The importance of business cards

When traveling in China’s megacities, one thing should be kept in mind: the taxi drivers are not out to get you, nor are they ignoring you because you are a foreigner, nor are they refusing to take you where you want to go because of some racist or other belief. The fact is, unless you are going to a destination close by or to a very famous landmark in the city – they may simply have no idea where they are supposed to take you.

I found in my travels that even having an address card – or an address such as written on someone’s business card – was often woefully insufficient. Street numbers are often hidden or poorly labeled. Hence, going to #155 Zhongshan Road in a city of 15 million people is going to pose a challenge. Where the address includes the name of the building or complex in question, it might help – and often does in Beijing.

But there is a way to make sure you never get lost and never get taken to the wrong address (happened to me before when my slurred and badly accented Chinese sent the driver, affable though he was, on a wild goose chase through back streets in Shenzhen’s Nanshan district trying to find what he thought was my hotel. It wasn’t. We had to backtrack). Get the nearest intersection to your destination. Knowing the streets which intersect closest to where you are going will  9 times out of 10 be enough to get where you are going with a minimum of fuss. Hence, when you get address cards from your hotel or business partners, ask them to write the nearest intersection or other pertinent information which would help a clueless taxi driver find it.

There is one very important exception: Shanghai Pudong. The east bank of the Huangpu River and its hinterland are still a mystery to most west bank (Puxi) taxi drivers. For one thing they are loathe to battle the bridge and tunnel traffic to get to the other side. For another, they really will know almost no-where on the other side, with the possible exception of addresses in Lujiazui (close to the Oriental Pearl Tower, the World Trade Center and the Jin Mao Building) or the airport. If you are trying to get to your friend’s apartment in an industrial district in central Pudong, forget it. Cross the river on a subway, then hail a taxi and use your address card – with the nearest intersection of course!

PS: Having a mobile phone helps too….

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How times have changed

It is quite amusing to think how even 20 years ago, people we talking about how Japan was going to eat our lunch and that everyone should be taking the time to learn Japanese, that we should emulate Japanese business practice, and that America was in hopeless decline. At the same time, the decade before had seen an endless stream of books talking about how Japan was going to become the world’s number one economy, about have Japan’s combination of government influenced markets and top-of-the line technology, as well as an artificially cheap currency was going to push America off her pedestal.

Indeed, the joke has been made, and rightly so in many cases, that if someone wants to publish a book or an article about China today, all they need to do is take something written about Japan in the mid 1980s and then <<FIND>> <<REPLACE>> “Japan” with “China.” The funny part is some of the articles are so strikingly similar it is not inaccurate.

Americans are generally an alarmist bunch. As George Carlin once quipped, “Americans panic easily.” We tend to think of ourselves as the greatest country in the world yet at the same time we worry constantly about being unseated by another country. It is as though not being number one in everything would somehow make the United States less of a great country.

On the other side of the coin, let’s look at China. China is a 5000 year old country that has been politically unified in its more-or-less modern form since 221 BC. Did China’s poverty make it less of a great and proud nation? No. Will China as number one change the fact that China has a long and proud history? No.

In the modern world we obsess about rank and status. I think for the sake of sanity, the US and China should look to their own needs and stop obsessing about the way we compare with others. If we do our own business well, the rankings will take care of themselves.

More to come on economic bellyaching…

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Industrial Tourism

One of my favorite parts of working in China as an industry researcher was getting to go to cities that most people – tourists in particular – avoid like the plague. These cities are not famous for their history (usually), nor their beauty (often), but they have a justified place in the hearts (and wallets) of anyone interested and involved in the China trade.

Two cities in particular stand out in my memories from my time studying the IT industry – Dongguan and Zhongshan. Neither of these cities rank very high on any tourist agenda – I have yet to see a package tour that includes either one – yet both are fascinating in their own ways and have tourist attractions geared more towards a Chinese audience. For a foreigner, this means they provide a fascinating look at how tourism works from the other side. None of the attractions here listed are industrial sites (although I find those infinitely interesting in my own nerdy sort of way). All are real tourist sites and are promoted as such by the municipal governments of both cities.

