May, 2008

Oooooooooooooo-klahoma!

The day after my return from China, there’s a dress rehearsal of Oklahoma happening at my eldest daughter’s school, Kew Beach Public School. Since I’m heading off on another business trip that will keep me out of town when the play is actually running. Vanessa didn’t get a part, but did manage to get into the chorus. She’s hoping that next year she’ll get a part on stage.

You can almost hear him singing “Oklahoma”!

I love the expression on the kids’ faces in this picture

The girls during one of the dance numbers

The left-hand chorus (including Vanessa) singing

The cast singing the finale number

The play’s director going over things with the kids

The girls in the cast listening to the director (with our neighbour Devon sitting to the far left)

Vanessa in the crowd of kids

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Beijing and Shanghai

A colleague from work asked me in an email what I thought of Beijing and Shanghai, and I ended up sending her a rambling email of my impressions. Figure it is worth posting here as well:

My impression of the two cities is that they have their own distinct character. Beijing apparently has more construction cranes on the go than in the whole of Britain (never mind Canada), and I can well believe it. The scale of the city dwarfs that of the GTA — actually, the size is about the same, but imagine high-rises and commercial buildings everywhere. All of which have been built in the last 10 years or less. But there’s still room for a mix of the traditional amidst all of the building and construction, with such sites as Tianamen Square, The Forbidden City and other older sections of the city preserved.

The sense I get of Shanghai is of a somewhat rootless city: one comment someone from the localization firm I visited said that he didn’t think it a very Chinese city, since there are so few bicycles and that the city is clearly laid out with cars in mind. I get the sense that it is more vibrant and cosmopolitan, but perhaps more root-less. I just came back from a boat tour and the towering skyscrapers seem to tussle with each other to get your attention with multi-story hi-def displays, sparkling lights, illuminated spires, or endless neon razzmatazz. It is also one of the first cities I have been in where I just have not been able to get my bearings — I couldn’t tell you whether or not a certain location is north, south, east or west of another. I tried to walk from People’s Square to the Bundt area, got lost, gave up and flagged down a cab. You have to understand that I’m pretty good at reading maps, and that the street signage is bilingual Simplified Chinese + English. Still, have had a good time here and I would return here (or to Beijing) in a second if given a chance.

The cost of labour here is exceedingly cheap, sadly so at times. At a golf game some of the people from the localization conference went to, four female caddies were attendant on every player, helping to look for lost balls, holding the flags, carrying the golf clubs, etc. I saw a showroom apartment whose wood-work, tiling and finish was executed with a precision and care that you simply don’t see at home, and at I price that, were it back home I (or you) could easily afford. I learned new term from one of my guidebooks which I think is applicable: “Marxist-Thatcherism” — there’s a sense that all of the mad rush to build is for the good of everyone, but there are a lot of people who see very little direct benefit from it. China’s middle-class is apparently now about the size of that of the United States, but the underclass is very poor indeed. In some ways the country I would compare China to most is Mexico, specifically Mexico City — riches aplenty, but still people hawking their wares or presenting vouchers for luxury condos to passing cars at intersections.

I also don’t doubt that this situation will not stay this way — I think it is fair to say that the 21st century belongs to China.

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Visit to the Paleozoological Museum of China

I had a free morning before more conference presentations were to start later in the day. Most of the other visitors to Beijing from the conference opted to go to places like the Winter Palace, but given my love for dinosaurs, and knowing about the excellent collection of bird and proto-bird fossils that came from China, I asked my tour guide if she could take me to a place that had good bird fossils on display.

This was apparently a unique request for my tour guide, and she had to ask around for the right place to go. She eventually worked out that the Paleozoological Museum of China was the place to head, so that’s where she, I and the driver headed out, crossing from one end of the city to the other in order to do so.

We parked on a side-street next the museum. I remember that was where I saw a woman with a small dog walking up the street. It was memorable because it was the first dog I had seen within the city. I gather that having a dog is now considered something of a status symbol, for many another symbol of conspicuous consumption. Commenting on it clearly rankled my guide, who grew up in an era when they banned by the Communist Party and were seen as a bourgeois affectation.

Front of the Paleozoological Museum of China

Part of the building’s facade

The interior was a bit on the gloomy side, and other than a father with his child and the single bored-looking female attendants stationed on every floor, there was just my tour guide and me. I paid 20RMB times two and we were in.

