Green surprises in Beijing: gardening in China’s capital

by Tamara Treichel

Spring is upon us again, with thoughts of flowers and gardens shooting up.

Love of houseplants is universal, except if you have a nomadic lifestyle, I suppose.

Most residences and offices have some kinds of plants, at least some plain-Jane pothos or bashful peace lilies.

“Oh yes! It’s necessary for me to have plants,” a fellow expat called Diane told me. I, too, couldn’t imagine my life here without them; else I would feel I would just be slumming it in a hotel-like setting instead of my home, which is in a hutong house. My friends and coworkers also enjoy having plants with some occasionally posting photos of their vegetable gardens or cacti on Wechat; a Chinese coworker told me he had two plants, and when he was away on vacation, he said he “hope[d] they live well in Beijing.”

Plants not only beautify the environment  – they also offer wonderful entertainment (Lillian Gish films aside, the best silent movies ever if you watch them unfurl their leaves or poke their green little noses out of the soil!) . Plants are morale boosters, works of art, scientific experiments, a practice in patience, and have a meditative quality. They can nourish the soul, but cause headache or heartache if you forget to water or take care of them, if they have pests or rot – or if they downright die on you.

Hyacinth in bloom

Hyacinth in bloom

Planting hyacinths

Planting hyacinths

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“Inspire and be inspired”: Helen Boyle, founder of Beijing’s Migrant Children’s Foundation

This story was originally published in HaiVision magazine (September 2020)

When Helen Boyle came to Beijing in 2008 for a one-year sabbatical to visit her daughter who was living in Beijing, little did she know that this decision would significantly change her life and that of many others – for the better!

Helen, a British expat, shared some thoughts via email from her native UK about a China-based foundation that she had created. The novel coronavirus outbreak had caught her off guard while she was abroad, as was the case for some foreigners, but she was eager to return to China and resume her work there once the situation returns to normal.

“Having been in education for over 20 years in the UK, I was in Beijing initially for a one-year sabbatical comparing Chinese and UK teaching methods and I came across a migrant school in the north of Beijing,” Helen remembered.

“Seeing the condition of the classrooms in this school in terms of resources, lack of qualified teachers and the school’s environment for the children, I felt that I would like to use my knowledge and experience to make a difference. The things that fascinated me with regard to the school’s children were the enthusiasm and the energy the children displayed. ”

Eventually, Helen decided to resign from her lecturing post back in London and remain in Beijing to help this migrant school. Next to the first school Helen was helping out at, other schools started to request help, which led to people offering their experience to assist these different schools in various ways.

And so the Migrant Children’s Foundation (MCF) was born to assist disadvantaged children of Chinese migrant workers who don’t enjoy the same access to social services in Beijing such as schooling and health care as their local peers do because migrants don’t have Beijing residence permits.

“As there appeared to be a need for this service, I felt it appropriate to start a Foundation and had it registered officially in the UK,” Helen said. While MCF is a registered UK charity, in China, it operates as a non-profit social enterprise. Continue reading

Riding out the coronavirus epidemic in China’s capital

by Tamara Treichel

This story was originally published in SACU’s China Eye (Spring 2020)

When news broke of a mysterious virus causing respiratory illness said to have originated in Wuhan, I was about to enjoy several days off due to the Spring Festival holiday at home in Beijing. I vaguely remember Beijing having only two cases at the time. I was chatting with a Chinese coworker, deliberating whether I should return the movie tickets for the Spring Festival blockbusters my boyfriend and I had booked online.

“Nature has turned against us,” a Chinese coworker observed. I wasn’t so sure about that. “Nature is not for or against… it just is,” I mused. While nature I believed was ambivalent, I would discover that people’s attitudes towards the virus it had produced definitely weren’t!

There were bags of face masks stashed on an office desk and some coworkers were helping themselves. Some of my coworkers were already wearing masks in the office, and there was a sense of nervousness and hush. No one encouraged me to take any masks; but in retrospect, I think I should have been more proactive and asked to help myself. However, a Chinese coworker kindly offered me some from her bag, and I gratefully accepted.

