A Monkey at McDonald’s

January 16, 2016

Happy New Year, albeit a bit late.  I must apologize for not writing the past two weeks, but my boss has been in town from the States and only left the other day.  While there were many things I have wanted to write about, it’s been a whirlwind with her here and there have been very few moments where I could sit down and write.  With her departure, things should return to normal and the pace of writing will pick up.  Just when I thought I couldn’t be surprised, as I was out getting my coffee at the local Starbucks and some milk and apples to throw into a giant bowl of granola and yogurt, I saw a man with his monkey outside of McDonald’s.

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Outside the McDonald’s by my apartment a man with his monkey

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Yup, it was a monkey

 

More to come tomorrow.  I promise.

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Another Day, Another Mall

December 27, 2015

I don’t want anyone to come away from my blog thinking all I do in China is walk around malls and sit in Starbucks drinking coffee, but if I didn’t spend any time doing this, I’d be missing out on a big part of what’s making modern China tick.  These luxury malls and the shoppers who frequent stores purveying these premium brands (yes, Starbucks is a premium brand here when the average drink costs RMB30 or a bit less than US$5) are the future of this country, especially when the leadership is hellbent on reorienting the economy away from manufacturing and infrastructure investment towards domestic consumption.  It’s places like the IFS and today’s mall, Taikoo Li (太古里), that represent the way going forward if China is to ever make that transition.

So yes, I am sitting here at a Starbucks in Taikoo Li, which was built by the Hong Kong developer, Swire Properties.  A good friend of mine in Hong Kong who lives in Taikoo Shing, a family-oriented neighborhood on Hong Kong Island, told me that anything with the Swire name is going to be a quality property and this mall is no exception.  Built around an ancient temple, Daci Temple,  where you can still partake in a traditional tea ceremony, Daci Temple (大慈寺), Taikoo Li is filled with your usual luxury shops including Gucci, Burberry, Max Mara, and Cartier, as well as the Chengdu flagship stores for Apple (which with its two stores in Chengdu has more here than in Shenzhen) and Muji and the first stores in China for brands like Victoria’s Secret and Hollister.  It’s quite the complex laid out as if it was a warren of traditional Chengdu alleys, similar to Xintiandi in Shanghai or even Sanlitun in Beijing, which is another Swire property.  And the place is hopping with people eating, drinking, taking pictures, and even doing some shopping.

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One of the main squares in Taikoo Li

The Christmas decorations are still out in full force and effect, but so are the after Christmas sales with some stores offering discounts up to 40 or 50% off.

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Entrance to Taikoo Li as coming from Chunxi Lu (春熙路) Metro stop

I blogged recently about the “real” China and malls like this one are the new “real” China.  What’s neat about Chengdu is that you can walk from your hotel to the Metro station in Tianfu Square and pass by little hole-in-the-wall or “fly” restaurants (苍蝇馆), wet markets, and people playing mahjong in the streets, so not all of the old “real” China is lost.  It’s perhaps this blending of old and new that Chengdu seems to still do so well, whereas a city like Shenzhen which did not exist 40 years ago is all new and will continue to be that way going forward.  I don’t know if Chengdu will be able to survive the onslaught of modernization and the power of the new “real” China, but at the moment it seems to have found some sort of equilibrium, however tenuous.

Having now been here for a few days, I still really like the city.  It’s hard for me to put my finger on it exactly, but this trip is my first time to the interior of China.  When you think of Chengdu, and Sichuan province in general, it’s the last extremely developed area of the country before heading off into the wilds of western Sichuan and Tibet.  Chengdu feels less like a frontier city and more like an experiment in modernizing the interior.  It’s no secret that the government has spent considerable time and money spreading growth from the eastern coast to the interior and Chengdu is something of a showcase city, much like Shenzhen was when it became China’s first Special Economic Zone.  Chengdu has not received so formal a designation, but walking around the city and taking it all in, it’s hard not to feel that there is something special about this place and it’s not just all the panda advertising.

