April 29, 2009
For my birthday this year, Michelle and the boys took me to a lovely dinner at the Grange, a restaurant at the very nice Westin Hotel here in Beijing. At the end of our nice dinner, the waiter presented me with a waiver to sign before I could take my leftovers home. (Contrary to my brother's remarks, it was not a waiver saying that we knew the doggy bag did not contain any actual dog.)
The doggy bag itself also had bilingual instructions warning of the dangers and telling people how to reheat the food for maximum safety.
OK, I get it, there are dumb people who will leave the leftovers out, get sick, and then sue, but I still think this was a bit ridiculous. Apparently, this silliness is not restricted to China or the Westin. In Australia, restaurants are choosing between the waiver and ending doggy bags altogether due to the risk of lawsuits.
Time for a little personal responsibility, folks...
April 23, 2009
Michael (8) has decided to move from Guitar Hero to the real thing. So, two weekends ago, I took him down to Gulou Dajie, a street downtown with a bunch of music shops. We went through all of them and quickly found a nice little, locally made acoustic for 400 RMB (about USD $60) at a place called Xanders. I must say that everyone at the shops was very friendly and attentive -- not at all like my instrument shopping experiences in the US where the cooler-than-thou musicians/clerks are too busy screwing around with their buddies to deal with newbies like me.
This weekend, Michael had his first guitar lesson and walked out playing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. His instructor asked him for a song he likes and wants to learn so he can start working on it next week; Michael made the ambitious choice of The Ballroom Blitz. It's quite a step up in difficulty from Twinkle, but I think he's up for it.
April 22, 2009
You must watch this mad bicycle action.
According to the YouTube blurb, this guy is Danny MacAskill, a team rider fro Inspired Bicycles. I had no idea you could this stuff on a bike. Not sure whether to show it to the boys to inspire them to work hard at stuff or to hide it from them forever in the fear they would try this. Wild.
(Thanks to Warren for the link.)
April 20, 2009
Recently, I've been afflicted by a disease common to many men (esp. expats it seems) in Beijing: I'm obsessed with an old sidecar motorcycle called the Chang Jiang 750. It's a copy of a 1938 BMW R71 motorcycle that was made in large quantities for the Chinese army through the second half of the twentieth century. Shops around town restore the surplus bikes and make them look absolutely gorgeous. A fully loaded and sweetly restored bike might run 30000-40000 RMB+ (about USD $4500-6000); although this is expensive by local standards, I consider it something of an affordable luxury.
The bikes aren't super fast (they have a 746cc engine creating 24 or 36 horsepower), they leak oil, and you can't ride them on the freeways in Beijing, but I think they're just plain cool. (I'm torn between the charcoal grey and the deep blue. Of course, black just looks great too.) Plus, since they're older than thirty years old, you can export them back to the US afterwards. I just need to convince myself and the family this is a good idea...
There are quite a few websites on these motorcycles. Here are a few I found useful and seemingly trustworthy.
(All photos from cj750.net -Big Bill's)
April 18, 2009
Although we've had Green T. House on our list for a while, Michelle and I stumbled upon it one afternoon as we were exploring a village near our house. This striking, all-white, airy restaurant is set at the back of an industrial-area-turned-art district near Hegezhuang Village in Shunyi (the suburby/farmy area east of Beijing where we live.) It's hidden behind all-white walls and centered in a field of white pebbles; the sidewalk to the building skirts the outside edge of this field.
The food is innovative Chinese with European fusion elements. For instance, we had an amazing baked eggplant dish topped with Parmesan cheese (a great match, actually) and colorful steamed man tou (buns) with a pesto dipping sauce (also lovely). The names of some of the dishes are fun too, like "Have you been in contact with fowl in the last seven days?" (a great dish with spicy chicken bits in deep fried tea leaves.) The wine list is also good (if pricey); the cocktails were OK. Service is very good and the staff speak English well. The menus are in English and Chinese.
They're building a bathhouse (spa?) behind the restaurant and will soon start to have tea tastings as well, which should be good. There's a Green T. House in Chaoyang too, which is apparently all black. We'll have to get over there too.
Address: No. 318 Cuige Zhuang Xiang, Hege Zhuang Cun, Chaoyang, Beijing +86-10-6434-2519
This is Daniel Boulud's latest restaurant and the first outside the US. The restaurant is in the old American Embassy in the newly renovated and very upscale Legation Quarter (it's also called the Ch'ien Men 23 area), once the location of foreign embassies, just off the east side of Tiananmen Square. (Here's the Wikipedia article on the historical Legation Quarter.)
