Battle of the Books

Battle of the Books in an American Schools Reading Challenge which began in the 1930s in Chicago but slowly gained popularity and is now played, not only all over the US but also in International Schools, world wide.

Here at Concordia I have just had my first experience of The Battle.

Battle of the Books is a unique reading incentive program which encourages children from upper Elementary and Middle schools to read from a selected list and then answer questions on the books competitively. Here in Shanghai we have separated our Battles into a middle school one for the older kids and an Elementary School one for the 10-12 year olds.

Unlike other American schools, Concordia’s Elementary School finishes at Fourth Grade (UK Year 5) so other schools had a mixture of grade 4 & grade 5 whereas I just had grade 4. I worked with 20 of our children who volunteered to take part as one of their after school activities. I ran two sessions a week during the autumn and spring after school clubs and saw roughly half the kids in each session. They were very excitable and often noisy!

8 books had been selected by the Librarians from across the International Schools in Shanghai and purchased in bulk. The titles this year were:

A story about a deaf girl who decides to help Blue 55, a whale who sings at a different frequency from the rest of his pod. A beautiful book all about communication.
Coyote and her dad journey across America in a converted school bus following the death of her mother and two sisters until Cotoye hears that the woods near her old house are being torn down. She realises that she must return to rescue her memory box and both of them must confront the truths that they have been running away from
Short Stories from outstanding international authors showing that heroes can be ordinary people who have the courage to do extraordinary things.
An adventurous romp throgh Indian mythology when Aru lets out The Sleeper from the Lamp of Destruction and has to travel to the underworld to rescue the universe, all in her Spider-Man pajamas!

Rocket to the Moon by Don Brown is a non-fiction graphic novel which charts the history of space flight from the earliest invention of gunpowder in China through the space race of the 1960s to the famous moon walks.

This graphic novels tells a story of frienship between two girls, one of them develops a brain tumor which threatens to derail their friendship. The characters are Chinese American, but the situations and experiences of wanting to have fun, friends and fit in are universal.
This was a longer book with a more complex plot which weaves through the darkest, strangest, and funniest twists and turns of Mayan myths. There are the scariest gods, the creepiest denizens of the underworld, and the most amazing and unlikely heroes, who have to save our world from being ripped apart.
Ideal for fans of Harry Potter, this is the tale of Morrigan Crow who as a cursed child is doomed to die on her 11th birthday but who is rescued by the enigmatic Jupiter North and taken to Nevermoor where she finds herself entered for the Wonder Society trials. Morrigan will have to prove herself to the judges and Jupiter, even if she has no idea what her ‘knack’ is!

The children were divided into teams and encouraged to read as many books from the list as possible. Some enthusiasts read ALL of them while some teams made sure that each book had been read by at least one team member.

In normal years the event would be a day away at a neighbouring school with the different elements taking place amidst other fun activities like meet the author etc. COVID, however meant that each school had to work remotely.

This year 6 Shanghai Schools took part with 21 teams. The Battle itself has three components:

The first was to redesign a front cover from one of the books.

Here are sone of the team submissions from across the schools. I was very impressed with the art work.

The second round was to decorate a cake with themes from one of the books. This was the most eagerly anticipated and exciting part of the Battle. Each team chose a book and then spent several weeks designing a decoration. All teams were supplied with a round cake so that all had the same basic size and shape to work from.

Much fun was had on the day but previous to this the teams had to use project management skills to plan the ingredients that would be needed very carefully. By the end of that process I was presented with a shopping list from each team that comprised, different coloured icing, frosting, sprinkles and even twizzlers and cotton candy (in purple!) among other things. We are fortunate to have an amazing online shopping system here called Taobao, which made my life MUCH easier.

Because the ingredients for the cake were not sourced through approved school suppliers, we were under strict instructions NOT to eat anything. This was a source of much discontent and the most frequently asked question that I heard was ‘when do we get to eat the cake?’ So to counteract any temptation I purchased muffins from our school cafe (all approved for consumption) and the kids ate those. Eagerly.

We judged our cakes locally and decided that Song for a Whale by the Moonlight Star Savers should get a Concordia prize. This was awarded at our assembly

The third element was perhaps the most challenging. After reading the books, teams had to answer questions using Kahoot, which is an online quiz software. It was important that someone in each team had read each of the books. It was a test of their knowlledge and understanding. We had to use our library so we were a little cramped.

Teams had a team leader and they each chose their own team name based on the books. We had: The Moonlight Star Savers; The Remarkable Coyotes; The Moon Runners and Heroes Without Capes.

The quiz was a test of the children’s knowledge, recall and their ability to work together as a team to come up with the correct answer. There were 120 questions to be answered and we had only an hour available so concentration ran high. I was delighted with the way eveyone co-operated (well nearly everyone, there was a little bit of rolling around on the floor, but not too much). It was incredibly tense and exciting. Scores are awarded on Kahoot not only for the correct answer but also for how fast the answer is given.

We were able to tell which of our teams was the local winner on the day but I had to add our scores into a central spreadsheet and await the outcome from the other schools who were doing their rounds on different days.

The teams were asked to evaluate the Battle and here are some of ther comments…

“Before if I didn’t have time to read then I didn’t really read. But when I came to the Battle I would read every day”

“This has made me read more in my life and to take more notes”

“I thought that this was really fun. I got to bond with more friends and laugh with more people”

“It has positively impacted my life by letting me see how much and how fast I can read. Before I didn’t really know that it would be this much fun.”

