Saturday, July 21, 2007

Live in China Forever?

I have been asked on many occasions "So, are you going to live in China forever or are you going to come back to the UK?"

I don't believe it's an either or, but there certainly is an answer which is "I'm not going to live in China forever"

"Why?", I can hear both of my loyal readers ask. Well, it's not the people, the politics, the traffic, the noise, the spitting, the lack of queuing, etc., etc.

It's this.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Curse of the Spam Filter?

So, is it me, or is it Spam Filtering?

Being a decent (ahem) individual, I came across three instances recently where I saw that people had issues with their websites and contacted them: - they had a sponsored link on a Google page for a product I was interested in, but the link didn't actually work. I emailed them out of kindness (oh alright and a 'completer finisher' personality trait) and they fixed the link.
- hand written greeting card company. My complaint was that whilst in China I got a message from their card processor Netbanx saying that I couldn't pay because of the country I was located in. Trying from Singapore met the same result so I emailed them to suggest that expats might actually find that their service was quite useful so they might want to change card processors. Currently their site says they're 'undergoing site maintenance for several weeks' so they may have bigger fish to try. - This is a service that I actually pay to subscribe to - every time I go in, it popped up a 'Go to Vault China' link which didn't work. I emailed them. They fixed it.

So, it is me? Is it spam filtering? Is it the death of common courtesy? In all three cases there was a business benefit to them following up on my email (and in one case I am a real, live paying customer) and yet no-one thought to flash me a 'Thanks for your email'. For shame.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

It's Getting Warm

Ah, Hangzhou in the summer. These lazy, hazy summer days.

They certainly can be hazy but you need to understand they're not lazy because you're not doing anything, just that you'd have a heart attack and die if you tried to move at a faster pace.

The car, admittedly parked in the full sun, estimated the outside temperature to be 45 degrees Celcius this afternoon (113 F to save, er, older English people from looking it up) although I'm certain the driver's seat was hotter than that.

Right now reckons it's 34 (feels like 39) whereas tomorrow is going to be an even sunnier 37 (feels like 43 - gotta love that humidity).

Don't you wish you were in Hangzhou right now?

Saturday, July 14, 2007

DIY Diary

I used to own a Page-a-day diary which came preprinted with a whole year's worth of pages already for filling in appointments and stuff. It was a bit bulky but did the job of keeping track of future appointments and allowing me to plan.

One thing I've noticed in China is that a lot of people use books that look like diaries but, in practice, only have a space at the top for you to write the date in.

On the current day, that's easy enough. I could simply write '2007/07/14' at the top and away I go. But what would I do with a request for a meeting in a month's time. Choices are obviously, 1) Fill in all the dates for the next month in advance or 2) Not record the meeting in the diary at all.

If it was me, I'd go with option 1) (actually I'd go with option '0' which is to buy a preprinted diary) but I'd want to make sure that I didn't forget my important appointment but my guess is that many government officials go with option 2).

One of the joys of Chinese Business Life is that of emergency appointments. My explanation for this is that, thanks to these diaries, appointments simply don't exist until they're written into the diary but, as people only work on the current and the following day, that appointments only come into being a maximum of 24 hours before they take place.

Recently the new head of our local government zone requested a meeting with us, specifically at 2pm on the following day, and would like, after his reception, a presentation - in Chinese - of our company. We don't actually have that as all our clients happen to be overseas so a full day's productivity is magically lost from a variety of management and admin staff preparing for this.

And now, just as I'm writing about American Cowboys I get a message saying could I please attend a meeting on Monday with some visitors from overseas who are coming to the our local government zone. A reply of 'I'm actually quite busy, can you please tell me who the visitors are so I can decide' was met with 'actually we don't know who they are'. My guess is this would have been written down some time ago if only it wasn't for the DIY diaries. Sigh.

Friday, July 13, 2007


So, you want to send a small amount of money to someone in the Philippines who needs the cash immediately and has no bank account. What do you do? Your mind may turn to Western Union - self-advertised as "a fast, reliable and convenient money transfer".

You determine that the recipient has a convenient Western Union location to receive the money and go online to (because the UK is where your credit card was issued) - reassured by the statement of that you can "send money overseas in minutes*".

You are offered a choice of currencies so enter 3000 PHP (about 30 GBP) and are told "Maximum amount is 500 GBP" - some fine coding there. Enter 30 GBP. The first attempt gets rejected with a message stating "There is a problem".
You try again with another card and get "In order to provide final approval for your transaction, we need additional information". You're curoius now - it's 30 GBP so can't have fallen foul of any "money laundering" processes (the transaction fee is 12 GBP so it's unlikely any money launderers would break their payments up into such small payments unless they own a lot of Western Union shares). There's a hotline number but it's in Ireland and it's closed! The person in the Philippines is already waiting to collect the money so what do you do.