As you would expect from a Boulud restaurant, the food was perfectly prepared and the service almost spot on (one waitress had to call another person over to understand my "dirty martini" order). Like at the China Grill, it almost didn't feel like we were in China. My tasting menu with wine pairings was excellent (and they kept refilling my glass -- a nice plus). It's a great place to dress up and get away from the commotion of China. It's maybe the perfect place before taking in a symphony or opera at the National Centre for the Performance Arts (aka "the Egg") nearby. They have English menus and speak English well.
We walked around the Legation Quarter after dinner and checked out some of the other bars and restaurants. They're mostly just opening up now (lots of soft openings) so the managers were happy to show us around. Looks like there will be some fun places.
Address: Number 23 Qianmen Dong Da Jie. +86-010-6559-9200
In the past few weeks, we've been to a few really amazing restaurants set in very different but beautiful locations. This is the first of three posts describing the restaurants. The others are Maison Boulud a Pekin and Green T. House Living.
This may be my favorite restaurant in Beijing now and is certainly the best Beijing duck place (IMHO). This gorgeous restaurant is part of the 1949 Hidden City complex -- a set of very cool bar/restaurants in an old factory complex in Chaoyang. The area has my favorite balance of swish yet comfortable.
I had the good fortune to meet the manager and chef on one visit; they gave us a tour of the kitchen and explained their process. They have very strict quality standards, using a particular kind of duck, fed a particular way, and harvested at exactly 39 days. The cook the ducks over a wood fire (and the wood is aged, etc.) and even make their own hoisin sauce. The chef is from Hong Kong, so he brings the more delicate Cantonese style to their Beijing cuisine. (Their slogan is the cheeky "One Duck, Two Systems" borrowed from the phrase that China uses to describe how they rule Hong Kong, "One Country, Two Systems".) The duck was lightly smoky, not dry at all and yet not fatty or oily. They presented slices of crispy skin-only, skin with meat, and just meat so each diner could choose their own balance. Simply perfection. The other dishes were well-prepared also. One mixed veggie dish is a good example. While it seemed simple, each of the different vegetables was perfectly done (even though they had different cooking times) and coated with exactly the right amount of the sauce; there was no extra sauce pooling on the bottom of the dish nor was anything under-covered.
According to Michelle, their lunchtime dim sum is among the very best dim sum she's ever had (and we've had some damn good dim sum before). The restaurant also has a good (if expensive) wine list, makes good cocktails (hard to find in Beijing), and has the first Bollinger champagne bar in Beijing. They have English menus, and the staff can manage some English. There are a few other places in the 1949 Hidden City I want to try including a noodle bar and taverna. They also have a private club called the 49 Club; we looked into it, but it was just an expensive way to get private dining rooms. Maybe good for people who do a lot of business entertaining, but not worth it for us. In any case, 1949 and Duck de Chine are definitely worth visiting.
April 14, 2009
We went to an Easter party at our neighborhood's club house yesterday. There was a well-intentioned Easter egg hunt plus other activities and booths. While were were there, the boys and I were interviewed by a reporter from the China Daily. Some of our quotes were included in the article in today's edition. The other family in the story lives down the street and have become good friends recently too. Kind of fun...
By Erik Nilsson (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-04-13 09:34
Families in Beijing's Shunyi district put all their eggs in one basket to celebrate Easter together yesterday - but they had to find them first.
The egg hunt organized by Beijing Dragon Bay Villa was accompanied by appearances by the Easter Bunny - both in the forms of a villa staff member clad in a giant pink rabbit suit and live baby bunnies - face painting and egg decorating.
"This is a family time, and children love (it)," says the villa's property manager Zheng Min.
Finding the hidden eggs and candy helped alleviate homesickness for 11-year-old Andrew Chor and his 8-year-old brother, whose family moved from the US to Beijing four months ago.
"We used to do this a lot at home, and at first, I thought we wouldn't be doing it in China," Andrew says, holding up his sack of eggs, candy and toothpaste. He proudly announces he found six eggs, and his brother found five.
The boys' father Tony says he's happy the kids were able to join the fun. "The kids were kind of unsure about moving to China overall, and something like this makes the transition easier," he says.
Scot Julie Hansen, whose family moved to China four months ago, believes joining the party helped keep her family's Easter traditions alive.
Hansen brought sons Patrick, 10, and Thomas, 6, to join the fun. "It helps us meet some of our neighbors and bring some European traditions to China," she says.
April 11, 2009
Recently, Microsoft announced that we would be ending both the DVD and online editions of the Encarta products on October 31, 2009. I was part of that team when I worked on Bookshelf. I also was the program manager for the first version of Encarta Online.
