Monday, December 31, 2007

India: Days 3, 4, and 5 - Wedding

I've never been to an Indian wedding before. When I told my friends that I would be going to India to attend a wedding, they all expressed their jealousy, and needless to say, my expectations were sky-high. Nonetheless, I ended up being surprised by the sheer extravagance and the endless activities.

On the first night Paul and I were there, we attended the sangeet. It was a bit like a western reception - open bar, dancing, an emcee, and dinner ... except it was all backwards. The evening began with drinking, speeches, and dancing, and ended with food being served at 10:30 PM. It was a lot of fun -- and the groom's uncle kept the Johnnie Walker flowing. Around midnight, everybody went home to prepare for the next day.

The second day offered breakfast and lunch, but Paul and I skipped both to attend another event on the schedule, a cultural show featuring regional Indian dancing. After watching for 30 minutes, we asked our assigned driver to take us to the ferry so we could take a boat across to Fort Cochin, an older part of the town. We rode around on an autorickshaw (think three-wheeled rickshaw with a small engine and driver) for a few hours and then went back to the other side of the water to attend the evening reception.

The evening reception on the second day of the wedding was at the luxurious Le Meridien resort in Cochin. There were probably 2,000 people in attendance. They were mostly the bride's family's friends, relatives and business associates. There was a live performance, more free liquor and table upon table of food. As it was nearly 30 degrees Celsius (= 86 degrees Fahrenheit) outside and very humid, we spent most of the evening inside bathing in air conditioning and drinking Johnny Walker Black (more about Johnny Walker later).

The third day of the wedding started early as our wedding schedule indicated a "procession" at 8 AM. Instead of bridesmaids and a flower girl, we found a parade involving three elephants, an army of dancers, and a large group of the groom's family and friends walking in. This was followed by 2 hours of ceremony and more eating. After this, the couple was deemed married and the days of celebration were over.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

India: Day 3

I left my hotel oasis at 3:45 in the morning for the domestic airport. When I arrived, I was pleasantly surprised at how busy it was. The first flight of the day appeared to be scheduled for a 4:45 departure. This is in stark contrast to China, where the first flight out of Shanghai is usually 7:50. My flight departed without a hitch, and I arrived in Cochin, on the southwestern coast of India 2 hours later.

A bit of background on my trip to India. I am here to attend the wedding of one of my best friends from college, Vinay. Of our core group of friends from school, only I and another friend Paul made the trip to India to attend.

After I picked up my baggage, there was a driver waiting for me outside on the curb with a sign for the wedding. He took me to the hotel, a Taj property on the waterfront. A few minutes after that, Vinay came to my room to greet me and kickoff 3 days of wedding festivities.

India: Day 2

I finally got the chance to explore Bombay on my second day in India. I started by asking the hotel to get me a taxi to go to a market downtown. The hotel worker asked me, "370 rupees?" and I figured the hotel wasn't trying to rip me off, so I said okay. But, in retrospect, I think the taxi drivers have some sort of side deal with the doormen. The driver managed to convince me that where I wanted to go wasn't worthwhile (it really wasn't) and that I should get a whole day tour from him for 1200 rupees. I asked him if that included time if I wanted to stay out for dinner. He said it was no problem, and that there was "No charge for waiting."

So, with that, he took me to the handful of tourist sites in Bombay. Gateway of India - check. Prince of Wales Museum - check. Marine Drive to see the "nice" office buildings - check. Chowpatty Beach, a stretch of sand located downtown - check. Hanging Gardens, a small park located on a hill overlooking Bombay - check. At around 4 PM, despite my earlier desire to stay out and eat dinner, I couldn't take the dirtiness and commotion any more. I told my driver to take me back to my hotel, where I took a shower and ate dinner.

Here's my quick summary of Bombay. It may be interesting to see as a commercial hub and in comparison to other cities worldwide, but I found it even more lacking in tourist locations than Shanghai. It lacks the tall skyscrapers of Shanghai, the cultural attractions of New York, and the historical context of London. It's worth a quick stopover, but one day is probably all you need.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Trek to India

I'm in my hotel in Bombay right now writing this post. There is a fountain outside the business center that only adds to my impression that the hotel is some sort of oasis within the chaos outside that is Bombay.

The trip here did not start out well. My original flight: Air India #349 direct from Shanghai to Delhi (with a stopover in Bangkok) was scheduled to take off at 1 AM on December 26. Yes, that is 1 AM after Christmas evening. The ticket was 1/4 the price for the two days surrounding Christmas, so I figured it was worth it. On my way to the airport, I received an email from Zuji.com (the Hong Kong-based website where I bought the ticket) notifying me that the flight had been delayed 3 hours. Nice of them to inform me, but a little too late.

When I checked in, I was given a middle seat. So not only did I have to bear the Air India quality of service on a long trip, I get to do it from the middle seat on an old Airbus 310. As I have written about before, Pudong Airport has nothing terrific going for it. It is even worse at night when everything is closed. No duty-free stores, no bookstores selling Chinese-only books, not even overpriced noodle shops. Apparently, at night, they turn off the heat as well. At least the lights were kept on for my fellow passengers and me. At 5 AM - yes, that's a delay of 4 hours - we boarded our plane. Originally, I was supposed to arrive in Delhi at 8:35 AM. I had a 12 PM flight to Bombay on a domestic airline, Kingfisher. 3.5 hours is enough, right? Of course, with the delay, I was going to miss this flight. So I called the airline and moved my flight to 2 PM. This would give me 2 hours from my new arrival time.

The plane was awful. It was old and smelled like a portapotty. The only saving grace is that after we landed in Bangkok, about half the passengers got off and the plane was left half empty. I was able to move over and get some elbow room at this point. But it only went downhill from here.

On arrival in Delhi, I ran off the plane so I could catch my next flight. I then spent 90 minutes in the line for immigration behind 30 Afghanis. Needless to say, the Indian immigration personnel were not ready to speed the Afghanis through security. When I finally made it out, our bags had been taken off the carousel. But I couldn't find my bag amongst them. I went over to the baggage office and they found a bag that looked similar (but not really). They then found that passenger's travel record and called him. He was already halfway home with my bag. After the other passenger returned with my bag, I was finally able to go through customs.

By this time, I had missed my Kingfisher flight. The Kingfisher counter told me that I should talk to Air India to compensate me for my flight. Of course, Air India is in a different building across the road and up a filght of stairs. At Air India, I was told that they were not responsible for the Kingfisher flight since I had booked that separately. They told me they could get me on a flight to Bombay but it didn't leave until 9 PM and I would still have to pay for it. Okay, back to Kingfisher down the flight of stairs and across the road. Kingfisher said that even though my ticket was fully refundable, since I was a no-show, it was counted as used. I could only get back the taxes. This is probably the one time in my life I will ever be happy that in India, taxes seem to make up ~40% of the total cost of a ticket. So in the end, I had to pay about $90 for a new ticket.

New ticket in hand, it was time to make it to the domestic terminal - a 20 minute drive from the international terminal. Twenty minutes for 15 km? Yes, this is India. I waited in a lounge for the shuttle to the other terminal. Some guy comes in and waves at everyone to go outside. He did not seem to be very official so I didn't follow him. Neither did anyone else. Then 2 minutes later, he does so again. This time, two Indian families went outside, so I followed. This other non-official guy asks to see my ticket and passport. He then tells me I have to go to another line near the taxis. I could see the "Official Interterminal Shuttle Bus" right in front of me, so I asked why I had to go near the taxis. He said it was because I was in terminal 1A and not 1B. Total BS, all happening right in front of the official desk. I ignored him, took my ticket and passport back and got behind the other Indian families.

After our 20 minute ride to the other terminal, I arrived at the Kingfisher counter. Here, everything seemed like it should be. They were courteous and checked me in quickly. I now just had to wait 3 hours until the flight was scheduled to depart. Inside, there were a total of 5 gates. Beijing is a relatively small airport for its passenger volume, but seriously, 5?! There are absolutely no jetways. Everybody has to board the bus to get to the plane.