Attractions in Zhongshan:

Sun Zhongshan Residence (孙中山故居纪念馆): The father of modern China, Sun Yat-sen was born in Zhongshan in 1866. Then called Xiangshan, the town was one of China’s regions sending the most emigrants to Southeast Asia and elsewhere. After a few years of formal schooling he went to join his brother in Hawaii. His brother had grown prosperous as a merchant. The Sun family home reflects their prosperity. Like many older homes in towns and villages in Guangdong, those families with successful overseas ties often built large homes which merged Chinese and Western architectural styles. The family preserved their original homestead, however. It became the outdoor kitchen. The Sun Zhongshan home and museum makes an excellent introduction to the history of late imperial and early revolutionary China. It also provides a great look into the complicated life and times of the Father of China.

Zhongshan Commercial Street (孙文西路): In the late Qing and early Republican periods (roughly 1870-1930), the Pearl River Delta, like Shanghai, experienced a commercial and foreign trade induced economic boom. It was far from egalitarian yet the region gave rise to a cosmopolitan, externally-oriented commercial bourgeoisie. The old town center of Zhongshan has been restored to its original 1910s and 20s glory. The shops are painted in bright pastels accented with whitewashed crown molding and other embellishments. The commercial street is an excellent shopping opportunity or just a chance to browse and people-watch. While there, be sure to visit….

Xiangshan Commercial Culture Museum (香山商业文化博物馆): Celebrating the commercial prowess of the Cantonese and the emergence of the local capitalist class, this museum shows the development of modern market enterprises, trade, and industry in Xiangshan and elsewhere in China (the models of 1930s Shanghai department stores are quite interesting). The museum is mostly in Chinese but includes an interesting array of artifacts including old currency, trade documents, licenses and other bric-a-brac of turn-of-the-century commerce and the economy in the first post-revolution years.

Attractions in Dongguan:

Dongguan Humen Sea Battle Museum 海战博物馆 : To really understand modern China, you must understand the Opium War and in particular understand the Chinese perspective on this conflict. Indeed, the 1839-1841 war was, arguably, one of the most defining moments which led China on its course into revolution and modernization. The Humen Sea Battle Museum located on the banks of the Pearl River in southern Dongguan features artifacts, dioramas and other exhibits to show the course of the war and in particular the sea battles fought at the mouth of the Pearl River. Adjacent to the museum are several restored forts (炮台) which date back to the conflict. Some of the text on the exhibits sounds a little stilted but on the whole it is quite fair and balanced and provides an excellent insight into one of the defining events in modern Chinese history.

Dongguan Museum: Located on the central square, Dongguan’s museum provides a fascinating introduction to the market and political forces that have radically altered the face of China over the last 30 years. Of particular interest is the exhibit showing changes in the lives of the peasants. The 1970s display shows the wooden walls covered in newspapers – presumably as insulation and to keep out drafts. The 2000s display shows a whitewashed, air conditioned modern home. Of course this is the idealized conception for how much things have improved but it does drive home the point that a LOT has changed. Other exhibits show how opening and reform took place in Dongguan (before Shenzhen even, I might add) and how the growth of the industrial economy built a new city. The 3D diorama showing future expansion is interesting as well. Some may dismiss the museum as propaganda but in all honesty, it shows what has happened, how much has changed, and how there was a clear role for both market and political forces in driving that change which has greatly bettered the lives of millions.

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Getting around – Taxis

Reading the Lost Laowai blog, I enjoyed an early rant complaining about the status of public transportation back home (for the author) in Canada. According to his calculations, taxis in China are less than the cost of public transportation in Vancouver. This may well be true. I know that a taxi where I lived in Guiyang is less than the cost of a subway or bus ticket here in Atlanta. If three or four people share the taxi then the costs are definitely better (no more than 20 RMB versus 8 USD for four riders on the Atlanta subway).

This is, unfortunately, a faulty logic – and one we fall into all the time in China. Yes, the costs would be so much cheaper than their US equivalents – if we were still paid US salaries. For foreign expatriates in China paid in their home currencies at approximately (or greater) rates than they earned at home, then it is perfectly reasonable to comment about home much less expensive taxis in China are than other forms of transportation back home. But if you are paid 4000 RMB per month as an English teacher, think about how that translates into your home currency. Then think about how many taxi rides you can (really) afford. Suddenly, the cost of living seems reasonable if not actually quite high in China.

