mr. wu of tongzhou: farmer, robot creator

Mr. Wu and his rickshaw robot

This is an old YouTube video that I’ve been wanting to blog for a while.  Over in Tongzhou, there is a farmer who makes robots despite a lack of any formal training. He loves making robots, but his wife is not so fond of them, especially after Mr. Wu burned down the house.  On the flip side, she says at least he’s not drinking or chasing women, just making robots.

These are not just your regular old toy robots, these are robots that can take you to market, or pour tea.  From a Sky News article:

For the farmer, from Tongzhou, China, is a part-time inventor who creates ‘labour-saving robots’ out of scrap he finds at rubbish dumps.

His brain-children – all developed during long nights spent in his garden shed with only his imagination as a guide – include Number Five, a one-metre-tall humanoid robot capable of walking, changing light bulbs, lighting cigarettes and pouring tea.A newer model named Number Six is a monkey-like robot with magnetized feet which enable it to crawl slowly up metallic walls.

The backyard scientist has also produced a miniature frog-shaped robot that hops, and a giant, walking eight-legged trestle table capable of carrying two passengers.

All of Mr Wu’s inventions are fashioned out of welded-together metal, duct tape and second-hand batteries.

Here is a terrific video with British comedian Paul Merton.  While visiting Beijing, Merton thought it was more interesting to go visit the robot farmer than go to the Great Wall, and frankly, I have to agree.

Watch the video to the end, there’s a wonderful moment when one robot clanks by the door.

I’m tempted to visit myself now; Tongzhou isn’t that far away from where I live, and who doesn’t want to see robots?

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The World At Your Fingertips

The setting of the highly recommended Jia Zhangke film The World 世界, World Park brings the world’s greatest monuments in miniature straight to residents without ever having to leave China. As even obtaining a passport is an excercise in bureaucracy, never mind trying to get tourist visas, it’s easy to see why World Park would be an appealing destination.

Although the movie presents World Park as a postmodern place that compresses space and time, symbolic of urban ennui and China’s struggle for identity, in real life World Park is kitschy as all out. World Park was also one of the three designated protest zones during the Olympics; most likely it was chosen because it’s not near anything except a lot of factories.

We finally made it to World Park on what turned out to be the coldest day in Beijing in years. The park was deserted other than a handful of foolhardy souls, with most of the concession stands closed as well.

It was that rarest of all rare things in China: an empty tourist attraction.

Tickets are a rather hefty 60 RMB, and that doesn’t include entrance to some of the other attractions inside. The best of these is undoubtedly this old Air China jet.

We took a lot of photos that juxtapose monuments with another one that is geographically nowhere near, except here at World Park.

Easter Island, just behind the Sydney Opera House.

 Or the San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge heading straight for…the Grand Canyon!

Really, this never gets old.

There is also the occasional pirate ship, maybe this is supposed to represent Somalia now.

World Park also created unintentional controversy when pictures were shown of the Twin Towers still standing in the miniature of Lower Manhattan.

And where else will you get the chance to peer over the Coliseum?


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“none holds for me the abiding charm that is peking”

I have just discovered the Travel Film Archive, a collection of travel footage from 1900 to 1970 available on YouTube. If you’re a fan of old newsreels, you’ll probably love this.  Complete with serious voiceovers and the slightly patronizing tone of the man on the spot to those funny foreigners, they capture a time when the world wasn’t so easy to access and the Orient as exotic as the moon.

There are three videos available featuring Beijing:

The first clip is rather poetically called “Ghosts of Empire: Peking” from the Port O’Call series by William M. Pizor. Dating from 1931, the video begins with camels entering the city and gives viewers a quick tour of street life in Peking. The video makes any number of amusing observations about coolies throwing out their water, how topsy turvy China is where the men wear the skirts and women wear the pants, street puppet theatre, as well as a woman’s bound feet. There is also a brief part showing the Forbidden City (“now it is forbidden to no one, except cameramen”) and the old Qianmen/Legation Quarter as it was.

Focusing mostly on the Forbidden City in the 1930s, the second clip presents the “most interesting city in China.” This clip has many shots of statuary and architecture, shots that now seem token and run-of-the-mill to any travelogue about China but must have seemed so strange and fascinating then. My favourite part is towards the end of the clip, where there’s a little quiz, complete with a ticking clock, to see if viewers can guess the name of that Venetian explorer who came to Peking and had a bridge named after him.