At least the flight experience on Kingfisher was great. Everyone says Kingfisher is a revolution in Indian flying. It's true. I was offered bottle after bottle of water. I was also given a free pen and enjoyed television at my seat a la Jet Blue. The free meal was also pretty good.

In Bombay, I was safely in the hands of my hotel, Le Royal Meridien. I had called ahead for a car to pick me up (total cost 350 INR = $9). Once I got my bags from the carousel, I walked outside and immediately found my driver. He dropped me off at the hotel where I was upgraded to a nice room with a view of the pool. I quickly took a shower, brushed my teeth (with bottled water), and fell asleep.

Time in China is coming to a close

The incrediby long break between the last post and this one is due to the fact that my life has been busier than ever wrapping up my project at work, getting ready to go back to the US, and preparing to travel to India to attend a friend's wedding.

In any case, the next few posts will be done from India as I compare my brief experiences traveling there to my time spent living in China. When I come back, I will try to summarize my experiences in China this past year.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Honor thy elders

"Time-honored Quanjude brand plan further expansion"

That's a headline from today's China Daily. "Time-honored"is a phrase I hear at least once or twice a week in China. It seems odd to me, since it is hardly ever used in the US. According to Merriam-Webster, it means "honored because of age or long usage." I suppose that's a typical Chinese sentiment -- since something has been around a long time, it should be treasured and honored.

While that may be true for things like the Forbidden City and the Great Wall, should the term really be used for a 147 year old restaurant that serves really greasy duck mostly to tourists? Or how about China's relationship with South Africa? I also discovered that there is an official list of "time-honored" brands in China. There are 430 of them to be exact. At least, that was the number in 2006. Who knows, another year has passed and perhaps many more have withstood the test of time and deserve the title.

Quick visit to Kuala Lumpur


I was in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia last week for a very short training session. I wish I could have spent more time there, as it seemed like a very interesting place. Very similar to Singapore (which is less than 300 km away), but seemed more genuine and definitely more Muslim. Even though I spent 90% of my time in the hotel where the training was held, I did get a chance to visit the Petronas Towers, formerly the tallest buildings in the world (first surpassed by Taipei 101, and now the Burj Dubai).
Malaysian food is supposed to be good, and Chinese cuisine mixed with Indian spices and Muslim influences make for some interesting flavors. While I certainly enjoyed it, I wouldn’t say it’s as good as the Thai food I had in Thailand or the stuff I had in hawker stalls in Singapore.

Chinese conformity has its advantages


I snapped this picture last week during a flight delay. All the passengers are eating the same thing. It’s a free meal provided by the airline to the delayed passengers. While I am impressed that Chinese airlines are sufficiently service-oriented to provide such a freebie, the approach is typically Chinese. The free meals are all the same; you get a mixed plate containing rice, a pork chop, pickled vegetables and fruit. You also get a can of Coke. No vegetarian option or Diet Coke. All the passengers were thrilled to take it. Contrast this with the American approach of providing meal vouchers so that people can choose their own meals. I’m not sure which is more efficient. Certainly it’s not worthwhile for airlines to provide different kinds of meals at the airport when there are so many restaurants available that probably run a more efficient kitchen than an airline. However, when hundreds of Chinese travelers are happy to eat the same slop, it’s probably pretty cheap.

Friday, November 23, 2007

41 degrees and partly smoky

Beijing weather is pretty bad. During the summer, sandstorms blow in from the West. During the winter, the air is so dry every cubicle in corporate offices will have a rising column of steam coming out of a humidifier. However, last week, it was "smoky" in Beijing, at least according to my Accuweather forecast. When I looked out the window, I didn't notice any substantial difference from the typical "partly cloudy" or "foggy" descriptions.

Exchange rate via Economist cover price

Last week I wrote about the Economist Big Mac Index which I hope didn’t bore anyone with its coverage of economics. Because, today, I want to use the cover price of the Economist itself to show the disparity in prices and exchange rates. Here is what it costs to buy a copy of the Economist in a sampling of countries and the US dollar equivalent at official exchange rates.
China: RMB 75 – US$10
Hong Kong: HK$60 – US$8
Taiwan: NT$230 – US$7
Japan: ¥1,150 – US$10
Korea: Won 8,500 – US$9
Singapore: S$12 – US$8
Malaysia: RM18 – US$6
Vietnam, Tonga, Fiji, & Mongolia: US$6

I can understand why Japan is expensive. Everything in Japan is expensive, and I’m sure the extra cost is to give Japan’s backward retail sector enough margin to sell a copy at a profit. But China? Why is it 66% more expensive for the Economist in China compared to Mongolia? Perhaps I could make money importing black market copies over the border from Mongolia into Inner Mongolia, China.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

130k+ Chens, 400k+ Nguyens in the United States

New York Times reported on a Census Bureau analysis of last names in the United States. (Side note: The International Herald Tribune is also owned by the New York Times, so this makes two posts about NYT articles in the same day.) It was interesting to me to see the statistics behind some names.

For instance, if I make the assumption that there are about 350 million people in the United States, there are the following number of people with these respective family names:
Nguyen: 400,000
Kim: 250,000
Patel: 190,000
Chen: 130,000
Park: 105,000

I know there are a lot of Vietnamese living in the US, according to wikipedia (via Answers.com since I can't actually access wikipedia in China) there were 1.2 million in 2000. That would mean 1/3 of all Vietnamese have the last name Nguyen.

As a consultant, I wish I had the raw census data historically as well so I could do comparison of trends. Potential changes include the popularity of Chinese pinyin spellings of Chinese surnames. For now, older Wade-Giles spellings (look it up on wikipedia, I can't paste the link) are still more popular. Here is the prevalence per 100,000 names.

Chang 26 vs. Zhang 12
Hsu 6 vs. Xu 5
Wong 37 vs. Wang 25
Ho 15 vs. He 3

Best xiao long bao in Shanghai

As a new member of the Facebook group: "I love Din Tai Fung", I feel obligated to point to an article in the International Herald Tribune about the search for the perfect soup buns in Shanghai. I have written about Din Tai Feng (the spelling of the restaurant name differs between Taiwan and mainland China) before, so I'll just quote the Shanghaiist on the article findings:
The International Herald Tribune has now gotten into the game of finding the best xiao long bao in Shanghai. Others have been down this road before, but does the prestige of the IHT unveil anything new? Nope, Din Tai Fung it is. When does this stop being a question that still needs to be answered? Yes, the restaurant got its start in Taiwan, and yes, it doesn't meet that food traveler qualification of being off the beaten path and cheap as hell. Let's live with the fact that the best xiao long bao in town does indeed reside inside a fashion mall at the tail end of touristy Xintiandi.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Pearls in Shanghai

There is a pearl shop in Shanghai that we've visited countless times -- over the last year we've been there so often they keep record of our purchases and know all about us and our friends/family (especially the people for whom we are buying gifts). Now they are putting Katie to work. Here she is drilling holes for earring posts into two large pearls that she is buying for a friend.