That all being said, I LOVE the taxis in China. The taxi system exists in nearly every town I have visited all the way down to fifth tier cities like Anshun in Guizhou. Unlike in the US where taxis outside of New York City are basically a call-on-demand type service, every Chinese city has taxis that cruise the streets looking for fares. This is amazingly convenient – and when one is traveling with a Western expectation for the cost of transportation will seem amazingly cheap. While costs have been rising, they are still reasonable in many places. In Anshun and Zunyi, taxis cost 5 RMB at flag fall. Guiyang was 10. Beijing and Shanghai are – predictably – more. All told, however, unless one is taking a taxi from Haidian district (the university area of Beijing) to Sanlitun (the old expat bar district on the eastern side of the old city) on a regular basis -which is about 50 RMB or more – then anywhere the taxis are quite affordable.

There are a few issues one should be aware of, however, when deciding to use taxis in China:

1. Always get the name, address, and nearest intersection of wherever you are going written in Chinese characters. Except for the most popular destinations, places like Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou are massive. Don’t expect a taxi driver to know every street address.

2. Don’t trust your ability to pronounce Chinese place names. The movie “Shanghai Kiss” included an amusing montage where the protagonist – a Chinese American who can’t speak Chinese – attempts to say “Jin Mao” – in reference to the Jin Mao building in Pudong where he is staying. The driver proceeds to take him all over Shanghai to every place which sounds like his mangled pronunciation of Jin Mao. I have been in this situation. It is much less funny when you are running late.

3. Drivers tend to keep to their own parts of town. In Shanghai this means drivers from the Puxi and Pudong sides don’t really like to go to the other side of the river. This makes sense because the bridge traffic can be horrific and they often simple do not know the other side well enough to really take you where you want to go. The same can be said for taxis trying to get to outlying districts (even relatively close-in ones) in Shenzhen and Guangzhou. If you have to travel further afield and the driver acts confused, try to get him to call his dispatch office (or a friend) to confirm he knows where he is going.

4. Taxis are not always the fastest way to get around. In Beijing and Shanghai in particular, the subway – uncomfortable as it may be at rush hour – is usually MUCH faster than a taxi stuck in parking lot traffic.

5. Beijing taxi drivers like to talk a lot – at least traditionally. If you are learning (or already speak some) Chinese, try to chat up your driver. It will make the ride go faster and can provide some fascinating insights into life in China.

6. Taxis make a great alternative to formally booking a car and driver. Although there are services for booking fancy business cars with drivers (and in the Pearl River Delta of Guangzhou I actually recommend this), they are generally quite to very expensive – especially for websites in English. The Chinese language ones are often much better priced. If you have the time and flexibility, however, it can be better to try and reserve a taxi driver for a day. Simply flag down a taxi and state your first destination. Then try to negotiate an all day reservation. Typically a Beijing taxi from 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM will run you around 400 RMB. It may be more if you are going to a lot of places or out of town to the Great Wall.

7. Get business cards from taxi drivers. Call them up the day before you need a lift to the airport or train station and arrange a pickup. Trying to hail a cab at rush hour hauling three-suitcases in the rain is not fun.

8. If you get a driver for a day, invite him to join you for lunch and treat him. He will greatly appreciate it and it is just common courtesy. Drivers who like you will often give advice on places to go, things to do, and stuff to eat as well.

9. Share the ride. It is hard enough to get a taxi when you need one. Sharing rides with people going in the same general direction should be a no-brainer.

10. Although it sucks, drivers at shift change are not purposefully avoiding you. If your destination is in an area with a lot of traffic or not on their direct route to where they trade off with another driver, they won’t take you. It’s just that simple. And yes, it is infuriating.

Either way, enjoy the road!

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Understanding Scams and Reality

A quick visit over to Wikitravel’s China page will leave one somewhat worried about any Chinese person who approaches them with a smile. In my edits on that page, as well as the work of others, we have tried to cool down the: “Don’t trust anyone who comes up to you speaking English…” rhetoric. For many reasons foreigners in China have become dismissive of Chinese who approach them. Old China hands may be dismissive because they do not really feel like making new friends or giving free English lessons. Tourists who have read the horror stories about getting taken for a ride by scam artists working with rip-off tea shops tend to ignore or brush off the advances of otherwise friendly Chinese.

Disclaimer: I am not pretending that there are no scam artists working to part foreigners and their money. There certainly are. I am trying to explain two points:

1. Even legitimate places can feel like a rip-off sometimes

2. Foreigners taken in by all the “new friends” they make instantaneously need to sit back a little and review their situation.

