Seasonal verse

Following from a discussion on Twitter.

Spring’s Herald
A milky grey of soot and sand,
winter-wind-whipped ’cross the land,
is shooting through the hutongs bare,
with chill, with spit, with spite.

For many months we’ve faced the gloom:
The dead tree-branches over-loom
the frozen streets where burning coal
provides the only light.

But Lo! What’s this that peeks from ’neath
the steering wheel, casts off its sheath
of winter, and presents a glimpse
of warmth, of life’s rebirth?

O cabbie’s leg, to thee I sing!
With trousers fresh rolled up for spring,
your coming heralds winter’s end,
and sunny warmth, and mirth!

The trees, restored, now filled with song!
The children gaily dance along
the lazy, willowed Houhai banks,
as innocent as lambs.

So take your robins and your flow’rs;
in winter I just count the hours
’til cracking skin gives way to sights
of cabbies’ pasty jambs.



Shanghai Lester School & Technical Institute

Discovered today on a bike ride – the former Lester School & Technical Institute, now the Shanghai Seamen’s Hospital. The rest of the neighbourhood isn’t in great shape; quite a bit has been torn down for the (extremely convenient) Xinjian Lu tunnel to Pudong. Hopefully this one, at least, can be preserved:


On Yan’an Lu

My bike requires repairs. I have been taking too many taxis.

To a Shanghai taxi
O coach of völkisch birth, to you I plead:
Your pilot’s callused hands and leaden hooves
beget in me a dread of mortal speed;
The windshield glass, so stained with soot, removes
the sense of life and depth that sight improves.
With nought betwixt us and the soul ahead
he now with hellish tarantism moves
and hurtles us through countless signals red;

I pray, Santana: slow, ere we meet with the dead.


Archives, Verse


Having been using the same version of WordPress for five years, I figured it was time for a change. I don’t expect that upgrading to the latest version will have much of an impact on my posting schedule (averaging, it seems, about one post every 13 months), but at least it should make it less annoying to write new entries.

What you see here is an attempt to update my old design by editing WordPress’s Twenty Ten theme. It may change over the coming days and months, or it may not. I’ve also added a new category called “Verse,” since poetry appears—quite unexpectedly—to be an increasingly large part of this blog.

On coming third at a pub quiz
But Yea—
Is glory in the noble third,
or sorrow, or despair? Glowing
bronze gleams bright.

Less the Word
of the Triune God, all-knowing,
no genesis. The empty night.




The post office has not delivered my mail in approximately five months.





Seen on the ride home

June 4, 2009, shortly before 7:00 p.m. Location: People’s Square, Shanghai. A police van with a bewildering array of cameras, lights, whizzing bits and oddly bulbous domes is parked near a large crowd. The van’s side door is slightly ajar. Signs behind the crowd reveal that the people are here to watch “High School Musical” at the Shanghai Grand Theatre. A peek inside the police van reveals an officer staring at a computer screen, playing Solitaire.


A bonnie lad

Kim Il-sungThis Friday will mark one month after the 97th birthday of Kim Il-sung, which is a good enough excuse for me to post something that’s been sitting on my computer for some time.

It is an ode to Kim Il-sung written in the style of Robert Burns, with apologies in advance for any true speakers of Scots. I’ll admit I can’t remember the precise reason that I decided to compose such an ode, but here it is.

For those readers who may be unfamiliar with the hagiography of the DPRK, here is some background information:

The poem refers to the log cabin on Mt. Paektu, the place of the mythical origin of the Korean people, in which Kim Jong-il had his equally mythical birth. That birth, on February 16, 1942, is said to have been accompanied by a double rainbow and the appearance of a new star in the sky. The cabin stands today and is something of destination for pilgrims in the DPRK — it’s also filled with numerological significance, including being 216 meters (as in 02/16) from the base of a nearby cliff.

Juche is the principle of self-reliance that is the foundation of North Korean ideology. Arirang is the name of a famous Korean song, sometimes sung as an ode to reunification, and has also been used as the name of the Mass Games held in Pyongyang.

And now, the poem:

On seeing his cabin on Mt. Paektu
Abune a cauld and mirky brae,
o’ Paektu’s snaw, aneath the skies,
whar Kim Jong-il th’ bairn is frae,
a cozie, hamely haddin’ lies.

It hears at dawe the birdie’s sang,
tha’ echoes ben the gracefu’ morn.
Sae hinny as he flees amang,
Th’ pine, th’ larch, th’ spruce
– th’ thorn.

O haddin’! Bigg’t by daddie Kim!
Frae timmer made: Ye stand sae straught!
Me heart’s astir wi’ thoughts o’ him,
Wha me to grit Pyongyang hae brought.

But now, waesacks! His banes gae stiff!
An’ cauld as airn; He’s here nae more!
I’m wearie, fill’t with dool an’ grief!
Me fiere, me daddie’s, left the shore!

O! Kim Il-sung, I’m fidgin-fain
For ye! An’ though ye’ve now passed on,
I’ll see your haddin’ when ye’re gaen,
And ken tha’ Juche isna faun.

And sae, thegither, teuhgly stan’
a-fiel’! We, wi’ blithe spirits all!
For bonnie is the Arirang,
O! Kim Il-sung! We hear your call!



The new ride

An ill-starred taxi ride recently left me without a commuter bike. Lesson learned: When taking a taxi, always get a receipt. Without one, the Bashi Taxi Company proved unable to recover my beloved Dahon Boardwalk, folded and placed in the trunk. It had recently been converted into what I dare say was China’s only fixed-gear folding bike.

