All about shoes

My editor sent me to check out a few custom shoe-makers. I thought it was silly at first, but I became fascinated by this niche market. People pay $15,000 for a pair of bespoke shoes. Who are these “people”? The salesman at an Italian boutique politely describes his customers as “Chinese non-Beijingers.” My guess? Shanxi coal mine owners, China’s newest nouveau riche. Funnily enough, while the Chinese are shelling out big bucks for a pair of soles, the expats and diplomats prefer the cheaper local options. My favorite of the custom shoemakers was “Lao Yu” at Gulou Dongdajie (tel 6404 1406).

‘Best of best’ footwear from Italy
By Qi Zhai (China Daily)

http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/metro/2010-04/29/content_9790995.htm

On the lower levels of the Peninsula Hotel shopping arcade, where ultra-luxury European boutiques cater to Beijing’s most discerning fashion plates, is a small shop called Silvano Lattanzi. The name may mean little in China, where the company maintains a “low key” profile, but elsewhere, from Milan to New York City, Silvano Lattanzi is celebrated as the world’s leading custom footwear maker.

Started in 1971 by Silvano Lattanzi himself, an Italian shoemaker hailing from a family of shoemakers, the company has since fitted some of the most elite feet around the globe. From statesmen (Barack Obama) to celebrities (Uma Thurman), a small group of in-the-know footwear aficionados enjoy the quality of Lattanzi bespoke shoes. Last year, the exclusive Robb Report named Silvano Lattanzi the “Best of the Best” in the footwear category.

In China, custom Italian shoes are a fairly new luxury. Silvano Lattanzi came to Beijing just two years ago, and to Shanghai a little over three. Manager of the Beijing Peninsula store, Roberto Jiang, explains in a lilting mix of Italian and Chinese the advantages that lure customers to pay, and to wait, for custom made shoes:

“Made-to-order shoes are above all comfortable. They are made to fit the precise shape of the customer’s feet. Chinese men, in particular, may feel parts of their feet squeezed too tight in Western shoe models. I would suggest custom making in these cases.”

The custom shoemaking process is indeed meticulous, and long. Customers initiate the affair by choosing a model from the display shoes at Silvano Lattanzi, or they bring in their own designs. Then, a leather is selected from more than 300 swatches available at the Beijing store. From basic calf to exotic skins, such as ostrich and crocodile, the texture and color the eventual shoes can take on are astounding. Finally, Roberto personally takes several measurements of each foot. He sends these specifications to Italy, where craftsmen with 30 to 40 years of experience begin their labor.

Like a bespoke suit or a custom wedding gown, fittings are an essential part of the shoemaking process. Silvano Lattanzi’s craftsmen in Italy send a mock-up of the shoe – without the soles – three weeks after a new order is placed, so customers can try them on for comfort. Under the careful attention of Roberto, the customer notes parts where the “shoe” feels too tight, or too loose. The mock-up is then sent back to Italy, marked with areas for adjustment, where hand-sewing of the real shoe can begin.

When the shoes finally arrive in Beijing, they are presented to the customer with luxurious accessories, including spare heels, laces, polish, and anti-slip soles. Roberto makes it a point to tell customers that they must wear their new shoes for a month before applying the anti-slip soles. “After a month of wear, the shoes have grown into the shape of the customer’s feet. Only then can we send them back to Italy for the anti-slip sole to be added.”

The footwear love affair does not end here. In fact, it has just begun. Most customers at Silvano Lattanzi’s Beijing store, like elsewhere, are old customers. Although Lattanzi prices are the highest among foreign custom footwear makers in Beijing, Roberto attests that the wearer can notice the difference. “When they first come in, customers ask why we are priced higher than Berluti, for example. But once they have worn a pair, they feel the quality difference and they come back for more.”

For Lattanzi’s exquisite services, customers pay dearly. Custom men’s shoes start at about 47,000 yuan for basic calf leather and run to more than 100,000 yuan for crocodile. Although man’s footwear is the brand’s specialty, the Beijing store also has a small selection of stylish ladies footwear. Shoe lovers who cannot stomach the prices, or do not have the patience to wait, can pick up a ready-to-wear pair of display shoes. These are priced significantly lower than their custom cousins, starting at 20,000 yuan.