The third clip, “Peking: The Imperial City”, was produced and narrated by James A. Fitzpatrick–”The Voice of the Globe”–and in general, it’s not too different from the others, except does show the extremely unrestored Great Wall and a brief shot of a Chinese funeral procession going through the streets.  Also, judging from this video and the Ghosts of Empire footage, foreigners were particularly fascinated by street barbers in Peking.

Because I can’t get enough of these videos, here are videos for other parts of China:

Manchukuo, 1938 – This nearly eleven-minute silent film from Eastman Classroom Films shows Japanese-occupied Manchuria, but it’s mostly a compilation of fairly random footage.  Some of the earlier scenes are definitely set in Changchun, the capital of Manchukuo, as quite a few of the buildings still stand.  One part shows glimpses from the life of a Chinese merchant, including his dinner of mantou and congee, while the ending footage is of elementary school students studying.

Shanghai, 1947 – Produced by Castle Films, this one is also a silent film with beautiful shots and one memorable intertitle breathlessly exclaiming, “In 10 years its population doubles to a seething 7 million!”

Hong Kong, the Gateway to China, 1938 – Part of the Screen Traveler series, depicting the “proud Crown colony” before it was skyscraperfied.  Rickshaws and sedan chairs transport residents and visitors about, and even back then, Hong Kong is pointed out as a shopping mecca. Most amusingly, a small group of children explode in their haste to get away from the camera, leaving behind a little girl covering her face.

Hong Kong, 1930s – It has the feel of an amateur home video, but this was actually created by the Cunard steamship line as part of a promotional campaign for their liner Franconia.  The footage itself is fairly neutral, but the intertitles have all the picaresque histrionics of a D.W. Griffith melodrama. Take this intertitle describing life on the sampans: “Incredible homes these, but here millions live and die.”

Tibet: Land of Isolation – Also produced by James A. Fitzpatrick, who did the “Peking: The Imperial City” clip mentioned earlier. Unfortunately the sound track doesn’t seem to be included, so I don’t know what the narration sounds like.

These are just the China videos that I’ve been able to find. With many other videos to choose from, including clips of pygmies and cannibals from Places Far Away, the Travel Film Archive is an utter gem.

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the cutest cafe in beijing

Miao Cafe

Beijing doesn’t lack for cute cafes, but Miao Cafe is easily the cutest cafe in the city.  In fact it is one of the cutest cafes I have been to anywhere in the world.  As its name suggests, Miao Cafe is cat-themed.  Located on a quiet street behind the Yashow Market in Sanlitun, it’s worlds away from the usual overpriced and sanitized places that pass for cafes in the area and definitely much better than the corporate behemoth next door, aka The Village.  With its gentle and cozy atmosphere, Miao Cafe is like stepping into a real life version of the idealized European world in Miyazaki Hayao films.

Miao Cafe

Oh, it’s just so crackalicious! Miao Cafe is a veritable explosion of cute! The front half of the cafe is a little shop with a small selection of clothes and a large selection of cute things for the house and adorable stuffed animals, making it a very good place to find quirky gifts.

The back half is the actual cafe, where there are tables that are just big enough for two and a selection of teas and coffees to choose from. Prices range from  15 RMB to 25 RMB, so a visit to Miao Cafe will hardly break the bank.

A cute cat cushion

There’s no wifi here except what you can steal from the neighbors above, but this is no place to spend glued to the computer screen! Although that is the hip and modern thing to do, Miao Cafe is the place for a quiet afternoon reading a novel, or chatting with friends over coffee.

Miao Cafe would not complete without its own cat.  Here he is.  His name is Tiger.  How appropriate! Although there are two friendly proprietresses at Miao, we all know the truth: Tiger is the king of the cafe.

Cat photos at Miao Cafe

Because the cafe is tucked away in a side street and a little hard to find unless you know it’s there, here’s the address and phone number: 三里屯南31楼1号,No. 1, Building 31, South Sanlitun. (010)6415 3536.