Amusing recent travel pictures

When I was stuck in Beijing during the heavy fog, I noticed a larger than average number of people buying aviation insurance. Should I have been worried?
It's hairy crab season in Shanghai, but according to the sign at the check-in counter, you're not allowed to carry this delicacy on your flight.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Sampling of food pictures

Here are a few shots of what Katie and I ate during her trip (in ascending order of price):

Fried soup buns -- Katie's favorite Shanghai treat (3 RMB for 4)
I don't remember what this cilantro-greens-tofu chopped salad is called - but it's delicious. Courtesy of Ding Tai Feng (20 RMB)
Pork floss waffle. Weird combination that was overpriced due to its airport location (60 RMB)
Beggars chicken from the famous Hangzhou restaurant Louwailou, where my grandparents honeymooned many years ago (158 RMB for one chicken -- What beggar can afford that?)
Dinner at Shanghai's opulent Whampoa Club (688 RMB for 5 courses and wine)

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Chinese economy

According to the People's Bank of China, the official inflation rate in China this year is expected to be 4.5%. I don't believe that for a second. China is growing like crazy -- it's a runaway train that I don't think the central government can (or perhaps is willing) to stop. My clients this year have all projected over 30% growth, and the number of households with more than $250k is expected to expand by more than 20% each year for the next 5 years. I doubt the central government wants to slam on the brakes because everybody feels richer and sees more opportunities, which in turn keep the lid on political unrest. The cost of this is high inflation. The prices of food items like corn and pork hit highs earlier this year, supposedly driven by an outbreak of blue ear disease (for the pork) and demand for biofuels (for the corn). I don't think the government wants to admit that the growth is driving demand and thus prices as people consume more all around.

Especially when it comes to China, I believe in anecdotal data. You can't trust what the government says, so for instance, if you want to know the true exchange rate, you can go to the black market dealers (who are offering 7.3 RMB to the dollar) or use the Economist Big Mac Index (which says the exchange rate should be closer to 3.2 RMB to the dollar).

My own experience also shows inflation is running rampant:

(1) Last week, I went to a food stall to buy fried soup dumplings. I've been there numerous times before after discovering the place during my first week in Shanghai. In January, I paid 2 RMB for 4. In October, when I brought my friends there, the price had been raised to 2.5 RMB. When I took Katie there last week, it had been raised again to 3 RMB. Annualized, that inflation rate is higher than 60%.

(2) My rent is currently 7200/month. The signs I see posted outside my building show the same unit layout is now listed at 9000/month. Sure, there may be some room for negotiation, but even cutting 10% off that rent would mean an 800 RMB/month increase - implying a 12.5% inflation rate.

(3) Gas prices were just raised 10% (by the central government no less). Since when do >10% increases in energy, food, and housing lead to a overall inflation rate of below 5%? There may be some poor farmers in the middle of Anhui not seeing an increase in their costs of living, but I doubt they are somehow getting specially-priced gas or pork in their towns as well.

In other news, the Shanghai stock index is still above 6000, despite a recent selloff. That's 50% higher than when I first moved to Shanghai and spoke about the bubble. The price/earnings ratio is also hitting highs of 39:1. The S&P 500 by contrast is at 16.

Hangzhou is heaven on earth

Katie came to China last week, so I took a break from posting.

As I predicted she was on the phone a lot and woke up to check emails multiple times each night, but she still managed to stay awake during the day and we had a great time. We were in Shanghai for a majority of her visit, but we took quick trips to Beijing and Hangzhou.

Despite the luxury of the St. Regis, the Beijing trip confirmed Katie's general distaste for the traffic, bad pollution, and communist feeling in the north. Hanzhou was another story. The Chinese have a saying that "Up above, there is heaven, on the ground, there is Suzhou and Hangzhou." We had been to Suzhou during her last trip, and let me tell you: it may have been beautiful, but the gardens are now surrounded by industrial parks and filled with green trees covered in brown dust.

However, Hangzhou was indeed very pretty. Hangzhou is dominated by West Lake and surrounded by a few low mountains. We didn't get a chance to go into the mountains, which are well known for growing tea and bamboo. But our time spent on the lake was quite nice. There aren't the crowds of people found in other tourist locations, and the lake is still well maintained by the local government. Also, the local Hangzhou cuisine is incredible.

The recently unveiled D-class trains (China rolls out faster and faster service each year, and changes the train lettering to let you know how fast that particular train will go) hit 180 km/h (110 mph) and go straight from Shanghai South Railway station to downtown Hangzhou in one hour and 15 minutes for the round trip cost of 128 RMB ($17). I highly recommend the trip.

Friday, October 26, 2007

More Chinese travel nightmares

Have I mentioned that travel in China is terrible? I'm sitting at Beijing Capital Airport right now. My flight was supposed to take off at 6 PM. It's now 7:30, but there is no indication of whether or not my flight will even take off tonight. It hasn't been cancelled, or even officially delayed yet. Chinese airlines don't delay a flight until a new departure time has been established. So even though the plane I'm supposed to be on is still parked at the gate in Shanghai, my flight is still "on-time."

All flights until tomorrow evening are also fully booked, thanks to undercapacity on the Shanghai-Beijing route as well as general equality among customers. Whereas in the United States, people would get bumped or volunteer to be bumped and get compensated, China treats everyone the same. All well and good for social equality, but I would pay $1000 to get back to Shanghai right now to see my wife, and the farmer next to me who paid $40 for his ticket is going to go first. Capitalism without a doubt leads to more efficient outcomes than communism.

Update: News reports indicate the frequent heavy fog in Beijing is due to particulate matter, i.e. pollution.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Auto update

The timing of my last entry was quite... timely. Today's WSJ Asia front page article is about the push for cheaper cars in emerging markets. I also want to correct a comment I made in the last post. The cheapest Chery QQ, with a 800 cc engine is $3,600. But, it's not the cheapest car available. That prize goes to the BYD F1, which can be had for just $3,000.

Crazy automobile market

Visitors to Beijing always remark about the horrendous traffic situation. There are seemingly millions of vehicles clogging the roads at all hours. Add this to an ineffective subway system, and it can take over an hour to just get across town.

In Shanghai, it's less of an issue because the city charges outrageous amounts for a vehicle registration/license plates -- currently about $5,000 USD! In Beijing, the fee is less onerous and there are plenty of cars and taxis to go around.

For my latest project, I have the opportunity to look at the market for luxury autos in China. So far, I have been very impressed with the Chinese appetite for foreign cars. Imported cars made by companies like Volvo, Lexus and Mercedes cost about twice the amount they do in the United States. In China, a Mercedes S600 lists for more than 1.7 million RMB - $225k USD. Yet there are still over 10,000 people per year lining up to place an order.

Of course, cars in China are a bit different, especially those that cost more than $40k. Chinese consumers like big cars, particularly cars with large rear passenger compartments -- if you can afford a nice car, you probably aren't driving it yourself. Therefore, car buyers focus less on the controls upfront but rather the experience in the back as a passenger. Also, Chinese people don't drive fast - they never get far enough outside the city or away from traffic to go Autobahn speeds. So you can end up with some relatively underpowered engines in otherwise big cars. Unlike Germans, the Chinese consumer doesn't like to "feel" the road either. They want a soft ride that makes them feel like they're sitting on a cushion. That's all fine and dandy since they aren't making high speed turns anyway.

There are locally made versions of foreign cars for sure. Volkswagen and GM both make most of their cars for the Chinese market in China. Toyota is strong as well. But what about purely local cars like the Chery and Great Wall? They are cheap; you can pick up a Chery QQ for $4000. They certainly get the job done and are very popular in Beijing. In Shanghai, since the cost of the license plate will double the overall cost, most people opt for a VW, or no car at all.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Online travel sites

Online travel sites are not the best here in China. The two market leaders, Ctrip and eLong, are okay for booking hotels, but the flight selection is difficult. Most of the time, it's easier just to go to a travel agency in person to buy the ticket and pay in cash. Also, for some technical reasons, local mom-and-pop travel agents can often give you lower prices.