“I had a team to work with for the first time”

“It helped me to exercise my brain and my memory”

“It helps me READ more books and enjoy reading!”


We presented each child with a participation medal and to my huge delight The Remarkable Coyotes’ hard work paid off as they took FIRST PLACE.

There was much celebrating all round.

Hangzhou West Lake and Temple

Day 2 of our mini trip to Hangzhou started for me with a spot of Taiji by the lake. It was wonderful to be outside in the fresh air. Doing Taiji in natural surroundings can be very beneficial as you can absorb energy particularly from trees or water. I was certainly buzzing by the time I got back to the hotel (I was going to need that extra energy later on). It was actually quite busy by the lake with joggers walkers etc but I ignored them all. I did find it funny though when I spotted one Chinese lady videoing me! Especially as tai chi in the park is a very common sight here. Maybe they just don’t get many foreigners doing it!

Photo courtesy of Lisa our tour guide who was out for an early morning walk.

We were staying at the Shang-ri la hotel which interestingly had accommodated some of the G20 heads of state back in 2016 including Angela Merkle, Francois Holland, Theresa May and Recep Erdogan. We had a drink in the bar which Vladimir Putin had patronized. Who knows we could even have sat in the same seats!

After a delicious breakfast of noodles and dumplings (not at the hotel) we crossed the West Lake. This lake is one of the largest in a city in China and has over 300 bridges. This was a particularly beautiful one.

The weather was overcast and at times a little chilly but that didn’t deter us.

In the middle of the lake was a large island. And in the middle of the island was another lake. It is called the lake in a lake!

Around this lake were several pagodas including this one which was unusual because it has three corners on the roof instead of four. It was designed to represent a ship pointing out to the water. On the top is a white crane which symbolizes longevity.

Note also the zigzag bridge across the water leading up to the pagoda. This is because ghosts can only move in a straight line do they can’t follow you as you go across the water.

The lake itself is segmented into four so you can walk around or across it. The flowers we saw on the island were just starting to bloom.

This was a magnificent display of lupins around some shaped floral art

In the water we saw these rocks. They are very popular in traditional Chinese gardens.

Called Scholars Rocks, they are limestone which has been eroded by wind and water to form delicate and aesthetically pleasing shapes. Representing wealth and status, they symbolize the impermanence of life and how we are all shaped by nature and our environment. The holes in the rocks are to remind you that you can always see things from lots of different perspectives.

It was very pleasant to stroll in the greenery after being in an urban sprawl for so long.

In one part of the lake are three structures. They each have three holes so on a certain night during the mid autumn moon festival you can see three moons reflected in the water, thats 9 shimmering moons on the lake plus one in the sky and they say that we each have a moon in our hearts. So 11 moons in total. This is quite a famous landmark and features on the 1 yuan note (not that cash is used much here anymore!)

There were lots of interesting buildings on the island with delicate and ornate carvings.

He was enjoying it… honest

Back on the shore we travelled to another park which was famous for the Buddha’s carved in the rocks. There were hundreds of them and each had been commissioned and carved by a family as their shrine. Fortunately many survived the cultural revolution although some were defaced.

This laughing Buddha is very popular with locals.

Then it was on to the Taoist Lin Ying temple. Ying means ‘hidden’ and Lin means ‘spirit’. This was quite a large temple complex which had many Buddha halls and featured large incense burners.

I love the details on the rooflines
And the curtain of vivid prayer flags

We finished off with a simple vegetarian lunch in the grounds of the temple. This is supposed to be an auspicious thing to do. it was certainly very tasty and a great setting in which to eat.

Our return journey wasn’t as easy as we had hoped. We missed our train, which shouldn’t have been a problem as our tour guide, Lisa went to swap our tickets for the next one. What should have been a straightforward transaction took her well over an hour, the station manager, a party official and quite a lot of shouting! For some reason they couldn’t get Kevin’s passport to work with their system, which was a bit ridiculous as we had bought the original ticket and had used the passport to travel in the day before. Officialdom in China is not particularly flexible and was a point when Lisa feared that we might have to take a car back to Shanghai!!!

Anyway, all well that ends well and after standing (no seats) by the door in the cold we eventually got inside and were able to get a warm drink. We had missed about 3 trains by then!! We were pretty tired by the time we reached home but glad that we were back safely. We couldn’t have managed without Lisa.

“ For all the tea in China”

After spending the last 7 months and 3 vacations stuck in Shanghai we were resigned to our spring break being the same. But at the 11th hour, literally the Friday afternoon before we finished, we got an email to say that we can travel to other low risk areas in China. Yippee!!!

While lots of my colleagues headed straight to the beach at Sanya (known as the Hawaii of China) we opted for a more cultural experience with a trip on the bullet train to Hangzhou.

Hongqiao Railway station in Shanghai is massive. This was the scene at 8am

Hangzhou is about 4 hours away from Shanghai by normal train but by high speed train it takes just over 1 hour (which is quite incredible when you think about it). We were delighted to be able to get out of the city and into a more rural area. The air quality has been good this week in Shanghai but we have recently had yellow fog and some very nasty pollution days.

Hangzhou is a Tier 2 city in China and has a population of 10 million, so when I say go out to the countryside, it’s all relative. Our destination was actually the west lake area which is a scenic spot and from there to the tea plantations. This was a drive of approx an hour from the train station.

Tea is big business in China and in fact the UK originally got all its tea from here. The tea in Hangzhou though, is a specialty green tea and it is so highly prized that most of it does not make it outside of Hangzhou.

