Why the Chinese won’t be seen dead wearing Gucci

My children and I once spent a fascinating hour watching a Chinese chap in Malacca (Malaysia) constructing a fridge out of balsa wood and paper whilst his colleague put the finishing touches on a paper model of a car.  These were to be sold at one of the many shops that catered for people buying ‘funerary goods’.

These items are usually sold as offerings to be burnt for the dead so they can use them in the afterlife. In a way this is not dissimilar to what the ancient Egyptians did, being buried with items they could use in the hereafter; or what Chinese Emperors did by commissioning whole armies of Terracotta Warriors for their tombs.

In these ‘modern’ times the practice still continues in China.  Whilst you are less likely to see it in the north and west of the country in the southern seaboard provinces like Guangdong and Fujian and of course in Hong Kong.

In those parts of China ‘funerary goods’ are big business, and these days you can buy a whole lot more sophisticated paper items than those we saw being made in Malacca.


Qing Ming Festival 清明节  (aka Tomb Sweeping Festival) in early Spring is when buying and burning these goods comes to a head. For millennia it has been the custom to spend one of the festival days at the ancestral/parental tombs, clean them and adorn them and leave offerings – fruit, foods etc and to burn Hell Money and  paper goods.paper iphone

mercedes_joss          Whole paper villas with modern kitchens and swimming pools are available to buy. Paper cars with uniformed chauffeurs, Apple laptops,  iPhones,  Louis Vuitton bags,

Paper Gucci bag

Gucci bags and shoes have proved immensely popular.  Of course your dead ancestors might need more homely, practical items – Macdonald’s burgers and fries, new dentures and mouthwash, spectaclesPaper false teeth for the dead, a new watch…all available as paper replicas.  It is amazing what you can buy.

But this year Qing Ming took on a whole new twist when it turned out that in some of the big rich cities, sweeping the tombs of dead pets was becoming prevalent !!!  Rover the dog and Fluffy the cat were trumping the ancestors – wow, that’s something new.

Hot on the heels of that revelation is the news that last week, Italian fashion company Gucci  sent a ‘Cease and Desist’ letter to the Hong Kong shops selling Chinese funerary goods. Gucci claims that the paper replicas are ‘fake’ goods which are therefore illegal. For heaven’s sake – of course they are fake, they are made of PAPER!  Nobody thinks they are the real thing, and in any case people buy them to burn them…they are not exactly a drag on the real goods that Gucci produces and sells at high-end glitzy shops in China.         Gucci is not losing out – except for the fact they are not making the paper goods themselves – maybe they should get into the ‘funerary goods’ business asap.

Because if they can’t wear Gucci – the Dead will wear Prada!




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The Pongiest* Pizza is now available in China.

When you go out for a pizza, or order one to be delivered, what topping do you usually choose?


Quattro Stagioni,  Capricciosa, Margharita, Napoletana, or something a little different such as Durian Pizza?      Durian?…WTF!  the most horrible tasting/smelling fruit in the entire world combined with mozzarella as a pizza topping -whose crazy idea was that?

Two words:  Pizza Hut  ( 必胜客 Bìshèng Kè).

Yes folks, they are the geniuses behind this abomination.


Firstly I should say that whilst I do like a pizza once in a while, Pizza Hut, Pappa John’s and all those other big business pizza franchises are not where I would ever head, their pizzas don’t appeal.  The honourable exception to that view was the British pizza chain Pizza Express which was excellent when it first got going (it is now owned by a Chinese conglomerate).

But for Pizza Hut to come up with the ‘concept’ of durian on pizza beggars belief.

For those of you who do not know about durian, let me give you some background info.      A durian is a large spiky husked fruit with a pungent odour which is grown in SE Asia.     There are 30 species of the genus Durio, but the most common one found internationally is Durian kutejensis.  When ripe the smell of the fruit can be detected over a distance of half a mile by animals ranging from squirrels, mousedeer, elephants and carnivorous tigers – tigers! I kid you not.

Many years ago I tried Durian Ice-cream in Singapore – one spoonful was enough to make me gag, and despite washing my mouth out with water five or six times I just couldn’t get rid of the lingering taste. However people in Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia seem to love the fruit, and so do many Chinese.

I’ve heard the taste of durian described as ‘eating garlic flavoured egg custard over an open sewer’.  Two of the most famous cookery pundits have described it thus: “the taste of dead babies mixed with strawberries and Camembert” (Julia Childs);  and “its like french-kissing your dead grandmother” (Anthony Bourdain).  And I wouldn’t disagree with a word they sahttps://photos.travelblog.org/Photos/78711/363741/f/3337436-No-durian-sign-0.jpgid.

