Archive for the ‘Hong Kong’ Category

Luang Prabang

The French bequeathed the beautiful small town of Luang Prabang to the rulers of Laos in 1953. When the communists took over in 1973, they moved their Capital to Vientiane. This had the effect of preserving this colonial town, leading to the town being named a Unesco World Heritage site. In recent years, there has been something of a spat between Laos and Unesco after Unesco requested that the Laos government stop certain development in the town or risk losing their Unesco status. I’m not sure this would bother them too much, as the official banner for the town reads “Unesco Word Heritage Site”.

Set at the confluence of two rivers (Mekong and Nam Khan), LP is a gem of place. It can be tough to get there however. It’s a 11-12 hour bus ride for the 230 miles from Vientiane; 24 hour bus ride from Hanoi; or a 2 day slow boat ride from Chiang Mai. Incidentally, one backpacker told us that backpackers in Chiang Mai had insisted on two 40 capacity boats for the 80 of them on their trip. When they woke up from their overnight stop, they found that one of their boats had returned to Chiang Mai and half were forced to stand for the second day’s journey. It’s the type of experience that some backpackers like though.

We took the plane from Siem Reap – about an hour, it was a similar experience to every other plane ride we had taken.

For one of the poorest countries in region, Luang Prabang is a pretty expensive town. Accommodation, tuktuk, food and activity costs are all much more expensive than other places in the region. We did the standard tourist stuff in town (monks, religious sites, streets, markets, restaurants etc). They were all good and we liked LP very much.

We did a couple of cool things with elephants outside of LP. The best thing that the girls did was go diving with baby elephants, definitely one up from swimming with dolphins. This was terrific as you can see from the photos. They encouraged the elephants to dive by dropping sugar cane to the bottom of the pool. We also did the standard elephant trek through the Mekong river. Quite expensive, but it’s a good day out.

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We also took a longboat tour up the river. We visited some caves (desperately disappointing – I’ve seen a lot of caves and these were the worst I had ever seen) and a Buddhist temple and monks (where you could see the poverty on offer in Laos).

NB I wrote this blog over six months ago when we were in Laos but forgot to post it

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Customer experience – Apple, HSBC, Links of London & Mont Blanc

Two weeks ago in Hong Kong, I had cause to have a customer experience with four different companies in one day. In alphabetical order they were:- Apple, HSBC, Links of London & Mont Blanc.

Three of them were positive and one negative. I noticed this comparison because I had a customer experience with each of them within a two hour period. Your task now is to guess which was the negative experience. Done it? Good, we can now proceed with the story.

I had a problem with my Apple id. I went into the Hong Kong Apple Store and spoke to one of “the geniuses”. Assuming you can ignore this self-congratulatory name for what we used to call repairmen, they were rather good. For a start, there are rather a lot of them. I counted 3 Gigamillion of them on the floor ready to help. Their primary purpose appears to be to solve your problem. They don’t appear to want to sell you other kit or screw you on a warranty issue. They merely want to understand your problem so that they can help you. Perhaps there is a link between this behaviour and Apple’s market value? Incidentally, a friend of mine told me a story about how he took a very old Apple external drive into an Apple Store because it wasn’t working. They just gave him a new one and apologised that the previous one had stopped working.

You are probably wondering why I was visiting both Mont Blanc and Links of London. You are correct in thinking that neither are really my type of store. The connection is that I have pens from both establishments. Now, you would probably guess that my favourite writing implement is a hotel pen. Some are good, some are poor. But the best thing about hotel pens is that they are free. I have no objection to being a brand ambassador for those hotels with good pens.

I was however given a posh pen from Links of London and another from Mont Blanc as a reward for some exceptional work. I don’t recall what the work was now, but it won’t surprise many of you that I work with to know that they were both some time ago.

Unfortunately, both posh pens had become damaged over the years. I wasn’t expecting a lot from either company. However, Mont Blanc were able to provide me with the spare part for my pen. They charged me for it (which makes their service only OK). They did make me feel good however and I left the store feeling positive about Mont Blanc.

Two minutes later I went into the Links of London store. They were dubious about whether they could help, giving the eminently sensible reason that the pen had been discontinued 5 years ago. I put my point that this was their issue and not mine. They promised to look to see if they had this 5 year old spare part. You can imagine that I was surprised to receive a call from them a week later to say that they had located the relevant spare part. I was even more delighted to learn that there was no charge.

Yes, of course, you were all correct. It was the bank that, in my view, provided the poor customer service.

I won’t go into all of the details, but I saw this bank fall short in:
– providing me with someone who I could understand
– simplifying their processes
– showing that they cared about solving my problem. I felt that they believed the problem was nothing to do with them. At worst, it was with another area of their company or just my problem to navigate.