Little did I know how valuable these face masks would be to me and my boyfriend Jackie in the coming weeks, as people made a run for the pharmacies to stock up on them. (Note: the usefulness of face masks in preventing the spread of the new virus, dubbed novel coronavirus, is controversial, but in China they are widely believed to be effective. Another issue is what types of masks work.) When I visited a pharmacy and convenience store, they were sold out and had no idea when new stock would come in. Searching for masks would become somewhat of a search for the Holy Grail for us in China.

Poster showing measures how to protect oneself from COVID-19

Poster showing measures how to protect oneself from COVID-19

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Living history in Babaoshan: Our SACU pilot event in Beijing, China

By Tamara Treichel 

A tour of Beijing’s Babaoshan Cemetery given by Michael Crook on October 12, 2019

Our Babaoshan guided tour, Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) Beijing chapter’s first event, given by SACU member Michael Crook, a British expat in Beijing, was a big hit! Michael did the heavy lifting, and he was the perfect person to give the tour because he knew some of the foreign friends buried at Babaoshan personally. SACU member Tamara Treichel helped Michael organize the event in the form of suggestions and notes.

The foreigners interred at Babaoshan had helped China’s cause by being involved in the building of a new China that eventually led to the foundation of the People’s Republic in 1949 either by supporting the cause politically, giving favorable coverage to China during that era in history, or providing medical or some other form of assistance.

Michael’s mother Isabel Crook, 103, was in attendance as well and also knew some of the foreigners who had found a final resting place at Babaoshan. Isabel, a Canadian anthropologist who made a lot of contributions to the founding of New China in 1949, won the prestigious Friendship Medal awarded by the Chinese government in the Great Hall of the People on September 30 this year.

Isabel still has incredible stamina for her age. She occasionally requested to get up from her wheelchair and walk several steps during our tour and placed some white chrysanthemums that had been made available to us in front of the headstones. It was a delight for all to have her participate in this event. A Chinese woman called Fu Han, who had made a touching documentary about Isabel’s life called Isabel Crook: Childhood Memories from Bailuding,  also joined our tour, as did Israel Epstein’s widow, Huang Wanbi.

Michael Crook and Isabel Crook in front of Dr. George Hatem's grave, Babaoshan tour, Oct. 12, 2019

Michael Crook and Isabel Crook in front of Dr. George Hatem’s grave, Babaoshan tour, Oct. 12, 2019

Isabel Crook laying a flower on Israel Epstein's grave

Isabel Crook laying a flower on Israel Epstein’s grave, Babaoshan tour, Oct. 12, 2019

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Giving an old qipao a “second life”

I don’t know exactly when my love affair with qipaos, or cheongsams, started. I just know that when I saw Chinese actress Zhao Wei (Vicky Zhao) and her costars wearing qipaos in the Romance in the Rain or Moment in Peking TV series, which are set in Shanghai  and Beijing respectively in the 1930′s, I was smitten!

While the exact origin of the qipao is up for debate, with some saying it originated from a one-piece dress of Manchu origin in the Qing Dynasty, others posited it could be traced to other dynasties and had even sustained Western influences. The qipao became popularized in the 1930′s during the Republic of China, when it became a symbol of women’s liberation. After being out of fashion for several decades after that due to political turbulence, the qipao again became fashionable in the 1980′s after China’s reform and opening-up.

An old qipao

An old qipao

Whereas Chinese ladies today like to wear qipaos for special events, e.g. red ones for weddings, or even diplomatic functions, I wear them more frequently. Continue reading

My Pantheon of Chinese Teachers

By Tamara Treichel

On my Chinese language learning journey, I have encountered several invaluable mentors ‒ my Chinese language teachers. When I first started learning Mandarin in my native United States, I took classes at an international language learning center near my home. My first teacher was Fiona, an immigrant from China’s Taiwan. Fiona made it her mission to fine-tune our ears to the phonetic pitfalls of Chinese. She had a beautiful soprano voice and taught us “The Chinese Phonetic Alphabet Song.” The sheet music to the song had a cartoon of a little horse clutching a microphone and singing karaoke.