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a room with a view

A follow-up to this post, this delightful little room is upstairs over at Sugar Jar 白糖罐, an indie record store in the 798 / Dashanzi area. As you can see from the photo, the ground floor comprises the record store itself, with an excellent selection of the local indie rockists. Although it’s uncertain if the employees at Sugar Jar actually live in this little room, it’s not uncommon in China for shops to double up as the living space for the employees, especially if the shop is family-owned and run.

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the beekeeper of 定福庄

About 100 meters from the west gate at my university is a man selling honey.  This doesn’t seem particularly remarkable, but in fact, he is a beekeeper, raising the bees in his own backyard apiary nearby.

There are different varieties of honey, depending on the flowers that the bees fed on, and he had date flower honey 枣花密, huaihua honey 槐花密, and chaste tree honey 荆条密. I bought the huaihua honey because it had the lightest taste, while the date flower honey tasted surprisingly like dates, and the chaste tree honey had a strong scent. (This is all what is written down on the signs).

The honey wasn’t expensive–the giant jar that I bought was just 33 RMB, comparable to store brands.

He also sells beeswax, which makes me think that I’d like to have a go at making my own candles.  Nonetheless I’m tickled pink to be buying honey from a very local producer.

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quirkyBeijing reads

· Jackie Chan has a blog.
· A woman’s morning routine vs. a man’s morning routine, from ChinaSMACK. It’s a cute set of illustrations that is all too true!
· Where is the Manchu? A mystery at the Forbidden City, from Jottings from the Granite Studio.
· This has nothing to do with anything, but really, the We Love Miffy Flickr pool is a neverending source of happiness.

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    China via Fodor’s, circa 1979

    Now that the Olympics are over, and we in Beijing have nothing to talk about, it’s worth taking a look at how China was perceived through American eyes back in the day.

    Recently, I was given a copy of Fodor’s People’s Republic of China, published in 1979. Written by John Summerfield, “a long-time resident of Peking,” the book captures the ambivalent and restricted role that foreigners had in China before Tian’anmen Square, before the economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping, and apparently even before pinyin was used regularly by American travel writers–the book uses Wade-Giles and pinyin interchangeably.

    When this book went to print, Hua Guofeng–who recently passed away–was the chairman of the Chinese Communist Party and the leader of China.

    While much of the book still rings true today, the listings information is of course very different.  I’m fascinated even by simple things such as how phone numbers only had five or six digits.  The number of restaurants in Beijng that serve Western food is five, and his reviews are all quite negative.  The Doing Business in China chapter is devoted largely to the annual Canton Trade Fair, which is now called the China Import and Export Fair, and it is literally a step-by-step description.

    Below are some of the particularly interesting excerpts from the book:

    On Chinese morality:

    The Chinese people have a strict code of morality, and in their society, infringements are dealt with severely.  So as a visitor you should avoid any frivolous or flirtatious display of affection towards the opposite sex; it may be completely misinterpeted.

    Visitors who trangress the code are normally expelled from China with indelicate haste.

    On foreign students:

    Foregin students in China get a closer glimpse of Chinese society than almost anyone else.  To begin with, many of them write and speak the language, and some are ideologically receptive to the Chinese Communist system.  Many returned students have provided an insight into student life in China.  It would appear that many students have become disillusioned with the system after living under it for awhile.

    They do not appear to mind the Spartan living conditions, poor food, and lack of outside entertainment, but do object to the apparent attempt by authorities to prevent friendships from developing between themselves and the Chinese students.  Even their attempts to organize dances within the foreign student community itself have led to shouting confrontations between them and the university authorities.

    Fraternization with locals is sternly opposed.  There have been two recent cases of a foreign female student wishing to marry a male Chinese student, and every possible obstacle was placed in the path of the couples.  Both marriages eventually took place, but only after pressure by the foreign governments at the very highest level.

    Foreign students say they go through an emotional tunnel in China, beginning with initial euphoria and then passing successively through a phase of self-questioning, lurking doubt, determined goodwill, seething frustration and ending in either passive acceptance or open revolt.  The students frequently complain that the Chinese authorities  are evasive, secretive and self-righteous.  Some return to their home countries blaming themselves for taking China too seriously and for believing that it offered salvation for humanity and all its problems when, in fact, it is a country in search of solutions, just like any other.