Why did we all know that the bank would be the company that offered the poor service?

It’s probably because we know that banks believe they are the Masters of the Universe and don’t see themselves as in a service industry at all. In our hearts, we know that the thing first most in their mind is not customer satisfaction but the short term maximisation of their company’s profits and the corresponding increase in the size of their bonus. There can be very few people outside the banking industry who believe the exceptionally large bonuses for bankers are justified.

What can we do? The obvious thing is to be more ready to change our financial service provider in the hope that this will encourage them to improve customer service both to reduce churn and attract transferers.

Why don’t we do this more? I guess because we know the process to make this change will be horrible and we have a lingering feeling that you may already have found the best provider in that sector.

Hong Kong Football

Hong Kong, ranked 161 in the world, outplayed 158th-ranked Singapore this evening in an international friendly at Hong Kong Stadium. Hong Kong dominated central midfield and their defence looked much stronger than it had last time we watched them.

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Godfred Karikari made his full international debut after 6 months of the local newspapers here reporting his eligibility challenges. Despite coming to Hong Kong from Ghana when he was 4 years old, it took the Ghanian football authorities six months to confirm that he had not played senior level (over 19 year old) football for Ghana. He looked good again this evening, but probably not good enough to get into a Ghana senior side at only 4 years old.

The stadium was the fullest we had seen it (7,000 maybe out of 40,000 capacity). The crowd was noisy throughout. In a typical Hong Kong fashion, the ushers had given everyone air filled batons which made a sound like two pieces of metal hitting each other. The most original chant was “We are Hong Kong” (in that it was in English).

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It was Nancy’s first time at football in Hong Kong. She expressed astonishment at how good the stadium was and opined that this must be the largest piece of flat grass in Hong Kong (she isn’t right: nearby Happy Valley Race Course is bigger). She then spent the rest of the match impressing us with her subtraction skills. She really is expert at subtracting any number from 90.

The match ended 1-0 after a scrappy goal from my man of the match, Lam Ka-Wei. Hong Kong deserved more and Singapore were flattered by their 0.

Lost in translation

It is good experience to not have a clue as to what is going on around you. No doubt, many who have worked with with me over the last 25 years would say that I do this all too regularly. In Japan, you can’t help not knowing what’s going on. You can’t understand the language and they just do lots of things differently here.

Let’s just take a few examples:

On the Tokyo underground network (the lines of which incidentally don’t connect and whose ticket purchasing system largely follows the english rail model), there is often little English. So this morning we were trying to get to some remote part of Tokyo where, for some reason known only to her, Lorna had booked the rental car. We needed to purchase tickets and had to work out how much money to put into the automatic machine. There was a map of the underground system in two languages: Japanese and Braille. I thought momentarily about blinding one of the kids, but decided it was probably more productive to act like Lord Carter, and translate the hieroglyphics. As you can see from the partial underground map below this wasn’t straightforward.

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When we descended to the station platform, we then have to work out which line/direction to take. The day before Nancy and I had jumped onto a train going the wrong way leaving Tilly and Lorna on the platform. After more hieroglyphics translation, we got on the right train. Train etiquette in Tokyo is clear. They spurn the extrovert behaviour of London tube users and play this exciting game of getting as many people into a carriage as possible and then forcing them to look in different directions. The loser is the person who catches another person in the eye. Nobody has ever lost.

The Japanese love vending machines. They are everywhere selling almost everything. The way you purchase food at many restaurants is to select the meal you want at the machine, put your money in the machine and then a piece of paper comes out with a number on it. You then wait at a hatch for your meal. The machine foxed us yesterday. The machine had great pictures, but we just could not get it to work. Today, there were others using the machine so we were able to work out what to do. The challenge was that most of the buttons had only japanese characters and those with pictures on it had all the clarity of those pictures they take of your baby while it’s still in the womb. The challenge today was that it wasn’t clear which meal was the one you had purchased. The ticket had a helpful number and letter on it, but when a meal appeared at the hatch the server not surprisingly shouted out the code in Japanese. So, you end up peering at others’ codes to get some idea of whether your meal was due.

Driving has been OK so far. Our bottom of the range Toyota comes with a top of the range Sat Nav. Sat Nav Suziki has been excellent so far. She keeps informing us about nearby attractions in Japanese, but she seems to know where she is going. I only hope that she was programmed to the correct place in the first place. Her only fault is her endless whinging. Suziki is integrated with traffic reports and there is nothing more irritating than her telling you every 3 minutes that there is heavy traffic ahead when you are gridlocked in traffic.

