off to the side from the main path, it was a very quiet and pleasant place for a picnic. Also, the further on you go, the fewer tourists reached those areas. If you want to see the whole site, you will need at least 2-3 hours. If you want to thoroughly see all the temples, you could spend half a day here, or longer.

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Kunming and the Western Hills

During the summer I took a few weeks to visit Yunnan. Although it is just one Chinese province, the geography of the area meant that for much of China’s history Yunnan was very much isolated from the rest of China. It was frequently not a part of China at all, occasionally being a protectorate or even a hostile kingdom. Even within Yunnan the individual cities are isolated by the various mountain ranges, resulting in a huge range of cultures. Out of the 56 ethnic groups in China, 25 of these, nearly half come from Yunnan. In the 1990s Yunnan was home to 50 ethnic groups, but many of the smaller ones have died off, merged together or been absorbed by the Han Chinese. The influx of Han Chinese since 1949 means that now only 34% of the population belong to native ethnic groups, but the native culture has still had a huge impact on the various cities. With so much variety, I think it best to speak about each of the places I visited individually, in separate posts, rather than all at once.

Kunming is located on the shore of lake Dian. The area was on important caravan roads into Tibet and Burma.  The Dian Kingdom was also established near the area. Dian was subjugated by the Chinese Han dynasty in AD 109,seeking control over the Southern Silk Road running to Burma and India, but left the King of Dian as the local ruler. Chinese control did not last long and subsequent dynasties could do little to tame what was then a remote and wild borderland.

Kunming was founded in 765 as Tuodong (拓东) city in the Kingdom of Nanzhao  (737–902). Tuodong later became part of the successor Kingdom of Dali (937–1253). Eventually this changed when Tuodong came under the control of the Yuan dynasty invasion of the southwest in 1252–1253. In 1276 it was established by the Mongol rulers as Kunming County and became the provincial capital of Yunnan.

It is considered by scholars to have been the city of Yachi Fu (Duck Pond Town) where people had used cowries as cash and ate their meat raw, as described by the 13th-century Venetian traveler Marco Polo who traveled to the area and wrote about his fascination of the place.

In the 14th century, Kunming was retaken as the Ming dynasty defeated the Mongols, who built a wall around the city. Until 1952, Kunming was a walled city. The city government in 1952 ordered hundreds of young people to tear down the wall and use its bricks to make a new road running north-south. Until 1920s Kunming was called Yunnan-fu (云南府).

My first impression of Kunming is that it was not really much different from the other Chinese cities that I had seen. The area we were staying in was fairly central, but not very glamorous. The town center is quite nice and when wandering around we found plenty of evidence of a large Muslim community. The climate was warm, but not too hot, however the air was clear and the sun felt quite strong. I had been warned before I arrived that it was very easy to get sunburn in Kunming.

The main place we wanted to visit in Yunnan was the West Mountain (or West hills, as Chinese generally does not distinguish between the two) nature reserve, on the shore of the Dianchi lake, overlooking Yunnan.


There is a promenade along the southern stretch of lake Dian, which offers a lovely view out over the West Hills. The west hills are sometimes called the “sleeping beauty hills” as they are said to resemble the outline of a sleeping woman. The day we arrived was sunny and 29 degrees. It was the hottest day of the year in Kunming, but was positively mild compared to the stifling heat and humidity of Shenzhen.

Looking across at the west mountains, we could just make out several reconstructed temple buildings. Throughout Kunming’s history a series of small temples and grottoes were built on the West Mountains, overlooking the city. The most scenic way across to the West Mountains is by cable-car, crossing the southern tip of lake Dian.

As with most old places in China, the temples were destroyed during the cultural revolution and were reconstructed during the 1990s, to encourage tourism to the area. Although the temple buildings are mostly reconstructions, some of the small grottoes are still original features, surviving from the Ming and Qing dynasties. The hills include such scenic spots such as Huating Temple, Taihua Temple, Sanqing Pavilion, and Dragon Gate. The Dragon gate is one of the few surviving original features.

After taking a cable-car across the lake, to the western hills you find yourself among reconstructed temple buildings, now used as shops, ticket offices and selling low quality food. The area you arrive in also houses a museum and the grave of the man who wrote China’s national anthem.


