Archive for the ‘China’ Category

The Maglev

The taxi driver had dyed-blond hair in a Mohican style and longer finger nails than Florence Griffiths-Joyner (one for the kids). He was in his 50s and – if he had been on X-Factor – you would have called him an embarrassment.

But he loved to drive fast in his obviously-souped up taxi. I watched the speedometer as the arrow went frequently beyond the 200km mark and then felt the significant deceleration as he weeved between cars or as he made semi-emergency stops to avoid other cars who had dared to change lanes. His hands gripped the middle of the wheel and his thumbs pressed the horn every half of a second or so.

He knew the location of all of the speed cameras. He slowed down to 70, turned around to me, held one finger up and grinned indicating that there had only been one flash (and hence no fine), while simultaneously flooring his accelerator pedal. I wished I knew the Chinese for “keep your eyes on the road”.

I reached in vain for the seatbelt. Like almost every taxi in China, there was a pristine belt on my right shoulder but unfortunately no attachment to lock it to. There is a greater chance of finding a female at a Telecoms Conference than a female part in a Chinese taxi.

I felt very sick indeed and feared I was going to die. In a thoroughly modern way, I left what I presumed would be my last words on Twitter and Facebook. I envied those from history who had left famous and funny last words because the best I could come up with were that this was probably my last tweet/status update.

Above all, I wished I had taken the Maglev.

The Maglev is a train that levitates slightly above the rail system using magnets. It has no wheels.

These trains really go quickly. The one in Shanghai reaches 431km/hour and is as smooth as Rastafarian DJ. It takes 7 minutes from Pudong airport to near the Shanghai New International Exhibition Centre (SNIEC).

Like Concord(e), the Maglev is a vanity pieces of transport. The technology was patented 100 years ago but hasn’t been widely adopted and hence the price from the German company that makes it haven’t fallen significantly. They say that the maintenance costs are very low (no friction or moving parts) and that it uses relatively low amounts of electricity, but few governments can afford the price tag of installing it. The Maglev in Shanghai was intended to extend to other destinations in the city. However, when even the Chinese can’t afford it, you know it is expensive.

Of course, this one was a slow coach compared to one of the two maglevs in Japan that once reached 581km/hr. The Shanghai Maglev reaches 431km/hr in the afternoon (and dawdles along at a mere 331km/hr in the morning). I think I may have been on all three, and understand that I will have to take trips to Seoul and Beijing when they complete their high speed Maglevs.

One of my favourite parts of the Maglev is the driver’s cabin. As you can see from the picture, it’s a bloke with a couple of computer screens. Let’s just hope that Windows doesn’t crash. There is no steering wheel and no pedals. Incidentally, if you look carefully on the floor, you will see that someone has put in an extension lead presumably to power the fan, toaster and kettle.

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Beijing on business

It’s a strange time to be visiting China.

Having fuelled nationalism against Japan on the thorny issue of Diaoyu Islands*, the government here is back peddling like mad. Half of the english language newspaper is still about these oil-rich, uninhabited islands, but they now include multiple articles and “letters from readers” saying how demonstrating is futile. Fearing that the population will demonstrate against other things, the government-controlled media point out that a more effective way of expressing your anger about Japan’s occupation of the islands is through trade sanctions.

Most of my Chinese friends here are openly (to me anyway) speculating about what might happen next. One of the repercussions of having media so tightly controlled here is that nobody appears to trust official channels at all. This means that (unsubstantiated) gossip has much higher credibility than most other places in the world. People here are very concerned about the future, particularly while the final stages of the 10 yearly government reshuffle are being finalised. I regularly find myself in conversations where I am the most positive person about China.

Everyone I meet tells me about the daily demonstrations against the Japanese. The daily alerts I receive from our international travel advisors warn me to stay away from these demonstrations. According to these contacts, Japanese products are targeted on a regular basis. Restaurants are attacked and some diners do their patriotic duty by having a meal (and then walking out without paying). I note that some Nissans, Hondas and Toyotas have hidden their badges (as Japanese cars have been vandalised). Of course, these restaurants and cars are owned by Chinese, a point emphasised in the newspapers. It’s rather reminiscent of the ignorant attacks by a few Americans on Sikhs after 9/11.