Most SE Asian airlines will not allow you to take a durian on a plane, Singapore Mass Transit bans them, and many hotels in Malaysia have large ‘No Durian’ signs posted on their entrance doors – I don’t blame them.

But will they be able to ban Durian Pizzas???



*pongiest is English slang for ‘smelliest’ – a pong is a  bad smell.


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Bead counters for Bean counters

Did you, or your children, or maybe your grandchildren have one of these?

My own grandsons have one – it is,of course, a child’s abacus. Coloured ‘beads’ on horizontal rods within a frame. Toddlers love pushing the beads back and forth and have no idea what they are really for.

Abacuses (abacii??) are an ancient form of counting device; prior to their invention stones or beans on a flat surface had been used in many ancient societies to tally numbers – of men, cattle, armaments, money owed etc.they were probably invented in China (wasn’t everything back in the day!) approximately 600BC.  By the end of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220AD) mathematician Xu Yue had initiated  the first ever concept of “abacus calculation” in his book ‘Memoir on Mathematical Art’.

Hmm… let me digress for a moment to tell you of a thought I had a few moments ago  – prostitutes are often said to be the oldest profession in the world, but I’d bet accountants run them a close second – there has ever been a desire by those in power to quantify money and goods for tax purposes (including the money prostitutes would make by plying their trade), and so the profession of accountancy was born – and accountants need calculators.  Just a thought.

What the Chinese did with this ancient and simple computing method was to put it all onto a flat plate which could be moved; and the Ancient Romans refined it to framework which could be carried from place to place.


Roman abacus

This in turn went back down the Silk Roads where the Chinese changed it slightly yet again.https://i0.wp.com/i.kinja-img.com/gawker-media/image/upload/s--MjouNq5c--/18rpvhglqfo61jpg.jpg

The concept of the abacus  – or sùanpán 算盤 (calculating plate) as the Chinese call it – went from the east through Egypt, Ancient Greece and then to Rome, taking in Russia, Persia etc. en route.  In fact it was the Ancient Greeks who gave the device the name abax or abakon which became ‘abacus’ as westerners call it today. They were widely used across Europe from the 12th century onward.

In recent times three types of abacus have been in common use –  Chinese, Japanese  and Russian.  The Chinese abacus is widely used throughout East Asia (apart from Japan and Korea which used the Japanese version called Soroban).

Staying in Singapore 30 years ago, I recall being gobsmacked by how fast a local shopkeeper could – using an abacus – add up the bill for my purchases.  I even bought an abacus which came with a booklet on how to use it and took it back to the UK. Alas I never mastered the system.  The crucial fact I failed to grasp was that an abacus does not solve the math problem, the human being using it does, what the abacus does is keep a tally of all the numbers as you work it through.

Since the invention of computers and electronic calculators there have been contests held in HK, China and Japan to see which is fastest at helping someone to solve a maths problem, and frequently the abacus beat the other devices.  However the honest answer is that it depends on the skill and dexterity of the abacus user.  Even novices can use a calculator easily, but to be fast on an abacus requires practice and lots of experience.

A Chinese friend of mine who is 30  told me that when she was in primary school and was 10 years old, they were all taught to use an abacus. These days, she tells me, few children in Chinese schools are taught to use it – the electric calculator has won the battle!

The reason for this post about ‘The Abacus’ is because on Sunday afternoon I took my DH to an area of Beijing called Gaobeidian.

Once a village to the east of the city it has now been subsumed into greater Beijing. Gaobeidian was always a village of furniture makers, and what little of it remains – two or three streets – still is.  There are lots of shops, workshops etc where you can find old and new Chinese furniture, and craftsmen who will copy a wooden screen, chair, cabinet etc.    I have spent several happy hours fossiking about in Gaobeidian.  On Sunday we spent two hours browsing around one of the bigger shops ‘Lily’s Antiques’ or  华伦古典家具 as it is called in Chinese.  Measuring tape in hand we were on the hunt for a console cupboard for our hall area.  After we found the perfect piece, we wandered round and found ourselves in a huge room full of shelves of ceramics; tucked away at the back the DH spotted something unusual  – a circular abacus!

Round suanpan 2

It was dusty and dirty but when we hauled it out we discovered a small metal label on the outer frame. It had been made in 1935.  Circular abacuses were in use in the Song Dynasty  (circa 960-1279 AD) and then enjoyed a revival in the late 1920s/30s.  It was going for a song (pun) and I didn’t even bargain, I knew we had to have it.  Now it is hanging on the wall in our apartment, looking fantastic.  Chinese friends who have seen it are astounded, they have never seen a circular abacus before.