For international flights, I have resorted to using Kayak at times, since it's less complicated than visiting a travel agent to browse flights. Even if I don't purchase the tickets through Kayak, it can at least tell me what flights are available. However, I was using it recently to check out flights from Taipei to Kuala Lumpur (I know it's not a very popular flight segment). Here was one of my suggested itineraries:
Flight Information – Wed 21 Nov 2007
This flight leaves and arrives on different dates.
American Airlines
Flight 7958
Operated by EVA Corporation
Departs: 11:55p
Taoyuan Intl (TPE)

Arrives: 7:40p
Los Angeles (LAX)

Coach Aircraft: 777 11h 45m

[ Layover in Los Angeles, CA (LAX) for 16h 05m ]
American Airlines
Flight 169
Departs: 11:45a
Los Angeles (LAX)

Arrives: 4:40p
Narita (NRT)

Coach Aircraft: 777 11h 55m

[ Layover in Tokyo, Japan (NRT) for 21h 00m ]
American Airlines
Flight 5838
Operated by Japan Airlines
Departs: 1:40p
Narita (NRT)

Arrives: 8:20p
Kuala Lumpur Intl (KUL)

Coach Aircraft: 767 7h 40m

AirfareTaxes & Fees Total Cost

American Airlines $2125.00$81.30$2206.30select

I'll do the math for you: 68 hours and 25 minutes to travel 2000 miles. That's an average of 29 miles per hour. I could probably rent a speedboat and get there faster. Surprisingly, it's also slower than the Taipei-Hong Kong-Shanghai route. Needless to say, I think I'll look elsewhere for a ticket.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Chinese politics

The 17th Chinese Communist Party Congress just ended in Beijing today. Last week, I was in Beijing when it was still in session and definitely noticed a lot more government cars (black Audi A6's) and BMWs (non-government party members?). There has been a bit of a change in the party leadership in a realignment heading into the 2012 selection of a new president. Most notably the vice-president, Zeng Qinghong, has stepped down and the new Shanghai party boss, Xi Jinping, has been elected to the central committee.

I'm not expert in Chinese politics, but here is a brief backgrounder on Shanghai and its relations with the central government, which is of course based in Beijing. Shanghai (and East China) has always played a small role in defying the Communist party. The Nationalist government was based in Nanjing - just an hour's train ride away from Shanghai. Not until Jiang Zemin came to power in 1993 did Shanghai receive a little more attention from the national government. Notice the correlation between Jiang's promotion to head the country and Shanghai's recent rise to wealth and power.

Hu Jintao, who is of course not from Shanghai, is still trying to rid Jiang's influence from the party leadership and has been trying to get rid of people still loyal to Jiang. Chen Liangyu, the former party boss in Shanghai, did a good job in continuing Shanghai's economic development. In fact, he did "too good" of a job. The economy was overheating, driving real estate values and inflation up. Good for Chen, who was enriching himself with side deals, and good for the city, which was becoming a booming global center for commerce. But it was bad for Hu, since Chen defied central party leadership and allowed Shanghai to outshine Beijing. So, long story short, Chen was arrested for corruption and graft. Experts say that he is indeed guilty, but major party members participate in similarly illegal activities. It is only his disfavor with Hu that lead to his demise.

My Chinese tutor told me an interesting story about when she worked at the local newspaper a few years ago when Chen was arrested. Party officials came in and deleted all official photos of Chen. A coworker had given recorded speeches mentioning Chen and how the newspaper was doing great in following his guidance. The speeches were edited on tape to remove all references to Chen.

Living in Shanghai, it's sometimes easy to forget that China is still a totalitarian state. But it's times like these, when China tries to show it's "openness" and "democratic" ways that it really shows how far away it is from a truly free country.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Chinese design falls a little short


I volunteered to help our recruiting team a few weeks ago, and in gratitude, they gave me a "really nice" wallet. Truth be told, it's pretty good quality leather, has the firm name embossed on the front, and is a reasonable size. I had been thinking about using a vertically-oriented wallet since carrying around a substantial amount of cash gets difficult when you put it in a bifold (forget about trifold - you'll end up with a four inch thick lump.)

Anyways, when I actually tried to use it, I realized the design is terrible. Like many Chinese-designed products, it's not quite there.

First off, the pocket for cash is difficult to use. The wallet is designed like a traditional bifold, but twice the height. As a result, the pocket for cash is actually just a big pocket, about 8x6 inches. How do you put money in it? Like a traditional bifold, in which case half the pocket is empty, or as two unseparated vertical pockets, in which case the money slides back and forth? Also, if you notice in the picture, the pocket is actually about 1 centimeter too short for Chinese bills (it's even worse for american bills). Am I supposed to use it with money sticking out the side?

Okay, no worries, there are plenty of slots to carry my multitude of VIP cards, prepaid dry cleaning and massage cards, airline membership cards, etc. But yet again, it's just slightly too small. I managed to squeeze my bank card in, but you'll see in the picture that business cards don't fit.

Also, what's the deal with the strap? Are the designers worried that they've made the pockets too big and the cards will slide out? Or did they try to come up with a way to use all the extra leather that they saved from making the other dimensions 10% too small?

Just another example of Chinese design. It can look good, but it's like no one bothered to try using it before making a few thousand and dumping it on the market. For now, it's going to go up on the shelf next to my Chinese stapler that is 1 inch long and holds 15 staples.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Funny signs

Okay, I finally got around to downloading some pictures off my cameraphone. Here are two gems that snapped of signs that I found downright funny. I know they are hard to read; click on the pictures to enlarge them.

More western food

Don't get me wrong, I love Chinese food. This year has been a wonderful culinary adventure. However, my readers may have noticed that lately, I have been trying to find sources of good Western food to sustain my need for something different. A few weeks ago, I had the best pizza I have ever tasted outside the continental US. It had a thin crust, and a delicious amount of cheese that was oily enough to require napkins to sop up the excess. It was almost like being in New York. And the quality was a huge surprise, because I found my pizza at an oasis within the desert of culinary experience known as Shanghai Hongqiao airport.

One of the many reasons Chinese air travel sucks is that the food is uniformly bad in the airports. There isn't even a random McDonald's or food court to take away the monotony of rice and noodle places that all have different names but identical menus. In Shanghai, though, a branch of the Italian Bricco Cafe chain was recently opened by an American. At least, I assume he was American because the guy was wearing a Yankees hat and was speaking to his Italian partner in English.

God bless globalization. Now if only Beijing Capital Airport could add a Starbucks.

Chinatown in China

This picture could very well have been taken in San Francisco. There is a steeply inclined street, signs in Chinese and English (if it were a movie, you could even hear them speaking Cantonese). Of course, the photo is of Hong Kong, but my latest trip to Hong Kong reminded me of how similar it is to so many Chinatowns in the United States. Familiar smells, a mix of Cantonese and English, dirty water from wet markets running down otherwise clean streets, and the occasional Caucasian face make you forget that you are in fact in a region of China. I have many friends out here who want to move back to the West Coast, but I have to say, if you have to live in China, there are much more difficult places to live (like Beijing).

Sunday, October 7, 2007

More things to remind me of home

Went to brunch today in Hong Kong with friends. The restaurant was very Western -- it was filled with Caucasians and had an English-only menu. They had a sign noting that their bagels were from H&H in New York, so of course I had to order one. While it didn't taste exactly like the warm original, and it wasn't slathered with tons of cream cheese, the lox and onions were good enough to remind me of how some things are impossible to get in China.

Things to do in Shanghai

Some friends of mine came through China last week on a two week tour. I met up with them in Beijing for a few nights, but didn’t get a chance to spend a lot of time until they arrived in Shanghai last weekend. For other potential visitors to town, let me share a few bits of their itinerary to help you out.

Sights to see

Overall, I have to admit that Shanghai is a little short on high quality tourist locations. It doesn’t have the history of Xian or Nanjing, the culture of Beijing, or the beauty of Hangzhou. But here are a few suggestions.

The Maglev – If you fly in or out of Pudong airport, be sure to take the Maglev at least once. I doubt you will ever go so fast so close to the ground.