To visit the rest of the park it is necessary to pay for entry into the forest park and also to get onto a chair lift, taking you towards the main attractions, as they are a couple of miles further across the hillside. There is a circuit which most tourists follow, taking the chair lift up and riding tourist cars back, although you do have the option of walking, should you choose.

CNY 40 for Dragon Gate Grottoes;
CNY 20 for a combo ticket (including Huating Temple and Taihua Temple);
CNY 100 for the combo ticket (including Dragon Gate Grottoes, one-way Dragon Gate Ropeway, one-way sight-seeing battery car, round-trip tourist bus, magnolia garden, Huating Temple, Taihua Temple and Xuyun Memorial Hall);
CNY 88 for the combo ticket (including Dragon Gate Grottoes, one-way Dragon Gate Ropeway, one-way sight-seeing battery car and round-trip tourist bus)

It was a very pleasant day out, despite the narrow, crowded walkways. The view out over the city and lake Dian was lovely and if it were possible to get a clear day, without the haze of pollution that was hanging over the city in even the best weather, it might be a spectacular view. At the top of the ropeway there will be guides offering to take you around for free.  If you follow them, they will tell you a bit about the features but will try to rush you through most of the area in order to take you to the tea house or one of the temples, where you can get your fortune told, as these two places will pay them for any customers they manage to bring. I definitely recommend anyone who is thinking to visit here to bring their own food, as the stuff available was pretty dire.

Not far from the bottom of the cable-car across lake Dian is the Yunnan Nationalities Village. Shuttle buses go back and forth between the cable-car and the village. Twenty-five ethnic nationalities have their respective villages and conduct many activities to present their unique folkways and beautiful clothes. Also you can enjoy the water screen movie and an elephant performance, have a taste of the local dishes and buy pretty handicrafts. We didn’t visit this area, as we hadn’t allowed ourselves much time, but we kept having taxi drivers recommend it. I suspect that the drivers may get kickbacks for bringing visitors.

I feel that I can’t end this section on Kunming without mentioning the railway station.

In the evening of March 1, 2014, a knife attack occurred inside the Kunming Railway Station. At around 21:20, a group of 8 knife-wielding men and women attacked passengers at the city’s railway station. Both male and female attackers pulled out long-bladed knives and stabbed and slashed passengers. At the scene, police killed four assailants and captured one injured female. The other three attackers were arrested two days later. The incident, targeted against civilians, left 29 civilians and 4 perpetrators dead with more than 140 others injured. No group or individual stepped forward to claim responsibility for the attack but Xinhua News Agency announced within hours of the incident that it was carried out by Xinjiang separatist terrorists.

Naturally, the incident has had an impact on the security of Kunming, which is still pretty obvious two years later. The back entrances to the Kunming station are no longer open, so there is no way for people to get from the front to the back of the station, without a detour of a couple of miles. In front of the station there is a large armed police presence, with an extra layer of security, with bag scanners, metal detectors and occasional pat downs of anyone who wants to approach the square in front of the station in order to buy tickets or meet passengers. Visitors to China will be used to seeing bag scanners in the train stations, bus stations and subways, operated with very lax security. I am used to seeing security guards sleeping at the screen of the bag scanner and waving through everyone passing through the metal detectors, despite it going off to warn of the metal objects (keys, wallets, cameras) carried by virtually everyone going through. That was not the case with Kunming. The security, just to get to the station was tighter than many airports, with regular bag searches. Passengers going into the station then had to pass through a similar level of security once again, along with two ticket checks while entering the station, ticket checks before being allowed through to the platform and further ticket checks when entering the trains. Clearly the people of Kunming are taking their security seriously.


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China’s impossible employment laws

This year the Chinese government decided to tighten up the laws on foreigners working in China. This is mainly because of how many companies will employ any white face as an English teacher, claiming that they are a native speaker (Jenny, who I worked part time for, told parents that the French, Russian and Albanian teachers were all Canadian), giving fake degree certificates to potential teachers (I have heard that a few of the teachers hired by cita had been supplied with fake certificates) and lying about the work experience of foreign teachers. The last one is one of the most common. Two of the teachers I work with had fake work experience and reference letters added to their documents without telling them. My friend Leah, after working for 4 years in China, has only just discovered that such fake documents were used for her too. She was only told, so that she can continue telling the same lie.