You search for another number of the site and find the US 24 hour hotline. Success. You ring and listen to a long message telling you that despite it being an 800 number it's not free (wondering all that time if you're already paying to listen to the message) before you arrive in Automated Response Hell.

  • Press 1 to do something unrelated
  • Press 2 to do something unrelated
Down to option 7 by which point you can't remember which option was most appropriate and there was no "or hold the line to speak to a representative"

You start again and pick one that offers you a choice of "Send a new transfer or check fees". You try this but only get a submenu which offers a choice of "check domestic fees" or "check international fees" - no send a new transfer, damn, you can't get through to a person! You hang up and start again. This time cursing the "it's not free" message and simply mashing the keypad with your palm until you hear a human on the line.

You explain, carefully, that you have commenced an online transfer but have received a message asking for more information.

The highly-trained, American, customer services representative leaps into action. Tired of poor customer service in China you know that the Americans have this part down to an art:

"OK sir, so you want to create a new transfer to send money overseas".

You re-explain, carefully, everything you've already said.

"Ah! You want to know the fees for sending money overseas!"

You bite your tongue and explain, using the shortest possible words and speaking slowly in case Chad can't comprehend English the way it's supposed to be spoken.

"Ah! I can't help you with that. I'll put you through to the credit card department"

This sounds like a minor success and you are momentarily pleased. You're paying by credit. The credit card department sounds like they might be the right people. You wait expectantly.

"Good evening Tammy speaking. How may I help you".

You explain, for the fourth time, in monosyllables and get the reply you're half expecting...

"Sorry sir, I can't help you with that. I can put you through to the international department."

Customer Services drone 3 comes on the line. You begin to wonder if this call from China to the USA has already cost you more than the 30 GBP you were trying to send in the first place. You explain. Again.

"Sorry sir, I can't help you with that. Can I take your transfer number and I can pass the details over to someone else who can help you.".

This sounds promising so you comply. And wait.

"Good evening Western Union. This is Charlene. How may I help you?"

You grimace and explain the whole story again only for her to say "Is that Mr.B?". You assume that she did, in fact, get all of the details from drone 3 but was just prolonging your "customer service experience". You confirm it is, assuming that you're finally getting somewhere. Alas.

"Sorry Sir, I can't help you with that. I'll put you through to someone who can help" your cry of "But..." drifts away on the wind.

Drone 5 comes online. You begin to notice that each time they transfer you the call gets quieter. You aren't surprised when you discover that drone 5 neither received any details from Charlene, nor is she able to assist so on to drone 6.

Drone 6 is barely audible. You ask him to speak up. He doesn't. You ask, very loudly (in case you're equally quiet) for him to speak up. He doesn't. Then he hangs up.

Once you've retrieved your phone from where it landed and reassembled it you wonder what to do next. The bank! You ring your bank (who have a charming, helpful, 24 hour customer service (God bless you HSBC Premier Team) who not only confirm that the transaction has cleared but they look up a UK 24-hour telephone number for Western Union for you.

You ring and explain that you've been trying to "send money overseas in minutes*" for over an hour now. You are, however, told:

"Oh, that's an online transaction. You need to ring this number. It's open 7am-11pm UK time"

You patiently explain that you're in China and it's in the middle of the day here and, after all, it's only 30 quid! Hang on, you remember that when you rang this number it said you could send money over the phone, so you ask "So, can I do a new transaction over the phone and forget the online transaction".

"Yes sir, you can. But you've just told me you're in China and you can only do it from the UK so sorry, sir, I can't help you".

Thwarted at every turn you give up, dejected, and conclude you're going to have to wait 4 hours until 7am UK time.

The appointed hour arrives and you ring. By now, you're in the office so you can use the phone system to route your call to a UK office and then on to their hotline, hoping the call looks like it originates in the UK.

"Hello..... Western.. Union" - clearly the online team have just come out of hibernation. You explain. Finally you're talking to the team of experts. They'll be able to fix this in a jiffy.


Nervously you explain again. Surely to God these people can help. He asks the question you were expecting.

"Where are you calling from?"

"Liverpool. I'm calling from my office in Liverpool. I'm Scouse me. Eh, eh!" (quickly muting the call you start to cough from your performance).

"Hold the line"

Minutes pass and he returns explaining that your transaction looks suspicious.