Wu Xiaohai, the manager of Devil Bikes on Jiangning Lu, had been the man behind that fixed conversion, and his condolences on the loss were sincere. Then he showed me this (click to enlarge):

The bike is made by TNT, a Taiwanese company with no apparent web presence. They specialize in what are known as “minivelos”: rigid road and mountain bike frames built for 20″ wheels (BMX size). TNT’s frames are all-aluminum, and include such nifty features as generous clearance for fat tires and fenders, and disc brake mounts. The frameset, including fork, sells at Devil Bikes for RMB780 (US$114).

The Brooks saddle, lifted from my ernai Jamis (now suffering from pangs of jealousy), was my own addition. The rest was built up as Wu saw fit.

I had not been aware of minivelos, which I understand are enjoying some popularity in Japan. They combine the quick steering and all-around fun of a small-wheeled bike with the solidity of a rigid frame. Plus, they’re small enough to fit in the back of a taxi with an easily removed wheel. Just don’t forget your receipt.


Don’t believe a word

Any visitors to this blog (there, I’ve said it) have no doubt noticed a distinct lack of activity in recent months. That’s mostly due to my resources being focused on this magazine and blog. Much to my surprise, however, I’ve found this site continuing to draw a steady stream of visitors.

Worryingly, many — particularly over the Olympics — seem to have come to view my inaccurate and generally useless “analysis” of air pollution indices in Hong Kong and Beijing. I tracked down the origin of many of those visitors to Wikipedia’s Air Pollution Index page. Apparently, someone thought that a random entry on a blog, prefaced by an explicit warning not to rely on the subsequent information, was a good source of information on the topic.

I like Wikipedia (I particularly enjoyed reading that the Shanghai World Financial Center was built “on the dreams of a few ‘Nam vets” — a phrase that has since been removed), and the fact that the entry on APIs was changed (not by me) is a good sign that the Wikipedia model generally works. But I still don’t quite understand how someone would add my API discussion in the first place. And thanks to its brief spot on Wikipedia, that page is now the top search result on Google for air pollution index beijing. Yikes!


Musings on peanut butter

I’m a big fan of China’s many regional cuisines, which provide a nearly endless array of mouth-watering dishes: solid, proletarian Beijing dumplings, grilled lamb skewers from Muslim western China, delicately steamed fish from Hong Kong, sweet Shanghainese “red-cooked” pork, fantastic green vegetables from just about everywhere, and, my favourite, the exquisite “numb-spicy” dishes of Sichuan.

But sometimes, I just really need a peanut butter sandwich.

China’s cuisine is many things, but every so often it will come up short, and a craving for a peanut butter sandwich is one that Chinese food is particularly ill-equipped to satisfy. Firstly, there’s the problem of the bread. “Western-style” bread in China, as in perhaps every Asian country other than Vietnam, is at best a weak approximation of the concept. It is as if bakers have tried to reverse-engineer recipes from photographs of foreign loaves, without ever having tasted them. The result is bread that looks fantastic, but has the consistency and flavour of an old bath sponge. My current preferred brand is a step above most, but still makes my teeth squeak when I eat it.

Peanut butter, thankfully, is an area in which China excels. In addition to a wide range of local brands, international p-b giant Skippy is well-established here, and its products — both smooth and crunchy — can be found in many local supermarkets. This, however, is where the story gets interesting.

At first glance, China’s busy supermarkets are visions of plenty. Behind their shiny exteriors, however, is a re-stocking system that could generously be called “spotty”. I still remember the day that my neighbourhood supermarket in Beijing simply stopped selling bacon. There was no explanation: it was as if it had never existed. I was disappointed, but took it in stride. Then, suddenly, the peanut butter disappeared.

Assuming it had been relocated in one of the supermarket’s pointless bi-monthly reorganizations, I asked the store manager where I could find it.

“We don’t have it any more,” he said.

Worried, I continued: would they be getting more?

“We might get more, but we might not. I don’t know.”

And just like that, the peanut butter was gone, its place taken by a random selection of salted plums and something called meat floss. The next few days went by in a blur as the cold reality of life without peanut butter sank in.

When I saw peanut butter back on the shelves a week later, I was euphoric. That feeling came crashing down a moment later as I discovered that the variety on offer was a pirated version of Skippy. Now, I can understand a pirated handbag or coat, but I draw the line at knowingly eating knock-off food products — especially when each jar of supposedly identical peanut butter had its own distinct hue.

The Skippy did eventually return, but I had learned my lesson: I began stockpiling peanut butter in anticipation of the next shortage.

When I moved to Shanghai, I was dazzled. For the first few months after my arrival, I couldn’t stop talking about my supermarket. Forget peanut butter — hell, it had balsamic vinegar!

How quickly the lessons of the past are forgotten.

By this time, my tastes in sandwiches had expanded, and I was venturing into recreational mayonnaise use. I thought I could stop any time. Little did I know I would be forced to quit cold turkey when it vanished from even the fancy foreign supermarkets.

What had happened? Who was to blame? How could an entire city of 19 million people suddenly run out of mayonnaise?

I pondered these questions for weeks, unable to find an answer.

And, just as suddenly as it had disappeared, the mayonnaise was back.

And what mayonnaise! The old standbys like Kraft were there, to be sure, but there was so much more. German brands I had no hope of pronouncing filled the shelves, their contents held suggestively within flexible tubes rather than the familiar, rigid jars. Light mayonnaise, “real” mayonnaise, spiced mayonnaise — it was all there.

I grabbed a selection and headed for the cashier. Standing in line was a friend of mine, his shopping basket filled with two dozen cans of tomato sauce, his eyes filled with a triumphant gleam. We nodded at each other knowingly — for today, at least, we were both victorious.