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Panda ad outside of my hotel

Nor is it all of the amazingly spicy food that I have been eating, which I will write about another time.  Perhaps it’s what China could be, though without the pollution that has rendered today a rather smoggy day (though nothing like Beijing) or the fact that signs are still posted on the street reminding people not to smoke on buses and in the subway reminding parents not to let their kids go to the bathroom on the train. Chengdu, like most of China, is moving quickly to catch up to the rest of the world in terms of development, but it feels a little more comfortable taking it’s time doing so and making sure it’s being done the “Chengdu way”.

Of course I wonder how many Gucci or Louis Vuitton stores a city really needs and who actually fills all of these new office towers going up, including the top floors of the Evergrande Huazhi Office Tower, which sit there all lit up and empty at night.

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The vacant and well-lit floors of the Evergrande Tower on the left

Those are questions for another day, but one that China unfortunately will have to reckon with as it continues working through it’s breakneck growth and reorientation to a consumption-driven economy.  These malls and buildings are part of the infrastructure and property investment that has driven growth in many cities around the country and if towers like Evergrande remain empty, one has to wonder what the means for future development and growth in these cities.

On that note, I leave you to get back to the hotel and get ready for a night of sampling Chengdu’s many street snacks.

Aspirational

June 21, 2012

Week two has come to a close.  It’s a national holiday tomorrow to celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival (端午节).  The festival only became a national holiday in on the mainland in 2008, having not been celebrated since the 1940s.  Since it’s a three-day weekend, I am off to Shanghai to meet up with a friend and check out the changes that the city has undergone since I was last there in October 2008.  It should definitely be insightful to check out China’s largest and most outward looking city.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Western companies trying to crack the Chinese market.  As growth slows down in many companies’ home markets, China and it’s potentially massive market looks more and more attractive.  Some Western brands have been here for decades and for some companies, China is an important driver of revenue.  However, for every company that is profitable in China, there are many more that have not figured out the market.  The New York Times may have been reading my mind when the published an article yesterday about how more companies are moving executives to China.  It used to be that companies had a branch office or subsidiary in the region, but the top executives remained in the company’s home country.  The article describes how that is changing as companies move some of their top-level executives to the region with the belief that being on the ground may make it easier to crack the China market.

Having sent a few days in Beijing before arriving here in Linyi, I was able to see first-hand how foreign companies have tried to crack the China market.  Retailers that would not be out of place on any London High Street or in Soho abound in Beijing.  The stores are not overrun with only expats, but Chinese consumers who have embraced these brands.  There are also many Chinese brands that one can find in cities all around China, brands that one has never encountered in the U.S. such as Meters//bonwe (casual clothing), Li-Ning (athletic wear), Septwolves (clothing), SPR Coffee (like Starbucks), and Dicos (Chinese fast-food akin to McDonalds and KFC).  Will these brands move beyond their national borders to open flagships on Fifth Avenue in New York and Harajuku in Tokyo or will they remain exclusively Chinese brands.  Will foreign brands such as Uniqlo, GAP, H&M, Zara and Starbucks overrun the country because they are seen as more aspirational than local brands?  It’s this idea of aspirational buying that I find most interesting.

Take Apple.  The first Apple Store opened in Beijing in Sanlitun to coincide with the 2008 Olympics.  Walking by the Apple Store when I was there a few weeks ago, the store looked like an other Apple Store – thronging with people checking out and playing with the company’s latest offerings, taking advantage of the store’s free WiFi, and just hanging out.  Once again, it was mostly locals in the store even though it is located in one of the city’s expat havens.  

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Apple Store in Beijing, complete with live music

Apple fascinates me because it is a company that does very little advertising and relies almost exclusively on word of mouth and it’s iconic stores to generate traffic.  There is no Apple Store in Linyi, but the distinctive Apple logo is everywhere.  Every China Unicom and China Telecom shop has it prominently displayed in their windows indicating that they sell the iPhone.  There are also numerous licensed sellers of Apply goods that were not here two weeks ago.  One of the retailers is located in a mall by People’s Square.  I pass by the store whenever I head to the supermarket down there and it’s amazing to watch people playing with the iPhones, iPads, iPods, and Macs as if they were in a real Apple Store.  Apple has managed to penetrate a fifth-tier city like Linyi without even opening a store.  I can only imagine what it would be like if one day Apple does open a store here.  I must say that Apple goods are priced on par with what they cost in the States and it’s not like their products are cheap in the States, so you can imagine that for a lot of Chinese people, their items are still considered aspirational.  