Getting around in Beijing is more difficult than ever. Of course, traffic was always close to gridlock during peak times. The nature of these demonstrations however mean that roads are closed in sensitive areas making the traffic much worse than normal.

Taxis are always in short supply in Beijing. The government are reluctant to put up the price of fares (for fear that it emphasises high inflation) or allow time at a standstill to be counted within the fare. This means firstly that people don’t want to become taxi drivers and secondly – during the busiest times – some taxis lay up. The drivers take the view that they earn less in fares than it costs them in fuel.

This means that it is very difficult to get a taxi. My average wait over the last couple of days is 30 minutes (which means that i am late for every meeting – this blog being typed in taxi while I am late for a meeting). I will hire a car and driver next time I come. Several times this trip I have found myself lost in some part of Beijing that I don’t recognise vainly waving at anything that looks like a taxi. Last night I took a tuktuk (not sure what they are called here). This was a slightly more terrifying experience than elsewhere in the world.

Finally – in a rather disjointed blog posting – I thought I would share with you a product that I saw at the PTAC Expo. It “borrows” from both Google and Apple simultaneously.

Otherwise, it’s China as normal. Activity everywhere, pollution and indifference in equal measure.

Published – via VPN – from China.

*For those interested in the Chinese historical perspective on why these uninhabited islands belong to China, please read this article from China Daily here. Other interpretations are of course available.

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Short Guanxi trip – caves and cooking

With so many Karsts littering the landscape, it isn’t surprising that there are many caves near Yangshuo. We went to the Golden Cave which had been inexpensively rebranded from the old Buddha Cave. I say inexpensive, because somebody had merely stuck “Gold” in English and Chinese over a red banner. It had been called Buddha because one of the stalagmites looked something like a Buddha ….(but only if someone told you).

The stalactites and mites were splendid. I recall some others near Taxco in Mexico which were impressive because of the size of the cavern (which was, er, cavernous), but these caves were amongst the best I have seen.

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The other thing that made this cave stick out was its extras. Another cave nearby offered mud baths and hot spa, so this one did too. I strongly suspect that the mud was imported into the cave and the hot water merely a feed from the hot tap. As we were the only visitors that morning, we enjoyed wallowing in cold mud and lounging in the warm bath (sorry, spa). We were outnumbered by photographers and – if Lorna ever gives me reason – I will upload an example of their work on the Internet.

We also went on a cookery course. It started in a wet market in Yangshuo, a grim place for a vegetarian. There was livestock everywhere and lots of recent livestock. I’m sure you could buy everything here. Nancy admired the five bunnies in a small cage until she saw two being put into a shopper’s bag. We heard a dog being slaughtered and the smell was memorable.

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Set overlooking the banks of the River Li and the countryside beyond, there could surely have been no better view from a kitchen. We had to prepare the dishes at our workstations. The chef then showed us how to cook five dishes with our cleavers and woks. It was exceptional.

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Short Guanxi trip – Putonghua in doubt

The was no doubt that the level of our Putonghua (Mandarin) was not as good as we had thought. The villager was now addressing all her comments to me, as I was slightly better at feigning understanding of what she was saying than the others. Her mimes became increasingly desperate as she tried to convey ideas to us.

This was a pity as I won’t be able to share much about this ancient Chinese village in Guanxi with you. In their main room, we shared oranges with her mother, a lady of 100 years we were told. They took delight in mei mei (younger girl) and jei jei (older girl) and marvelled over how much taller they were than them.

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The village was mainly populated with old people when we visited. The parents were working in the fields and the children were at the village school. The children, all dressed in jumpers and coats to counter the lack of heating in the school, repeated by rote what the teacher was instructing. We heard them exercise to the sound of patriotic music, and, at lunchtime, saw them sprinting to their homes with the same smile as any child from anywhere in the world in a similar situation.

Lorna had chosen a village in a tourist area near Yangshuo about 90 minutes from Guilin in Guanxi province for our first foray as a family into China. We did the tourist things. We rafted down the Yulong river. This wasn’t the whitewater experience of the Zambesi, though there were 10 weirs to negotiate. The area has thousands of limestone mountains (karsts), which lined the river on both sides. Nancy and I shared a raft and had a good conversation. The Chinese were very keen to take her picture at every opportunity, which unnerved her somewhat.

