Blog News

1. Comments are still disabled though I am thinking of enabling them again.

2. There are now several extra pages - Poetry Index, Travel, Education, Childish Things - accessible at the top of the page. They index entires before October 2013.

3. I will, in the next few weeks, be adding new pages with other indexes.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Nightmare In Hong Kong

On Friday 15th of August at 1:30 I decided to put all of my clothes except for the ones I was wearing into the 24 hour laundry round the corner. This may appear to a random remark with no relevance to anything but all will become clear later.

I've had the week from hell and it began a few months ago. It all started when I decided that I would quite like to go home to England for the summer but would need to have a summer job to pay for it. I've taught for many summers at a summer school in Harrow and applied to do it again this year. Now, for those who don't know, if you teach in England you have to have what used to be called CRB (Criminal Records Bureau) checks and are now called DBS (Disclosure and Barring Service) checks. These are to ensure that you have no criminal record that would stop you working with children. Unfortunately, if you work overseas, part of this is that you must also have the local equivalent. China, where I work, doesn't have a local equivalent. The school in England went to a great deal of trouble to help me with this and I also went to a great deal of trouble to arrange a letter from the Chinese authorities that would act in place of such a document. I gave my passport to the police who kept it for over a month but eventually returned it with a letter. In that time I had been corresponding with the school to arrange things. On the same day that I got the passport back I got the news that the Chinese authorities had, yet again, changed the visa process.

I need to digress for a moment and explain about visas. To work in China you are supposed to have something called a residency permit but that's only issuable in the city where you are working. To qualify for the permit you need to already have a Z-visa which is valid for thirty days and gets converted to the permit. Once it's been converted the theory is that the residency permit can be renewed indefinitely without needing to get a new visa. This renewal has to take place a month before your old permit expires but generally takes about a week to accomplish.

Or so it has in the past. The new rule was that in order to get the renewal you must turn over your passport to the authorities for twenty days during which you will be given a receipt that, in their words, “will act like a passport for identification within mainland China but will not permit you to leave the country.” This meant that I would be unable to go to England. I wasn't very pleased by this and the school I was to go to even less so. They told me that they will not consider employing me again as long as I am resident in China.

Here's where it starts to get complicated. Pay attention there may be a quiz.

My existing permit, for Baiyin – a city in Gansu – expired a week before my teaching was due to finish. A few days after my teaching finished I was due to fly to my new home in Yangshuo. So a month before it expired I handed my passport in to get a one week extension that would give me time to get to Yangshuo and hand it in again. As days went by I became increasingly nervous. I didn't want to try to fly leaving passport behind. Finally, on the evening before I was due to fly, my administrator returned my passport with a visa that had (for no reason I could fathom) been extended for four weeks. I flew to Yangshuo.

In Yangshuo first of all I had to go for medical checks and having passed those I was sent to the PSB (Public Security Bureau) in Yangshuo where a very belligerent policeman questioned my at length about where I would be living in the city (I don't know yet), who was my contact at the school (I don't know yet), how I had got the job there in the first place (I know but had been instructed not to say because it would cause “complications”), why I had left my previous school (I told him) and where was my document from the school permitting me to leave (I didn't have one).
He told me to go away and return when I could provide answers.
The next day someone else went on my behalf and somehow answered all the questions. However I was instructed that I needed to visit the PSB in Guilin so the next day I went to Guiln and handed in my passport. In return a piece of paper saying they would return it twenty days later.

Twenty days passed during which I did, not without some difficulties, travel around China using the document I had been given.

I returned to Yangshuo and on 15th August at 2:30 my passport was returned to me. For whatever reason – incompetence, bloody-mindedness, Satanic evil or just because they could – they had issued an extension that expired THAT DAY at Midnight after which I would be illegally in China. My company said I would have to go to Hong Kong and get a new visa.

Remember what I'd done at 1:30?

That's right, I had no clothes at all except the ones I was standing up in. I told you the relevance would become clear. Nevertheless, and over my protestations that I would arrive at the border AFTER the visa expired, I was placed on a bus going to the border town of Shezhen.

I arrived at the border nine hours after the visa expired. Unsurprisingly they noticed and detained me. I was kept for about four hours after which I had to sign a document which was written entirely in Chinese except for the single, rather ominous, sentence, “I admit to the above crimes”.

