Archive for January, 2011



In China, companies often select telephone numbers that sound similar to words or phrases that can be associated with their business/products.

The local number for a restaurant reservation hotline is 57-57-5777, which is pronounced 我吃我吃我吃吃吃吃 wǔ-qī-wǔ-qī-wǔ-qī-qī-qī and sounds similar to wǒ-chī-wǒ-chī-wǒ-chī-chī-chī (in English: I-eat-I-eat-I-eat-eat-eat!)

They also have a web site, now available in English: The Dining Secretary – which is very useful!


Yummy food

This is not a foodie blog, but I need to draw attention to these recipes!


Stir Fried Pork with Kai Lan in Peanut Sauce

with this version of satay sauce:

Peanut, Ginger and Coriander Dipping Sauce

[Add chili with caution and according to your “heat” preferences! I used only one chopped up dried chili.]

非常好吃啊 – fēicháng hǎochī ā! Extremely delicious!


Attending a banquet

A few days ago we were invited to attend the annual dinner for our outsourcing partner company. We went to the last year’s dinner, and the cultural impact was a bit overwhelming, so we were even more apprehensive this time around.

The dinner was held in a banqueting venue on the other side of the city about 1 hour away by metro. The venue was a large banqueting hall that seated about 500 people and had a stage overlooking the proceedings. There were big round tables with white table cloths, each table seating about 10 people, and many side/private rooms situated next to the main dining area – in other words, a typical Chinese restaurant. The top management and other VIP’s occupied the private rooms, while the rest of the staff (and us, the only non-Asians) were seated in the main hall.

The dinner was supposed to start at 6.00 p.m. but by 6.15 there were still many empty tables. By 6.30 we all started tucking into the 6 or 7 cold dishes that were already arrayed on the table. The food was Shanghainese, which tends to be quite sweet and can be a bit oily, but on the whole it wasn’t too bad, and there was plenty of it. 7-Up, Pepsi and beer were on the house, but not a cup of tea in sight. There was no official start to the proceedings but about 1/2 hour later the official MC and hostess as well as some of the managers wandered onto the stage and they took turns to sing a few duets accompanied by blaring soundtracks. The arrival of additional hot dishes on the table was interspersed with various performers on the stage, occasionally accompanied by some applause, but always by very loud music.

Other highlights of the evening:

  • a lady conjurer (with the sounds of music from Riverdance as her background music) – she made silk cloths and pigeons appear and disappear and also had a few other tricks in her repertoire;
  • a traditional Biàn Liǎn “Face-Changing” 变脸 performer;
  • some more songs (they were a better selection of performers than last year where every department was supposed to perform an act, including those that had very little talent. This had made for a VERY long evening and a major reason for our current levels of apprehension)
  • a skit on speed-dating;
  • a dance or two (by some very nervous-looking girls in traditional qípáo 旗袍) ;
  • and a few “party games’:
    • wrapping up participants in toilet paper to turn them into “zombies” (the accompanying music to this slot was a song/cartoon video “Zombies on the lawn” from an online arcade game). I’m not sure how the winner was determined for this game…
    • getting two contestants to gather various items from the audience (including cell phones, wallets, sunglasses, a strand of hair, a tall friend, etc) and then laying them out in a line. The contestant whose items formed the longest line was declared the winner and everyone that contributed to his line of items also received a prize)

At the start of the evening each staff member signed a card and hung it on a “lottery tree” [for some or other reason the two of us weren’t given cards to sign…..]. 30 people won the 3rd prize of a toaster or a humidifier (one of the guys on our team was “lucky” enough to score a humidifier, but had to get called back from his smoke break in order to collect it!). 10 people won the 2nd prize of an iPod-Touch, including the only girl in our team (there were some very jealous male colleagues around our table). However, they were all holding out for the main prize: an iPad – but it was not to be – someone else got that one.

I have always said that I don’t know how Chinese people read each other’s handwriting, and that night it was proved that my concerns are justified. Most names written on the cards on the lottery tree required consultation from up to 4 organisers before the names were deciphered and called out, sometimes with a few mis-attempts before the correct person was found.