"You tried three times to do this transaction using two different credit cards".

You explain, trying oh, so hard, to avoid sarcasm, that it was only 30 GBP and that the messages were so vague that you had no idea what was going on.

More minutes pass and success. Your transaction goes through!

Only 5 hours after you started to "Send money overseas in minutes*". So, apparently the '*' is to cover up the fact that it's really "Send money overseas in 300 minutes".

Transfer amount: 30 GBP
Their fee: 12 GBP
Many, varied, lengthy international phone calls: God knows but no doubt more than 42 GBP
The catharsis from being able to blog about it and share your customer service experience with the world: Priceless

(with apologies to Mastercard for using their strapline - your part in this went OK!).

A fast, reliable and convenient way to send money abroad.


Thursday, July 12, 2007

Frankie Update

Frankie Magazine Cover, originally uploaded by Ambling Sheep.

So, it's been a while since I wrote about little Frankie... Hard to believe that she's getting on for 8 months now...

The photos we had done at 4 months are everywhere - as you can see - apparently there's even a wall full of then in the HangzhouDasha department store. Frankie's even been on TV several times (something everyone appears to have seen here) after YY rang the local government hotline over our plight in trying to get Frankie registered here (that's been ongoing for months - more about this if/when it's ever resolved).

She is very rapidly moving out of the phase where I guess a lot of guys would describe as "Very nice... but what does it do?" to being a little person. Within the last two weeks she has learned to clap, can finally wave 'bye-bye' and, if you hold her up, dance to music.

I fear the guilt-o-meter has just been turned up another notch - particularly as I'm going overseas for 6 weeks in a couple of weeks...

Frankie Boss-eyed, originally uploaded by Ambling Sheep.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

They've Got Me

After modest pressure from Chickie and Pete I've decided that I am, in all probability, capable of running a half marathon.

I did a couple of 12k runs recently, one near my new apartment along the banks of the Qiantang River which was nice as it's completely flat, and another run to the office (also 12k but certainly not flat) and I'm convinced 21k isn't that much further to be a huge problem (obviously a full marathon is a different prospect!).

I am going to be (hopefully) signed up for the Singapore Half Marathon shortly and am currently waiting to find out the date of the Hangzhou Half Marathon (as I can't run if it clashes with an MBA weekend). Unfortunately no sooner do I make the decision to train for a half marathon than I fall sick with two colds one immediately after the other.

It's worth a quick plug for my (on my last three runs anyway) new running companion, Podrunner. Whilst Dance music isn't naturally my thing (my previously oft-used running music was Linkin Park), running to a constant beat stops me from keep changing my pace when the music changes pace. Just need them to be a bit longer (like 2.5 hours) to get a half marathon done without having to fiddle with the iPod.

At this rate I'll be joining the newly formed Hangzhou Hash House Harriers before you know it.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

What the...?

Untversal Talk Jig, originally uploaded by Ambling Sheep.

OK, sorry - this is a cheap gag because I haven't had time to post anything meaningful in ages but... what the hell is this? Answers on a comment please.

I actually bought it (just so that I could photograph it) for 6 RMB but I can't imagine what it's actually supposed to do.

Knowing that it can 'jig' up to 10kg of 'tood' a total distance of 360mm really doesn't help...

Untversal Talk Jig, originally uploaded by Ambling Sheep.

Updated 2007/07/07

Well, Megan might be right but you'd need fingers of steel to hold 10kg of tood up with this thing, otherwise you'd just be nursing your bloody stumps.

Untversal Talk Jig in action?

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Tufty Club for Grown-Ups

OK, you probably have to be 'of a certain' age, and British, to know the Tufty Club but it's from an age when the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (no, really!) decided that small children needed to know more about road safety and that, obviously, a small animated squirrel and his weaselly mate were the best way forward.

Clearly we're not the only foreign company in China to have fallen foul of the less than perfect situation that exists on China's roads as the EU Chamber of Commerce (thanks to Danwei) have hit upon the true consequence of Tufty's non-existence in this market. They are organising road safety seminars because "Road accidents represent not only a human drama, but also a very important economic cost for the company, as the majority of victims of car accidents are between 25 to 55 years old. For a company, traffic accidents represent a significant part of their statistics for industrial accidents, and can affect their overall economic performance".

And here was I thinking that the main reason you wouldn't want your employees to be killed is because of a desire to preserve human life. Apparently not. Then again, that's clearly not the primary concern of a lot of road users (truck, bus, car, taxi, bike or foot) either in China.