Lorna had planned a day of visiting shrines yesterday. Mindful of the fact that this would be about as appealing to the children as a game of sardines for Anne Frank, I changed the agenda to go to a puppy mall in a hi-tech area of Tokyo. The original plan was to rent a puppy for an hour at a puppy cafe, but unfortunately this cafe had closed. We spent time looking at shop after shop of dog clothing and pet stores; I played table tennis against a machine (and lost); and the children lost lots off money on one of those grabbing machines full of Hello Kittys.

We then went to a couple of Innovation museums. One from Toyota and the second the National Museum for Emerging Science and Innovation. The latter in particular was excellent and i would recommend it to anyone. We attended a talk in Japanese on DNA. The good news is that the Japanese for DNA is DNA; the bad news is that this was the only word that we could translate. We had explored sending the children to a school recently where part of the tuition was in a foreign language, so this was a useful demonstration of what it would be like.

So, it’s with all of this in mind that I have been reflecting on the Google glasses that have been so much in the news recently. The concept of these glasses is that they give information to the wearer. They could use Google Translate to convert any writing into your preferred language; Google Maps and Streetview to tell you where you are; and Wikipedia to inform you why it’s interesting. If someone were to invent a Babel app that translated real time what someone was saying, it could do this too. While I would miss this feeling of being lost, I think this would be a terrific feature. Imagine if you could develop so much understanding so quickly; you would understand Japan within a decade.

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Japanese toilets and Ninjas

Our apartment in Hong Kong has a Japanese toilet. Three of us enjoy the experience a lot.

I first used a Japanese Toilet in 2000 when I first came to Tokyo. I was impressed that another culture had invented an entirely different experience that I assumed was fairly standard all over the developed world. Actually, French toilets of the 1970s were an an entirely different experience (but in the wrong direction).

The reason any of this is relevant is that we are back in Tokyo and staying in exactly the same hotel as I stayed in 12 years ago. The New Otani’s toilet is the basic (Japanese) model, with both spray and bidet functions which appear from the body of the toilet when you have done your business. I have to say I was a little disappointed.

The model we have in Hong Kong is the advanced kind. No only do they have spray and bidet functions, but also variable water temperature, post washing drier, and a variable temperature heated seat.

Tilly used one at Narita airport where they had an even better feature of “faux flushing noise”. If you were embarrassed about the sounds you were about to make, you would press the button and there would be the sound (but not the action) of water flushing. You see, innovation can occur everywhere.

Lorna took us to a Ninja restaurant this evening. Though a slightly contrived experience, a Ninja takes you on a journey through cave-like corridors to your individual dining cave. The (Japanese) food was good and expensive. The highlights were the sushi, the chocolate fondants and the magic show demonstration by magic Ninja.

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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).

Filipina and Indonesian workers

Sunday is a great sight over much of developed Asia. It’s the day of the week when the Filipina and Indonesian workers congregate on their day off….though in many cases it’s only every other Sunday.

Largest swathes of public space are reserved by these workers from early in the morning. I walked along the covered walkways on Sunday morning at just after 9am. Both sides of the walkways were reserved by placing cardboard matting on the ground. Ladies were sewing together more cardboard to make windbreakers. Most of the workers were not there yet, still completing their morning chores before they get their day of freedom. For those already there, they are preparing food, listening to music or playing cards. This sight is repeated all over the city, in every spare alcove.

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In Hong Kong, these workers are called Helpers, though Doers would be much more accurate. Obviously it depends on the family, but these workers often do all the domestic work in the home. Every single piece of cleaning; cooking of every meal; buying of all the shopping; ferrying of the children and often all things connected with the children (homework, feeding and discipline). Most workers have their own children back home, so they have good experience.

In Singapore, the workers are called maids. However, the problem of maid abuse was so significant that maid school (a four hour Employers Orientation Programme) was introduced a few years ago. Wives had to attend this to get the permit for the maid. Here you learnt about how to treat your maid:
– You should give them between 10am and 4pm off every other Sunday. It’s not a law mind you, just a guideline
– You should give them clear instructions on how to use all appliances and how to cook the food you like
– You should allow them to go home once a year
– You shouldn’t hit them (much bigger problem than one might expect).

And, of course, this trade in labour makes good economic sense. For the Filipina, it provides income for the whole family. Young children are cared for by the grandmothers or fathers while the mother looks after a richer family and sends home most of their income. For the Philippines, remittances from foreign domestic workers (FDWs) account for just under 15% of total GDP. Wealth is redistributed.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the trade in maids, I salute the sacrifices you make for your own families.