As soon as the first prize winner was announced, people started getting up and going home. Someone had started the rumour that there were other prizes hidden in the balloons decorating the hall. A few enterprising souls had tried to pop some of the balloons earlier in the evening, but had been severely reprimanded by one very irate organiser lady. As the first prize winner was trying to make his thank you speech, there was a stampede to get at and pop the remaining balloons. We took the opportunity to slip out and find our way home…


Back to “Normal”…

I have spent the last few days hosting a friend who is currently living in a nearby South East Asian country. She came to Shanghai to find and procure merchandise to resell for her business in South Africa. I took some time off work to assist with navigation, language assistance, bargaining, portering, amongst a variety of other functions.

Here are some of the highlights from our few days  – Look out for detailed anecdotal info to follow in later posts!

  • I couldn’t succeed in arranging nice warm weather for her, but managed to organise the second snowfall in Shanghai within the last two months. The weather put on a fairly impressive display of snow for my friend who is somewhat unaccustomed to the cold after living in sub-tropical climes for the last 8 years
  • Many hours spent haggling with, arguing with, being manipulated by, trying to outwit and not be outwitted by various salesmen and sales ladies (we THINK we succeeded in the outwitting contests in most instances….but not too sure – after a long day on the bargaining battle field, one’s resilience tends to wane a bit)
  • Wishing I could throw a tantrum in Mandarin to give full embodiment to my frustrations at an attempted rip-off by a taxi driver
  • Carrying near-to-breaking (and trying to hold together already-broken) black plastic bags filled with handbags and jewelry of varying colours, shapes, sizes, “brands” and quality
  • Playing “queue-queue-push-and-shove” in a China Post post office on Saturday morning while trying to send boxes out of the country by airmail. Our fellow participants in this event were part of an ever growing crowd of other customers trying to post parcels before Spring Festival
  • Re-discovering that it is not a good idea to try to exchange USD into the local currency AFTER leaving the airport: the foreign banks are just not interested if you don’t have an account with them (“so sorry for you”) and the local banks require reams of paperwork and the inevitable “take a number and wait your turn” procedure that follows can be a bit of a time and energy killer

I don’t think that I am quite ready to change my day-job to full-time shopping expert just yet!

I am sure I will remember some more of these interesting adventures as I reflect on them over the next few weeks – I think I will request a guest post from my friend to give her perspective on some of these delightful experiences…


The Perfect Gift

The next time you need an idea for that extra-special birthday/Christmas present…

Three-Penis Liquor: the Perfect Gift | Sinosplice.


Chinese Firemen…

When I was at university we used to take part in a crazy “traffic” game, which we called “Chinese Firemen” (for the life of me I don’t know where we got the name from – Wikipedia doesn’t know about it!)

[Please note: this post makes no reference to any actual Chinese firemen and the writer does not wish to offend any firemen: Chinese, or any other nationality!]


  1. At least one car (car A) with a driver and 3 or 4 passengers
  2. Optional, but preferred: other cars (cars B, C, D etc) each with a driver and any number of passengers
  3. Rush hour traffic on a main road with traffic lights or very slow-moving traffic on a highway
  4. Some counting ability
  5. A sense of humour and being prepared to get on other motorists’ nerves
  6. Quick-footedness
  7. Quick thinking and quick reactions
  8. A tendency to remain calm and not panic in stressful situations

How to play:

  1. When cars are stationary due to a red traffic light (or any other reason), someone in car A yells “Chinese Firemen“.
  2. Everyone, including the driver, jumps out of the car and gets back in the car through any door that they did not exit from.
  3. It is to be hoped that:
    • the traffic light does not change to green while the Chinese Firemen are still outside their vehicle; and
    • the new person in the driver’s seat has a valid driver’s license.
  4. At this stage the passengers in cars B, C & D get the message that the game is on and they eagerly await for the next red traffic light or stationary position.
  5. Traffic stops again. This time everyone from cars A, B, C and D exit their vehicles and sprint for any vehicle other than their own.
  6. It is to be hoped that:
    • everyone knows which cars are participating in the game and which are not;
    • everyone actually makes it into another car before the traffic flow begins to move;
    • at least one other person knows that you were a passenger in one of the cars before the game started, otherwise you may get left behind
    • knowing your destination in case you have to find an alternative mode of transport

It sounds crazy and it was, but the few times we did engage in the game of Chinese Firemen, we managed not to cause any major accidents; no one was injured and I only know of two people that got left behind and had to make their own way home!

Why am I telling you all this?