The Bund – A must-see destination, but don’t get your hopes up too much. It’s essentially just a photo opportunity. This is the riverbank where old Shanghai, represented by the 19th century buildings, faces new Shanghai’s 80 story skyscrapers. A writer once remarked that the Westerners in Shanghai like to take pictures of the old Shanghai and marvel at what it was. Chinese like to take pictures of new Shanghai and wonder at where it’s going. A bit of a stretch, but not altogether untrue; I have never seen any locals taking pictures of the old buildings.

Xin Tian Di – Good place to wander for an afternoon, especially if you are into real estate development. Should be a case study on how you can change people’s conception of retail and dining.

Grand Hyatt – Another example of how Shanghai’s best sights show off the modernity of the city. You can pay 50 RMB to visit the observation deck on the 89th floor, or go to the 88th floor and spend a minimum of 100 RMB on drinks and food. My suggestion is to go to the 88th floor and relax while enjoying the view.


Places to shop

Shanghai should be on every shoppers list of cities to go to. Forget about branded items, but everything else is cheaper.

Yu Yuan Bazaar – Souvenirs and jewelry make this a good place to get all your gifts for friends back home.

Fabric Market – Don’t leave town without getting a few shirts or a suit made. I have never heard of someone complaining about the overall value of a custom fit $10 shirt. Even if it’s not designer, the fit will be better than any off the rack shirt.

Tea shop – I went with my friends to a tea mall for the first time. Even if you don’t want to buy tea, go for the experience. The vendors will take the time to pour you a whole bunch of different teas for tasting.

Fake market – If you don’t want to go to Hong Kong to lay down $2k for a watch, spend $20 on a fake one instead. There’s one at 580 Nanjing road and another set at the Science Museum Metro stop in Pudong.

Places to eat

If you’re in China, you need to experience the range of food. Even if you’re not adventurous enough to want to try abalone, shark fin, or dog, you’ll find all sorts of delicious yet unique foods to suit your tastebuds.

New Jishi – Homestyle Shanghainese food at reasonable, but not really cheap prices. They have a location in XinTianDi that is perfect to contrast old Shanghai vs. new Shanghai.

Yu Xin Sichuan – Like New Jishi, this is a small chain (5-15 locations) that has succeeded thanks to its good food, clean environment and moderate prices. Get the Ants Climbing Trees noodles (no ants or trees involved in the dish) and anything “water cooked” which is not really simply water but really hot peppers, Sichuan peppercorns and meat boiled in a liquid that helps the flavors mingle.

Hot pot – I prefer Dollar Shop because it offers individual soup bowls to cook your food in. That way if people like the traditional spicy hot pot they can get it, but others don’t have to suffer. This meal takes a while to eat, so don’t go if you are in a rush, but I think Westerners like the experience of cooking their own food and also knowing exactly what they are eating.

Din Tai Feng – Yes, it’s originally from Taiwan, but no better place than Shanghai to experience what is regarded to be the best place for xiao long bao (soup dumplings) in the city.

Sheng Jian Bao – I personally like a place just south of the City Temple. It’s quite the opposite of Din Tai Feng. While they offer xiao long bao, the better choice is zheng jian bao. Similar filling, thicker fried wrapper. Prices have recently gone up to 2.5 RMB for an order of 4, but it’s still quite the deal. Eat on the street with greasy fingers, or eat upstairs for a slightly more civilized snack.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Luxury watch shopping in HK

I’m on my way down to Hong Kong right now. I’m going to Taiwan again, so of course I have to stop by HK first. Instead of a quick transfer, I figured I’d go a little early and spend an extra day meeting up with friends and looking for watches. As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, Hong Kong has more luxury watch retailers than any other city in the world. I heard that 15% of all Rolex watches are sold in Hong Kong. The lack of sales tax combined with its central location in Asia with easy access to China, Japan, Korea and the rest of Southeast Asia make for a ripe opportunity.

Coincidentally, as I was waiting in the Dragonair lounge, I picked up a copy of Time Style & Design which features a story on the luxury markets in the emerging markets of China, India and Russia. The data presented is very interesting.

Russia

Stereotypes hold true. Russians seem to love to flaunt their wealth with extravagant items like helicopters, bejeweled pencils and gold baby bottles. The best known luxury brands are flashy designer labels like Versace, Armani, Dolce & Gabana, and Dior. They want to be smelled as well as seen; “75% of affluent Russians bought one or two new fragrances in the past six months.”

India

The country continues to take one step towards the west while remaining distinctively Indian. The three best-known luxury brands in India are all from India: Park Avenue, Allen Solly, Reid & Taylor. It’s just another example of India’s insular nature (especially in regards to consumer goods and retail.) Less than 10% of Indians know of Marc Jacobs or Yves Saint Laurent.

China

The middle kingdom is already the battleground for luxury brands. China is projected to surpass the US to become the world’s second largest consumer of luxury goods behind Japan by 2015. Chinese preferences tend to be more understated (relative to Russia, not necessarily the US.) The best known brands are Rolex, Lacoste, and Chanel. According to the article, “22% of affluent consumers in China own a (real) Rolex.”

Well, count me in. While Rolex is a little flashy for me, I too want to be able to wear a watch that is hand crafted and assembled in Switzerland. People definitely look at watches out here, so it would be nice to have something for them to notice.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Mmmmm, roast beef

To celebrate my imminent return to the United States, I ordered a roast beef sandwich from NYC Deli located in downtown Shanghai. The picture shown here is not my sandwich, but representative of what I got. Prices are reasonable (~40RMB) and include delivery, unless you live on the further reaches of downtown like I do. Then, it costs 15 RMB extra to deliver. The meat was good and the was lettuce crisp. Bread could definitely use some work. I don't know why it's hard to make bread in China. Maybe it's the lack of experience with ovens. Nonetheless, 'll definitely be ordering from them again.

End is near

Another long drought of posts caused by some busy weeks at work securing my next project. Well, now that's done and it looks likely that I will be done with my work here just before Christmas. Twelve more weeks and I'll be filling out the paperwork to confirm my move back to the US. Due to a wedding in India, I probably won't physically return to stateside until early January, but it's nice to know that I am almost done with work.

It's not that I have not enjoyed my time out here, but anybody who lives out here for a little while will understand when I say that I am looking forward to being back in United States. If presented with the right opportunity to return (this time with Katie), I would definitely consider it; China is going to be powering global economic growth for a number of years to come. However, it will not be an easy decision, because China still has so much room to develop on a social level.

Needless to say, though, I'll be home before the year of the Pig turns to the year of Rat.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Chinese report: Internet users are unhealthy

An article in China Daily yesterday reported that over 70% of Chinese internet users are suffering from medical problems. The implication is that the internet causes the "sub-healthy state" of the users. Data is cited indicating that the average internet user spends less than 3 hours a week exercising, and gets less than 8 hours a day of sleep. And somehow, it makes for interesting news to report the fact that half of internet users in China get stomach aches from time to time. Now, is it likely to be the internet causing that, or the contaminated food we are eating? After describing all the ill effects of the internet, the report closes with one line stating that a survey of all Beijingers (presumably including non-internet users) shows that the occurrence of "sub-healthy" individuals is above 75%. So maybe the internet is making people healthier?

Top signs you are a foreigner

Thank you for the comments on my previous post. I did indeed leave out the fact that locals are very comfortable with breathing secondhand smoke. Last week, I watched guy get into an elevator car while holding a lit cigarette. I decided not to get on. I'm sure he thought I was crazy. This brings me to a natural follow-up to the previous post: how people can tell that you are a foreigner in China, even if you are of Chinese descent (like me) and don't even open your mouth.

You are wearing flip flops or shorts. Chinese men don't wear shorts, at least not outside in public. Wearing nice shoes or sneakers can also give you away.

You drink Diet Coke. While sugar-free drinks are increasing in popularity, they are still purchased mostly by foreigners.

You don't pull your shirt up to your chest to keep cool. Check out this guy sporting the latest summer trend.

You react when people say, "Watch? Bag? Gucci, LV?"