Under the new legislation only native speakers (or those with degrees from English speaking countries) are allowed to teach English in China (that seems fair). They are also required to have a minimum of two years teaching experience after graduation (which is very unlikely as most of the people who come here to teach are fresh from university). This means that many of the people who were teaching English in China in 2015 are no longer able to stay. The government is also taking steps to ensure that these requirements are actually met.

One annoying consequence of this is that there is more paperwork and in some places it is necessary for foreign teachers to get their degree validated and this will soon be necessary in most major cities. Making sure that the degree is real might seem like a sensible enough piece of legislation, however as China doesn’t accept any foreign government agency’s word, the process is very convoluted and expensive. First you need to get your degree notarised by a lawyer in your country, or your consul in China. They also require a notarised Chinese translation. You need it legalised by your country’s foreign office. You then need to send it to the Chinese embassy in your own country, in order for them to verify the whole process.Clearly, for someone who is already in China, this whole procedure is slow, expensive and inconvenient.

Last year, because I had left my original degree certificates in the UK, I had gone home and gone through the whole process of applying for a work visa all over again. This was expensive, took over a month and included the absurd stage of needing me to get a police check to show that I did not have any new UK criminal convictions from the two years I had spent living in China.

This year, as I am not changing city, I decided to try to get everything sorted out here in China.

It seemed easy to renew a contract and get an extension on my residence permit during my first years in China, when I was working for the same university. The university handled whatever paperwork. I had one trip to the entry-exit bureau and that was it. However, when changing jobs it seems to be quite literally impossible to legally stay in the country. Thousands of people do it every year. Changing jobs and moving to new schools should be pretty routine, but the process is absurd.

In order to be a teacher you need to have a foreign expert certificate. Every year the employer needs to apply for a new foreign expert certificate for you. This certificate only allows you to work for the named company. If you do any other part time work or tutoring (which most teachers do) you are breaking the law. You can only ever have one foreign expert certificate at a time and in order to start work at a new company you must first cancel the old certificate in order for your new company to apply for a new one.

That seems simple enough, but your residence permit cannot be extended beyond the date of your contract. In order to extend your residence permit when you are already in China it is legally required that the new contract must begin before the old contract ends, so that there is no time when you are not employed. Yet it is illegal to work for anyone other than the person on your foreign expert certificate, so this is always illegal.

To further complicate things, you are not able to cancel your foreign expert certificate until you have completed your contract, but you must leave the country when the contract expires and you need the new foreign expert certificate in order to apply for an extension of your residence.

How is it done?

One month or less before the end of your contract (and your residence permit) the Chinese government allows you to sign a new contract with your old employer, claiming that your contract ends at that date. (They are not allowed to lie about this prior to that date) This allows them to start the 5 day process of getting an official cancellation certificate stamped by the government. This can be taken to your new employer, who will have you sign two contracts. One which starts prior to the month before the end of your old contract and one for whenever you are actually starting work. They can then apply for a new foreign expert certificate, taking at least a week, and apply for an appointment for you to visit the entry-exit bureau and apply to have a new residence permit, that follows on from your existing permit.

This invariably means a lot of rushing between employers and crowded government offices, as every school and university in the country will be processing their paperwork withing a window of just a few weeks. It also means that for your last month your employers have a contract saying that you have finished working there as well as a contract requiring you to work. This puts them in an ideal situation to screw you over, should they so choose.

It also means that absolutely anyone who changes employer without leaving China has technically broken their law, but in a way that is not only allowed, but required by the Chinese government. It is absolutely absurd!

Being cynical, I assume that this is done so that the Chinese government will always have an excuse for kicking you out of the country, should you be considered a nuisance.

The changes in the Chinese legislation for foreign teachers are intended to make sure that Chinese students are getting a proper education from qualified teachers. The Chinese want their education system to be taken seriously. The days when anyone with a white face could live in China as a teacher are ending. However, the convoluted system of administration used by the Chinese government means that no matter how qualified, how experienced and hard you try to jump through all their hoops and follow their laws it is impossible to follow all the laws.