Now, to back track for a moment, I had been told to make my way to Tsim Sha Tsui where, at Chungking Mansions I would be able to find a room for about 150 Hong Kong Dollars a night. The trouble was I couldn't find a room. At any price. Chungking is a huge rabbit warren of a building filled with hostel businesses and because it was a summer holiday weekend every single one of them was full. Outside touts were offering rooms for anything up to 1800 HKD. Eventually, despairing of ever finding anywhere, I met a guy in one of the hostels who spoke fluent Cantonese and had negotiated a room for 600. They had another room and after some haggling on the phone my company said they would pay 600. I checked in for the night.

It was Saturday and I couldn't do anything about the visa until Monday. On Sunday, with my new friend's help, I located another hostel in another district for 450 HKD and moved.

On Monday I went to the Visa agency that had been suggested. The took one look at my “I admit to the above crimes” document and refused to apply for my visa. They told me I had to go to the Chinese embassy. My new friend agreed to accompany me.

At the embassy, after filling in forms and queuing for a long time I went to one of the visa windows where the lady took one look at my “I admit to the above crimes” document and told me I must go home to England and apply from there. My friend interceded in Cantonese, explaining the circumstances of my overstay and with visible reluctance she agreed to process my visa and told me to come back on Thursday.

From then on things went relatively well. I booked a flight for Friday, picked up my passport (with only a thirty day Z-visa, but at least it got me back into China) and made it back to Yangshuo on Friday night where I picked up my clothes and changed into something clean for the first time in a week.

Of course, at the moment, I still don't have a residency permit, just a thirty day single entry visa. I am hoping that nothing else extends my week from hell. The three months that it's lasted so far is quite enough for me.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Driving In China

Chinese Rules of The Road

1.    Right of way works on the “chicken” principle.
2.    Driving is on the right. Unless you prefer the left. Motorcyclists may optionally use the pavements. (In either direction)
3.    Use of lights at night is optional for all vehicles except motorcycles and bicycles for which it is forbidden.
4.    All vehicles must sound their horns at least once for every thirty metres travelled, or thirty seconds elapsed, whichever is shorter.
5.    Pedestrian safety is the responsibility of pedestrians. It is forbidden to slow down to avoid hitting them.
6.    All road marking, road signage and traffic light systems are purely decorative.
7.    Whenever driving you should look only straight ahead. Checking left or right is forbidden especially at junctions.
8.    When reversing “blind” from a narrow space onto a busy road, no assistance may be sought or given.
9.    Overtaking is ALWAYS permitted but no account must be taken of oncoming traffic. Blind bends are the preferred location.
10.    Where a road has multiple lanes you may only change lanes if there is less than one metre between your new position and the car immediately behind you.
11.    Where a road has multiple lanes AND they are marked by white lines, the purpose of the white line is to indicate where the centre of your car should be positioned.
12.    When merging onto a busier road it is not your responsibility to merge safely, it is everyone else’s responsibility to get out of your way. Your car will go into any gap that is at least one centimetre bigger than the vehicle.

While these rules may be somewhat cynically stated, they are in broad principle correct.

If you doubt me I found this video on  YouTube which is nothing unusual, just an everyday drive in any Chinese town. It lists a few more rules that I missed above.

 Now go out, have your brain surgically removed and apply for that Chinese license.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Watching the crows