Regarding tea shops – one of the most common scams mention on the Wikitravel site, the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree and elsewhere in the blogosphere is a tea ceremony, tea tasting, or tea sampling (among other names). The scam goes something like this: young, usually attractive, Chinese approach foreigners traveling alone or in pairs and strike up a conversation in English. They later suggest the foreigners experience a Chinese tea ceremony. Without seeing a menu or otherwise really being told what is going on, tea is sampled and out comes a bill in the thousands of RMB. If the situation goes down just like this, it is likely to be a scam. An easy way to avoid it is to ask for, and KEEP, the menu. If there are no sampling prices listed, get them in writing when you start or better yet, go to another tea shop that says up front how much the tea ceremony will be. If your new friends are legit, they will likely not object. Scammers will come up with all manner of excuses to prevent you from leaving the shop but a simple rule should be: no menu or price? No sampling!

That being said, tea culture in China can actually be very high-end. Akin to wine-tasting and wine-snobbery in the West, tea sampling is a fine art practiced by true connoisseurs who know their Pu’er from their Dahongpao and Long Jing from Tie Guanyin. If you stop in a high-end tea shop (which I recommend, if for no other reason than to look at the surroundings and then go – they are an oasis of calm in the bustle of modern China), check out the actual prices. Tea is occasionally sold by the cup or by the pot (hot water refills available) but often is purchased in small packets that make two pots (or so) of tea. Prices for even low-end teas in these establishments will usually not be less than 50 RMB for a cup/pot. High end teas quickly and easily spiral into the many hundreds – per unit. Hence a group of four businessmen sampling two kinds of high end tea could easily run up a bill of 2000 RMB (8 cups of high end product at 500 or so a pop) plus any extras. Tea shops, like movie theaters, make a killing on concessions.

Second, foreigners like to act shocked and hurt when they get taken for a ride by their new friends in China (although this happens throughout the world). I think it is important for everyone to take a step back and think about how they got into that situation. In your own country, if strangers started walking up to you and immediately wanted to be your close friend and then suggested where to eat, would you not be suspicious? Why does this rule suddenly no longer apply when overseas? People are people everywhere and people love to take advantage of those who have no idea what they are doing. Hence tourists make easy targets. So lets try not blaming the scammers and try instead to look inside and say, who was the fool who played along?

But we should still try the teas….whether alone or with new friends.

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And then there’s the food!

When people ask about what I miss most about living in China, the answer is always simple – the food!

And I don’t mean just the banquets or home-cooked meals either – although both are sublime.

The fact is China has a culinary tradition longer than most countries have been in existence. Restaurants were commonplace very early in China’s history and some establishments ostensibly can trace their lineage back to the Song Dynasty, a mere 900 years ago. The relatively early development of organized national-market-oriented agriculture and the creation of developed transportation markets enabled China to not only develop regional cuisines to supply to the moneyed classes but also to transport rare or otherwise necessary ingredients from one part of the empire to others. Afterall, where else is the Emperor in Xi’an going to get his sea cucumber fix if they aren’t being shipping dry-packed up the Grand Canal, and up along the Yangze?

China also benefited from its great willingness to absorb new foodstuffs throughout its history. Although it may seem impossible now, China once did not have tomatoes, potatoes, corn, and most importantly – chili peppers. These all arrived during the Ming Dynasty as part of the Colombian exchange. Spanish traders working West from Mexico and operating out of their base in the Philippines brought these wonderful new foodstuffs to China – foodstuffs which not only grew well but could also be grown on land too dry for rice or too marginal for wheat.

It is thanks to the Colombian exchange that my favorite regional cooking style – Southwest – emerged. Contrary to popular belief, not all foreigners are spice-a-phobic. Among those I knew in Guiyang and Zunyi, all were quite adjusted – and indeed some were completely obsessed with – to eating hot and spicy foods. Second, Sichuanese food is not actually all that hot. The chili peppers they use in such abundance add flavor but not excessive heat. It is the little numbing flower peppers which built up to that searing sensation.