So I go back to this idea of an aspirational good.  What makes an aspirational good and how does a foreign company go about positioning their goods in such a way?  Starbucks, which has huge growth plans for China and is a brand that I would consider aspirational since their drinks are so darn expensive here, even more so than in the States, is trying to prime the Chinese market beyond the first and second-tier cities where it was stores.  How?  Their VIA instant coffee and pre-packaged Frappuccino drinks are going to be their calling card in markets where they do not have a physical presence.  Chinese people do drink instant coffee and like sweet coffee flavored beverages, and it costs less to take up shelf space in a supermarket than it does to open a full-fledged Starbucks.  So Starbucks is planning on introducing these products to smaller cities and whet their appetite for a free-standing Starbucks sometime in the future.  It’s a smart idea and saves Starbucks a lot of logistical headaches in the process.  

Perhaps other Western brands can go the pop-up route much as they have done in new markets elsewhere in the world?  I must get ready for Shanghai, but I think another market that has proven hard to crack for foreign companies is in the services sector, which is something I will blog more about in the future.

For now I leave you with a picture I snapped on my walk home from the gym.

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As I have mentioned before, Linyi has some nice river walks akin to the Hudson River Park in New York.  However, right off one of the paths was this random toilet that someone had just left there.  It would be like finding a toilet bowl on the side of the path while going for a run on the West Side Highway in New York.  Imagine.  Till later . . . 

It’s Father’s Day back in the States and I already called to wish my dad a happy Father’s Day, but sadly I cannot be there with him to celebrate the day.  So I can do the second best thing and heed his wishes by posting some pictures of Linyi to give a sense of how sprawling this city is.

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Blue Sky in Linyi

That’s the view facing east from the bridge on Tongda Road (通达路) heading back from the gym last Friday.  The right side of the picture is the southern part of Linyi and heading in the direction of most of the commercial activity in the city.  The left side is north of the river and the new part of the city where the only real tenant is the city government and lots of new apartments.

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This view is facing west towards the university and where my hotel is.  As you can see, there are some cranes in the sky and lots of open space.  The university and bus station are the main anchors in this direction, but a lot of ground has been broken for new housing and in a few years there should also be some commercial development to support the population in this part of the city.  Right now though there is nothing to really talk to from the hotel except for the bus station across the street.

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This hole in the ground is on the north side of People’s Square (人民广成) and is part of a new shopping center that is called Osca.  I tried to make out the meaning of the name from the Chinese, but was unable to initially.  Right now there is not much in the way of development except for Linyi’s first Subway and a new Korean restaurant, but the mall is supposed to be the home of other foreign retailers from Hong Kong and further afield.  Of course there will also be a residential component to this development.  I guess this would be considered prime real estate in Linyi because People’s Square really is the center of town and on the weekends is filled with people. It’s also where you can find the city’s Pizza Hut, McDonald’s, Watsons, the soon-to-be-coming Tesco, and maybe the city’s first Starbucks (this last one is still wishful thinking at this point).  I think of People’s Square as downtown because there are also lots of office towers in the area.

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And the Osca mystery is solved – the complex is named after the Oscars, the awards ceremony in the States.  A bit random, but no more random than a local residential development named Chianti Mansion, like the wine.  Though I did not know the Oscars were such a part of the local culture.  But the Chinese word is Aosika (奥斯卡), so it’s not that far off in its Romanized form.  One other thing that I have been thinking about lately are the artist’s renderings of all of the new construction taking place.  That image above is the completed version of the previous picture.  The artist’s renderings always look so opulent and full of life with grand visions of wealth, happiness, and prosperity.  I know these renderings are supposed to be somewhat aspirational, but the Chinese renderings are off the charts in their optimism for the future.  All of the housing developments look absolutely amazing, to the point where I am staring at the dirt field in front of me and wondering how the developers plan to go from nothing to the most amazing and buzzy mixed-use development complex ever.  I saw a lot of this on the bus ride to Qufu in towns much smaller than Linyi, including Feixian, Sishui, and Pingyi.