When I have finally mastered the complexities of reading, writing and speaking Mandarin, perhaps I will find someone who can teach me to use an abacus!



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Recently I had to take a plate of appetisers as a contribution to a pot-luck lunch party.  The guests were a mixed bunch of Brits, Germans, Chinese and Filipinos, I wanted to make something out of the ordinary which would link Asian and Western foods.
During the Victorian and Edwardian eras in Britain (think Downton Abbey!), posh dinners always ended with a ‘savoury’, which would be served after the dessert and before the ladies left the men to their port and cigars.
Apparently the idea was to cleanse the palate of ‘sweet’ tastes from the dessert course before further red wines and port were served.
Some of these savouries have become classics and have even crossed to the USA; however these days they are often eaten not as end of meal tidbits, but as appetisers.
Amongst the most famous of these savouries are Scotch Woodcock ( a posh name for scrambled egg with anchovies on a snippet of fried bread), Welsh Rarebit, and Angels/Devils-on-Horseback.
When I was doing my regular shop in San Yuan Li market, I discovered that sealed bags of freshly peeled water chestnuts were available from the ladies who sell me mushrooms.
That decided me, I would make a Chinese version of the ubiquitous Angels-on-Horseback (grilled bacon-wrapped oysters) or Devils-on-Horseback (grilled bacon-wrapped prunes). I used fresh peeled water-chestnuts wrapped in bacon and pinned with a bamboo toothpick, and brushed them with a sweet and spicy sauce, then grilled them. This is not new, it has been done before, but all the recipes I’ve seen used canned water-chestnuts and didn’t jazz them up with a Chinese sauce, which is what I planned to do.
Water-chestnuts are not a nut at all, they are the edible corm of a grass-like sedge (Elecharis dulcis) which grows in the underwater mud of marshes.  Once peeled they yield a crisp white ‘nut’ which the Chinese use in many foods to give a crunchy texture. They can be eaten raw, boiled, sweetened or even dried then ground into a type of flour.                        I love eating them in salads, casseroles, stir-fries, spring rolls etc.
peeled water chestnuts
Although they are deliciously crunchy, peeling them is a bit of a chore to say the least; in that way they do resemble the traditional chestnut, which is an absolute bugger to peel.So you can imagine how pleased I was to discover bags of freshly peeled ones in the market!
I don’t think fresh Water-chestnuts  peeled or unpeeled are available in the UK or outside the far east, but you can buy tinned peeled ones* in the World/Asian foods section of most western supermarkets, and they would do almost as well.
Dragons on Horseback 1
I decided these appetisers needed a proper name so I have re-branded them as
They were ridiculously easy to put together, and you can prep them in advance and just grill them at the last minute if you want to serve them hot – but they are just as delicious  if cooked earlier and served at room temperature.
Dragons on Horseback 2JPG
24 pieces
12 rashers streaky bacon (I used smoked, but un-smoked would be fine)
12 peeled water-chestnuts (if using tinned you may need more as they are smaller)
24 bamboo toothpicks
For the basting sauce
2 tablespoons tomato ketchup
2 tablespoons soft brown sugar or runny honey
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1/2  teaspoon chilli & garlic sauce  (I use Lee Kum Kee brand which is excellent)
Pre-heat oven to 180C
Line a baking tray with tinfoil and oil it lightly.
Cut bacon rashers in half so you have 24 pieces.
Cut water-chestnuts in half.
Roll bacon pieces round each piece of water-chestnut and pin with a toothpick.
Mix the ketchup, sugar/honey, soy sauce and ‘Chili & Garlic Sauce’ together.
Put the dragon rolls into the baking tray and brush them with the sauce.
Bake in the pre-heated oven for 10 minutes. You can turn them half way through and re-baste them with sauce.
They look good laid out on a large dish lined with fresh lettuce leaves.
*If you are buying tinned/canned water chestnuts for this recipe, be sure you buy a can that says ‘whole’ water-chestnuts’, sliced or diced will not do. 
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How not to win friends and influence nations

Long ago, when I was a small girl living in Africa I learned an important lesson – don’t stir up trouble unnecessarily.

One day my parents were at a lunch party at someone’s house; I must have been 5 or 6 years old and I was given a bottle of fizzy lemonade with a straw. I wandered off the terrace into the garden where there was a ‘rockery’. [In central Africa during the 1950s, anthills and termite mounds were often disguised as rockeries with the aid of a few large stones and some strategically placed plants]. I climbed up the rockery and found a hole at the top, ants were coming and going.african ants I thought it would be interesting to see what happened if I poured some of my lemonade down the hole – so I did.  Instantly what seemed like millions of ants rushed out of the hole and climbed all over me, biting everywhere.  I let out a shriek, and had to be carried into the house and dumped, clothes and all, into a bath of cold water to get rid of the ants.