I saw on the internet that they are planning a remake of the Crow, not a variation or a sequel but a remake. My first thought was, here we go again – instead of choosing one of the poorer films and remaking it to be good one, they're taking the one that was damn near perfect first time out, the one that doesn't need a remake, and making it again. It seems to be the pattern.
My second thought was that maybe I should watch the four Crow movies again.
So I did.
The first crow movie is, as I said, damn near perfect. It's visually stylish. Underneath the violence it has heart and even a streak of sentimentality. Brandon Lee's performance is excellent and the only thing that mars the movie slightly for me is that there is a small but significant change to the original comic book. In that, the original crime was genuinely motiveless – mayhem and murder for its own sake. The movie adds a reason in the interests of plot and to my mind that undermines the actions of the Crow. Still, it's a small point in an otherwise favourite movie.
Crow: City of Angels and Crow:Salvation are the second and third movies in the franchise and there are a couple of serious flaws that they share. The first is that the directors (Tim Pope and Bharat Nalluri respectively) both choose visuals over sense. Sensible and consistent plotting is secondary to whichever visual conceit has crossed the director's mind. So, for example, in City of Angels the Crow erupts out of the water where his mortal form was drowned and hangs in a crucifiction pose hovering in the air. There's no explanation and moments later he is apparently back in the water and dragging himself painfully up onto the pier. It looks good but it makes no sense. Similarly in Salvation the villain likes to insert screws into his arm causing the major scarring that's the main plot driver but no reason is ever given for it, just as no reason is ever given as to how or why he has a secret and rather gruesome taxidermy lab completely unnoticed in the police station.
The second flaw is that both directors seem to have got the idea that a vital element of the Crow mythos is sexual fetishism. It's less of a problem in Salvation because it's at least vaguely connected to the story – in City of Angels it just forms a seedy backdrop to the action – but in either case it's a prominent feature of the movie.
With all that said Salvation at least tries to take the story in a new direction. Eric Mabius' Crow is both more menacing and more nuanced than Vincent Perez manages. City of Angels is just a pale, failed retread of the first movie with vastly inferior performances and scripting and that sexual fetishism is just about the most pointless thing in a pointless movie.
So, what about Wicked Prayer?
It's bad. It's excruciatingly bad. From the text-on-screen introduction of the bad guys to David Boreanaz ludicrous overacting to Edward Furlong's portrayal of the Crow as a petulant goth teenager, the whole thing is awful. And that's before we get to the stone bonkers plot about Boreanaz wanting to become the antichrist and bring hell on Earth or Dennis Hopper visibly making plans to fire his agent in every scene he's contractually obliged to appear in. It has about as much in common with the other Crow movies as a pet goldfish has with a great white shark. It's a bad Crow movie and it's a bad movie in it's own right.
For all that I don't hate it as much as City of Angels. Wicked Prayer is just utterly incompetent, City of Angels seems to have willfully distilled everything that was great about The Crow and then thrown it away and kept and amplified everything else. It rehashes the whole of the first movie in such an inferior form and with so much gratuitous rubbish that I actually find it offends me.

What, then, of the proposed remake?
Personally I'd rather see a new take on the tale but if the have to remake something, why not Salvation. Imagine how good it could be if it were remade with all of its flaws fixed; with the weirder plot points expanded and explained, with villains who weren't just cardboard cutouts.
That would be a movie worth seeing.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Driving: A Mystery Solved

One thing that baffles and terrifies foreigners living in China is the driving. It baffles us because we cannot see how anyone - driver, motorcyclist, cyclist or pedestrian can survive for a week without getting, at the very least, seriously injured. It terrifies us because crossing the street becomes an activity more dangerous than juggling chainsaws, and riding in a taxi leaves us deposited at our destination as a quivering nervous jelly, vowing that we will never ever set foot in any vehicle again.

Drivers seem to apply one very simple rule. Look only straight ahead, ignoring all other road users, and assume that everything else - on wheels or feet - will get out of the way.

They pull out of intersections without ever looking at the road.
They change lanes without warning, heading into gaps that you would swear weren't wide enough for a skateboard.
They hit the pedals as if they are mentally playing an especially complicated piano sonata rather than hauling round a couple of tons of metal.
They happily ignore traffic lights, one way systems and marked lanes.
They treat pedestrian crossing as being purely decorative.

In short they are terrifying.

And now I know why.

My girlfriend is taking driving lessons and the description of them answers all of those questions. The process of learning to drive in China goes something like this.

First you take a written test where you answer a set of one hundred questions from a bank of nine hundred. You read the book, learn the answers by rote memorisation and take the test. At this stage you don't need to have ever sat in a car.

Then you take lessons. She is taking lessons at a Government sponsored driving school. The lessons are one hour but there's a catch. You don't take individual lessons you take group lessons consisting of someone telling you how to drive. In your group's time slot there will be about ten people learning. In any given lesson you will have a maximum of about ten minutes actually sitting in a car. It may or may not be moving at the time. These "lessons" take place at the centre, on simulated roads with no other vehicles present, and not on roads which bear even a vague resemblance to actual driving conditions.

Once you have started taking lessons you can book for one of the pre-scheduled driving tests. This is a short test on the roads immediately around the driving centre which is in the middle of nowhere, miles away from the actual city.

Then there is another written test on road safety and then you get a license. With such a haphazard and inefficient way of learning and with no exposure to actual driving conditions before they let you on the road is it any wonder that for 2010 China recorded more than 65,000 road traffic fatalities. The wonder is that it isn't orders of magnitude higher.