Morning Rush-hour

Sunday, June 10, 2007


This story will probably resonate with most foreigners who have a Chinese spouse.

The phenomenon is "舍不得" (shě bu de), literally "to hate to part with". The fact that there's such a snappy phrase should be a clue to its popularity. It may be a small thing (such as I bought a 3RMB vacuum flask which was awful and I've never used, we still have it though) or a large thing (I narrowly avoided having to move my awful 55inch RPTV to my new flat despite the fact that we had already purchased a (lovely) 52 inch Sony Bravia X Series full-HD LCD TV, but only because we managed to cram it into my sister-in-law's apartment).

We have just, thanks to the limited wardrobe space in my new place been faced with a storage crisis. This is compounded by the fact that I have more clothes now than I have ever had at any point in my life, partly due to 'panic buying' (they just don't sell clothes my size here - well, they didn't...) and partly due to having dropped 12 inches off my waist, 8 off my chest, 2 off my collar size and having gone from XXL thru XL and L before arriving at (mostly) M.

Twice now I've sorted out the clothes I simply can't wear only to find them hidden somewhere. When I say that I can't wear them it's because they're quite large, witness my winter coat - like I'm going to wear that (on my own...):

So, with much reluctance, YY has finally conceded that our 衣服山 has to go. Impressive, isn't it. I'm not quite sure where it's going to go, mind. The whole 'Charity Shop' concept seemed a bit confusing and exactly where they're going to find too many Chinese folks who need a jacket with a 48 inch chest or shirts with a 17.5 inch collar I'm not sure.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Great Firewall Fiddle Faddle

Akin to some of the other things I've mentioned, the Great Firewall seems to serve only one purpose and that is to denigrate China itself.

Expats rail about the fact that sites displeasing to someone (assumed to be one of the reported 10s if not 100s of thousands of young adults hired to 'protect' the other inhabitants of China) cause them to be blocked but it seems odd that no-one in the other echelons might have this thought...

"You know, I can cope with the fact that we permanently block access to loads of sites because they've displeased us (BBC news is permanently blocked although more newspapers and other news sites from the UK are permanently open), but this inconsistent blocking and unblocking of other sites (blogspot, typepad, wordpress, wikipedia, google, flickr (why Flickr?)) has no rhyme or reason to it. Perhaps we should just block them permanently or stop blocking them at all as the start/stop nature of the blocking makes us look like incompetent idiots."

The blocking is, quite frankly, pointless anyway as there can't be anyone out there that doesn't know ways to get over, round or through the blocks therefore the only result of the blocking is to irritate people. It doesn't prevent anyone access anything that they 'shouldn't' and the act of the blocking serves to make internet access of international sites as slow as they were in 56k dial-up days.

I'm sure they could undo the firewall in the time it takes to say 'death bus' and the internet wouldn't be all slow and crappy. Oh, and the international media wouldn't lambast China for its lack of freedom to information which, given that anyone can freely access any information that's on the internet anyway, would seem to be a good thing.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

It's Happened Again!

It's Happened Again!, originally uploaded by Ambling Sheep.

No sooner has her granny gone back to England than the clippers come out again. Not a bad thing for the summer but unfortunately it makes poor little Francesca look like a little boy again...

Monday, May 21, 2007

Foreigner Police Registration Madness

I've just been informed of a new and exciting government regulation.

Apparently all foreigners, even long term residents with a residents permit and a work permit, will have to register with at their local police station within 24 hours of entering China having been abroad.

Every time.

During office hours.

I plan to go overseas 20 times this year. That will mean 20 half-days lost to mad bureaucracy. This seems crazy given the fact that the local police station won't ever know that I've been out of the country and the fact that the immigration bureau has computer records of all of this information that they could share.

I really, really hope this is just one mad policeman that thinks this as, we're told the fine for not doing so is 50 RMB per day that you're not registered.

Moving Soon

I'm finally moving to my new apartment at the weekend. As a recap, this is the apartment that I bought in 2004, received ownership in 2006 and have been fitting it out, slowly, since October last year. Yes, it's all the same apartment.

We've been through a number of tribulations.

1) The gas fitter would only connect up two parts of the three part hob, saying it would be dangerous. The kitchen company came back and connected up all three parts but now the top drawer underneath won't open.

2) The bath was beautifully installed and tiled round, but it was back-to-front so it all had to be ripped out again.

3) The installers were told to leave sufficient space to grout round the ceramic floor tiles (not standard Chinese practice). They were shown what to do and they wrote it into the contract. On visiting the apartment after the installation I was told 'You don't grout round floor tiles, so we did it like this'. Up they came and were put down properly.