The take home lesson folks is that Chinese food is ancient but has not been stagnant. It has changed over time (see the change from thick gloppy stews circa the Han Dynasty to the elaborate multi-day feasts of the Manchu-Han banquets during the Qing Dynasty which included regional, frontier, and mixed cuisines – prepared with even the most minute details in taste and appearance duly addressed). The tragedy is that too many folks think Chinese food is that stuff on the buffet table at their local eatery. While I love General Tso’s Chicken as much as the next man, it can’t hold a candle to home-made La Zi Ji (a spicy Guizhou/Sichuan chicken dish). If one can’t make it all the way to China, at least try to get to a Chinese restaurant with a friend who speaks/reads the language – the difference can be night and day.
But of course it is better to get to eat it in China!

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Bottoms up

The issue of drinking in China has been addressed at some length on other blogs and websites including the venerable “Lost Laowai” which includes a special page dedicated to just this subject. Similarly the “Middle Kingdom Life” online teaching-in-China guide similarly gives some consideration to the matter of drinking.

Why does drinking feature so heavily in foreign materials concerning China? The are two reasons: one from within and one from without. As anyone who has spent even a little time with expatriates the world over knows – expats live to drink. Stories tell that during the 1980s, alcohol abuse was common among foreigners stationed in Beijing for want of something else to do. Even though the options available for entertainment, work and self enrichment are now comparable in China as anywhere else in the world, heavy consumption of alcohol remains common among expats. This is not just the English teaching set, either. Young and old mangers and others stationed in China – often away from their families – tend to engage in not trivial amounts of alcohol consumption. And what do foreigners do when they drink – they complain! I am increasingly convinced that no one can kvetch like a foreigner stationed overseas.

The second matter – from without – is that China, like many countries, has a thriving and ancient drinking culture. From the earliest fermented fruit slurries consumed in rituals during the Erlitou culture through the elaborate bronze ritual wine vessels of the Shang and Zhou and into the stories of drunken boxing, the drunken poet Li Bai and even the scene in “The Founding of a Republic” where Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai drunkenly belt out the “Internationale” drink has long been part of Chinese civilization. The length of time associated with drinking culture has naturally given rise to different associated customs and traditions. The idea of a bar as a place exclusively for drinking is mostly a Western import. Traditional Chinese always drank with food – even when drinking heavily. Drinking is a very social activity. Toast follows toast and eventually includes drinking games – all part of a drinking culture designed to promote high spirits and camaraderie  all around.

While western tipplers in China typically gravitate to various Chinese beers – Tsingdao of course being the most famous, although nearly every town of significant size will have a local brew – traditional Chinese drinking has centered around baijiu.

Foreigners love to criticize baijiu and look down their big laowai noses at it. There are several gross misconceptions about the drink:

1. Bajiu is rice liquor. Why I see this written everywhere is beyond me. Perhaps it is just because it is Asia and obviously that means alcohol must be made from rice. The fact is, some baijiu is made from fermented sticky rice, but the VAST majority is made from sorghum. Most foreigners don’t know what sorghum is but it is grown in our own countries as well as a cereal grain – often used to make sweeteners. FYI, the US is the world’s largest producer of the stuff.

2. Baijiu tastes like paint thinner/jet fuel/diesel fuel/kerosene/gasoline…etc: I don’t know about you but I have never tasted these things so I really can’t compare their taste to that of baijiu. I think the problem is that foreigners go into baijiu expecting something akin to Japanese sake, never realizing sorghum liquor has a very different taste and scent and that baijiu is much more potent. The burn of high proof booze is enough to make anyone wince, especially if they weren’t expecting it.

3. Chinese always try to get the foreigner drunk: this is racist and assumes we laowai are special. In any group of friends drinking together it is commonplace to try to get one person there hammered. It makes like more fun. Being foreign has nothing to do with it.

Indeed we owe the peace of the modern world to baijiu and we should, therefore, be thankful. According to some accounts, then-Secretary of State Kissenger, while eating dinner in New York with Deng Xiaoping stated: “I think if we drink enough Maotai we can solve anything.” Deng Xiaoping replied, “Then when I go back to China, I shall increase production!” During this visit and during the Mao-Nixon summits, a good amount of Maotai was consumed. As one who loves Maotai, I can say a good time was definitely had by all!

A final note, if you really think you hate baijiu, try to stick to the higher end ones like Maotai or Taiwanese Kaoliang. These are potent but less intensely strong and alcohol fierce than lower priced but more throat searing types like Erguotou.

Drink up comrades, this is a topic to which we shall return!

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