Next Wednesday sees the start of the Spring Festival/Chinese New Year holiday period. The actual holiday only starts in early February, but with more than 200 million people travelling back to their home towns to celebrate with their families, some people need to leave earlier in order to be able to obtain train tickets. There is a 40-day travel period that stretches the Chinese transportation system to its limits: most people travel by train or long-distance bus, but about 25 million will travel by plane.

As I was thinking about this mass of people in transit across China, it reminded me of an extended, long-play, multidimensional, extreme version of our simple “Chinese Firemen“!


  1. Cars, buses, trains, planes – basically any type of transport, with any number of travellers, travelling from any location in China to any other location in the world
  2. Queuing for hours or days to get a valid ticket (bought either from a legitimate dealer or a scalper that has illegally stocked up or created counterfeit tickets for re-sale)
  3. Any day during the 40-day Spring Festival period: greater skills and resources are required to get to the ancestral home for the actual week-long holiday without having to take extra leave
  4. Patience, perseverance and stamina: some people buy standing tickets on the long-distance trains that take 4 or 5 days to reach their home towns on the opposite side of the country
  5. The ability (usually money) to change your travel arrangements or have a backup plan if your preferred mode of travel fails: in 2009 a nation-wide snow-storm had a severe impact on many travellers
  6. A willingness to take risks: the return tickets for train and bus travel can usually only be purchased once you arrive at your destination – so it is highly likely that your return will have to be delayed until you can find a seat

The train ticket sales for the start of the Spring Festival period opened at the Shanghai Railway station yesterday (as reported in the Shanghai Daily) – it certainly makes our student version of the game look inferior and pathetic!

Spring Festival Ticket Sales Open


Grocery shopping

Grocery shopping for a foreigner in China can be a bit daunting and is not for the faint-hearted. Most of the time we have to brace ourselves for the sensory assault that is involved.

  • It is BRIGHT! Most of the big chains, specifically those with an international flavour, have a yellow-on-red /red-on-yellow colour theme throughout the store. We tend to do most of our grocery shopping at either Carrefour 家乐福 Jiā lè fú or Tesco 乐购 Lè gòu because there are English shelf labels for most products.

Here’s a picture of the outside facade of our nearest 家乐福:

Carrefour - Wuning Lu

  • It is LOUD! Loudspeakers with music, TV screens with advertisements, shop assistants with megaphones and speaker phones broadcasting the latest specials competing for the shoppers’ attention. Most of the noise seems to come from the dairy/yoghurt section where they try to sell off their stock before the sell-by date. Chinese people love a “good deal”, so “about-to-expire” goods are bundled in pairs, with freebees, etc to encourage purchasing. The dairy section also tends to be in close proximity to the fish/meat section and every now and again the booming voices of the fish sellers threaten to drown out the voices of the yoghurt megaphones, which is no mean accomplishment!
  • It is BUSY! Housewives, grannies, wives with husbands in tow, couples, families…very, very busy, especially around sections offering specials and discounts. At the end of the day there is often a sale of “ready-to-expire” fruit and veg and bakery products with throngs of people vying for the opportunity to score a bargain.
  • It can be SMELLY! Especially when the durian is in season – this is the fruit that is banned by airlines and shopping malls. reports:

“Widely known and revered in southeast Asia as the “king of fruits”, the durian is distinctive for its large size, unique odour, and formidable thorn-covered husk….Some people regard the durian as fragrant; others find the aroma overpowering and offensive. The smell evokes reactions from deep appreciation to intense disgust, and has been described variously as almonds, rotten onions, turpentine and gym socks. The odour has led to the fruit’s banishment from certain hotels and public transportation in southeast Asia.

  • It is somewhat DIFFERENT to our stores back home! Live fish and sea creatures and an open butchery for those that don’t want to buy their meat pre-packed. Lots of shelves with products that have no English translations: freezers full of frozen dumplings and dim sum instead of frozen pies and pasta dishes; exotic fruit and veg; aisles of noodles; HUGE vats of rice; shelves of tea leaves in a variety of packaging and flavours; counters of dried and preserved meat, seaweed, mushrooms, vegetables; etc
  • We are part of the ENTERTAINMENT! Foreigners and their trolley contents are viewed with great interest and many curious eyes peer into our trolley every week to see what we are buying. We have learnt to either ignore or stare into other people’s trolleys to get our own back.

Suffice to say – grocery shopping here certainly requires fortitude and resilience and a sense of adventure.

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January 2011
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