Now, if you have the budget and the interest, better hurry to Silvano Lattanzi. The waiting list for a new custom pair is now three months. The exclusive circle of fine footwear owners is getting smaller.

The local maker

http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/metro/2010-04/29/content_9790993.htm

Despite the hefty price tags for a domestic brand, Tongshenghe’s waiting list is long. Since the lunar new year, business has been picking up. New customers can now expect to wait more than two months for their custom creations. Alternatively, ready-to-wear models in the store are available for a 30 percent discount. This prestigious old Beijing brand has been around for 102 years.

After relocating several times- most recently in 2009 – Tongshenghe is back to its original home base in Wangfujing. Outside the store, bronze statues of children playing around an oversized shoe invite curious looks from customers and passing tourists. Inside, the store looks like any modern footwear retailer. Up front, the shelves are stocked with ready-to-wear shoes and a host of salesmen stand by. But a large room off to the side of the Tongshenghe store, decorated with rustic hand tools and leather swatches, gives away its traditional trade.

Tongshenghe is one of three old shoemaking brands still surviving in Beijing. It is the only one to specialize in all-leather shoes. Customers – businessmen, politicians, and people on a mission to find the most wearable shoes – come here for the comfort and breathability that bespoke shoes can offer.

Starting at 2,800 yuan, Tongshenghe’s shoes do not come cheap, but wearers are assured that their shoes underwent 100 minute steps in the making. The store also brings customers in for at least one or two fittings before sewing the final product.

At Tongshenghe, an expert craftsman is on hand to guide customers through the process. Zhang Qingjun, a “third-generation shoemaking craftsman”, did his apprenticeship at Tongshenghe’s factory and has been working at the store for the past 10 years. Quite unlike his salesmen colleagues up front, he does not promote made-to-order shoes to customers who walk in. Rather, he feels confident that those who take the time to acquire a pair will come back, again and again.

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5 Small Triumphs

I finally found my way back to the yoga studio after ten days spent plowing through an over-ambitious schedule. (Time management for freelancers is proving tricky even for this Type A compulsive organizer).

As I stepped into the 40° heated room and planted my feet on a rubber mat, I could feel myself melting with warm relaxation. Then, the magic happens. After two “sun salutations” (awesome stick figure depictions here if you don’t know what I’m talking about) barely 10 minutes into the 90-minute routine, I was pumping with energy.

This is one thing I love about yoga: it can be incredibly soothing while giving you an intense work out.

I was getting into the groove, remembering the alignment of my wrists and shoulders, feet and hips. Then it occurred to me just how natural these movements now feel, compared to when I was trying to figure out the basics. In honor of small daily epiphanies and occasions to yell “Aha!” silently to yourself, I’m throwing out here my personal list of “5 small moments of triumph in yoga” –

1. Forgetting everyone else in the room. A first yoga class can make you feel like the school nerd at a 6th grade dance. You wish you hadn’t worn baggy sweats when you see the cool girls prancing around in second-skin Lululemon gear. Your hair is tumbling in a sweaty mess when everyone else is rocking the stylish Heidi braid. And you can barely reach your toes – much less press your stomach to your thighs – but everyone else seems to be gracefully mastering the forward bend. Fret not. There comes a point when you’ll forget that you’re in a room with twenty other people. Then, it’ll be someone else’s turn to worry about what you think of their amateur moves while you’re smiling at yourself with confidence into the studio mirrors.

2. Getting “Om” right. The whole idea of sitting cross-legged, hands in a prayer in front of your heart, and throwing your voice into a mono-syllabic chant in unison with the strangers in the room seems kind of kooky initially. Some people cope with this unaccustomed start to classes by staying silent, whiling the three chants away. Others pitch in a timid and uncertain “ummmm…” And then there are the bold men — who already stand out as minorities in any yoga class — jumping in too early with their baritone booms before everyone else has uttered a sound. I deeply dreaded the “Om” in the beginning, but it eventually became my favorite thing. The freedom and harmony of the ritual chant makes me so happy that when I come across teachers who don’t “Om” before they move, I feel like someone stole the maraschino cherry off my fruity cocktail glass.

