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08.15.2006

Five Friendlies

The Five Friendlies (fúwá) are the 2008 Olympic mascots whose reign of terror over Beijing will soon spread to all of China and then the world. Their cutesy doubled names collectively spell out "Beijing huanying ni", or "Beijing welcomes you". The air outside any metro station is thick with the cries of merchants selling little dangly souvenir versions of these guys with a morose "Fwa hwa. Fwa hwa"

Engineered for maximum cuteness and symbolic value, the Friendlies look ready to combine into a ruthless Voltron of Olympic hospitality. Wanbro has a nice rundown on their origins, along with a list of other candidate Friendlies who didn't quite make the cut. I particularly regret the absence of Baibai and Jiujiu (baijiu, or whitebooze, is the unspeakable Chinese rice vodka that really welcomes you to Beijing).

As I've never been a big fan of the panda and don't have strong feelings about the Tibetan antelope, I thought I would choose my own five friendlies from Beijing, the things that have made living in the city these past four months worthwhile.

  1. The Umbrella Condom

    Last month Beijing got an amazing 25 days of rainfall. This turned many a morning walk into a challenging game of sidewalk hopscotch, especially for white-collar women, who almost universally wear open-toe shoes with high heels to work. Drainage is not a Beijing strong point (the preferred way of clearing standing water is to let it convert naturally into mosquitoes and fly off under its own power) and so a steady week of rain can make the morning commute downright difficult. Sidewalks tend to be made of many small concrete tiles, half of which are broken or missing, and you can never tell whether a given gap in the pavement is just a few millimeters deep or will swallow your entire leg if you are foolhardy enough to step into it.

    So it was a particular surprise on reaching my office building to be stopped by a courteous uniformed guard who closed my umbrella and put it into a whirring blue machine, not unlike a golf-club cleaner. This machine encased the umbrella in a waterproof plastic sheath, so I could walk into the building with no fear of getting myself or the floors uncomfortably wet.

    Places that don't have a fully-automated umbrella condom applicator will usually employ people (China - land of the crappy job!) to stand in the doorway and roll them on by hand, or else offer some kind of umbrella-checking service as you shop or eat lunch. Wal-Mart, always out at the frontiers of customer service, even takes it to a crazy extreme and offers loaner Wal-Mart umbrellas to departing customers for a nominal deposit.

    The contrast between the primordial streets and this Everest of civilization could not be stronger; you can't help but feel a wistful pang of what Beijing might be like if people decided that cleanliness, comfort and safety could actually extended past the uniformed guards at each spotless glass doorway.

  2. Qian Xi Wine

    When you think "dry cabernet sauvignon" you are unlikely to be whisked away by your imagination to the rolling vineyards of the People's Republic of China. This is a country, after all, with a three thousand year tradition of brewing undrinkable alcoholic beverages out of rice. From baijiu to pineapple beer, if it can make you wince and shake your head back and forth like a cat stuck in a paper bag, the Chinese will happily bottle it and sell it to you. But having tasted both discount Moldovan wine in New York City, and a bottle of some ghee-like liquid labelled "NOT TO BE SOLD OUTSIDE TIERRA DEL FUEGO / MALVINAS / ANTARCTICA REGION" in Ushuaia, I was not going to be deterred by a bottle of Qian Xi red wine at Wal-mart.

    The label promised, in Zapf Chancery:


    Qian Xi
    Multiluck Dry Red Wine
    The excellent quality of this wine is highly evaluated by the connoisseurs

    And to my enormous surprise, the label was right. Not only was the wine tasty and drinkable (especially after 'breathing' for about 30 hours), with notes of luck and bayberries, but the name even scanned perfectly for late-night caterwaulings of 'red red wine' in broken Chinese:


    qian xi jiu
    lai wo de tou-ou-ou...

    Liquid mattress, pity party and mild alcoholism in one three-dollar bottle? Don't mind if I do!