The main dinosaur gallery was to our right, containing an atrium where dinosaur bones (and casts) were posed in various positions. I knew I was in for a treat since the first dinosaur I saw was unlike anything I had seen in Natural History museums in North America that I’ve been to.

This is the first thing that greets visitors when entering the main dinosaur gallery: Tsintaosaurus spinorhinus sporting a unicorn-like horn.

The place had the feel of having been built in another time. Despite all of the pot lights illuminating specific fossils, for the most part the place seemed gloomy. Also, there was no air conditioning so as the morning wore on it became increasingly warm during our stay, and thin windows on the various floors of the building were opened to let in air. On the floor of the atrium were the posed dinosaurs stood were squares of dusty-looking astroturf. Yet despite the lack of North American-style polish, there were some amazing things to see here, and thankfully most things were captioned in English as well as in Chinese.

A view of the first floor center gallery looking towards the entrance

An interesting place to put a “Do Not Touch” sign

Flanking the dinosaurs in the middle were the museum’s fish and proto-fish fossils, including a large pickled coelecanth.

The distinctive shape of a “helmet head” Galeaspida, Nochelaspis Maeandrine

Another Galeaspida, Laxaspis Qujingensis

The coelacanth specimen

A slab depicting fossil Lycoptera Davidi

One of the oddest things I saw was the curved and toothed lower jaw of a Helicoprion, a shark-like cartilaginous fish that lived until the time of Triassic period. The theory is that the curved jaw was used to open up ammonite shells, though I can’t help but think that someone is putting two similarly-shaped things together and thinking they are somehow correlated, I bit like saying the beak of a bird ought to be seed-shaped if it ate seeds. Still, it was interesting to see.

Lower jaw of a Helicoprion Bessonovi

Next came the bird fossils. This is what I really came to see, and while they didn’t have too many on display, what they did put put for show were some pretty amazing specimens.

Part of a clade that includes modern birds, this Yixianornis grabaui is one of the first primitive birds to display a modern pygostyle as well as a fan of tail feathers

An example of Confuciusornis, considered to be a precursor and more primitive type of proto-bird than the more famous Archaeopteryx.

This was unlabeled, but from what I can figure out, it is another Confuciusornis

Not considered a bird, but Microraptor gui did have feathers. This is apparently a cast of the holotype specimen.

Listed in English as “Hoopterus gracilis” but which I think must be a typo for “Haopterus gracilis”. Not a bird either, but a type of pterosaur.

This was on an upper floor, but really belongs with the other bird fossils: a labeled example of Confuciusornis sanctus

An example of one of their reconstructions, in this case Caudipteryx dongi (too bad about the glare from the glass case it was in).

After the bird, proto-bird and pterosaur fossils there were some interesting early lizard fossils.

An example of Dalinghosaurus longidigitus

An example of Hyphalosaurus lingyuanensis

A nice example of a frog fossil.

And then there was a nice (and large) example of an early Cretaceous mammal.

An example of Repenomamus giganticus. Again, too bad about the glare from the lights.

Looking back to the atrium at this point, there’s the ever-popular predator/prey display. The sort of thing that seems to be present in most Natural History museums, though in this case with two Chinese-only dinosaurs.

A Monolophosaurus jiangi Attacking a Tuojiangosaurus multispinus (a type of Chinese Stegosaur). Both were listed as “models” (presumably “casts”).

Then we went up to the next floor, which contained more primarily Chinese-only dinosaur fossils.

The very odd-looking Sinokannemeyeria yingchiaoensis, a mammal-like reptile (Dicynodont) set among radiators and astroturf.

Close-up of the head of another Chinese dicynodont, Parakannemeyeria youngi on display

A mounted specimen of Archaeornithomimus asiaticus.

Skull of a Probactrosaurus gobiensis

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Peking Opera/Acrobats at Dinner

One of the more visually striking performances from the dinner-time performance of Peking Opera set-pieces I saw this evening.

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Immediately Prior to the Long-Haul Flight to Beijing

At Pearson International, about to board the plane in the picture. Long flight (12 hours) and even though I was in economy I did at least have some leg room and the two people sitting to either side of me were pleasant. Still, was glad to land in Beijing the following day.

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