So those are some recent pictures of Linyi.  I wish I had taken a picture of dinner tonight while we’re on the subject of pictures.  Lu and I went for Sichuan hot pot (火锅) and it was amazing.  I have not had good hot pot since I left GZ many years ago.  This time we went to Little Swan instead of Little Sheep, our GZ go-to.  Little Swan (小天鹅) is a Chongqing-based chain.  Yes, Chongqing is the same city where Bo Xilai, the disgraced party official was mayor.  This meal was perfection – spicy broth cooking a variety of meat and vegetables. as well as noodles and rice cakes.  I don’t think a picture would have done it justice.  I came back to the hotel and looked up the name of the chain and of course Sequoia Capital, a U.S. private equity firm has taken a stake in the company.  I guess the good news is that perhaps it’s only a matter of time until we get one in New York.  There is already a Little Sheep (小肥羊) in Flushing, Queens, so why not a Little Swan somewhere in Manhattan?

On that note, I leave you all to gear up for week two of class.  Happy Father’s Day, dad.  Until next time . . .

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Slumbering No Longer

June 8, 2012

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After sleeping for nearly 12 hours last night, my fingers are crossed that I may have kicked the jet lag in one night. Usually I end up going to sleep and waking up at the crack of dawn, but perhaps the two glasses of wine and (very strong) vodka martini were the secret. Those twelve hours of sleep were without my usual jet lag kicker – an Ambien to help prolong the sleep cycle. I’m now sitting in a cafe in the 798 Space, an area of old warehouses that has been turned into a mini-neighborhood of galleries, exhibitions, cafes, and shops. I’ve seen all of the must-see sights of Beijing on previous trips and 798 has always been on my list of things to see, so I’m glad I made the trip out here today. There are some pictures below from 798.

Last night, I had dinner in Sanlitun (三里屯), which is one of the many mixed-use developments to have risen in Beijing in recent years. It’s home to China’s first Apple Store, opened to coincide with the Beijing Olympics in 2008. The area also has many bars, restaurants, and shops including Uniqlo, Nike, and Starbucks. The is a “bar street” just north of the shops filled with all sorts of watering holes. I went to a restaurant called Mosto in a complex called Nali Patio (那里花园), which resembled a large plaza with outdoor seating and restaurants spilling onto terraces on the upper floors. The complex had a definite Moorish feeling to it with the white stucco and arches. Below you can see some pictures from Sanlitun. Mosto has been heralded as one of the best newcomers to the Beijing restaurant scene, at least as lauded by Time Out Beijing and other English publications. The restaurant could have been situated anywhere with it’s mix of foreigners and middle-upper class Chinese customers. (Okay, Taylor Swift’s “Back to December” is now playing in this cafe, which also means I know this song). Actually, whether it’s Taylor Swift or Mosto, I am always reminded about how powerful globalization is when I come back to China. Sitting in the U.S. and listening to politicians rail against globalization and foreign influences, it’s nice to see other parts of the world still embracing foreign culture, and in turn this softer form of globalization that gets buried in the political rhetoric of free trade, immigration, and the economy. But I digress. Dinner was good, but I just looked around, much as I always do in China and marveled. Not for the pace of development or the ostentatious displays of money, but for the development of a seemingly robust society in spite of the government’s best efforts to control thoughts and speech. I saw kids in Starbucks reading art books and fashion magazines. 798 is filled with galleries of Chinese art curated by Chinese curators. Creative juices are flowing and people are learning about things outside
of the well-policed government channels. Combined with the rising discontent over real and perceived inequalities and injustice in Chinese society, it makes for a potent combination.