You're chewing gum. Don't know why, but I rarely see any gum chewing, even though it's sold in every convenience store.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Top signs you’re turning into a local

Last week, I took a phone call during dinner and was told by some friends that I was turning in to a local. I apologized; I should have known better. It’s rude to answer a phone while eating dinner, especially if you don’t even leave the table. But here in China, people even take phone calls during meetings. It’s annoying. I hate it; and I did it myself. Living in China for a while can affect even the most diehard Westerners, but just in case they can’t tell, I’ve listed the top ways that people can be “localized.”

You spit on the street. You are super local if you inhale first or clear your throat like you are hocking a lugie.

You cover your mouth when you laugh. This really only applies to women. It is interesting to note that in China, women cover their mouths when they laugh as if it’s rude to show their teeth, while men are allowed to spit chewed up food back onto their plates. The equal rights movement has not quite made it to this side of the Pacific.

You wear short sleeve dress shirts. It’s hotter than heck outside. Why would you want to wear a long sleeve cotton shirt when there are short sleeve polyester blends?

You can use a squat toilet. Extra bonus points if you don’t need stall doors, or stalls at all for that matter.

You don’t own a credit card. If you’ve made the switch to a totally paper-based monetary system and lost the desire for consumer debt, you have lost your right to consider yourself a Westerner. Some banks in China recently raised the daily withdrawal limit on ATMs to 20,000 RMB. That’s over $2,600 US, per day! In the US, the typical daily limit is $500. Even though $2,600 is more than what most people in China make in a year, sometimes you need to be able to withdraw enough money to pay for your new Zegna suit.

You take the bus. Only a local would be willing to squeeze onto a tight bus, to drive really slowly to some unpopular part of town, just to save the $2 cab fare.

You randomly yell when you need service. This is most common at restaurants, since in other locations, the service people are in your face. If you are in need of assistance, the proper response is to wait until you catch your waiter’s attention and signal for it. It’s not to look at a waiter 20 feet away and yell, “Fuwuyuan!”

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Back in the US of A

I was back in the Bay Area this past weekend for my sister’s wedding. I had a great time, and it wasn’t just because the wedding was a wonderful event. The weather was nice (~70 degrees fahrenheit the whole time). And even though a lot of guests complained about the overcast skies caused by recent forest fires, I thought the sky was incredibly, beautifully blue. Being back in the US reminded me of so many things I miss about home when I'm here in China. Sure, you can become incredibly content and comfortable in China; pretty much everything you want materially is available. But it's not necessarily convenient to get it.

My first stop from the airport was In-n-out for a double-double protein style. I hadn’t eaten lettuce so fresh in at least a year. Don’t know why lettuce in China sucks. Yes, the demand for Iceberg is probably lower, so the stuff we do have is less fresh. But I think it may also have to do with the fact that US restaurants soak their lettuce in ice water to make it more crisp. Since both clean water and clean ice are more precious commodities in China, the lettuce we eat is as limp as wet paper.

My next stop was to a Citibank ATM. It’s like some sort of foreign exchange loophole that I can’t exchange RMB into US dollars, but thanks to an agreement between Citibank and Union Pay (the Chinese version of Visa), I can withdraw up to $600 a day from my RMB denominated Bank of China account at any Citibank ATM in the world. Therefore, almost every day that I was in the US, I maxed out my withdraw limit.

The next day, I went to a local supermarket to buy breakfast for my family. I truly believe US supermarkets have every right in being designated “super.” It was fantastic. I didn’t go to some high end place like Whole Foods, Wegmans, or Mollie Stones; it was like a Safeway or Albertsons. What made it so nice? Nothing in particular, but a lot of little things. 1) Fresh bakery that makes sandwiches, sushi, bagels and so on. Yes, there are bakeries here in China, but of course they don’t sell bagels, nor will they sell anything except baked items. 2) Random household items like ear plugs and shoe polish. I have no idea where I would even go to look for ear plugs in China. 3) No crowd of people. There were probably less than 40 customers in the whole store when I went. 4) Self-checkout lines. I took my 5 items and checked out in less than 2 minutes. 5) Everything was clean and the aisles were wide. China has its share of hypermarts, but hyper does not equal super. Hypermarts (think Walmart/Target) are huge and can offer most of the above. But it’s not an enjoyable experience. The selection is smaller and particularly in China, there are hundreds of people pushing you around. Besides, I live in a neighborhood especially because of its proximity to Carrefour. If I lived where most people do downtown, getting to the hypermart would be a task in itself. Even New York City has its D’Agostinos, why can’t Shanghai?

I checked out a blog today that I regularly visit. It turns out that the writer was on my same flight to SFO last week and is returning today, two days after I did. There was a link to another expat forum asking the question: “What do you miss most in Shanghai?” The answers (most of which I agree with) are telling: politeness, fresh air, honesty, customer service, owning a car.

I was a little sad to get on the plane to come back to Shanghai. I’m sure my spirits will improve once I get a $6 massage, but truth be told, I’d rather have a $2 In-n-Out burger.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Xinjiang food


I recently had dinner with some friends at a Xinjiang restaurant in Shanghai. The Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region is in northwest China and borders Kazakhstan and Pakistan. It is heavily Muslim, which is reflected in the cuisine - lots of lamb. While the roast lamb leg we ordered was excellent, the lack of any real vegetables on the menu (as well as the intense flavor of dish after dish of lamb) will probably keep me from going back for more. However, it was really impressive to see the wide cultural range of a country as homogeneous as China.

By the way, the picture above was not taken by me during our dinner. I've borrowed a picture from Flickr that looks like the meal we had.

Air China is not much better

Check out this conversation between an Air China pilot and the control tower at JFK. Now, the average United pilot would probably be much worse at Chinese, but somehow it seems unsafe to have someone who can't speak English communicating about basic safety issues. Even I can barely figure out what he is saying -- and I have a good bit of practice when it comes to understanding Chinese-accented English.

Do not fly China Airlines - ever


On my trips to Taiwan, I almost always flew Cathay Pacific, which is based in Hong Kong and is a OneWorld Alliance member. When that was not available, I would fly Eva Air, a Taiwan carrier. I never flew China Airlines, the flagship carrier of Taiwan (the whole political naming issue often gets China Airlines confused with Air China).

Why? China Airlines has a terrible safety record. A long history of pilot error and poor maintenance makes it one of the more dangerous major air carriers. An explosion in Okinawa a few weeks ago is just another blemish on its record. Just after pulling in to the gate area, the plane exploded in a ball of fire.

Not wanting to further damage the reputation of the airline, China Airlines proceeded to paint over the logo on the plane as it awaited cleanup. I guess they didn't want ignorant passengers who hadn't heard of the story to see the plane in person?

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Blue skies in Shanghai


Just in time for my previous post about pollution in China, the weather gods in Shanghai have provided nearly a week of clear skies. I think it all started when a typhoon blew away much of the cloud cover and pollution a few weeks ago, but I'm also told September in Shanghai typically brings out the blue skies.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

New York Times on China pollution

In case you missed it, the New York Times is running a series on the growing pollution problem in China. I highly recommend you read it. Pollution in China is a huge problem for a multitude of reasons that cannot be easily solved. Foreigners like to point out China's addiction to coal and the inefficiency of its factories. In addition, China could do a lot more to boost conservation and energy efficiency (something as simple as mandating insulation and double paned windows in buildings would help).

Chinese air travel is not fun


I've posted before about the joys of Chinese air travel. But that was as a tourist. It's even worse for a corporate traveler. The concept of free upgrades for elite frequent fliers is not really prevalent in Asia. The Chinese airports (except Hong Kong) also aren't businessman-friendly. WiFi (paid or otherwise) is shockingly absent and there are no power outlets. Here's a picture of one I found in Shanghai Pudong airport by sneaking around a store and moving a garbage can out of the way.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Sichuan, China


I had the chance recently to go to visit Chengdu, which is located in Sichuan province. Few Americans have likely heard of Chengdu, but it is a major metropolis in China. It was the first imperial capital of China, and remains a cultural, political, economic and most importantly culinary center. It’s other claim to fame is that it is home to the Chinese Panda Research Base, since it is in the heart of the panda’s shrinking geographic range.