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In the evening, we dined at a vegetarian restaurant in Yangshuo. The food was fantastic. We had ordered more than was polite, and the waitress was concerned for us. The food was beautifully presented and excellent. I think we surprised her by how much we had eaten.

We made a mistake earlier in the evening by going on a cormorant fishing trip down the river. We were in a boat alongside a fisherman’s raft. This was equipped with a searchlight that lit up the river. The cormorants dived for fish in the lit area of the river. Every now and then, the fisherman would pick up a cormorant and empty regurgitated fish from the cormorant into a bowl. We soon realised this was possible because the fisherman had tied some string around the cormorant’s neck that prevented fish from entering the stomach.

In general, the Chinese don’t treat animals well. We had seen lots of monkeys earlier in the day, tied to posts dancing to music dressed in human clothes. It’s only a matter of time, I’m sure, until we see bears.

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Dolce & Gabbana and Chinese corruption

The biggest story over the past three weeks in Hong Kong has been the alleged ban by Dolce & Gabbana of people taking photos of their store front from the street.

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There have been daily protests in the street, and this story has been in the papers every day for 3 weeks. Local residents have been railing against discrimination; they claim that high-end shops don’t want their custom and favour mainland Chinese.  [NB They are probably right, but it’s these mainlanders that are keeping Hong Kong in positive growth.] The Photographers Union have joined in declaring their right to take any photo in a public situation. And tourists are probably bemused by being told they can’t take photos.

The story in the (fiercely independent) English Hong Kong Newspapers is one of discrimination against Hong Kongers (of which I am of course a new member).  You may be disappointed that – although I was mildly disappointed that I couldn’t find a single pair of Uggs for Nancy’s birthday (because they had all been bought up by mainlanders) – I am not planning an uprising, sit down disputes or “I have a dream”-like speeches.

One of the reasons for this is that the story behind this story is a good deal more interesting. The original complaint apparently came from a mainlander who complained to a guard about people taking photos. His rationale for this was probably the existence of an excellent website that showed only a picture of a Chinese Official and their watch. This website was created by Huaguoshan Zongshuji” (花果山总书记, literally, General Secretary of Huaguo Mountain) who has a deep, male-like interest in the taxonomy of high-end watches. The point of this website is to juxtapose the picture of the chinese official, the cost of his/her watch and their annual salary. Invariably, it shows that the cost of an official’s watch is higher than their annual salary. This website has been rendered inaccessible by Chinese authorities, before appearing again in another guise.  This is a pity; I would have thought it would be an excellent source of data for Chinese authorities looking to stamp out corruption. Nevertheless, I can see that it is embarrassing for Chinese Authorities.

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The PR people at Dolce & Gabbana have handled the story badly. Their original (truthful) line was that they hadn’t complained. Unfortunately, the story was that they were discriminating against Hong Kongers (probably true). Two weeks later, they did apologise but – as is the way with this type of story – it was a lukewarm apology, the type that comes after Head Office has put pressure on them to stop the daily negative headlines.

You may ask why people want to take a photo of the high-end stores. The reason is that outside each of these shops there are queues of people waiting to be allowed to enter and guards preventing their entry until another customer exited.

And why do mainlanders come to Hong Kong for their shopping in the first place? First, the Chinese like the western brands and are now apparently sometimes abusive to those wearing fake gear. Second, the Chinese don’t trust products sold in China, even branded ones from branded stores.

The ultimate irony is that the Chinese go to shop in Hong Kong to buy branded western goods made in China (rather than fake goods, also made in China).

Bureaucracy – Hong Kong style

A headline in today’s South China Morning Post reads “Immigration queues an hour long at airport”. In the UK or the US, this would be a boast and represent a big improvement on the norm. In Hong Kong, the report cautioned that this will hinder their drive to be a “world city”. When you read the actual article, you learn that fewer than 2% of visitors wait longer than 15 minutes and that complaints about queues had fallen to 9 (for the year). It turns out that the hour long wait was something of a rarity.