While I understand why the company made this decision, I'm still sad. The Wikipedia and the broader internet are amazing resources of information, and I love both dearly. However, I think we're losing something with the disappearance of the consistent editorial voice and perspective that products like Encarta had vs. the crowd-sourced, mass view of something like Wikipedia.
What's more, I think kids are losing a huge asset in Encarta. A lot of articles in Wikipedia are simply not written in a way that is understandable to kids. Take for example, the first line of the the articles on carbon dating, which Andrew (11) just had to research.
Encarta Encyclopedia (Carbon Dating): "Carbon Dating, method for determining the approximate age of ancient objects by measuring the amount of carbon 14 they contain."
Wikipedia (Radiocarbon Dating): "Radiocarbon dating, or carbon dating, is a radiometric dating method that uses the naturally occurring radioisotope carbon-14 (14C) to determine the age of carbonaceous materials up to about 60,000 years."
Even I don't understand all of the words in the Wikipedia article. I'll have to go buy a copy of the last DVD version so the kids have something they can use.
It's also worth looking back at how innovative these reference products were back in the day. The old story about Encarta is that it was a second-rate grocery store encyclopedia (Funk & Wagnalls) dressed up with some multimedia assets. But, it was much more than that. Encarta really revolutionized encyclopedias and helped bring the end of print encyclopedias. It was the first encyclopedia to have comprehensive updates every year (and eventually monthly) and was freed from the constraints of print. (For print encyclopedias to add content to one article, they have to remove text from another one in that volume.)
The team also created different versions for different markets. The creation of local market versions of reference products is a fascinating and challenging topic; you can't just translate articles; different countries have different perspectives on history plus articles have different relative importance. For example, the baseball article in the US should be long and detailed, but it probably shouldn't be more detailed than the cricket article in the British version.
The user interface of Encarta starting in 1995 was also very innovative. It was the first major product to move away from the grey 3D Windows 3.x UI to the more sleek, flat look you see today. It was a huge pain-in-the-butt to develop for our programmers, but I think it was critical to Encarta's success and one of the few good models in Microsoft history of how to let design lead development (vs. the other way around, which is more typical at MS.)
I learned a lot during my time working on Encarta and Bookshelf and have nothing but respect and admiration for my colleagues and friends from that period. I'm proud of what we accomplished, and am sad to see these products fade into the sunset. I hope something else will fill the gap.
April 4, 2009
Everyone knows China is a big place, but how's this for a little perspective. Hainan (location of our recent vacation) is the smallest province in China. Even then, it's the size of Belgium, with a population that's only 20% less (8.18 million in Hainan vs. 10.7 miliion in Belgium). Crazy.
Last weekend, we took advantage of the boys' short spring break (two days off school -- shorter than normal this year because of the late start due after the Olympics) to take a quick jaunt down to Sanya, a city on the south coast of Hainan Island. Hainan is on the south coast of China in the South China Sea near Vietnam; it's often referred to as the "Hawaii of China." It's a popular resort destination for Chinese and expats, plus it's apparently a big draw for visitors from Taiwan, Japan, and Korea. More interestingly, it's a huge favorite for Russian tourists. On our drive from the airport, we saw a lot of signs with Russian on them.
Contrary to my normal vacation mode where I want to see a lot things at our destination, this time we just wanted to sit around, soak up the warmth, and relax. To that end, we chose to stay at the Banyan Tree Resort in Sanya. The resort is away from the bustle of the more popular hotel areas, in a quiet section on Luhuitou Bay. We spent a lot of our time in and around the private pool in our two bedroom villa, going to the beach to play in the sand and warm water in the mornings when it was a bit cooler. The boys thought the midnight swims were especially cool.
(This is a Photosynth view of our villa. It's a composite image of a few hundred photos. You may need to install Photosynth first. BTW, Photosynth is a super cool technology by the big brain guys at Microsoft Live Labs. Worth checking out.)
I managed to sneak out to Luhuitou Golf Club for my first round in eighteen months. It turns out that not playing for a while doesn't help your game. Fortunately, I was playing alone save for my caddie, who was polite enough not to laugh, and the course was impeccably maintained with perfect greens (not that I could make a putt to save my life.)
The facilities were undeniably lovely and the service was very good (particularly by Chinese standards). The only real downer (and probably the thing that would encourage us to to try someplace else next time) was the food. It was very inconsistent, ranging from great to fair, and the menu was pretty limited. By the end of our fourth day, we were pretty bored with the selection. (Although I did have a pretty good Hainan Chicken Rice - always good to try a dish in the place of its origin.)
Still, it was great to get away from the dusty grey and brown air and ground of Beijing for warm, humid, clean air and lush tropical environs of Sanya. We all had a very enjoyable and relaxing time.