At one point Fiona asked us to play jian dao, shi tou, bu (scissors, rock, paper). It was quite a spectacle: eight adults playing children’s games and singing. I felt as if I were one of the Von Trapp Family Singers in the Broadway hit The Sound of Music; instead of “do re mi” it was “bo po mo fo de te ne le.” Another one of Fiona’s teaching methods was having us read aloud vowels and diphthongs she had written on flash cards and stashed in plastic bags. We were then asked to swap the bags to practice different vowels.

When we practiced writing characters, Fiona only circled the beautiful characters in red ink to give face and boost our confidence. Perhaps the creative, playful American teaching style had worn off on her after many years in the United States. She was a wonderful teacher for those of us who were just starting out on our Chinese language learning journey.

After that semester was over and my classmates and I had graduated to the next level at the same learning institute, I met Julie, who was originally from Dalian. Julie was a strict, no-nonsense teacher who adhered to the textbook and learning by rote, and I dare say I did well under her tutelage because next to a carrot, I appreciate an occasional stick. As opposed to Fiona’s teaching us traditional characters, Julie taught us the simplified ones and would conduct frequent tests to monitor our progress. Everything was always under control, and our learning goals were fully met by semester end.

My favorite Chinese teachers, Helen (right) and my Chinese boyfriend, Jackie!

My favorite Chinese teachers, Helen (right) and my Chinese boyfriend, Jackie!

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Enthralled by the Chinese Classic Dream of the Red Chamber

By Tamara Treichel

This story originally appeared in Beijing Review on September 13, 2018

As an ardent admirer of the Chinese novel Dream of the Red Chamber, I recently made a pilgrimage to Hebei province’s Shijiazhuang, home to the Rongguofu, a complex of buildings built expressly for the filming of the famous Chinese TV series Dream of the Red Chamber. The series, based on the eponymous novel (also known as Dream of Red Mansions or Story of the Stone), was released in 1987. The novel, written during the mid-eighteenth century in the Qing Dynasty, tells the story of the noble Jia family at its peak and subsequent downfall.

Jia Baoyu meets Lin Daiyu under Granny Jia's jovial gaze.

Jia Baoyu meets Lin Daiyu under Granny Jia’s jovial gaze.

It is one of the four classic novels in China, and a household name for most seasoned expats in China, along with Romance of the Three KingdomsJourney to the West and Water Margin. I love David Hawkes’ masterful translation of Dream of the Red Chamber and have watched the 1987 TV series.

A translation of Dream of the Red Chamber.

A translation of Dream of the Red Chamber.

The plot basically revolves around the love triangle between Jia Baoyu, the Jia family’s adolescent son who was born with a piece of jade in his mouth, and his two cousins. He forms a special bond with Lin Daiyu, who is physically frail but with whom he shares a lot of interests. Yet he is fated to marry another cousin called Xue Baochai, a well-tempered and sensible “Mrs. Right” of the times, and a foil to Lin Daiyu. The family’s declining fortunes form the backdrop of this love triangle.

Scenes from the 1987 TV series.

Scenes from the 1987 TV series.

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Celebrating Chinese-French friendship with a sports film in Quzhou, Zhejiang

Sino-French friendship

Sino-French friendship

By Tamara Treichel

This story originally appeared in Beijing Review on August 23, 2018

This summer I had the pleasure of visiting the city of Quzhou, Zhejiang Province, to watch my Chinese boyfriend act in 古城球缘  (Gu Cheng Qiu Yuan, or Les As de la Petanque). Zhejiang Province is a well-known place for Chinese movie-making, and home to Hengdian, China’s Hollywood.

The movie is about a French sports teacher called Anthony who comes to a local Quzhou school as part of an exchange program. During his stint at the school, he befriends the local Chinese staff, among them a Chinese sports teacher called Jackie, played by my boyfriend. Anthony introduces the French sport of petanque to Jackie and the whole school and excites his Chinese hosts about the sport, which involves throwing metal balls toward a target ball on a court.