But, try not to worry too much. The Chinese need qualified teachers more than ever before and fewer people are applying. The legislation is just there to create jobs, doing meaningless work. The Chinese government may want to be taken seriously, but until they can clean up their Catch 22 legislative system that’s impossible to obey, the Chinese legislation and their government will continue to be a joke.


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The villages that time forgot

It was recently Chinese New Year, when the Chinese ushered in the year of the monkey. During this time the Chinese are obliged to visit their parents, along with their children. Most of my single Chinese friends were taken by their parents, back to stay with their grandparents for a few days. Seeing the photos of the places were their grandparents lived, I was struck by how thoroughly the Chinese countryside has been left stuck in the past.

When I say “stuck in the past” I don’t mean like the timeless and idyllic old villages of the Cotswolds, where none of the bad things about modern life seem to reach. I mean that they are the poverty sticken regions that nobody wants to live in or visit, were none of the good things about modern life can be afforded. However, this does not mean that they aren’t beautiful. In many ways the countryside of China is still more attractive than the cities.

My friend Hera’s family comes from a remote Hakka village in Guangdong.


The Hakka people originally migrated south from the middle of China. The southern Chinese were initially hostile and so they lived in walled, fortified villages. They maintained their own customs and language and continued to be a distinct ethnic minority group in the south, never fully integrated with the locals.

You can still find Hakka walled villages dotted around China. As it was the winter when she visited, the village did not look quite as picturesque as in the summer, but it still looked lovely.


I said the Hera that it looks like a museum and she told me that parts of the village are a museum, that tourists can pay to visit, but the locals continue to live there.

It is not easy to reach. The trouble with rural china is that money is not spent of infrastructure and facilities. It would require nearly a day of travel and several buses in order to get there, even though it is not that far from Shenzhen. When travelling around the spring festival it takes much longer. For Hera, it took over 14 hours stuck in heavy traffic to get there by car.



The local people still live by farming, but the area has not been developed into the large industrial scale farms, like I saw in Shandong. Instead, it is a scene of rural Chinese life that has probably changed very little in over 100 years.


My girlfriend, Crystal also went to the countryside to visit her grandparents. They live in a less remote village, in Shandong province. Naturally this was a time for all the extended family to get together. As the Chinese rarely have siblings these days, their cousins are often referred to as brothers and sisters.


The village that her grandparents live in is a lot less dramatic looking than Hera’s hometown. The buildings are mostly non-descript single story structures, typical of the early years of communist rule in China.

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These small town and villages have a lot more sense of community than the big cities. There are not many places to go for fun and so the locals tend to make their own entertainment. Festivals and national holidays bring everyone together in the streets to celebrate.


I was struck by the timeless nature of this scene. The buildings, the instruments, the dancing and festivities and in most cases even the clothes could have come from any time in the last forty or fifty years. There is very little to show that this is 2016 and not 1976.

Similarly, inside the houses, the decorations and furniture has probably not been changed in two generations.

For Crystal, the thing about visiting her grandparents’ home that she dislikes most was the toilet. It took me a while to get used to toilets in China, but it would take me a lot longer to get used to something like this.

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The toilet is simple a stone lined pit. Peeing in a pit might be easy enough for men, but squatting on the edge of a pit with nothing to hold for support while you do your business and hoping that you don’t fall backwards is not something I want to even contemplate. Coming out here at night could be pretty hazardous. Heaven forbid that you get cramp. I hate to imagine what would happen to an old person if they had any joint problems in their knee or hip. Surely, this toilet would be impossible to use. It is also very smelly, as the excrement is left there and occasionally collected to use as fertilizer.

In Britain we used to have outhouses which were effectively just pits, but even they had seats that you could sit on and more importantly, they were OUT houses. They would be out in the garden. Having something like this inside the house must be horrible.




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Don’t move!

This isn’t my command, but it does seem to be the message that the Chinese government is giving to its people.

During my first few years here I was mostly looking at China from the perspective of a foreigner. Now I am starting to get an idea of what China is like for the Chinese and there is quite a lot to dislike.

All the Chinese are registered as belonging to a family. Their registration documents include all the family members in one book, with their father as the head of the family. You are registered as belonging to your father’s home and you stay registered there until you get married and start a family of your own.

