From October 2009

Chinese Business Etiquette Book

Chinese Business Etiquette Book - Cover

Whilst browsing a pile of stray Chinese books at work the other day I came across this gem of a title: “Etiquette: Your Etiquette is Worthy of Million Dollars” (their chinglish, not mine!). With such an enticing front cover I couldn’t help but peek inside (sorry about the poor scans) –

Chinese Business Etiquette Book - Business Cards

How to present and accept a business card: notice the arrows indicate where you should be looking! In general people in Asia take the giving and receiving of business cards very seriously. The actually book contained 9 steps in total. How these people ever get any actual work done I don’t know. Fake smiles optional.

Chinese Business Etiquette Book - Hug Dont's

How not to hug a member of the opposite sex: priceless expressions (and severely ugly dress). As an Englishman my advice would be to avoid all hugging full stop.

Chinese Business Etiquette Book - Hug Do's

The proper way to hug (your tango partner?): in the most exaggerated way possible. Do people really need a book to learn this?

More after the break…

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Wuzhen – Ancient Canal Town

My third port of call on my journey around Zhejian province was the ancient water town of Wuzhen. Located a little off the usual tourist trail Wuzhen is famed for its Venice-like canals, ancient stone bridges, wooden buildings, and delicate carvings. It’s said to be over 1000 years old and while its roots may lie in trade and agriculture the town is almost completely focused on tourism today. China and tourism usually equates to ultra-tacky souvenir stands and bus loads of noisy tour parties but in stark contrast this was surprisingly tasteful with the restoration not being over-done and enough room for the crowds to mingle in relative tranquility.

I arrived in the afternoon from Suzhou after one of the most hair-raising bus rides I have ever experienced in China whereupon we were unceremoniously dumped in the middle of what seemed like nowhere. A short walk and taxi ride later we arrived at the entrance-proper of the town. Here you checked into a guest house and paid the entrance fee (80 RMB) which I imagine is what partly keeps the masses out. A room in one of the traditional houses cost 450 RMB per night (more if you want one overlooking the water) which is pretty good value for what you get and included an interesting take on the traditional English breakfast (albeit the portion seemed to be sized for a midget).

If the town is picturesque by day then at night it really shines with subtle lighting accentuating the old wooden buildings and calm waterways. Walking along the 2km+ of canals is a wonderful experience on it own with endless buildings and courtyards to explores. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of the food which was over-priced and nothing to write home about. This is probably due to the town being controlled by a single organisation.

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Wuzhen Canal

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Wood Carvings

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Wuzhen Night

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Over the Bridge

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Making Rice Krispies

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Canal Tower

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Open Air Theatre

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Lion Head Knocker

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Cloth Dying

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Around the town you could see various examples of traditional crafts being demonstrated by local people such as basket making, wood carving and silk dying. The above shot shows cylindrical vats of a special black sauce being brewed – it looked a lot like Marmite but with a totally different taste.

Of all the places I visited on my previous trip Wuzhen was definitely the best. Highly recommended for those seeking a taste of old China in an accessible location not far from Shanghai.

Note: I wrote more about silk production in Wuzhen in a later post along with a video detailing the process.

Suzhou – Master of Gardens

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The second stop on my travels during the mid-autumn festival was Suzhou. The ancient city is renowned for its beautiful stone bridges, pagodas, and meticulously designed gardens. Because the trains from Shanghai were so packed the earliest we could get there was mid-afternoon by which time a lot of the gardens were beginning to close (my friend even tried to bribe a guard to get in one but he wasn’t having any of it!). Instead we contented ourselves with wandering around the tree-lined streets in search of somewhere nice to eat.

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After some delicious hot-pot the night before we spent the morning exploring the Master of the Nets Garden (top) and Blue Wave Pavilion (above and below). The former is considered among the finest gardens in China and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, having first been constructed more than 800 years ago. Inspired by the simple and solitary life of a Chinese fisherman it is apparently regarded among garden connoisseurs for its mastering the techniques of “relative dimension, contrast, foil, sequence and depth, and borrowed scenery”.