We began our trip dressing as tea pickers with traditional hats (needed against the sun) and baskets which were surprisingly comfortable to wear.

The type of tea grown here is called Long Jing which means ‘Dragon well’ and it is an exclusive tea. One of the reasons for that is that it is picked only once a year and the picking season lasts only about 6 weeks. So if it rains the workers have to carry on picking because there is not a moment to lose. They are given these waterproofs though. Fortunately, although overcast, it didn’t rain during our visit.

We were given access to the tea terraces belonging to one family and we walked up narrow paths between the tea bushes to get some simply stunning views

It was wonderful to be outside in the fresh fragrant air surrounded by tea.

The ladies who do the picking get paid approx £20 per day and they pick from 6-6. Once up on the terraces they don’t leave, food is brought out to them. But most of these people do this job for fun rather than as their living. They do it to help out. It’s a real labour of love.

The leaves that they pick are the young tender shoots and not the darker tougher leaves. Like the pale green leaf below.

There are tea plantations all over but the most prized and better quality tea is grown high up. This is because the higher up you go the colder it is and the tea grows more slowly which gives it a better flavor.

It would take all day to pick a full basket (if that)

The leaves are then taken down to the village to be dried and roasted. Mostly this is done in a machine but the more expensive varieties are roasted by hand which is a highly skilled process. You need to take out a small mortgage to buy some of that.

Drying racks

Interestingly, we saw several tombs dotted around the terraces. Normally Chinese do not go near graves but these tombs are strategically placed among the tea so that the spirits of their ancestors can guard the terraces (& the family business)

And then down to lunch where we had wonderful exotic dishes such as this one which is pork ribs in tea!!! I would never have thought of combining those two ingredients!

I am not a huge fan of green tea as I find the taste can sometimes be a bit bitter but this was very different. You can see here that all the shoots have sunk to the bottom which is a sign of good quality. But more than that, the stalks are floating upwards and the leaves downwards. I have never known tea to do that before!!! It actually tasted very smooth and refreshing. I was pleasantly surprised.

If you ever get the chance I would highly recommend this trip.

Xinchang Watertown

Xin (pronounced shin) means ‘new’ and Chang means ‘town’ but this ancient settlement dates back to 1363. Located on what were once the salt fields of the Yangtze River delta this was a thriving town for centuries as salt was once as valuable as gold.

Now it has been turned into a tourist attraction with government backing to provide an out of town venue for artisans and craftsmen to practice their trades among the picturesque narrow lanes that line the canals. It was a 40 minute drive from where we live.

The day was grey and damp but that didn’t deter us and it had the benefit of keeping away the crowds.

At the entrance to the old part of Xinchang stands an impressive arch. These arches were usually donated to the town by inhabitants who had gone on to become successful. The inscriptions here tell of two sons who had passed the exceedingly competitive university entrance exams (tests which lasted for 3 days) and who had gone on to become politicians.

Inside the gate were shops selling all manner of goods that we had never heard of.

The black things were a sort of pickled cucumber which tasted quite nice (surprisingly)

I wasn’t so keen on the whole flattened pig’s head though!

We tried a local delicacy of what was essentially shredded radish in a sort of fritter batter. Sounds weird but it was really good.

The preserved wooden screen in the picture below is fairly unique because very few of them have survived (being wood). This was the frontage of what was originally a pickle shop

The original carvings were defaced during the cultural revolution (reminiscent of the Reformation) but are gradually being restored to their former glory.

Next stop was another food outlet, this time for a hot round thing filled with red bean paste and coated with caramelized sugar. on a cold damp February day this was heavenly! It’s called a Begonia cake.

Here they are being made

One of the iconic crafts in China is that of paper cutting. We visited the shop of a talented lady who had been taught by her grandmother. Finding herself alone in Shanghai and having had her wallet stolen she used the small change in her pocket to buy some scissors and a few pieces of paper. She did some cutting and tried to sell them on the streets hoping to make enough money to get back to her lodging. A tourist approached her and mistook her 5 quai for 500 and she thereby learned the value of her art.

We are sitting in her tiny shop with the huge intricate paper cut behind which took her a whole year to make.

Then it was our turn to try our hand at paper cutting.

Concentration levels are high
But this effort was only the practice round!

Now for the tricky one…

Scissors ready
And we did it! Red snowflakes with hearts inside (if you look closely)

Then for an excellent lunch at a family owned business. Our food was being prepared by the grandmother on the steps outside!

Great company and wonderful dishes
… but very few were willing to sample this one. Chicken organs. The Chinese waste nothing.

Next stop the hand made lanterns. Bunnies are popular at the Lantern festival (which was actually yesterday, the 15th day of chines e new year) as the lady in the moon is said to have had a pet rabbit.

I liked the dragons best

The streets were full of atmosphere and we would stumble across beautiful doorways.

Moon doors remind me of hobbit homes
Lovely painted doors

I particularly like seeing the faces of the locals selling their wares.

He had loofas first sale
Some just sell from their doorways

Then it was on to the tea pot maker. He was another master craftsmen who operated his business from his apartment making teapots which were not only original and creative designs but also fully functional.

It was a hands on and hands dirty experience with lots of noisy hammering as we flattened our purple clay.
Ta da! We each made of of these. I think I will stick to my day job though.

We thoroughly enjoyed the rich cultural experiences and the chance to play with clay and cut paper in such a lovely setting.

A good time was had by all.