I met a friend who is an American lawyer here (and indirectly contributed to my restful sleep by taking me out for drinks) and we were talking about China’s future. In the middle of my 30 plus hours of being awake, we stumbled on to the topic of China’s future. Having been here two and a half years, he said he noticed a change for the worse and it was part of his reason for wanting to return to the States. China is not going to have a full-blown revolution in the mold of the Arab Spring, but there are so many strains of discontent evident in society. That discontent combined with greater freedoms to travel, think, and create means that something is going to have to give. As the type of life that exists in Beijing and Shanghai spreads to third, fourth, and fifth tier cities in various forms, the pressure for change is going to grow. Throw a fraying social contract of economic growth in exchange for passivity and the pressure for change becomes greater. I’m not going to speculate on what that change will look like. It could be on a small scale writ large like the recent village elections in Wukan or it could be peaceful marches in dozens of cities like the Occupy Wall Street or Moscow demonstrations. The challenge for the latter to happen is coordinating online or via mobile phone when he government’s censors work overtime to prevent such action.

Whatever it may be, China is moving towards something different. The question is what.

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Un-China-Like

September 22, 2010

Back in Qingdao, which only took three and a half hours this time around since today was a holiday.  It’s mid-Autumn festival (中秋节) and there was no traffic on the road and no one on the bus.  It was one of the first times in China where I was practically alone.  There were four people on the bus, including me.    When a bus begins its trip and approaches its final destination, the driver tends to make stops at random points along the highway to pick people up and drop them off, sometimes it’s just a box or two with no people attached.

All of these things happened on today’s trip, so by the time we arrived at the Sifang (四方) bus station, I was truly alone on the bus.  Aside from dinner tonight at a great, what else, a Sichuan restaurant, I was able to avoid the mass chaos that seems to typify most Chinese urban experiences.  I arrived at my hotel where I stayed last weekend and was greeted by Hattie, whose friend thinks I am so handsome.  She gave me some moon cakes and fresh fruit as a gift for the mid-Autumn festival and escorted me to my room, which only made me feel slightly uncomfortable.

After dinner this evening, I decided to tap into my Jersey roots and walk two malls that are a short distance from my hotel and close to the Olympic sailing center along the water.  I visited Hisense Plaza (海信广成), which is home to really high-end brands like Gucci and Hermes, and Marine City (百丽广成), which houses a Uniqlo, Zara, H&M, Muji, Dairy Queen, Sephora, and a Watsons (a Duane Reade-esque drugstore based from Hong Kong).  It felt a little like home and was very quiet, which was fine by me, but so unlike the China I have come to know and love.  I know it’s a holiday, but one thing I have learned during my time spent here is that Chinese people use any holiday as another excuse to go shopping.  The busiest days of the year at the supermarket tend to be holidays, which I learned the hard way with hour-long queues at the registers and throngs of people making even the quickest of shopping trips nearly impossible to complete.  But today was one of those days where the mass of humanity that is China’s 1.3 billion people did not cross my path, which so rarely happens and which is why I do not feel guilty for indulging in it.  Perpetuating that feeling may have something to do with Qingdao, which is home to only eight million people, most of whom live outside of the central business district where I am staying.  But I am not going to be doing much more sightseeing since I did most of it last weekend and I must prepare my final exam and review materials for my students.  I am going to be parked in Starbucks most of the day tomorrow, which means you can expect a blog post courtesy of Starbucks’ free wireless.