3. Mastering “chaturanga.” It looks like a push up and you’ll do it at least 5 times in any flow-based yoga class, but it ain’t easy. During the first month of my yoga foray last year, I couldn’t lower myself from “plank” to “chaturanga” because my triceps were too weak. So I suffered the beginner’s humiliation of dropping my knees to the ground first and doing what looked like a “girly push up.” Meanwhile, the more advanced students were all gorgeously stretched taut from head to toe, their elbows tucked at 90º angles close to their ribs, slowly lowering themselves to the ground. I wished I could make “chaturanga” look long and strong the way they did. And then one day I did. It felt so ridiculously good that I just wanted to do it over and over and over again.

4. Standing tall in “tree.” There are a lot of balance moves in yoga, from the simple “eagle” to the crazy “peacock.” The most basic balance posture is “tree,” when you stand on one leg with the other pressed against your inner thigh. Some people catch on to “tree” easily; others have a hard time even bending their non-standing leg into place. Wherever you are on the “tree” spectrum, it’s still amazing to get it right and to incrementally get it “more right.” Once you’re in position and the toppling sensation has passed, you really do feel like you’re “rooted” into the ground. Then, you can switch it up by closing your eyes (don’t fall!), looking up at the sky, stretching your arms outward like branches, or bringing them together into a prayer over your head. “Tree” is so simple and comfortable that I sometimes want to stand around in posture just for kicks.

5. Remembering how a “vinyasa” (“flow”) goes. Once you’ve done it 30 times, the sequence of movements from standing, to bending, to push up, and back flow like a basic instinct. But in the beginning, it’s a choppy and awkward jig as you try to do what the instructor is calling out while breathing in and out at all the wrong times. More than a few times, you’ll be embarrassed to find that everybody else is in a beautiful “chaturanga” while you’ve prematurely pushed back to “downward dog.” It’ll pass, you’ll get the hang of it, and give yourself a pat on the back.

Publication: Beijing Hooker Devils interview

A fun little interview I did about rugby ladies in Beijing. Read it here or on CityWeekend:

http://www.cityweekend.com.cn/beijing/articles/blogs-beijing/sports-shorts/mvp-beijing-ladies-devils-captain-jeannie-ivanov-ready-to-tackle-new-season/

The Beijing Ladies Devils Tackle a New Season

Jeannie Ivanov, captain of the Beijing Ladies Devils, tells us why rugby is totally for girls.

What’s the story behind the feisty team name? We are part of the Beijing Devils Rugby Club and the men’s teams have been established for a number of years. The girls actually wanted to call ourselves the Beijing Hooker Devils—because hooker is an important position in rugby—but we weren’t sure how well it would translate.

How do you recruit new players? Now that the new season has kicked off, we’re going to be hitting the bars with our delightful yellow jerseys for publicity.

The stereotype of a rugby player is a big burly man who likes his beer. What is a typical rugby chick? We do like our beer, but rugby isn’t just about being big and tough. It’s about being skillful, having a good time and improving your fitness.

But is women’s rugby as rough and tumble as men’s? The rules for men and women are exactly the same. It is rough, but it’s also amazing how much the adrenaline helps, especially for new players. Right now, the women’s team plays more sevens than fifteens, and sevens involves more running, more skill and less contact.

Any good war stories? Just to offer proof that rugby is not as frightening as it seems … in my first game ever, I tried to tackle someone who was about 1.9 meters tall. She physically picked me up and threw me aside. It didn’t hurt, but it taught me the important lesson that when you tackle, you tackle low. Nobody’s ever pulled that move on me again.

Web: http://www.beijingdevils.com, Email: jeannielufc@msn.com

Preaching my yoga


Getting my “Om” on in the desert

Although I dabbled in the occasional yoga class – like many stressed out Manhattan yuppies did – for years, this month marks the first year anniversary of my real love affair with yoga.