Meditation in Movement

Taiji has become very important to me. I take lessons twice a week (daily during the holidays) and I get up extra early on schooldays in order to do my wake up exercises and to practice the routine that I am learning. I find that after 40 minutes of practice and 10 minutes of meditation, I feel refreshed, energized and ready to face the world.

Taiji is all about balance. About Yin and Yang, inside and outside, left and right etc. for example the inside of your arm is Yin and the outside is Yang. Yin (left & female) goes first. All the world contains positive and negative and we are aiming for harmony between all the elements in both a physical and spiritual sense.

A beautiful example of the Taiji Ball

My physical balance though, is rubbish, as I discovered when I had to stand on one leg with the other raised as part of the routine. I just couldn’t do it. But two weeks later, after practicing special exercises I am greatly improved. Not perfect yet by a long chalk as I still wobble more than I would like, but way better than I was.

But Taiji is not just about standing on one leg without falling over, it is also about balance in life. Completing the daily exercises actually makes you feel calmer, happier and healthier. You walk taller and with more confidence. You exude a happier persona which people find naturally attractive. Outside stressors become easier to cope with.

In life, everybody experiences swings in emotional reactions to events. A bit like this…

But Taiji component practitioners have more measured reactions. They still feel swings of emotions like everyone else, but not as severely. They are able to maintain a more balanced response and recovery when ‘life’ happens. Like the yellow line below. It would be wonderful to be able to achieve that. Certainly Master Zhang is one of the calmest and most cheerful people that I know.

Our group is small and we are all at different stages but that doesn’t matter. In Taiji we each experience an inner journey and all feel the energy moving ourselves. Master Zhang adjusts us when we are not positioned correctly and the difference of just a few millimeters is often incredible. Just standing in the right position allows the energies to flow properly and sometimes to flood through your limbs. It’s a most delicious feeling which encourages you to stand straight and to relax your shoulders. This makes a difference to the way you sit and walk and stand in the rest of your daily life. I am way more conscious now of my posture and I make a concerted effort of relax, particularly my shoulders. I was surprised to discover how often I unconsciously clench my shoulders. It was most illuminating!

It is said that your face is a window to your health and some of you may know that several years ago I developed white lumps under my eyes. My GP at the time spotted those and had me tested for cholesterol (which was a bit high) and I was put on statins. I came off the drugs when I left the UK as my diet was likely to change but I was told that the lumps were permanent.

An example of the fatty lumps (not me)

My father and his two sisters had the same lumps in varying degrees so I guessed that it was a genetic predisposition. Having said that, all three of them did suffer from heart problems and my father died from a heart attack so this is something that I need to be wary of. Over the course of the decade I grew used to the lumps and accepted that whatever changes I made to my diet that they were there for good. To my great surprise however, since starting Taiji regularly I one day realized that the lumps have disappeared. All gone. I am delighted about this unexpected side effect.

In Chinese Traditional Medicine (TCM) they plot your meridians or lines traversing your body. Each line is associated with one or more of your major organs and gently massaging or exercising those lines can help your energy to flow to those organs unimpeded. It helps your all round circulation as the blood vessels are like the roads that the energy travels along. Some people though have blockages and that is what acupuncture does when it unblocks certain points along your meridians. To my astonishment Master Zhang says that he can see just by looking at someone where they have blockages!! I had one in the back of my neck which was unblocked during the retreat in August. Now my energy can flow freely.

He also explained the Chinese theory that when the energy cannot easily pass a blockage then it goes backwards into the organ or other part of the body and this, they say, is one reason why cancers can grow. If you already have cancer then practicing Nei Gong Taiji can stop the tumor growing further. Also having a history of cancer in my family, I am taking this all very seriously (just in case).

Taiji is not a miracle cure for all ills but it can be a form of preventative medicine and I have been told that if a Taiji practitioner does have an accident or falls ill, then they tend to recover faster. So far from my experience of the high cholesterol that is proving to be true.

In each class we spend some time meditating, which is a discipline that I never thought I would achieve as my mind is quite skittish. But standing meditation is surprisingly stable and comfortable (if you are in the correct position) and we can think about anything we want to but eventually your mind does calm down and on occasion you can feel incredibly peaceful and as light as the proverbial feather. Meditation is also a good way of recharging your heart.

Once or twice during meditation, my fingers felt as though they were buzzing with energy. This is the next stage of energy. There are several stages in which the energy is experienced and they develop over time. In the beginning there is a tingling sensation, which I felt when I stretched my palms in the exercises but now I can feel it much stronger, pulsing and spiraling through my hands and arms during most of the routines that we do.

A high level stage of energy is a feeling like flowing water. I can feel this when I am correctly aligned and I let my muscles relax. It’s is like bathing in a shower of delicious warm water. We do this at certain points in the exercises, particularly the Qi Gong spine strengthening ones and in all honesty it is quite a high!

For some people, who have a dense muscle mass, another stage of energy movement is when your skin jumps and pops almost like electrical impulses. And the final stage is a blissful nothing, (a stage I have yet to achieve)

Taiji is a holistic discipline so we learn things like the best way to stand when riding on the subway so that you are stable or correct sleep positions (definitely not with your ankles crossed when you are lying in your back – that is VERY bad), how to relax before falling asleep or how to walk properly. It is surprising how many people don’t do something as basic as walking correctly.

All the moves that we do in the Taiji routine we do extremely slowly and with control. In fact, the slower you do them the better as then you feel the energy flowing much more strongly. It is like meditation in movement and it is quite calming and peaceful.