Going through any sort of paperwork in China can be a pain in the neck, and for that reason, along with many more, Chinese parents want their children to have their own permanent home before they get married. They don’t like the idea of people getting married if they are still renting, as they may need to move address and therefore go through the administrative nightmare of changing their registration documents, along with anything linked to those documents.

The cost of renting a two bedroom apartment in a reasonable part of Shenzhen is about 6 million rmb. The average monthly salary is 3000 rmb. Therefore the average person, if they spend nothing, needs to save up for nearly 200 years in order to buy a small apartment. Most modern buildings in China will deteriorate within a few years and be in ruins within 30 years. You don’t own the land, only part of the building. When it is knocked down you will be compensated part of the cost, but not all. Even in a cheap part of China, house prices are about 10,000 rmb per square meter. Saving up to buy an apartment here seems impossible for an average person.

Yet there is no real need to bother. the same 6 million rmb apartment can be rented for 4000 a month. You can rent the place for 100 years for less than the cost of buying it. Admittedly, you don’t own a home at the end of that 100 years, but the person buying will lose their home in less than half that time. When you add the way that Chinese laws seem to change every 5 years, there is no real stability for anyone. Renting, paying less and preserving your mobility seems like a good option to me.

However, without a spouse, a home and a family of your own, you are stuck belonging with your father. You can move somewhere else, but you will not be registered there.

There are still quite a few things in China that are subsidized by the government.If you work for the government you get a subsidy towards renting or buying a house and have most of your medical expenses covered, but only in your home town. There is also a government subsidy for everyone else to pay for the cost of renting or buying a property in your home town. but not if you move to another town.

As well as this, there are certain good quality, low cost rental properties in each town that are only available to people who are registered as living in that town. Again, due to government subsidy. It is much easier to move out of your parents’ home if you stay in your home town and don’t move.

By the time these people have earned enough money to pay for a government subsidized  home, in order to get married and start a family, they will be firmly settled in their career in their home town and will have no desire to move.

The Chinese are also obliged to spend every Spring Festival visiting their parents, on both sides of their family. This is a lot easier and less expensive if you have not moved far away from your home town.

The Chinese do not get free healthcare, so most of them pay for medical insurance. This will contribute towards the bulk of your medical costs, but once again, this is only in your home town. In Shenzhen it is not just required to be at a hospital in this city, but in your home district of the city. You can’t even go to a hospital across town.

If, like many young Chinese, you have gone to a big city to find work, you still need to travel home to go to the doctor, or the dentist, or else you will pay a lot more for your medical expenses.

If you are not married and want to change the city at which you are registered, the answer is usually no. You can’t.

I know several people for whom this has caused even more problems. Some of Crystal’s Chinese colleagues applied for visas to take students to America. Their visa applications were refused because their rental address and employer were in one province, but their registration card said they lived in another province. This made no sense to the people interviewing for the visa.

Despite making it so difficult for people to move, the government will sometimes create whole new cities and will remove all restriction on moving to that particular city. They may even require you to move there. When Shenzhen was being built, the top university graduates from across the country were offered incentives to move there and start a new life, with little option of saying no.

There seems to only be one class of people in China that I know of, who are free to change the city at which they are registered. People who studied overseas.

The Chinese government allows people who studied for further education overseas to move to wherever they want in China. Overseas in this case includes Hong Kong. (Another example of the way in which the Chinese government can’t make up their mind whether or not to treat Hong Kong as part of China). This is, nominally, so that they can put their skills to the best possible use. However, another reason is simply that the Chinese government doesn’t want them to move overseas.

Wherever you are in China the government has one simple message. Don’t move! Unless, of course, they want you to.

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Sharing is caring; that doesn’t happen here

One of the most interesting things about my recent holiday to Thailand was seeing what my Chinese girlfriend thought about it. It was her first time to go overseas and her first insight into any foreign culture. Seeing the things which surprised her helped to give me a far better insight into Chinese culture.

One thing which surprised me was when we were being driven in the bus during the tour. We were looking out the window at the scenery, when she said to me: “I’ve never seen people riding in the back of a truck before.”

It was around 6.00 and people were coming home from work. There were quite a few trucks and pickups with laborers riding in the back of the truck.