Jackie and Fu Hong with a poster of Alain Delain in the background

Jackie and Fu Hong with a poster of Alain Delain in the background

The film is a comedy about East-meets-West, intercultural friendship that is fostered through sports. Despite initial slip-ups and cross-cultural misunderstandings, Anthony eventually forges close ties to the local Chinese community.

Filming locations included the Quzhou No. 2 High School, the Quzhou Confucius Temple, where Anthony’s new Chinese friends introduce him to local culture, and a local restaurant, where Anthony struggles with chopsticks and Chinese toasting habits and has a hard time trying a Quzhou specialty, duck’s head. The movie also contains references to popular French actors and the French people’s proverbial love of romance.

On the petanque field

On the petanque field

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Just my cup of tea!

Acting on the set of a Chinese tea commercial

By Tamara Treichel

This story originally appeared in Beijing Review on June 21, 2018

I recently played a modern-day hostess for a black tea commercial here in Beijing. As an American, it was a great opportunity to learn more about China’s traditional beverage which I have come to enjoy occasionally, next to my habitual coffee fixes. We filmed the commercial in a Western-style hotel on the outskirts of Beijing.

In the lobby with Sisi in the background

In the lobby with Sisi in the background

The hotel in Huairou  featured aristocratic European trappings: statues of British “beefeaters” outside the entrance, chandeliers, fireplaces, a suit of armor, baroque-style paintings, and a copy of a large painting of Empress Elisabeth (Sisi) of Austria in the lobby.

Making conversation while drinking a cuppa

Making conversation while drinking a cuppa

The second actress who had been recruited for the commercial was a bubbly young Ukrainian woman. Her permed blonde hair, swept up, perfectly matched the 18th-century-style slate gray dress she was given to wear, while I was put into a yellow cheongsam. She appeared to be a comedienne at heart who loved the American actress Lucille Ball and likened her hair to Ball’s.

With my costar in gray dress

With my costar in gray dress

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A match made in heaven: my landlord couple and I

This story originally appeared in Beijing Review on May 31, 2018

By Tamara Treichel

If you rent an apartment in Beijing, you also rent the landlord or landlady for at least a year. It is somewhat like getting “hitched,” so it’s important you are a match because you have to deal with them in the long term. For me, it was love at first — or at least second — sight with the elderly couple who owns my apartment.

It was quite an odyssey trying to find the right apartment when I arrived in Beijing in 2015. The apartments were either not suitable or I took an issue with the landlords who looked indifferent at best and unfriendly at worst. But that changed when the leasing agent’s scooter stopped in front of the stoop of a hutong house in the heart of the city.

I saw an elderly couple, in their seventies, waving to me. They were warm and welcoming at first glance, and when I saw them attentively hanging up the curtains in what would become my bedroom, I was almost sold on the place and the people already! Chinese talk about yuanfen, meaning fate that brings people together. Before I met my landlord couple, I thought the concept of yuanfen was overrated — one prospective landlady who liked me and had wanted me to move into her apartment had used this term in reference to me, but we didn’t end up signing a lease.

My landlord couple accommodated all my needs upon moving in, such as installing a new toilet (as much as I was impressed by them and their charming apartment, I made it clear that meiyou matong, meiyou hetong — no toilet, no contract). In return, I have carefully heeded the landlord’s instructions on how to take care of the apartment handwritten on the back of a “Double Happiness” tobacco box.

Just like myself, my landlord couple appreciate classic cultural touches in their living space and a cross between East and West, as was reflected in how they had decorated “our” apartment — a Terracotta warrior was standing proudly on my dining table, while a Venus of Milo was gazing off into the distance from underneath a bell jar on the fridge. A suitcase I discovered in my desk drawer containing Teresa Teng cassettes later confirmed me in my belief that my landlord couple and I share certain tastes and were thus compatible.

My mother, my landlady, and I

My mother, my landlady, and I

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