There is no doubting however that there is a lot of bureaucracy in Hong Kong. However, the bureaucracy which I have experienced so far is broadly efficient. There is no avoiding all of the process steps, but they have at least been designed with the user in mind.

The application process for the Hong Kong identity card was a piece of engineering perfection. You booked a time slot on the web. When you arrived, it set a clear time expectation of 75 minutes for the whole process (we had the whole family to id). You handed in the application form you had downloaded, they scanned the information onto their system. You then waited at the next waiting room for the next stage. You went through the next stages of fingerprinting, photo taking, and interviewing. At the end of all of these stages, we were all given a temporary id card at the place we started 73 minutes later. You could enjoy free wifi during each short wait, so it was not too painful.

We had a similar experience when registering for the library and at getting all the banking accounts set up. Many forms; necessity of having your id card (you can’t get any service without the id card); a bit long; but always good service and free WI-Fi.

Of course, the certainty of contract and even-handedness of treatment is one of the big advantages of doing business in Hong Kong. It’s number two country in the world for doing business, falling behind Singapore only due to the ease of registering property. This won’t worry most of us; who could possibly afford property here anyway?

International football – Hong Kong v Guangdong

As supporters of Torquay United, we aren’t much used to magnificent stadia. The Hong Kong Stadium must hold 40,000 people and, this being Hong Kong, everything works. It’s easy to buy tickets (we went for top of the range £5 tickets, ignoring the savings of the £1.66 tickets in the upper tier); spotlessly clean; and provides wonderful views from every vantage point in the ground. We decided to take spurn our usual places behind the goal, taking half way line seats right by the pitch next to the few noisy supporters emulating the crowds they see in La Liga, Serie A and Premier League.

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I estimate that some 1,998 other people joined us in the stadium for the first leg of the annual Hong Kong v Guangdong. I had no concern about my 12 year old being exposed to bad language, because the crowd was Cantonese (and because my own language was tempered by the fact that I had little allegiance to either side).

This was the 34th playing of this competition, with Guangdong holding a substantial lead. It was immediately obvious that they were likely to add to this lead. The Hong Kong crowd showed a lack of confidence that I have seen frequently from watching Torquay play better sides in the FA cup. They bayed for blood at each foul and got very excited by every attacking move from Hong Kong. They played route one football.

By contrast, Guangdong passed the ball on the churned up pitch. They had fielded 10 Ray Wilkins-type players who kept the ball largely in their own half for minutes at a time. Some 30 minutes into the game, Guangdong – for the first time – got the ball into the final third and scored. The crowd accepted the inevitability of where this game was going.

Having won the Asian Cup in the late 1990s, Hong Kong’s football has fallen into decline. They now languish in 169th place in the Coca Cola Fifa world rankings one place above Cambodia. Why Coca Cola bother to sponsor this meaningless statistic, one never knows. One wonders what England have done to merit fifth place, one above Brazil. However 169th looked about right for Hong Kong. They do have a couple of decent players though, both strikers:-

Cheng Siu Wai – who looks a bit like Thierry Henry – scored the first goal, a header from the penalty spot that spun past the keeper’s right hand. However, the 26 year old, Ghanian born debutant Godfred Karikari was outstanding all evening. Skilful, creative and much quicker than anyone else on the pitch, he caused problems for the competent Guangdong defenders all evening. If Siu Wai had been able to match Godfred’s pace, there would have been more goals. Godfred scored the second in the middle of the second half, a header from further out spinning into the same corner of the net. If Torquay officials read this blog, they should check his work permit status. He would do well in the lower English leagues.

It wasn’t to be Hong Kong’s night though. Their defence, which had modelled themselveso on the Keystone Cops all evening, left a player unmarked from a bog-standard high cross. This cross was headed to a striker who only had to score from 2 feet out. Guangdong will surely win the second leg in 3 days time.

The football is of a variable standard. I believe Torquay would probably beat this Hong Kong side. The defence is just too weak to withstand an organised professional side. Guangdong are probably of Championship standard (2nd tier of English football). Mssrs Andlka and (maybe) Drogba will thrive at this level of football.