    Summerfield isn’t shy to include his own brand of humor in the book, which is what often makes it rather amusing to read. For instance:

    On nightlife:

    Foreign residents often tease tourists by asking incredulously, “Haven’t you ever been taken to the Red Mango?” Look for the glint in their eyes.

    In brief: there is no nightlife, certainly not in the sense accepted in the non-Communist world. There are no nightclubs, cabarets, or floor shows. With two exceptions (Peking Hotel in Peking and Dong Fang Hotel in Canton) there are no bars, and even these are quiet plaes serving a limited range of drinks.

    Some things don’t change and some things really change.

    On  tipping and bargaining:

    Tipping is not practiced in China, and you will cause embarassment, perhaps even offense, if you try to tip.

    And never attempt to bargain.  You must either buy at the price indicated or not buy at all.

    And finally, since this is quirkyBeijing, a note on travel restrictions in Beijing:

    Unless you have special permission, your travel is restricted to an area encompassed by a 12-mile radius from the center of Peking.  However, you may proceed along specific routes outside this area without obtaining special permission.  These routes lead to the Great Wall, the Ming Tombs, the Fragrant Hills, and the airport.  The Summer Palace may also be visited without prior authorization.

    You are not permitted to stop on these specified routes or take any side roads.  There are also some areas within the 12-mile radius which are restricted, and normally Chinese guards will step out and indicate that you cannot proceed any further.  At the Ming TOmbs it is forbidden to travel from one tomb to another except by road.

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    how Beijing is different during the Olympics

    1. There’s no street food. This bothers me the most since I’m always hungry before and after work, and even though my commute only takes half an hour, I need to eat something on my way to the subway. The informal vendors who used to hang out by the Dawanglu subway station are no longer there. Also, all of the stores in my subway station have been shut down, depriving me of my favourite wonton joint and bakery.

    2. The traffic is much better since half the cars are taken off the road every day. I haven’t been in a traffic jam once within the Fifth Ring Road since the Olympics began. Funnily enough, the one time I did get in a traffic jam it was in Shunyi, a district commonly described as Beijing’s suburbia.

    3. Because of the car regulations and the shutdowns of the surrounding factories, the air is far better than it usually is. It smells great. It even seems a bit sweet. It is much better than it was this time last year. We’ve also had some spectacularly clear days, the kind that only happen a few times a year. Sometimes it is hazy, but it still seems nicer than the usual air we get here.

    4. Everyone is more polite, because no one wants to be that person who ruins someone else’s Olympic experience. The other day a man let me sit first when we both headed for the same subway seat. Because women hold up half the sky here, women aren’t usually given seats first, unless they are elderly or pregnant. Since the dashes for a Beijing subway seat could rival Usain Bolt’s world records, this was extremely welcome.

    5. The subway is decidedly more international. The subway is a place where usually the laobaixing (literally the Old Hundred Names, but it means “the common people”) and the brave who dare the masses enter. Even middle-class Chinese are hard to find on the subway. As for foreigners with fat expat packages, forget about it, they are getting around with taxis and their drivers. These days the subway feels like New York’s: a mix of people of all different classes and ethnicities.

    6. There are no non-Olympic advertisements anywhere. I do actually look at advertisements since they are a great way to practice my Chinese, but these days only official sponsors can display their advertisements. All of the ads, of course, are Olympic-themed. Even UPS has a terrific ad campaign.

    7. It’s strangely deserted–most of the migrant workers are gone as there is no work for them during the ban on construction until after the Paralympics. Many other residents of the city are avoiding the whole thing. Much of Beijing seems much quieter than it did before, with the exception of any restaurant or bar with a kilometer of an Olympic sports venue.

    To be honest, I like Beijing better during the Olympics. However, it would be better if the street food came back.

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    two chinese characters teach you how to say 加油!

    While I was doing research for this post for CNReviews, I came across this rather funny video on how to say 加油, which is what all the cool kids say when they are cheering at the Olympics–and anywhere else that people need a little bit of encouragement.   For instance, I live opposite an elementary school, and even now the kids are shouting 加油 at each other.

    This video is a production of the Two Chinese Characters,  John B. Weinstein & Carsey Yee, who also have two other videos teaching foreigners how to pronounce Beijing properly and how to pronounce the names of other Olympic cities. All of the videos are funny, but I like the 加油 one best.

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