However, all the moves that we do have their origin in martial arts and we are also shown how to apply them in practice. If done quickly and channeling your inner energy, the moves can be self defense. We practice these and to my great and utter surprise I seem to have a little bit of a knack for what Master Zhang terms ‘real Kung Fu’! I would never in my wildest dreams have thought this possible! However, I have thrown some of the others around the room and now even some of the men are reluctant to partner with me! Who would have thought it.

Once or twice I have been quite excited to learn some of these new skills so have gone home and asked Kevin to help me practice. Unfortunately he does not react as quickly as Master Zhang (who is also a former kickboxing champion) and I have thrown him out of his slippers and clocked him one on the jaw!!! Nowadays Master Zhang tells me not to try the new moves on Kevin!!!

Do not try this one at home!!!

I’m not entirely convinced that I could actually defend myself against a proper attack yet (I would need to ask them to pause while I aligned myself & sorted out my energy etc) but I think that I have enough confidence now to give something a go!!! I certainly know much more than I did only a few months ago. Let’s hope that I never need it.

A chilly walk down the East Suzhou Creek

After doing part 1 of the historical creek tours back in December (on the first day of the extreme cold snap) we happily turned up for the second part only to find that it was the coldest day of the vacation. Not -2 with wind chill but still pretty cold for a 2 hour walk. But we game-fully plodded on.

This half of the Suzhou Creek was home to The Lanes or cramped housing for poor people. In fact our guide’s family had lived there before being rehoused in the 1980s. The area has been redeveloped with business buildings and smart hotels now and is no longer the place for people to buy their cheap clothes from.

In the 1990’s the city authorities wanted to turn the Suzhou Creek area more upmarket so invested in high rise office buildings and couldn’t understand why all the shops closed down…people no longer lived in the area! They have now encouraged more residential building to bring people back to live here with some of the apartments among the most expensive in the city.

This sector had previously been a thriving commercial area and contains the first Shanghai Chamber of Commerce. Interestingly the gatehouse remains and from the bridge you can still see the red banners of the Cultural Revolution. Although politically sensitive the paintings have remained here.

Kevin and I have discovered that no trip to an Asian country is complete without a look at their historic post office buildings!!! (See blogs about Yangon and Hi Chi Minh) Shanghai is no exception and we were shown not only the impressive colonial exterior of the central post office

… but also the interior which boasts the longest post office counter in Asia!

Sadly with the advent of email and social media only two windows now ever open! They do also have an interesting postal museum which we were whisked through. We were told it was a small museum but I reckon that you could easily have spent half a day in there (which would have been welcome to have escaped the cold…)

I love the dragon post boxes
And the Imperial Post office (not something you see very often)
The Atrium

We then walked along the Creek past the Sassoon building ingeniously built in the shape of a S which was used to house Jewish refugees to an innocuous residential block that had been used in WW2 by the Japanese as a prison for foreign journalists and other such reprobates! Finally what was the foreigners hospital. This was a vast building run originally by the church for paying rich foreigners like the British but with a number of beds with free treatment for other nationalities such as Malays or Filipinos who fell sick.

The building has since been renovated and turned into The Bellagio, an upmarket hotel. According to Feng Shui, water means prosperity which is why there is a beautiful fountain at the entrance. This is also why many Chinese restaurants the world over have fish tanks or other water features somewhere near their entrance, to welcome money into the business.

This hotel is definitely prospering. And it has been beautifully and sympathetically renovated. I loved the grand sweeping staircase decked out in Chinese New Year decorations.

Here you can book suites for private dining where you get your own mini bar and toilets! Each floor has a different colour theme. minimum spend £60 per person excluding drinks.

But my favorite part was the walkway to the external gallery. it was like something from a science fiction film.

Outside we were treated to spectacular views of the Creek

And the financial centre across from The Bund

Preparing for Chinese New Year 2021

This festival is as big in China as Christmas is for us. It is probably the most important festival here and 2021 sees in the Year of the Ox. Actually, it is interesting to learn that 2020 was the year of the rat & rat years are traditionally when bad things happen! So that year certainly lived up to its reputation!!!

We have decorated the library and I will be reading stories which feature cows (Ox stories being thin on the ground).

I have put as many red colored books on display as possible but noticed how many books do NOT have red on the front cover.

And we have our fun cows too

All over school decorations are appearing and I am dusting off this greeting (shin nee-an Kwai le)

The shops too have been gearing up since Dec and I love seeing all the red displays

Presents are not exchanged, instead money is given in little red envelopes (Hong bao) which feels really quaint and retro now that China is virtually a cashless society. We had to go and get cash out specially and it is quite a novelty to use a cash machine again. Hong bao are not just given to children but also to people who help you. So we will give our Ayi one and I will give to the ayis at school. Ayi (eye-ee) means ‘aunty’ and is a generic title for all domestic help.

We have an Ayi called Amy who comes in two mornings a week and she is amazing. She does the cleaning, ironing and is the best bed maker that I have ever come across. But with only two of us and a small apartment that doesn’t keep her occupied for very long so she also cooks Chinese food for us. This means that we eat local food twice a week and we have sampled a wide range of dishes. I particularly like her pork soup, the local specialty of egg and tomato and of course dumplings. In this picture I am teaching Amy how to make a shepherd’s pie as she is keen to learn how to make western dishes. Interestingly most Chinese homes do not have an oven and all cooking is done in pans.