It was in February of 2009 that I ran away to Koh Samui for seven days of fasting, meditation, and yoga. The results of that weeklong “detox” holiday were drastic – I lost weight (4 kilos), my skin cleared up (no more stealing my friends’ prescription acne creams), I stopped craving bad foods (although I still love to eat), I could think clearly (arriving at the conclusion that it was imperative to take a year off), and I could finally do yoga.

I mean really do yoga. When I did yoga before I never quite “got it.” I would go through the motions, not feeling all of the crazy wonderful things instructors were telling me to feel, and assuming that it was just fluffy hippie talk.

But after the detox, my mind cleared and my body opened. At last, I could concentrate and actually keep up with the rhythmic breathing. I felt lighter, leaner, and more flexible. Postures that were once excruciatingly awkward to get into, like “pigeon”, suddenly made sense.

Since April last year, yoga has become an indispensable part of my daily life. As a freelancer, having a yoga class to look forward to provides structure and discipline in my amorphous work days. As a seeker, still finding my way to the perfect job (or creating it), yoga reminds me that the thing you enjoy may in fact be the thing you “should” be doing. As a member of a family with poor medical history, yoga keeps me in good health. And, of course, vanity plays into it too. I love that I can indulge my carnivorous cravings and still fit into a size Small (X-Small in the US).

So, on the one year anniversary of my love affair with yoga, I’m preaching my passion to everyone: give it a try. Go Wiki “yoga”, sign up for a class, and see where it takes you. Maybe you’ll love it right away, maybe you’ll hate it, or maybe you’ll be like me, half liking it until something clicks into place. It could change your life, so why wait to find out what possibilities could come of mastering the “downward dog”?

* My favorite hot yoga studio in Beijing is celebrating its 6th anniversary on May 11 and offering free classes all day long. Check it out at www.omyoga42.com.cn.

Publication: China’s “post-90’s generation”

In this week’s column, I try to figure out what makes today’s Chinese teens tick. Read it here or on China Daily:

http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/metro/2010-04/23/content_9766940.htm


Post-90s not so different

There is a group of people in China who frequently come up in conversation accompanied by a resigned sigh or a dismissive “Oh, them.” In the media, they regularly feature as a subject of discourse, as the public attempts to diagnose them, identify the causes of their malaise, and figure out what can be done to fix them. From the way they are talked about, you would think they were a colony of aliens.

But they are not. They are just like me, only younger.

I am talking about the “post-90s”, the cohort born during China’s golden decade. Most of them are just now entering adulthood. In their lives so far, they have only tasted the sweet fruits of market reform and they harbor no bittersweet memories of the past. Because of the fortuitous timing of their births, the post-90s are a distinctive breed.

In public discussion, the post-90s are routinely characterized as a selfish, unwelcoming, and solitary bunch. They are allegedly unmotivated about exerting themselves, yet have expensive tastes, fed by the collective doting of six parents and grandparents. In school, they are supposedly apathetic; in life, lethargic.

The only thing that captivates their generally disinterested attention is the Internet. The prototype post-90s child spends his days poring over a laptop, conversing intensely with hundreds of strangers who are also doing their best to avoid communicating with real people, especially their parents.

Is there truth to this harsh depiction or have we concocted an exaggerated stereotype? Are the post-90s really so bizarrely different, and if so, why?

The adults – parents and teachers especially – certainly think that their charges are in fact oddly different. I myself have observed post-90s children sulking at home on weekends, plugged into three electronic devices and ignoring all conversation directed their way.

There are a few common explanations for why the post-90s are the way they are. Economic prosperity during the decade is seen as the main culprit. Born into the laps of luxury, these young ones are used to having nice things without working to earn them.

One mother of a 13-year-old boy lamented, “My elder daughter remembers falling asleep on the backseat of my bicycle in the 1980s, so she is a lot easier to please when it comes to material goods. But when my son was born, we already had a car; he always expects to have the best.”