The Handsome Factor

September 20, 2010

Much has been made about the joys of crossing the countryside by train, but very few people seem to extol the virtues of taking a bus across a new country.  I was told by many people here to avoid taking the train the Qingdao because only “K” trains run between Linyi and Qingdao, which means that they are the lowest level of train and usually not as nice as the high-speed and newer “C” and “D” trains.  They also do not run as frequently between the two cities as the buses do, as many as two per hour.  So I opted for the bus.  It was pretty convenient.  The bus station here in Linyi is about five minutes by taxi and it’s relatively new and clean.  One of the things I have noticed about this city is that people are always sweeping, whether it’s the streets or the floors of the bus station.  Yet, I am hard-pressed to find hand soap in most of the public bathrooms.  But I digress.  The bus was extremely fast due to the massive road building that the Chinese government has undertaken over the past decade or so.  We took expressways most of the way from Linyi to Qingdao, which are lightly traveled because of the tolls.  Chinese drivers have been slow to taking to paid roads when the local roads are free, but it means that it’s easy to make good time.  The only traffic jam I encountered was when we arrived at the outskirts of Qingdao and the road that travels the perimeter of the bay was under massive construction because a bridge is being erected that cuts straight across the bay and will reduce travel times from points south heading into Qingdao.  But the bus was great because it felt like a more intimate way to see the countryside in a way that does not feel possible from a train.  The vegetation reminded me of the sides of 95 or the Garden State Parkway, which makes sense given that Shandong province is  roughly on the same line of latitude as the mid-Atlantic states.

As I raved in my last post, Qingdao was awesome.  Such a relaxing and pleasant place to spend a few days.  It also highlighted for me some of the contrasts between Linyi and Qingdao.  In China, there seems to be cities that are destinations and others that you return to or never leave.  Qingdao is definitely a city that people in Shandong province “trade up” to versus Linyi where people either are born here and never leave or return here after spending time elsewhere because this is where your family is.  I have asked a random cross-section of people here, my students excluded, if they are from Linyi and everyone I have spoken with has said yes.  Two days in Qingdao and I met people from Anhui province, Linyi, and other parts of Shandong province.  Guangzhou was the other end of the scale, a destination that you don’t just spend a period of time in, but a place that you may move your entire family to make a better life for everyone.  Beijing and Shanghai also fit into that category.  The point of this discussion is that people have asked me how a city of 10 million people (Linyi) that is the logistics center for all of northern China can seem so provincial.  I think part of it is that Linyi is not a destination city.  You live here because you are from here, but you do not move here and you do not bring your ideas and culture from other parts of China.  As a result, the city feels kind of stuck in its ways, but it’s fine for the residents because they can get everything they need here.  However, the wealthy young people driving around in Mercedes and BMWs will hop a flight to go to Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou if they want nightlife and the other trappings of destination cities.  An interesting phenomenon, but perfectly logical if you think about it.

So some much promised pictures of Qingdao

Former German Governor's residence, now the 青岛迎宾管 (Qingdao Ying Bingguan)

View of the bay from the old part of town

Catholic Church built by the Germans in 1934

The Tsingtao beer billboard outside the brewery

Michael and I enjoying our free beer at the brewery

Qindgao at night, down by the Olympic sailing complex

Just a sampling of the sites of Qingdao.  I am planning to head back there on Wednesday because I have three days off for mid-Autumn festival.  I’ll use the time to park myself in Starbucks, reminiscent of my days in GZ, and prepare my final exam and review materials for my students.  Be prepared for some more Starbucks-inspired blog entries from Qingdao later on this week.

At the hotel we stayed at in Qingdao, Hattie, the general manager, who happened to be from Linyi, remarked that her friend thought I was very handsome.  When we checked out, she proceeded to thrust her friend into my line of sight and introduced her as the one who thought I was handsome.  Needless to say, it was an awkward situation for all.  But the view that I am handsome ensured that I received personal attention when booking my room for this coming Wednesday and it also resulted in Michael and I being escorted from the hotel to a taxi to take us on our way.  While I consider myself fortunate that I’m decent looking enough to be considered handsome here in China, I find that this ‘handsome factor” goes a long way in making people treat you better.  I hear that my students also think I am “handsome and strong”, which I think gives me a little leeway and makes my students more apt to pay attention to what I am saying.  At this point, I will take whatever advantage I can get.  But the “handsome factor” can also be helpful when my Chinese fails me or my attempts to be extremely nice in English are not coming across as I want them to.  When that factor kicks in, it makes getting things done here just a little bit easier.