Amy speaks good English and has been really helpful with the translation of official letters or collections from the post office and generally interpreting when we need it. She is one of our go-to people when we haven’t got a clue how to do things! I will miss having such help when I get back to Blighty. We have been spoiled rotten having her and I’m not looking forwards to picking up the domestic chores again.

Every part of the animal is eaten here. Nothing whatsoever is wasted.
From our local supermarket (I wasn’t keen)

Chinese New Year is usually the time of the world’s largest human migration as the population here travels home to spend time with families. Last year was when the virus hit and lockdown in China began in earnest. Many people had already traveled and got stuck back in their home villages. This year, the government is discouraging travel even between low risk areas. There have been 18 cases of the new British strain of the virus in the past few weeks and worryingly the incubation period seems to be 21 days rather than 14. Some firms are offering staff bonuses not to travel. I even heard of one company who will pay for couples to have a few nights in a hotel as a staycation as an incentive. So we will be staying put. However, local restrictions mean that there are parts of Shanghai that are now out of bounds.

Food and fellowship is a major component of the festivities. Meals out here are always lavish occasions. Just as in the west where we have work meals out before Christmas, Chinese celebrate with team trips to restaurants.

Happy New Year Team meal
Chinese meals are always sumptuous spreads where savory and sweet dishes arrive in random order.
A steamed egg dish served in individual dry ice
Lotus root stuffed with sticky rice in a spun sugar basket

This type of tree hung with red packets signifing good fortune.

A meal with the Tai Chi class. Delicious fried rice & mushroom soup, dumplings and Peking duck
At home I have put up festive window clings, a gift from my secret friend at school

The traditional lion dance is to scare away the bad luck from the previous years. So this year the lions have a BIG job to do as 2020 was a mighty unlucky year world wide!!!

Do your stuff lions!

So Chinese New Year will be more subdued this year. Just like Christmas was for us. It’s a small price to pay to defeat this virus and we will bounce back to celebrate again in years to come.

West Suzhou Creek

We booked this historical excursion well before Christmas not realizing that this day would be the first of a severe cold front sweeping across Shanghai. It has been relatively mild all winter so it was something of a shock to be out for a 2+ hour walk in -6 with a wind chill that felt like ice was slicing through your flesh!! We all wore masks the entire time not because of social distancing or COVID but because we were bloody cold!!!

The trip started at this exciting point

The creek feeds into the Huangpo River and was once an area filled with industrial and commercial activity. Some of the old warehouses remain and have been repurposed into shops, galleries and offices. The architecture was an attractive mixture of brick and wood and so different from the rest of the high rises which litter modern Shanghai.

This shop sold fine bone China and we learned that this did not originate in China but in the UK. Bone ash of animals who eat vegetables like cows and sheep are added to the clay which gives strength & resilience to the delicate shapes.

This stunning dinner service was commissioned for the G8 world summit
And this unique set was made especially for a visit by Xi Jinping

The whole area was under the control of a gangster mafia-style man called ‘Big Ears’ Du Yuesheng, who in the 1930s rose from being a farmer’s son to running protection rackets, the drug scene and all prostitution in Shanghai. He was able to do this by influencing the police and political leaders of the time. He was so powerful that even Chiang Kai-Shek had to co-operate with him. Big ears was even appointed chair of the board of opium suppression – which was the equivalent of giving a grizzly bear the keys to a honey factory!

In 1937 West Suzhou Creek was the site of a major battle in Shanghai between a small group of Nationalist soldiers who were bravely holding out against the invading Japanese army. This is a piece of history that is not really well known in the west.

China in the 1920s was a largely agrarian society with little education and a poorly equipped army. Shanghai was the exception and had developed to be a hub for international business and finance, based in a large part on the opium trade. Shanghai was divided up by the European powers into ‘concessions’ and here the bright young things danced and partied living a life of decadence in stark contrast to the poverty in the Chinese parts of the city.

Japan, on the other hand was an aggressive industrialized nation with supremacist tendencies similar to those of Nazi Germany. They had a well organized and disciplined army made up of literate professionals and not the rough farmers of the Chinese military. Japan had invaded northern China and occupied Beijing, then brashly claimed that they could overrun Shanghai in 3 hours.

At this time the European nations did not want to engage Japan in a conflict. So they had a tacit agreement that the various concessions in the city would be untouched. This largely happened, but to achieve that the Japanese were unable to deploy their aerial bombers which would have destroyed great swathes of Shanghai including the concessions and the Chinese army took strategic advantage of this.

One group of soldiers was sent in from the countryside in the belief that they were going to rescue the wounded but instead were deployed to guard a warehouse on the opposite side of the creek to the British Concession. The warehouse was a reinforced storage facility for 4 banks which was virtually impregnable. There were only 400 of these Nationalist soldiers but they stated that there were 800 in an effort to try to deter the Japanese.

While the bright young things and international observers stood and watched from the opposite side of the creek these two sides fought it out and over the course of 3 days the Chinese soldiers held on to their position against all odds. The Japanese caved in to international pressure and finally agreed to give the Chinese soldiers safe passage across a bridge to the British Concession but then renegaded on the agreement and shot at the soldiers as they tried to cross the bridge. Astoundingly over 200 made it across. They are remarkable heroes but because they were all Nationalists and under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek, the ruler deposed under Chairman Mao’s Glorious Revolution, they have been largely forgotten by Chinese history until recently.

The Si Hang warehouse still stands in Shanghai today, it’s splatter of bullet holes a stark reminder of the horror and destruction of war.

The museum inside dealt with the story in an informative and sensitive way.