Tranquil Garden Walkway

The Blue Wave Pavilion is the oldest garden in Suzhou dating back to 1044 CE (Song Dynasty). Surrounded by a small lake it’s rather overgrown but retains a distinct beauty with its bamboo groves and a man-made hill upon which sits the pavilion after which the garden is named. You can well imagine scholars and government officials relaxing here sipping green tea and discussing the affairs of the time (probably with a few concubines!). Even to my untrained eyes the skill behind the design of these gardens was clear.

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Whilst wandering around a friend remarked “Why doesn’t China know how to make such beautiful places anymore?” and indeed you have to wonder what on earth Mao was thinking when he kicked off the Cultural Revolution which led to the destruction of much of China’s heritage including the skills and thinking which lay behind them. Today China seems to yearn for this idyllic image of the past but has yet to learn how it can be interpreted in the modern world.

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Frankly once you’ve seen a couple of these gardens they all begin to look the same. One day will probably be enough for most travelers to get a satisfactory taste of Suzhou. The old lady above has clearly stayed too long!

Observing the Great Firewall

I recently compiled a list of popular English language sites which are currently blocked, or have been at some point in the past, in China (you can find the most current version on whatblocked.com):

whatblocked.com table
Red = blocked, Greed = available, Yellow = unstable

What struck me is how this has changed over the past few years; before mainstream news organisations (e.g. BBC) and various activist groups were the clear targets but today this has dramatically shifted towards social media (e.g. Twitter) and services which allow the free sharing of content outside China’s digital borders (e.g. YouTube). Within China clones of sites like Facebook (e.g. RenRen) have been allowed to flourish under the direct control of the government who are free to monitor and censor at will.

After the 60th anniversary celebrations at the beginning of the month commentators were expecting the government to ease the blocks but in fact the situation has actually gotten much worse with many more sites being block without warning. There are even proposals being floated to only allow content to be posted by accounts liked to a users national ID.

From all this I think we can infer a few things:

  • The Chinese government really doesn’t like *the people* expressing themselves without any means of control or identification (obviously)
  • Freeing the mainstream media allows them to avoid the old accusations of media censorship so the issue fades from the spotlight (if anyone questions this they can just say that bloggers aren’t reputable and need controlling etc.)
  • If your web app contains any kind of social or crowd-sourced component forget about trying to launch in China (unless you’re prepared to do the government’s bidding – Google is having a rough ride here trying to balance on the wall)
  • Blocking foreign sites may be bad for foreign companies but is good for the local competition who take over and fill the gaps
  • The Chinese government clearly has the technology to enforce these policies (probably provided by western companies) and see no reason not to use it – bypassing restrictions will be a constant cat-and-mouse game

In summary this was succinctly put by@illuminantceo who tweeted  “China no longer has internet. It has LAN”. It’s a pretty sorry state of affairs to be experiencing in 2009 after the amazing Beijing 2008 Olympics which were supposed to a key moment for China to turn the corner towards freedom. Sadly it looks like we’re a long way from seeing a truly open China.

The GFW actually creates more problems than it is intended to solve. It creates more anger and dissent. It creates more obstacles to trade and discussion of ideas, yet at the same time increases and furthers more bad-mouthing of China. It makes the government look stupid, scared, paranoid and childish as well as being totalitarian. It does nothing to encourage trade and business, if anything it scares investors, expats, foreign experts and others away. [from Lost Laowai discussion]

Ultimately China will suffer from this restrictive approach which stifles creativity and innovation which is exactly what Chinese needs in order to develop from a follower into a world leader. The inconvenience alone makes me seriously consider my future here, let alone the issue of human rights.

People Mountain, People Sea

There’s an old saying in China “People Mountain, People Sea” (人山人海 – ren shan ren hai) and if you’ve been in China for any period of time you’ll know exactly what this means. I had the (dis) pleasure of experiencing this up-close and personal during the recent mid-autumn national holidays when I visited a number of cities and towns around Shanghai.

travelling in China - Chengdu, China
Photo by Szymon Kochański

In an absurd act of communist planning all Chinese have to take holiday at exactly the same time each year during two main national holidays (and a couple of smaller ones). This means that just about every man, woman and child descend on each and every tourist hot spot in the country to enjoy the little free time they get each year. Yours truly included.