You may wonder why I have told you that little anecdote.  Well, at the moment US Senator Ted Cruz of Texas is in the process of pouring lemonade down an anthill, so to speak.           He has introduced Senate Bill 2451, to change the name of the street in Washington on which the Chinese Embassy is located. His Bill has already been passed by the Senate without amendment  – it is now a matter of conjecture as to whether President Obama will sign the bill into law.Washington Embassy USA At present the street address is 3505 International Place but Senator Cruz  wants it changed to 1 Liu Xiaobo Plaza.

Liu Xiaobo 4

Liu Xiaobo is a Chinese citizen who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. He is well known academically and for his opinions on human rights.   The Chinese government seems to think that the decision to award him the Peace Prize was a deliberatly provocative attempt to stir up trouble in China, as they thought he had done nothing to foster  peace either in China or abroad.

Not long before this, Liu Xiaobo  was arrested in China, charged with actions ‘jeopardizing China’s National Security’, tried,  and sentenced to 11 years in jail.  Many people think that this is a travesty, and that he should be released, and have protested vociferously against his imprisonment.

I have no idea whether the charges against Liu Xiaobo are true or false, but I do know that this action by Sen. Cruz is not going to change anything or help Liu Xiabo in any meaningful way; and the  decision to do this seems rather puerile.

Like the ants in the rockery, many Chinese citizens, as evidenced on Weibo, are hopping mad at his lack of diplomacy, and his crude attempt to rile the Chinese powers-that-be. Because this isn’t conducive to two countries understanding and learning from one-another.

How would the United States like it if a member of the Politburo endeavored to have the name of the street in Beijing on which the US Embassy is located renamed  after Edward Snowden?  or Watergate?  or  – as some have rudely suggested – after Monica Lewinsky?


When you disapprove of the way another sovereign nation manages its affairs, there are ways of letting them know it, and hopefully initiating constructive dialogue. Sen. Cruz should learn how to do that – not be like me and stir up unnecessary trouble and international antagonism.

I try to keep this blog a politics-free zone, but so many people here in Beijing have told me how rude they think the US is being in this case, that I felt you would be interested in what gets them riled up!



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For some reason the flight back to China from the UK – over three weeks ago – left me with the worst jet-lag I’ve ever had. It has taken me all this time to get my body clock back to normal, which is just one reason for my long blogging hiatus.


Jet-lag is a horrible experience, you feel disorientated, exhausted, irritable, queasy,and lethargic; you have a perpetual headache and you are unable to sleep when you want and need to.
It’s not just your head that suffers, your gut does too – in fact it probably suffers more than your head, as all your bodily functions are way out of line, so you feel hungry at weird times, and yet have little appetite to eat much. Your bowels start behaving badly.

When I was younger it didn’t seem to hit me so hard – mind you, I was not doing the same number of long distance flights as I am doing these days – in 2015 I did four return flights between China and the UK, plus flying to south India and back – that is a lot of air-miles. Because there is an seven/eight hour time difference between China and the UK jet-lag has always been an issue for me, but never as bad as this time.

Jetlag east west

Jet-lag is worse if you are flying eastwards, and less so if flying westwards.
Apparently this is because if you fly eastwards you lose time, and if you fly westwards you gain time. Best of all is to fly up or down the globe staying more-or-less in the same time zone.

Seriously, human beings were not designed to whizz half-way round the world in a matter of hours, and yet many of us do it regularly. A long journey of two or three months by sea would let the body adjust gradually to new time zones (but then again you could suffer from mal-de-mer which is also pretty ghastly).

This time even my usual anti-jet lag tactics didn’t seem much help. I turned my watch to Chinese time as soon as I got on the plane, I didn’t drink alcohol, I kept hydrated. I stayed awake (eyes propped open with matchsticks) till the appropriate time to sleep and I took a 5mg melatonin capsule half an hour before bed.

Getting to sleep wasn’t the problem, it was getting back to sleep after waking in the wee small hours. At first I thought that as I was awake I might as well read my book – on a Kindle, check out Facebook on my iPad, read the UK press online etc.  But the sleeplessness went on and on.

Finally I decided to do something I had read about on Huffington Post,  I would ban all my electronic devices from the bedroom. No iPad, no Kindle, no WeChat, no text messages.  It took a day or two but now my sleep is back on track.  I decided to continue the no devices rule, as a result I am sleeping better than I have for ages. Apparently these devices emit ‘blue light’ which muddles your brain about what time of day it is – so when I was taking melatonin it was like pressing on the accelerator and brake at the same time – and your mind becomes over stimulated by all the stuff you are reading/watching etc.