My trip to the area was short (less than 30 hours), but fun. The first thing I noticed was that it there are no Caucasian people. Well, that’s an overstatement. I saw one German father with his half-chinese kids in the hotel, but that’s it. Chengdu isn’t on most tour group itineraries, and the backpackers in Chengdu heading towards Tibet aren’t hanging out on the street in large enough crowds to be noticed.

If you want to see pandas, there are two places to go.

- Chengdu Panda Research Base: This is just on the outskirts of the city. It’ll take about 20-40 minutes to get there depending on where in the city you are and the traffic. They house about 30 pandas here for breeding and research (but mostly breeding.)

- Wolong Panda Reserve: About 3 hours away from Chengdu, this is more of a conservational effort, housing 150 pandas. They keep the pandas in a more natural environment while studying the animals.


video

Even though I had arrived in the middle of the night (2 AM) in Chengdu, I got up the next morning at 7 AM to visit the Panda Research Base. Pandas pretty much just eat and sleep, so you have to get to the research center before 10 AM while the animals are still eating. Otherwise, you’ll be lucky to see a panda just sleeping. If you’re unlucky, you’ll see bamboo, behind which a panda is sleeping. I arrived with my coworker at 8 AM, so it was pretty cool. Not the most impressive facility in the world, but amazing to see so many pandas just a few feet away. In most zoos, the two pandas on display are behind high fences and are the prized possession. Here, there are pandas everywhere you turn. On certain days, you can actually pay 400 RMB to get your picture taken petting a panda. Unfortunately, I did not go on such a day.


The other good thing about Chengdu is the food. In the United States, Sichuan food is spicy. If you’ve gone to a Chinese restaurant that has a menu with peppers next to the menu item indicating its spiciness, it’s probably a Sichuan restaurant. But the problem is that until recently, the key ingredient in the food, the Sichuan peppercorn, was banned in the US due to potential bacterial contamination that would harm citrus crops. It has since been lifted as long as the peppercorns are heated to a temperature that can kill the bacteria. Now, most people know I can’t eat a lot of hot foods, but I’ve come to really enjoy Sichuan food. The use of regular chili peppers and Sichuan peppercorns creates a flavor/sensation the Chinese call “mala” or numb and spicy. The peppers add the heat, but a chemical in the peppercorns numb your tongue, removing the heat and pain but allowing you to still taste everything. It’s great. I’m going to bring a kilo of the stuff back with me to the US so I can learn to cook it myself. Fortunately, Sichuan food is popular all across China as well, so if you’re in Beijing, Shanghai, or even Chicago, you can probably find a place that will deliver a decent experience.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Why American mobile phones and carriers suck

Warning: the following post can be quite technical, but after coming to love my mobile phone in China, I have to rant about the US carriers: Verizon Wireless, Sprint Nextel, AT&T, and T-Mobile.

The United States is the wealthiest country in the world, yet only 65% of people have mobile phones. Only 65% you say? Isn’t that high already? I know it seems like every American teenager has a cell phone. Yes, but in Asian countries like Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, or European countries like the UK and Germany, more than 90% of non-infants have mobile phones. Some reasons for this are simple – like the fact that the U.S. has a large rural population that doesn’t travel far from home and doesn't see the need for cell phones. Also, our landline telephones are really good (and cheap) so the premium for mobile service is not worthwhile. But a large reason we are so far behind is because our phones and the levels of service we get from mobile carriers are terrible.

First a bit of technical background. There are two main technologies for mobile phones: CDMA and GSM. CDMA is used in the United States by Verizon Wireless and Sprint (not Nextel). GSM is used by AT&T and T-Mobile. Outside of the US, you’ll find CDMA in Korea and that’s pretty much it. Nearly every other country in the world uses GSM (except Japan, which uses their own standard – but is slowly moving towards GSM). GSM was made popular in Europe and is now the default standard for “world phones.” GSM has traditionally been a little bit behind on the development curve, so the phones with fast internet connections have been CDMA. But all GSM phones come with one key feature: the SIM card. The SIM card contains useful information about your mobile phone account like your phone number and service provider. It can also hold your address book, text messages and ringtones.

What does this mean for the mobile phone user? If you have a GSM phone, you plug in any SIM card you want and that phone will take on the rights of the subscriber that owns that SIM card. For instance, if my friend's phone is dead, he can put his SIM card in my phone and use it as his own. If I travel to Hong Kong, I can buy a SIM card with a local phone number and use the same phone I already own. Same with Europe, or the US. I now carry around a case of SIM cards, with local phone numbers in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the United States. GSM is also good because since most of the world uses it, most of the cell phone designs are provided for GSM first. Nokia and Motorola almost always release their GSM-type phones first. Case in point, the Apple iPhone is GSM.

Okay, so why does this make me think the US mobile carriers are so bad? One word: contracts. Every time you sign up for cell phone service in the US, you sign a contract (unless you are one of the few people who use prepaid plans.) This doesn’t sound like a huge deal, because they give you a free or heavily discounted phone in return for your loyalty. But there are two implications of this practice.

1) You don’t get to choose any phone. You have to use the phones that the phone companies sell you to make it worthwhile.

2) They lock your phone so that you can’t use your phone with any other mobile phone company.

The net effect is that we do not get to choose from as many phones in the US as in Europe or Asia because the phone companies don’t sell them. It means that Verizon makes you buy the LG and Samsungs that are used in Korea. It means you can only use the Apple iPhone with AT&T. And it means that there is very little market for used or old phones in the US. And it’s this last point that I believe keeps the US from reaching the same levels of wireless penetration as Korea. If you go to Verizon and look for the cheapest phone possible (free), it will have a camera, color screen, wireless web, etc. It will look cheap and the battery will last 3 days. By contrast, in China, I can buy a Motorola that has a black and white screen, no camera, no wireless web, but lasts 2 weeks on a battery charge and can be dropped from 4 feet up with no damage. It’ll cost me $30. Why can’t I get this phone in the US? Because the carriers will still make me sign a one year contract with a phone that I bought myself. Given the choice between free advanced phone and cheap simple phone, most people pick the free option.

And as consumers, we get stuck with contracts that lock us into bad service with phones we don’t like because there aren’t any better options out there.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Great press

A new report came out today proposing a Hong Kong-Shenzhen megapolis. Shenzhen is essentially just across the mainland China border from Hong Kong. Such a combination sounds incredible. Shenzhen is the gateway to the Pearl River delta, where millions of cheap Chinese laborers are likely making the clothes and shoes you are currently wearing. Hong Kong’s finance, shipping and shopping are a perfect match. This is of course what the government under Deng Xiao Ping was thinking when Shenzhen was first designated an Special Economic Development Zone. It’s a bit like placing Bangalore India next to Silicon Valley. It’s great – but the new report projects a potential boost of $1 trillion to the combined GDP of the region. Unless it’s a currency error, this is a whole new level of propaganda designed to tout the benefit of a fully integrated Hong Kong. The GDP of all of China is ~$3 trillion. I don’t think easing the travel restrictions of local Chinese into Hong Kong is going to boost the country’s output by a third.

Arizona + humidity = Shanghai in July/August

I can’t imagine weather in Shanghai being any worse. Previously, I wrote about Thailand being like an outdoor sauna. Over the past 3 weeks, it’s been even worse in Shanghai. The weather forecast has not dropped below 90 degrees even once. And the humidity is like stepping into a steam room. The dewpoint often surpasses 75 degrees. For those who aren’t up to speed on their meteorological terms, that means if the temperature of the air were somehow cooled down to below 75 degrees, there is so much moisture in the air that it would fall out as rain. This has caused the inside of my refrigerator to look more like a typical freezer. I’ve posted the weather forecast for some days in July to show you what it’s been like. The Real Feel index used by Accuweather (the equivalent of wind chill for both high and low temperatures) was forecast around 120 degrees.