Photo by Tom Booth

Trying to get a bus/train/flight at this time of year is difficult and expensive due to the massive demand. Annoyingly China doesn’t have a joined up rail system yet meaning that booking tickets is usually only possible from the train station you want to depart from. Invariably this equates to long queues full of frustrated passengers with mountains of luggage. In this situation with limited supply and high demand tensions get high and on occasion scuffles break out.

People Mountain, People Sea

The above picture shows the waiting area for the CRH train in Shanghai – I’m told this was a good day. All the seats were sold out on the train so I had to stand but luckily it was only a 1 hour trip. A friend once traveled 19 hours from Beijing to Guangzhou (over 1400 miles) on a train that was so packed she couldn’t even sit on the floor properly. I really don’t know how she (or anyone else) manage to survive conditions like this. I’d rather walk!

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Photo by SpAvAAi

Some interesting statistics: if you count each Chinese province as a country and rank them among the other most populous countries in the world China contains 23 of the top 70 most populous places in the world. Approximately 60 million Chinese are on the move at any given time during the national holidays. When considering this you start to see the one child policy in another light.

The main lesson I’ve learnt from all this is to avoid travelling to popular areas during the holidays in China. If you can’t avoid it then be prepared to get up early in the mornings to avoid the crowds.

Essential iPhone Apps for China Expats

Without a doubt the iPhone is the most useful electronic product I own. Aside from its plethora of inbuilt functions the ability to download and install apps basically gives you unlimited scope for what you can do with it and with over 85,000 you’re spoilt for choice (even if 70% of them are rubbish). Living as an expat in China presents its own unique challenges but as the advert says “there’s an app for that”. Below is a list of what I consider my essential apps for helping with everyday life in China:

(N.b. If you brought your iPhone abroad you’ll probably need to unlock it first to accept a foreign SIM card – PwnageTool usually does the trick but be sure to back things up first).

Qingwen Mandarin Dictionary

Qingwen iPhone Dictionary App

Language is often the biggest hurdle for China expats and finding the right words can be a frustrating experience. There are many English <-> Chinese dictionaries available for the iPhone but the one I like the most is Qingwen. It allows you to quickly search for words in either English or Pinyin and then gives you the option to listen to it and create word lists (e.g. I have a word list containing all my favourite foods). I often find this comes in handy at the supermarket – when I can’t find something I just look it up here then flash it in front of a staff member.

Lonely Planet Mandarin Phrasebook

Lonely Planet Mandarin Phrase Book iPhone App

If you want to be a little more conversational than just single words then the Lonely Planet Mandarin Phrasebook has a tonne of common everyday phrases you can use to impress the locals (that is if you can manage to pronounce them correctly). Luckily each phrase comes with an audio clip but you’ll probably want to plug in your headphones to pick it up clearly. This app has saved my life numerous times, the only problem is understanding what the other person is saying back to you (until someone invents a voice translation app which works)!

Skype

Skype iPhone App

Skype is something I couldn’t live without in China for cheaply keeping in touch with friends and family back home. The iPhone version allows you to make calls directly from you phone (when you have a wifi connection) but what I love most about it is the ability to send SMS messages abroad for a fraction of the price you’d normally pay for an international SMS (without wifi connection). For the best audio quality you’ll need a newer model iPhone 3GS.

XE Currency & Notes

XE Currency & Notes iPhone Apps

Two small apps also worth your attention are XE Currency and the inbuilt Notes apps. As you might imagine the first is great for doing quick currency conversions. There are many similar apps like this but I like this one because you can do multiple conversions at the same time. I find the Notes app useful for storing things like bus numbers (I have a terrible memory) which is essential since things like bus stop signs are only ever shown in Chinese (no pinyin). A good alternative to this is Evernote which can wirelessly sync your note across multiple devices.

