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.

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 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.