If you want to sleep better and longer, perhaps you should consider banning  all electronic devices from your bedroom too.


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Play it as it lies – Golf in China

traigh-golf-course-towards-second_w600I’m not a golfer – are you?

Here in China the popularity of the game of Golf has grown by leaps and bounds over the past few decades. But (and it is a very big but) in the minds of the laobaixing  (ie the common people) it is a symbol of wealth and often of corruption.   Being a member of any of China’s golf clubs is very, very expensive indeed so there is some rationale behind their views. Indeed, Chairman Mao banned the game after coming into power in 1949, calling it ‘a sport for millionaires’.

Chinese golf course 1Building and maintaining golf courses requires large areas of land and vast amounts of water. As the population of China (1.3 billion, give or take) live on only 10% of the land mass of China – the rest of the country being mountain or desert – it is felt by some that building golf courses is taking up much-needed land and is inappropriate.  Never-the-less the number of golf courses has grown and grown. Beijing, Guangdong, Haikou, Shenzen, Shanghai, Chongqing – you name a city and you’ll discover  they all have several golf courses. In the glitzy shopping malls in all the big cities you will find Golf Shops, selling amazingly expensive clubs, clothing and accessories and some of the most vulgar golf bags you could find on this or any other planet – I’m talking gold faux alligator here!

So when President Xi Jin Ping launched his anti-corruption drive last year, one of the targets was golf club membership. This year members of the Communist Party of China (some 88 million folk) have been banned from (a) using Party funds to buy membership of any golf club, and (b) banned from accepting membership of a golf club as a gift, and needless to say, playing golf during working hours is strictly verboten.                                                                                                                   Furthermore, on 30th March this year, 66 “illegal” golf clubs were summarily closed – that’s approximately 10% of all the golf courses in China – so the powers-that-be are taking it very seriously indeed.

However I think golf will continue to be played here, and increasing numbers of well-to-do Chinese will go abroad to play golf.  Indeed the world-renowned Wentworth Club in England is now owned by a Chinese company which intends to spend mega-bucks in renovating and ‘improving’ the facilities. Both the Union Jack and the Chinese flag are flown at the front entrance to the club!(there has been a bit of a brouhaha about this recently).

Married, as I am, to a Scotsman, I am choosing my words exceedingly carefully from now on. Particularly as he and I  both come from keen golfing families (my late Dad, my mum-in-law, father-in-law, sister and brother-in-law, an aunt or two, not to mention cousins etc) and numerous friends in France, South Africa and the UK are all passionate adherents of the game. MQofS playing golfThe Scots claim Golf as the game THEY invented, and there is very well documented history of golf being played in Scotland for hundreds of years.

R&A St Andrews 1 The Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews which was founded in 1754 AD  (a mere 9 miles from our family house in Scotland) is the centre of golf world-wide; laying down the rules, and setting the standards for balls, clubs, courses, and competitions.

What is interesting to me is that China has a long, long history with a game that is very like golf.       Is it… could it…be possible that CHINA invented golf long before the Scots.

Ming Emperor Xuande playing Chuiwan - Chinese Golf

Ming Emperor Xuande playing Chuiwan – Chinese Golf

Way way back,  in 1050 AD, during the Song Dynasty, a game called Chuiwan 捶丸  (chuiwan literally translates as ‘ball hitting’) became very popular. At the time there were several books setting out the rules for the game, and they are remarkably similar to the rules for the game of golf.

Chinese golf 2 The game took place on a specially laid out area, the aim of the game was to hit a small ball into a ancient-golf-in-china-chuiwan-toolsseries of holes, with the holes being spaced out over ground of differing surface thus making some holes more difficult than others;  each player could have as many as ten different ‘clubs’ for hitting various shots, and play had to start from a designated spot – the ji. One particular Emperor, Huizong, was reputed to be a very keen player.

China golf ladiesThe game was played by both men and women but  for some reason it eventually fell out of favour, was no longer played, and became almost forgotten.

Maybe the time has come for a revival.


One final thought – Christmas is almost upon us – if you have a golf mad member of your family  this is an excellent book which would make a very good gift:    9781851689484_1                                                                                                                   ‘The Forbidden Game: Golf and the Chinese Dream‘ by Dan Washburn; available from Amazon and at all good bookshops.


This blog post is respectfully dedicated to Bully in Hermanus, Gill in Plett , Bryan in Chadlington, Eva in Paris, and Hugh in London – golfers all!





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