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.

Friday, 25 November 2011

China: Everything works, but nothing works well

Since coming to China I have been reading a few of the other blogs
that are around about the country. One such is "Seeing Red In China"
( which is usually interesting and
sometimes resonates with my own experience. One recent post
seemed particularly appropriate. The author of the blog may have more
experience of China than I do but in this instance it aligns
It reminded me that there is a post I've been intending to make since
I got here.
And this is it.

He writes about the difficulties of keeping warm in winter in China.
It's certainly a problem. I live in a nice enough apartment but even
now, before winter has got properly underway, it can be unpleasantly
cold. The problems are precisely as he describes them –
badly-designed, concrete buildings with extremely poor thermal
efficiency and no insulation, windows that don't seal properly,
extractor fans above the stove that lead out through a hole in the
window around which there has been no attempt to form a seal.
Heating in Chinese cities is rather strangely organised. We were told
that our heating would come on some time in mid-November and so it
did. We assumed that the building supervisor had done something to
turn it on and so, when it went off again a few days later, we assumed
that there was a problem in our apartment and reported it. Then we
discovered that the whole block had no heating and we were told that
it would return soon. But that too wasn't quite accurate. At school
the heating was off and I discovered from conversation with one of the
teachers that heating in the whole city was off. I have no idea at all
of the mechanics of how it all works but it seems that city heating is
centralised. It's on everywhere or off everywhere.
It was turned on again a couple of days later.
Actually there is another problem, at least in our apartment, which is
the rather odd placement of the radiators. To begin with all of them
are built into the walls and covered by wooden grills. This means that
a substantial proportion of their limited output goes in heating the
wooden grill and never makes it into the room. The one in the living
room has been cunningly placed so that it is also covered by the
curtain, whether open or closed, so that more heat is lost in just
warming up the fabric. The other rooms scarcely fare better with both
the bedrooms having the heater placed behind wooden baffles directly
on the outside concrete wall and directly below those very inefficient
windows. Given that they only just warm up anyway almost none of the
heat goes into actually making the rooms comfortable.
The strangest of all is the one in the kitchen which is under the
sink, behind all the sink plumbing and behind a lot of buckets and
bottles that the owner of the apartment has left stored there. I'd
move them if I thought it would do any good.

All of this is a part of a bigger problem with domestic life in China
– namely that everything works but nothing works well. The wet-room
shower works except that the lady downstairs keeps complaining that
water leaks into her bathroom. I've resealed all the tiles and stand
in a large bowl when I shower but some still gets through. When I wash
my clothes there is, in an uncanny echoing of days at home with my
father, the complication that the automatic washer only works as a
dryer and the clothes must be first washed in a small and ridiculously
clanky machine that just whirls the water and clothes around until
they are tied together in a large, tangled up ball. Then they have to
be transferred to the larger washer for drying. As the smaller washer
has to be filled from the shower which is supplied from a large water
heater on the wall and there is only one power socket for all three
appliances, this can be a time-consuming process.
The toilet flush works but sometimes won't stop flushing without a lot
of jiggling with the handle. And some of the pipes that run to it have
a slow drip that I collect in a bowl and empty every couple of days.*
Also in the bathroom I hung a wet towel on the rail only to have the
metal bracket sheer off because of the poor quality of metal used to
make it. It took about ten pence to buy a new one and about ten
minutes to install it but a rail that won't hold the weight of a wet
towel seems pretty useless.
On the electrical front the apartment was equipped with a DVD player
but nothing I could do would get it to actually send a signal to the
TV. My portable would hook up to the TV but would only play a small
percentage of the Chinese DVDs. So, as they are cheap, I bought a new
one which works. Of course it leaves the problem that Chinese DVDs are
all pirate copies that may or may not have menus and may or may not
play properly,
And it isn't just apartments.
Tills in shops are prone to breakdown at which point the shop simply
stops trading until they can get them fixed.
The electricity, gas and water supplies are subject to random
disconnections which may be in a single building or may, like the
heating, affect the whole city.
Traffic systems can be described as chaotic at best with drivers
largely ignoring any conventional rules of the road in favour of an
every-man-for-himself, approach to traffic control.
And somehow it all manages to work in spite of the problems. It's just
that none of it ever seems to work well.


*Since I wrote this, the flush has now stopped working and we flush
the toilet by filling a bucket from the tap.