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It seemed to me like the most natural thing to see. Maybe I wouldn’t expect to see them sitting on top of a truck, but seeing them in the back of a pickup, on their way too or from work seemed completely natural to me. Laborers don’t get that much money, so it is natural for them to want to save money. Taking them to or from a construction site together saves them time, effort and money, but also helps the employer to ensure that the workers are there on time, ready to start work. I found myself wondering, why wouldn’t you see this sort of thing in China, however it occurred to me that I never had seen it in China either.

I had seen small family groups riding on a trike, with a wife and child often sitting on top of whatever huge, unbalanced load they were carrying, but I have never seen a large group of people sharing transport. The Chinese simply don’t share.

That’s not entirely true. They share food, but nothing else. Chinese meals usually have lots of shared dishes, often on a rotating table. You help yourself to the things you like, but try not to take too much of any one, so that everyone can get some. During meals the Chinese will make a big point of sharing. If there is something that they like, they will pile it onto your plate for you to try, whether you want it or not. If you finish all you want, they will try to give you more. Chinese meal etiquette really encourages sharing in a big way. Even when we go to somewhere that serves separate dishes for each person, it is natural and normal to share a bit of your meal which whoever you are with. My girlfriend gets upset if I don’t offer her some of whatever I am having. “Sharing is caring.” she often tells me.

Why then is it that the Chinese are so bad at sharing anything else? When I was on the metro and a child was sick, his mother was very surprised when I offered her some toilet roll, to help mop it up. With Chinese toilets being the way they are, it is always necessary to carry toilet roll. The Chinese passengers just shunned and avoided her. They didn’t want to help.

For me, helping others in need is a common courtesy. Yet in China it often seems like a big deal, and is shocking, or even viewed with distrust. On the plane back from Thailand the person beside me had a rather tatty 10 rmb note that the stewardess didn’t want to accept. I had some baht that I wanted to use up and so, much to the surprise of the person beside me, I offered to use my money to pay and accept the Chinese note. It was no problem for me, but it seemed to be a huge surprise to her that a stranger would offer help. One time when I offered to help an old lady to carry a heavy bag up a flight of stairs, she was far too suspicious and wary of my motives to accept. She seemed frightened by my offer.

I have been offered lifts a few times in China, so it is not that they are averse to giving lifts. I think the trouble is that China is quite hierarchical and has a huge gap between the haves and the have nots. People will go out of their way to curry favor with people that are above them, or to maintain the goodwill of people that they need, but they rarely do things without a reason. There nearly always seems to be an agenda.

Students often give gifts to their teachers, to curry favor. It would also not be unusual for the parent of a student to offer a lift to a teacher. If there are very few foreigners in an area, your employer might also offer you a lift home, or arrange for another teacher to give you a lift, because they don’t want you to decide that the classes are too far away to bother with. Yet employers rarely care about their underlings, unless that person is very hard to replace. In a country with so many people, employees have very few rights, and even those legal rights are usually ignored, because employers don’t need to give any reason for dismissing an employee.

While getting a lift from our school principle, one of my colleagues, who is the only foreign school director in Shenzhen, was told: “This is where the poor people live. They are stupid. They don’t have money.” He was stunned by the casual way the principle showed contempt for those less well off than him.

In China employers are unlikely to help their employees to get to work. Public transport is very cheap here and so it is generally felt that there is no need to provide any other help. At lunch time construction workers will just be lying around on the streets, because they don’t have time or transport to take them home. If the construction site is very far off the beaten track then the sort of portacabins that might be used as a break room in other countries could become the workers’ home for the duration of the construction job.

I was talking with a friend recently who used to work in the US state department. When visiting his former colleagues they asked him, “What is it like living in Asia’s superpower?” his response was, “China isn’t a superpower. They don’t share!”. I was relieved to see that I’m not the only person who has noticed it.

This is not to say that the Chinese can’t be generous. Some of them are very generous and most of them are very friendly. Hospitality is very important to them and if you are the guest of a Chinese family, they will bend over backwards to be the best possible hosts. If you find yourself within the social circle of a group of Chinese people, they will be lovely. They are friendly, generous and extremely good company. However, if you are outside their social circle, they are likely to treat you as though you don’t exist. The exception is if they want you to be in their social circle, such as if you happen to be a foreigner in an area with very few foreigners.