  3. Jian Bing

    For weeks jian bing was my breakfast mystery, my breakfast obsession. My sin, my soul, jian bing. I saw it sold many places, it was a treat to watch it prepared, and the local jiang bing lady was the nicest breakfast vendor one could ask for, but I could never figure out what was in it. The key ingredient was a crunchy rectangle that looked like an oversized loofah or crisp bread but eluded all attempts at identification. I couldn't even tell whether it was animal, vegetable or mineral; all I knew was that it was fried and had black specks on it. As the days went by and the flavor of this breakfast grew on me, I braced myself for the worst. Pork skin? Silkworm cake? Fish flakes? Monkey dander?

    Jiang bing is a variety of filled crepe. The cook fries the crepe on one side, breaks an egg over it and spreads it around, sprinkles on some black or white sesame seeds, flips the crepe over and then brushes it with hot chili peppers and something resembling hoisin sauce. She then sprikles on some diced shallots and greens and places a mystery rectangle from a shelf at the top of the crepe stand in the middle of the crepe, folding the sides of the crepe over its edges. The whole package is then creased with the metal spatula so that it folds neatly in three, like a wallet, and is bundled into a little plastic bag where it continues to cook and burble as you take it to the office. The rectangular filling starts out rigid but quickly softens with the heat and moisture.

    After weeks of observation, I decided that the square had to be some kind of cartilage. It resembled shark fin in color and seemed to have a meaty taste to it. But to my utter surprise, the flaky material turned out to be nothing more than deep-fried wheat dough. The meaty taste came from one of the MSG-rich sauces.

    So the whole jiang bing experience is shallow-fried dough wrapped around deep-fried dough, with eggs and hot sauce to give it oomph and some token vegetables to preserve face. That is a breakfast I can get behind.

  4. Lunchtime Lottery Tickets

    In Red China, waitress tips YOU! In Chinese restaurants, instead of having to pay a gratuity at the end of the meal, in many places the wait staff will give you scratch-off tickets along with your receipt. The number of tickets varies with the size of your order. Each ticket can win you a prize of up to about 500 yuan (about $60) in cash.

    Interestingly enough, not only does the fortune cookie turn out to be an entirely American invention, but even that staple of Chinese restaurant desserts, the sliced-up orange served on toothpicks, never makes an appearance. Indeed, the real Chinese dessert is not something you eat at all. Each place setting comes with its very own ashtray and when a table next to you finishes eating you immediately understand why.

  5. Cargo Bicycles

    Urban china is a Critical Mass dreamland come to life. Cars for personal use (legalized in the 90's) may be turning China's cities into a nightmare of gridlock, but for the moment bicycles still predominate. Apart from the usual clunker bikes people use to get around, there is a whole breed of cargo bicycles for various kinds of urban schlepping. Beijing is a massively spread-out city, but errands that would require a van or pickup truck in the West are still performed here by hiring a cargo bike guy.

    The cargo bikes vary widely, from plain open-bed models to moped-like hybrids, some of the very fanciest even sporting a jury-rigged cab with radio and windshield wipers. The cargo bike guys vary widely, too, from jaunty, athletic young men to some seriously beat-up old guys with snaggly teeth and skin that turned to leather from decades of napping in the sun. They fill the niche here that in the West belongs to couriers, van drivers and moving men. During the hottest part of the day, the cargo bike guys sit under parasols and play checkers or dominoes, and around noon they all take a traditional Beijing nap. Depending on the weather, the cargo bike platform makes either an excellent mattress or a protective sunshade. I tend to walk to lunch on tiptoe so not to wake these guys.

    You have to see the cargo bikes under heavy load to believe what they can carry. My particular favorite so far has been a derelict bike with no motor carrying an enormous stack of plate glass, easily half a meter in height and extending so far off the ends and sides of the platform that the glass bent under its own weight. Though the bike was barely moving, it must have needed at least three blocks of hand-braking to come to a stop, and any pedestrian who got in its way must have been instantly julienned.

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