The worst thing about the weather lately has been that the temperature does not decrease much at night. I’ve also posted a picture of my Google weather forecast. How come even when it’s 90 degrees in Washington, it still drops down to 70 at night? In Shanghai, when it’s 90 during the day, it’s still 82 at night. This may not sound like a big deal, since at night you’re typically sound asleep in your air conditioned apartment. However, it means that nothing gets a chance to cool down. The water from the tap is warm and the inside of my apartment elevator is gross.

The locals respond to all this by wearing towels around their necks and pulling their shirts up to their chests to let sweat evaporate. Westerners like me settle for sweating like melting blocks of ice and taking 3 showers a day. I can’t wait until September arrives and the temperatures start to drop again.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Fake Swag



As an addendum to my previous post, I’ve posted a picture I took with my cameraphone on the subway recently. It’s a picture of what I can only assume is a fake piece of corporate collateral. At the top, the phrase “BMW Fomula” is embroidered into the top of a backpack. At the bottom, there is another plastic logo for Nokia sewn in. I suppose it could be real, but I doubt that 1) there is any partnership between Nokia and BMW and 2) that any joint project, should it exist would be called “Fomula.”

I didn’t know there was such demand for marketing swag like this that is usually given away for free at trade shows and stuff. Maybe I should have brought all my free t-shirts and pens from business school recruiting days to sell on the street.

Crack in the Great Firewall

The Mongols got past the Great Wall of China by going around it rather than through it. Somehow, I just managed to do the same in Chengdu.

I'm traveling on business at the Sheraton (Starwood of course) and lo and behold, when I log on I get Google.com.hk. So, I try accessing my blog, and sure enough I get through. For some reason, and somehow, the hotel has an internet access connection via Hong Kong. I'm not a networking expert, but my guess is that it is running on a private connection over the hotel's internal network with its other hotels, or that it's a satellite connection. Either one would explain the incredibly slow speeds and long delays in the connection, but the surprising access to the outside world.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Counterfeit Harry Potter (And Fake Pork)

Last week, while running through the Beijing airport, I picked up a copy of the latest Harry Potter book. While I have read the other 6 books, part of the reason that I was willing to part with the $49 (!!!) that it cost (almost 50% more than the US retail and 2.7x Amazon’s price) was that I was so surprised to see it available in China, especially so soon after the US release date. However, the widespread distribution has not reached other parts of China, and the high price has - surprise! - led to counterfeiting. Not content to merely making exact copies a la fake DVDs, some Chinese have even repurposed the characters to be used in brand new stories.

This comes just a few weeks after a story about a Beijing vendor selling fake meat buns stuffed with cardboard was reported to be fake itself. However, some theorize that the government itself is faking the fakeness of the story to both limit the power of the press and allay concerns about food safety in China. All I know is, you can’t trust anything in China.

Just to be clear, my copy of Harry Potter is indeed the genuine version. I think.

Top 10 things to Bring to China

Some of my friends are coming to visit at the end of September and wanted to know if they need to do anything to prepare other than doing the normal visa/tour package thing. So in the next few posts, I’ll add a few tourist tips, even though I suspect that many people reading this blog have been to China already. (Yes, shockingly, I have a very small audience.)

10. Deodorant – Already mentioned in this blog before, but more important than ever now that temperatures in Shanghai surpass 30 degrees C (85 degrees F for the non-metric speakers) everyday with high humidity to boot.

9. Splenda – Drink coffee? But not with sugar? China is strictly BYOS. You may get lucky enough to find a few packets of Equal at Starbucks, but you will not find any little yellow packets of chemical sweetness.

8. Immodium AD, Pepto-Bismo, Milk of Magnesia – If you have a weak stomach, or if you just can’t help but eat the grilled pork skewers being sold off the back of a bike on the street, you will get sick. A friend of mine just got sick at the most famous soup dumpling place in the main tourist area. You may never need this, but believe me, the cost of not having it is far worse than the cost of the medicine itself.

7. Pocket packs of tissues – Most restaurants in China will charge you for napkins. Bring tissues which are of equal quality to the “napkins” that the restaurants sell. Also, in the oppressive weather, you’ll need something to wipe your face and your hands when you touch something really dirty.

6. Chinese guide book – You can use City Weekend and Smart Shanghai to find the latest restaurants and bars, but for tourist locations, shopping areas, and a quick language reference, nothing beats Lonely Planet or Let’s Go. Don’t come empty handed, but don’t bring an old copy borrowed from a friend. China is changing too quickly for a two year old guide to be relevant.

5. ATM card – Don’t bring cash, use the ATM. Even thought most places don’t accept credit cards, you can use your bank card and withdraw RMB without waiting in line at the bank.

4. Digital camera storage – You will take lots of pictures here. While you can buy these memory cards in any electronics store, the United States is still the best place in the world to buy cheap electronics. Bring at least a 2 or 4 GB card for your camera to ensure you’re not deleting pictures to free up space.

3. An appetite – Chinese food here is not what it’s like in the United States, but it is often good, and almost always cheap. You’ll have to have room in your stomach to find out how Sichuan cuisine differs from Shanghainese, Yunnan, and Cantonese.

2. Business cards – Everyone carries them and you’ll definitely meet a lot of people here. Your hotel may even ask for one. It also helps to have something to write on when you need someone who speaks English to write an address in Chinese for your taxi driver.

1. An unlocked GSM phone – I’ll write more about the wonders of mobile telephony outside the confines of the United States. But simply put, if you bring the right phone, you can call back home for less than 4 cents a minute.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Could be worse, you could live in Myanmar

On the back of the previous post about the clampdown on my right to blog, it strikes me as funny when China is projected as an paragon of freedom. For example, the Economist recently addressed the plight of Burmese Muslims in Myanmar and described how life in China is comparatively better.

As the article notes, the totalitarian state in Myanmar is so oppressive that refugees are escaping to China – the bastion of religious freedom by no one’s account. In China’s Yunnan province, they are free to practice their religion and pursue their dreams of wealth like everyone else in China.

The Great Firewall Strikes Again

Like the border between the United States and Mexico, the Great Firewall of China has occasional gaps. After a brief reprieve in May, the Chinese government shut down access to Blogger again. I have heard from friends that they have been able to access Blogger intermittently, but I haven't yet gained access. Therefore, I am writing this post via people back in the U.S., who are kind enough to log on and post my emails. I should also note that at the same time that Blogger was blocked again, the Chinese government also blocked access to images hosted on Flickr. Unlike with Blogger, access to the website was not banned, just the images themselves, under the pretense that Flickr images are not editorially controlled and may contain explicit or otherwise inappropriate images. Some web commentators think it’s because images of the Tiananmen Square massacre were posted and widely publicized.

The combined impact is that my posts will see a dramatic reduction in images. I hope to find a workaround in the near future. Some people have suggested using proxy servers based in the United States. While this works for casual browsers, it does not work for sites such as Blogger that require logging in. Using a proxy server then requires that you send all your login/password information through an untrusted computer that is specifically setup to help avoid compliance with legal regulations – not my idea of best practice, especially when my Blogger account is linked to my Google account, which is of course linked to Gmail, Google Checkout, etc.

In any case, I apologize for the repeated interruption and hope you will continue to come back to the blog for updates.

P.S. I have been able to find a workaround for the Flickr problem. A developer in Iran (another bastion of repression and state media control) has created a plug-in designed for my browser to automatically pull images from a proxy server. Thomas Friedman would be happy to know that the world is flattening for free speech.