Google Maps

Google Maps iPhone App

Google Maps also comes inbuilt so you don’t have to download it separately. What most people don’t realise is that most major cities in China now have pretty good maps which you can search using pinyin. With inbuilt cell tower triangulation/GPS I find it useful for finding my way about and making sure taxi drivers aren’t giving me the run-around. What’s even better is that you can get it to give you driving or walking directions (some areas even have bus routes).

What are the apps you find most useful in China or as an expat?

Tube Map Evolution: 2009 Edition

So it looks like someone at TfL was listening last year when I posted my critique of the 2008 version of the London Underground Tube Map which had become horribly cluttered and complex. Last month they issued a new version of the map which immediately sparked controversy because the River Thames had been removed along with many other changes designed to simplify the map which made the original so effective. Now that the outcry has died down I thought I’d take an objective look at the changes…

Let’s recap – the clean and simple 2004 version (click for larger version):

London Underground Tube Map 2004

The horribly complex and cluttered 2008 version:

London Underground Tube Map 2008

Leading to the new 2009 version:

London Underground Tube Map 2009

What a breath of fresh air – at a glance you’d think they’d simply gone back to the 2004 version but aside from the obvious removal of the river and fare zones there are some more subtle omissions:

  • walking distances
  • blue/orange info boxes
  • limited-time junctions (e.g. Kennington, Woodford)
  • “check before you travel” symbols

In keeping with the tidy-up the DLR and Overground lines are now better integrated into the rest of the system and many junctions have been simplified. The wheelchair accessibility symbols are still excessive (but probably required by law).

In general I like this new design a lot; it solves most of my gripes with the 2008 version and brings back a certain artful elegance to the classic design. There is only one problem I have with this version: the lack of the River Thames. This was an iconic part of the map which was also a useful geographical indicator to help you know which side you were on (North/South). Apparently Major Boris Johnson feels the same way and has promised it’ll be reinstated so it’s not all bad news.

Despite its drawbacks the London Underground is the circulatory systems that supplies the lifeblood to the city so it’s no wonder that people are passionate about how we look at and navigate through it. Within the perspective of its evolution it seems that a step backward was needed to move things forward; “back to basics” if you like. It will be interesting to see how this continues to develop but TfL definitely deserves a small pat on the back for taking this brave step.

Seoul Streets: Neon Fantasy

Myeongdong Night

Walking along the streets of Seoul can sometimes feel a little overwhelming, such is the visual noise generated by a million neon signs all screaming for your attention. Combined with the massive hordes of crowds at certain hours and it can be quite a disorienting, if not an exciting experience all the same.

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There’s something about neon lights which never cease to allure my eyes and from my travels I’ve found three main places where they shine brightest in Seoul: Gangnam, Sincheon (above) and Myeongdong (below). Cheonggyecheon stream is also beautifully lit up at night but with a more relaxed romantic atmosphere.

Main Street Myeongdong

Myeongdong is mainly full of trendy clothes shops for young people while Sincheon is more focused on bars and restaurants (and dodgy looking motels). Gangnam is a business area lined with shining office buildings (and cool Media Poles). If you only have time to visit one, go to Myeongdong – it’s by far the most interesting and a fascinating area to people watch (if you know any other good spots please leave a comment).

UNIQLO coex

UNIQLO (from Japan) seem to have new stores appearing all over the place – one just opened near me in Coastal City and for a foreign label they’re quite reasonably priced. The shot above was taken outside the COEX mall in Jamsil.

Sincheon

In some parts of Seoul the mayor is apparently trying to clean up the streets by curbing the lights and baring roadside vendors. Urban gentrification is something I abhor; the sights and smells are what give an area its nature and by removing them you remove the very heart of their existence.

Bongeun-sa Temple

If the lights get a bit much for you there still exist a few sanctuaries of calm and tranquility within the megalopolisBongeun-sa temple exists in sort of temporal warp between ancient and modern Korea, nestling between countless high-rise offices and shops. It’s amazing its managed to survive the onslaught of construction and is the perfect oasis to take a moment to relax and reflect on a warm evening.