The “one child policy” is another aggravating factor that is often blamed. By 1990, the policy had been in place for a decade, producing a generation of children who grew up in isolation, without the camaraderie of siblings, or cousins even. The post-90s exhibit classic single child syndromes. A history teacher at Beijing No 80 Middle School pinpoints one culturally important quality that has been lost on this generation: “They are unprepared to chiku (literally “eat bitterness”), and they don’t want to chiku.”

Perhaps the most profound force shaping the post-90s generation is technology. A study reports that 70 percent of children in China aged 7 to 15 have surfed the Web; and more than half of those living in townships and cities have Internet connections at home. The figure for Beijing is surely much higher.

While computers and instant access to wide-ranging information can be useful tools in learning, they can also cause “alienation, poor social skills and Internet addiction”, in the words of a veteran expatriate educator who has taught at the Beijing Foreign Studies University.

So the post-90s are dramatically different from other cohorts and society is worried. What then?

As parents and educators try to prepare post-90s children for the “real world”, they sometimes resort to scolding, pressuring and pulling out the “when I was your age” card. I’ve been guilty of doing the same with younger relatives. But each time I tell a yawning 18-year-old what he should be doing at his age, I also remember that I’m applying an outdated mentality to current issues.

After all, how can we expect the post-90s to resemble their elders in work ethic or attitude on life when they lived through such a unique time in China’s history? Is it right to impose our fears on these insouciant youths? Didn’t the parents of post-90s work hard precisely so their children could grow up without the oppressive worries that preoccupy people who have experienced war and famine?

Perhaps the apathy, lethargy and selfishness we observe are normal responses to the post-90s environment. And let’s not forget that every generation tries to define itself in opposition to its precedents. It may turn out that when they get older, the post-90s will prove themselves to not be so different from the rest of us.

I do think more could be done to engage post-90s children with the world outside of their comfortable homes. Making room for charity work and community service in crammed school days may produce more responsible, aware and compassionate students, who may eventually begin to give a hoot.

Other than this, the mass stress over the state of the post-90s may be excessive. As one teenager coolly told me, “I just want to tell everyone to relax. I’m going to be OK.”

Preaching my yoga


Getting my “Om” on in the desert

Although I dabbled in the occasional yoga class – like many stressed out Manhattan yuppies did – for years, this month marks the first year anniversary of my real love affair with yoga.

It was in February of 2009 that I ran away to Koh Samui for seven days of fasting, meditation, and yoga. The results of that weeklong “detox” holiday were drastic – I lost weight (4 kilos), my skin cleared up (no more stealing my friends’ prescription acne creams), I stopped craving bad foods (although I still love to eat), I could think clearly (arriving at the conclusion that it was imperative to take a year off), and I could finally do yoga.

I mean really do yoga. When I did yoga before I never quite “got it.” I would go through the motions, not feeling all of the crazy wonderful things instructors were telling me to feel, and assuming that it was just fluffy hippie talk.

But after the detox, my mind cleared and my body opened. At last, I could concentrate and actually keep up with the rhythmic breathing. I felt lighter, leaner, and more flexible. Postures that were once excruciatingly awkward to get into, like “pigeon”, suddenly made sense.

Since April last year, yoga has become an indispensable part of my daily life. As a freelancer, having a yoga class to look forward to provides structure and discipline in my amorphous work days. As a seeker, still finding my way to the perfect job (or creating it), yoga reminds me that the thing you enjoy may in fact be the thing you “should” be doing. As a member of a family with poor medical history, yoga keeps me in good health. And, of course, vanity plays into it too. I love that I can indulge my carnivorous cravings and still fit into a size Small (X-Small in the US).

So, on the one year anniversary of my love affair with yoga, I’m preaching my passion to everyone: give it a try. Go Wiki “yoga”, sign up for a class, and see where it takes you. Maybe you’ll love it right away, maybe you’ll hate it, or maybe you’ll be like me, half liking it until something clicks into place. It could change your life, so why wait to find out what possibilities could come of mastering the “downward dog”?

* My favorite hot yoga studio in Beijing is celebrating its 6th anniversary on May 11 and offering free classes all day long. Check it out at www.omyoga42.com.cn.

Publication: Does slogan propaganda still work?