Even when choosing friends there seems to often be an agenda. My Chinese friend Hera is small, often wears childish clothes and doesn’t make much effort with her appearance. However, she is very outgoing and easily made friends with many foreign students. She was treated badly by most people in her university classes, until they learnt that she flew home for the holiday and had started to rent an apartment off campus. This immediately showed that she had money and suddenly people who had snubbed her wanted to befriend her. When they learnt she had lots of foreign friends, other classmates wanted to befriend her, as a way of getting to know the foreigners. She told me that this sort of two faced behavior is something she regards as being a very northern Chinese thing.

After decades of communism, with nobody having much at all, the Chinese take a very selfish attitude to capitalism. To them a free market is all about getting as much for themselves as they can, at the expense of other people. The “haves” will flaunt their wealth and look down with contempt at the “have nots”. Sharing is caring, but in China, most people don’t care.

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The march of the matadors

It seems that the school directors were very pleased by my little dance with Rainbow and this had given them some ideas about how else they could get more benefit from their foreign teachers.

In November there was a Bao’an district sports competition for the schools in the Bao’an district. Our school wanted to get all the foreign teachers to take part in the opening ceremony. This time they wanted us all to dance.

We were told to go to the dance studio on the top floor after our classes. I had never been there before. A pretty dance teacher and a bunch of female students were waiting for us.  The teacher spoke very little English, but she was to try to teach us all a dance routine. One of the teachers managed to get out of doing it, because he has had a serious leg injury and is a bit disabled. He didn’t want to look stupid trying to limp along with us. The rest of us had to take part.

Despite initial doubts most of the teachers enjoyed learning the dance. Some of the students were good at English and were able to help show what to do and I was also able to help the others, as it was a Latin dance and I was the only one with any experience.

The routine we were to learn was a paso-doble, with a lot of cape twirling. In many ways this is the hardest dance for men to do, so it was not going to be easy and some of the others showed no aptitude. We had too meet three evenings a week to learn the dance and most of the teachers put in extra practice to learn the steps.

I say most, but one did not. Bryan was the least enthusiastic and least talented. He is also someone who expects everyone else to do things his way. He would repeatedly insist on going over the most basic things, questioning every decision, trying to suggest that the teacher should change things and generally being a source of frustration.  In the third lesson, when the teacher wanted to show us a step that I could tell people would have trouble with, Bryan insisted that there was no point in leaning any new steps until everyone (i.e. him) had mastered all the starting steps perfectly. We had only learnt 2 bars of the dance.

Then Bryan went away for 4 days to sort out his visa, during which time the rest of us learnt the whole dance. We were then told that the organizers of the sports day wanted everyone to keep marching forward without stopping. Out dance was to be changed to a few very basic moves that we would do while moving forward. We were very disappointed.

We all had to be measured for costumes, but I was the first person to see the finished article. Unsurprisingly, they wanted us to dress as matadors, or toreadors. The costumes were very good and we were sad that they were only being rented, not purchased.


By the time Bryan returned, we were practicing the steps on the sports track with the girls and a bunch of boy students. We were to dance in the middle and the boys would march alongside us, shouting out a Chinese chart to announce the name of the school.


Our dress rehearsals came to a complete standstill as we waited for Bryan to learn the steps. His partner deserved an award for her patience.


When we were able to rehearse as a group we were lined up by height and so Devon and I were behind Bryan, watching him go wrong time and again. He would then try to demand changes, in order to make it easier for him and then proceed to mess thing up even worse. It was a very painfully slow process to get him to occasionally get it right, despite how much the dance had been simplified.


At last the day of the opening ceremony was upon us. We got into a bus and headed out to a beautiful private school that was even more remote than ours. There were a lot of schools attending and there were a lot of amazing costumes.

We were the only foreigners taking part, so there were a lot of people who wanted to pose for photos with us.


Our performance went off pretty well and we were then able to watch the rest of the show. The students had to line up with all the other schools until the ceremony was over.


Since we had a better idea of what to expect, this was a much better day than our own sports day, but it lasted the whole afternoon. The actual sports were to start the next day, but I heard from the students that our school was not actually competing. The school directors had just wanted a chance to show off all their foreign teachers.

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