Candles in Bongeun-sa Temple

Whist sitting here listening to the chanting of the monks I thought back over previous trips to Korea – it was my fourth time in South Korea and whilst I doubt I’ll be returning again for a while my memories are the best souvenir with my blog a visual reminder of the great experiences and wonderful places visited. A strangely fitting ending to the best episode yet.

The Art of Living Comfortably

When I moved to China from London I took a large pay cut and left the majority of my worldly possessions behind me. It was of course my own decision but a year later I’m not missing any of it. Surprise surprise, wealth and material possessions make little or no impact on your happiness. This got me thinking about the way most of us live our lives, and in particular after watching the “Story of Stuff” which tells provides some chilling truths about the underside of our production and consumption patterns.

China Pollution

You might be surprised to learn that 99% of what we produce every day is thrown out within 6 months where it usually ends up in landfill, and in the past three decades, one-third of the planet’s natural resources base have been consumed. With China and India rapidly developing, turning new generations into mass consumers it’s clear that our current way of life is unsustainable.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in Shenzhen where people from around China come to get rich and spend their new found wealth on luxury clothes, cars and all manner of vice in sparkling high-end shopping malls bigger than it’s comfortable to imagine. While to get rich may be glorious for those whose parents grew up in very different circumstances it’s also destroying the world at an alarming rate and creating lifestyles which are going to be difficult to change. Most of the blame for this can be placed squarely on the doorstop of the US whose greed is unsurpassed and sadly still the envy of many.

Chinese Protest
"We don't like pollution, we need to survive"

For me I feel that a middle route is needed whereby we make efficient use of the resources we have left while developing new safe/renewable  technologies to drive the future and to clean up the mess previous generations have left. This is going to require more modest lifestyles and a mind-shift in the way we behave and consume which is going to be hard for some to swallow but change doesn’t have to reduce quality of life. In fact I think quite the opposite could be true if we all made some simple choices:

  • Buy less but buy good quality which will last longer and hence reduce the amount of waste produced. Buying cheap only perpetuates the cycle of replacement and poor conditions for factory workers.
  • Recycle as much as you can and remember that your junk is another person’s treasure (i.e. you can sell or give stuff away).
  • If you live in a city walk or take public transport. You’ll be getting fit while saving money and the environment.
  • Wherever possible  buy locally grown food and cook at home. It’s healthier and often cheaper than eating out or buying a ready meal.
  • Work from home where possible. It reduces the pressure on public services, increases productivity and personal happiness.
  • When purchasing electronics consider its energy efficiency, potential to be upgraded (as opposed to replaced) and recyclability.
  • Avoid the temptations of special offers which only encourage more consumption and in reality save you little.

Whilst this thinking isn’t particularly revolutionary I don’t think we’re very good at articulating it so I’m going to coin a new word for this type of lifestyle: Comfotalism; defined as the middle path between consumerism, minimalism and environmentalism. This boils down to basically living a life more in balance with our natural environment without the need for composting toilets or any other hairy eco-warrior behavior! Free of the need to always buy bigger and better I truly believe people would be happier and less stressed – after all, for what other reason are you currently working yourself to death?

How would you fix the environment?

Seoul Streets: Happy Feet

Happy Feet

Each time I go travelling my feet clock up a fair number of miles which for the most part I can’t complain about (even if they do).

Seoul Metro

Seoul is way too big to traverse entirely by foot but luckily has an extensive MRT system which I consider to be one of the best in the world with passengers who are mostly polite and courteous (save for the one time a girl tried to kill me). If only the same could be said for the London underground

Stacked Parking System

Parking space in Seoul is pretty restricted so clever contraptions like these are not uncommon. The cars which go inside them are tiny and identical – I think it might be part of a car sharing scheme(?). I’m not quite sure how one operates it as it looks like it could be quite dangerous in the wrong hands!

Samsung Building

Whilst your first impression of Korean architecture may be that it’s quite bland and uniform in many areas there are good examples of quite the opposite. Above is an office complex owned by Samsung in Gangnam – pretty neat I’d say.

What’s your preferred mode of transport?