This exhibit has the names of all the soldiers in the 88 Division where they are known. Records were scant so some names have been lost. Where that has happened there is a simple 88D block.

There is a new Chinese film out which commemorates the battle and I would recommend it to anyone who would like to know more about this chapter of Chinese history. It is quite graphic but a real insight into a subject that we in the west are not overly familiar with. Fortunately it is subtitled.

The sad thing is that once safely across the bridge the soldiers were taken by the British to an internment camp where they languished for over 3 years until the attack on Pearl Harbor after which the Japanese overran all the concessions and captured the soldiers. They were then sent to do hard labour for the Japanese until the end of world war 2.

Many bridges span the creek today

We finished up walking along the creek to the site of the Bank of China branch that in its basement once housed all the treasures from inside the Forbidden City. The Nationalist party moved them there for safe keeping at the time of the Japanese invasion and then shipped them all out to Taiwan, where a large number of Chiang Kai-shek’s followers fled in the face of the communist revolution. Which explains why a tour of the Forbidden City today is just a walk around the empty buildings.

It was nice to do some learning amidst all the seasonal revelry. And to discover more about this city that we are living in.

‘Twas the night before Christmas

It has certainly been a strange and very different Christmas this year. We are unable to leave Shanghai so the staff and students of Concordia are stuck here and have tried to make the best of things. We consider ourselves to be very fortunate that we are not under strict lockdown as some places are, and we do have the freedom to move around the city largely without the need for masks.

This year, however, is the first time that the entire school community has remained in Shanghai and whilst it has been hard for many not being able to see family and friends back home or to travel or to have visitors, it has provided an opportunity to socalize and to get to know each other a little better. Folks here rose to this challenge and we found that we have had a whole string of events and social activities ranging from the Joiner-Grice belated wedding reception, to carol singing around one of the larger complexes and open house parties with friends.

Festive fundraising brunch

One of the events was staged at school on Christmas Eve. It was a family affair with games of Dodgeball in the gym, photo sessions with Santa under the tree and nativity set colouring activities for the little ones. I think that we had about 50+ people present altogether. We all had a meal which comsisted of non-traditional items such as caribbean fish, stir fried rice and spaghetti bolognese (but hey, I wasnt cooking so I’m not complaining!) After the food and before the candlelight celebration there was an open mic session. Here’s where it got interesting. This blog subtitled is ‘The adventures of a school librarian in Asia’ so it is worth mentioning what happened next from a professional point of view. But first, I need to back track a little…

Every school is busy at the end of the winter term with parties, festivities and other celebratory activities. We were no exception and I selected a range of Christmas/winter stories to read. One activitiy which I also prepared was a Story Walk. This was an idea that I had seen online and is popular in the US. I had been working on doing something similar at school for a while. Essentially you need two copies of a book which you chop up then laminate each page in sequence. People can then walk between the posters individually or in groups and read the story. Intended as an outdoor family activity you end by inviting people to use a QR code on a final page to register their comments on the walk and this enables you to see how many have engaged and completed it.

In Shanghai this year our parents are unfortunatey not allowed on campus (which would have been my first choice) and the local by-laws prevented me from attaching the posters to the external school railings (my second choice). So I was left with the option of displayng the posters around the corridors in school and having the children/teachers do the walks.

We had been gifted some paperback copies of books for the Story Walks by one of our local suppliers, Blue Fountain (many thanks). I had worked on a surround design with footprints, logo and numbers so that the pages could be displayed in order. One book which I had was a beautifully illustrated version of Clement Moore’s ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. Knowing how busy teaching colleagues were at this time of year I just put the sheets in the hallway on the 4th floor outside the Fourth Grade classrooms. I mentioned to the teachers that they were there but left it totally optional whether they encouraged the children to engage or not. Without the QR code element I had no idea whether anyone looked at or read the pages at all. For all I knew it had been totally ignored! This was always going to be a possibility but I put the posters up anyway in ‘hope’.

Back to the Open Mic. I had been asked by a colleague in the High School to read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas after the dinner and the coincidence of the choice was not lost on me! All the youngsters were gathered around me and I did a read aloud for them. We used a different version with different pictures but the same text. As I started to read I could hear a voice chanting alongside me for the first half of the poem. When I looked down it was a fourth grade boy. At the end I chatted to him about how he knew the words and he told me that it was from the Story Walk! Not only had he read the posters but he had started to memorize the poem! I was bowled over!


I just love my job when you can make an impact like that on the next generation. Brilliant Christmas present.

A minor miracle

Since going on retreat back in August, I was challenged to do the Tai Chi wake up exercises every morning for a month. School wasn’t back so – challenge accepted. This surprised everyone including me! At the time I couldn’t really articulate why I wanted to do this but I had a deep inexplicable sense of this being something that I needed to do. So I went along with it.

I was conscientious and did the exercises every morning before my shower. I found that it was a perfect way to wake myself up and I began to feel more energized. Some mornings I stood on the balcony with the early morning sunshine on my face which felt simply wonderful.

My wake up exercise routine ends with a 10-15 minute standing meditation. I have never been very good at keeping still and my mind generally goes all skittish with random thoughts. However, at school this year we were encouraged to think of 3 positive things each day as a technique for helping us to cope during the COVID difficulties, so I focus on that at the beginning of each meditation session and it really helped. I began to feel the benefit of having some ‘me’ time and the opportunity to engage in this form of mindfulness.