Apparently the word ‘propaganda’ is controversial enough to be censored out of the title of my article. In its printed version, it’s “slogan publicity.” Read it here or on China Daily:

http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/metro/2010-04/16/content_9739557.htm

Since March, a freakishly cheerful cartoon character girl has been beaming down at passing traffic from oversized billboards on Beijing’s east side. Her name is Luo Baby and, with a jolly hop, she promotes Chaoyang’s latest public service slogan: “Civilized Chaoyang with Magnificent Me”.
Images of this latest propaganda incarnation are now ubiquitous in neighborhoods east of Chaoyangmen. At intersections, along sidewalks, and atop residential buildings, Luo Baby’s constant smile makes me wonder, “Does this stuff still work any more?” This thought is usually followed by another worthy question, “Couldn’t the district government have hired an English proofreader to iron out the syntactical awkwardness?”.

The “Civilized Chaoyang with Magnificent Me” campaign appears to have kicked off on March 1, from what I could gather on the district government’s information smorgasbord of a homepage. The website doesn’t tell me much else about the campaign: what it seeks to accomplish, how long it will last, and why it was necessary to have clumsy bilingual slogans. But, I did find a uselessly entertaining page featuring English translations of Chinese signage, which decodes handy instructions like, “If the alarm beeps after you pay, please go to the counter with purchased books for re-demagnetization.”

Why the sudden surge of enthusiasm for slogans? March 5 marked the 47th anniversary of Chairman Mao’s anointment of Lei Feng as the model of an upright Chinese citizen. From that day on, Lei Feng, a common soldier, became a national legend. And the slogan Mao assigned to him, “Emulate Lei Feng, a good model”, became as indispensable to our contemporary lingo as “Good good study, day day up.”

In commemoration of March 5, 1963, Chaoyang district launched its “Civilized Chaoyang with Magnificent Me” campaign. Other coordinated neighborhood-level initiatives, like the “Build a Civilized City, Smiling Hujialou” mini-campaign and a civility petition, supposedly signed by 10,000 Beijingers, followed.

Slogans and propaganda have a long and illustrious history in China. Their most masterful applications took place during the Mao era. Regardless of where your ideological sympathies lie, it’s difficult to deny that Chinese propagandists were skillful at fanning emotions in the war-torn days. Even though the Shangganling Battle was fought decades before I was born, I struggle to push back tears every time I catch a rerun of the black-and-white film rendition. When the music swells and soldiers selflessly jostle to become martyrs for the cause in dark underground tunnels, I weep for the glorious self-sacrifice that will ensue.

During the decades of peace that followed, hand-painted slogans in broad white strokes decorated walls all around the countryside and in old urban neighborhoods. The sometimes cleverly catchy slogans extolled the virtues of family planning, paying your taxes and sweeping out pornography.

As China developed, the slogan-based method of educating and influencing the public was used less and less. With red-brick buildings continuously demolished to make way for skyscrapers, it sometimes feels as though all that remains of slogan publicity is the fading white paint peeking through piles of rubble.
Yet, in truth, slogan publicity didn’t disappear. It was reinvented in glossy graphics and technicolor. It was on full display leading into the Olympics, when furry cartoon mascots broadcast civilized reminders all around Beijing.

Does slogan publicity still work? It seems to have worked for the Olympics. Waiting at the bus stop is immeasurably more bearable now than it was three years ago, when I always ended up pushed off the curb or squashed against someone’s hefty bag. One seemingly unchangeable habit – cutting in line – did change for the better.

But was the improved behavior on the streets of Beijing all thanks to the slogans? I think not. The collective national pride, eagerness and the coordinated efforts of celebrities and statesman, reinforced the message during seven years of anticipation.

So, how will the merry “Civilized Chaoyang with Magnificent Me” campaign fare? Not well, says this skeptic. It being entirely unclear what change this vaguely broad slogan is intended to induce, I’m not sure how we can observe its success. Without a frenzied countdown to an event of epic proportion, people are also not motivated to pay attention. And, finally, when a car dangerously cuts me off on the pedestrian crosswalk, looking up to see Luo Baby’s annoying smile just drives home the irony.