The standing meditation is known as ‘alert relaxation’ and to my surprise it is actually incredibly relaxing and energizing too. It takes practice but sometimes, occasionally and very briefly, everything goes calm. My joints feel soft and comfortable and I am filled with a blissful feeling that can only be described as a peace which passes all understanding.

Once school started so did the after school activities and Luca (Master Zhang) our Tai Chi Master from the retreat offered classes so I decided to join. His wife is one of our Mandarin teachers and he also teaches the kids Kung Fu after school.

I learned that there are in fact different types of Tai Chi. The sort that was featured in the Beijing Olympic Games opening ceremony is the type often seen in the park or other public spaces. Master Zhang calls that Tai Chi ‘gymnastics’ and says that many of those who took part in the mass performance back in 2008 are now suffering from knee problems! It is popular and showy and we often see people outside practicing it. They even get to use a sword (& I am a teeny bit jealous about that)

The type of Tai Chi that we do is called ‘Neigong’ (pronounced Nay-gong) which translates as ‘inner energy’. It is much less about style and form and more about the flow of energy through the body’s blood vessels. If the body is correctly aligned you can actually feel the energy or ‘chi’ flowing. Expert practitioners can even control the energy flow to specific parts of their bodies. I don’t think that Neigong techniques are as widely available as the traditional Tai Chi and most likely not in the UK.

Neigong has two sides, there are a martial arts moves which forms part of Kung Fu and the control of energy side which is extremely useful in throwing your enemy off balance. Although Master Zhang shows us some defensive moves I am not likely to ever use them! Lol. The exercises and routines that I do are not strenuous but involve stretching and slow, really slow controlled movements. You get all the benefits of yoga without the complicated positions.

When I do the basic exercises I can feel my fingers, palms and hands tingling quite strongly. I was so impressed that I could feel my energies (chi) that it inspired me to keep on practicing. It has reached the point now where I feel that I am probably getting a bit addicted. I now get up at 5:10 am so that I can fit in an hour of wake up exercises and practice before school. And this is something that I never in my wildest dreams thought that I would do.

The principle behind Neigong is that with the correct mental attitude and body alignment one’s energy can flow and increase. As a result the joints and tendons all increase in flexibility. I can testify that this is correct. After doing the exercises for just 6 weeks I was able to reach behind my back to do up a particularly difficult bra that I had previously been unable to do. I can also squat down to the bottom shelves in the library without a whole lot of moaning and groaning. I was delighted and given that I am approaching my 6th decade I thought that working on suppleness now while I still can will ultimately be of long term benefit.

I began to take it all very seriously and worked to learn each of the moves. They are not difficult but there are lots of them! Then I learned to slow the routine down. You need to isolate and move each part of your body in turn, flowing your movements like mercury. And boy, once you can do it all slowly the energy is much more powerful.

There is one particular move which everyone should do each morning when you get up. Stand with your feet slightly apart, knees bent and thighs twisted in. Then palms down, lift your arms to the ceiling and stretch. Do this 5 times.

For someone who has suffered from ME I was hooked. Many of you will remember that I have recovered from the debilitating illness. I can work and travel etc but I am still mindful of the fact that I was never 100% better. I am publishing this blog now because it is the 10th anniversary of that fateful weekend in Rome when I caught the nasty virus which did all the damage to my mitochondrial system and changed my life in so many ways.

Now, practicing Neigong I get a real buzz from the increased energy flow. I am only beginning to learn (I’m still a baby Yoda) but I get quite a natural high sometimes when I get the movement and the posture right. I had forgotten what being energized felt like. People at school have commented on how much more relaxed I look and how I walk the corridors with more energy. (And these are people who don’t know that I am doing Tai Chi)

I couldn’t have done any of this without the excellence of Master Zhang. I can be standing holding what I think is a pretty good position. He then adjusts my arm by twisting it millimeters and wow! There is the most incredible feeling.

I am in awe at how he knows. He even says that he can see visible signs of the energy moving in me when my fingers get puffy. It’s so impressive.

This is Master Zhang filming for a documentary on Tai Chi (note – I can’t do any of those kicks!)

I have a lot more to learn but nowadays I look forwards to getting up and don’t mind practicing in the pre-dawn. In a busy world this wakes me up better than coffee ever did.

My morning view

Talking of which, the Chinese cure for pretty much all ailments is to drink warm water. I was again challenged by a colleague to drink warm water for a week and to see how I felt. Challenge accepted. That was in September and since then I have probably had only three cups of coffee. I have even cut back (not out) on alcohol and I feel so much better and much more hydrated.

Life has a way of throwing curve balls at us and Kevin and I have had our fair share of those. The last 10 years has proved to be challenging in so many ways and on more than one occasion I have been taken way outside of my comfort zone. God moves in mysterious ways though and often bad or difficult things happen for reasons that we don’t fully understand at the time. I have found it best to accept and move on. Go with the flow, learn, grow and trust. This has certainly been the case for me as I reflect and realize that all the twists, turns and hurdles of the past 10 years have brought me to where I am now. In Shanghai. In Jinqiao. At Concordia. Able to take advantage of the opportunity to learn Neigong with its remarkable regenerative, restorative healing powers. I feel better than I have done for a decade and for me that is a minor miracle.

And I HAVE learned from my experiences. I recognize that I was probably over busy 10 years ago being a mother, a library manager, a church secretary, keeping a house clean and having a social life. I was an easy target for a virus that attacks people when their immune systems are compromised. I know now that I need to keep a better balance in my life. Like this…

Master Zhang