4) They nicely tiled the balcony with black tiles then tiled round the edges with the cream tiles left over from the bathroom because they'd run out of the black ones.

5) They measured up my hifi units, speakers, speaker stands, plotted the floorplan on a chart and installed the (not cheap) speaker cable in the floor, returning 20 metres spare cable to me, before cementing over it and installing the real wood flooring. The wires are all 10cm too short to connect to the hifi.

6) The light switches are all randomly assigned and connected to a computer control system so the same switch does different things at different times for no apparent reason.

7) The electrically operated blind on my study window was installed 20cm too short. The proposed solution? Install a 20cm-wide blind in the gap.

I think I've only discovered one last biggy (I'm sure others will surface):

8) The oven doesn't work (yes, an oven, in China!). The reason is, apparently, that they installed a gas oven (even though I specified electric) and that there's no gas to connect it to (although there is an electric point). But... the fitters didn't tell anyone so it was left up to me trialling the appliances to discover it.

Don't be surprised if the apartment burns down (or the entire building) before too long!

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

True Love

Chinese traditions and family pressures lead to all sorts of odd marital situations, people disappearing back to their home town to get married to someone they've never met (always distressing when it's my employees that are resigning because their parents have pressured them to come home...), but this article in Ananova is particularly weird.

Ah, it's that age old romantic tale:

Boy meets girl
Boy marries girl
Girl dies horrible death
Boys parents meet new girl and pressure boy to marry new girl
Boy agrees because new girl slightly resembles original girl
Boy asks new girl to undergo plastic surgery so that she fully resembles old girl
New girl bizarrely accedes to boy's request

And they all live happily ever after

It's not so much a match made in heaven as a match made in the Twilight Zone.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Maotai gets worse!

Unbelievably the evil fire-water beloved of politicians of all levels is under threat from pollution in its water source. The source of the pollution, 39 drinks factories that have 'appeared' upstream from the Maotai plant on the Chishui River in Guizhou province. Presumably many of those factories will have appeared on the tacit approval of local officals and celebrated with banquets and the odd glass of Maotai.

Accept for the moment that I'm not much of a spirit drinker and that Baijiu of any form is, in my mind, listed at the number 2 vilest alcoholic beverage (the Scotch Whisky Lagavulin making it to number 1 - tastes of peat? Apparently peat tastes pretty damned foul) but it's hard for me to imagine that anything could harm Maotai and make it less palatable.

I always assumed that Maotai drinkers survived largely because it killed any micro-organisms in the drinkers body, kind-of an antidote to the food served at some banquets, so whatever they're afraid of in the river water it must be pretty bad...

Mexican Excitement

At last! Apparently Hangzhou is now home to it's first ever Mexican restaurant. Also apparently owned and run by Mexicans.

441 Xixi road

Even better, it's open at lunchtimes and it's easy walking distance from the office!

A review will definitely be taking place shortly!

Saturday, May 12, 2007

To the UK and Back

A fleeting trip to the UK and I'm back already, filled of course with guilt at the coursework I've not been doing, daughter I've not seen, etc.

I've mentioned before that I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book 'Watching the English' by Kate Fox. Whilst I'm still fairly hopeless at social interactions, I now understand myself a lot more and that does give you an element of control, if you want it.

One conversation I had on the plane with a fellow brit went like this. I sat down at the bar (yes, OK, it was Virgin Atlantic's superb Upper Class service - once you've had your first Deep Vein Thrombosis you won't want to fly any other way) next to two guys who were clearly colleagues and were talking openly about their company, a certain car manufacturer. After a while, the guy furthest from me returned to his seat leaving me sitting next to the other guy.

As you might expect (if you're British) a period of silence ensued. Running through obvious topic lists (we're on a plane - there is no weather) drew a blank. Talking about the motor industry would appear rude as it would be obvious I'd been listening to their conversation - although the fact that we were the only three passengers at the bar which only seats three people would seem to make it fairly obvious that I couldn't have avoided hearing but, even so, it took the intervention of a member of cabin crew to open the door to conversation.

The interaction that followed was indeed to the letter of the book. He explained that he worked for "A car company" despite the fact that I already knew which one from the earlier conversation and, 20 minutes later when turbulence ended the conversation, the name of said company had only just been revealed to me. After 20 minutes of conversation, I knew his employer and he knew I lived in Hangzhou and worked in IT. I'm pretty sure that was it. As the book says, it is actually fairly common to assume that exchanging names is far too personal for a first conversation like this. I certainly wasn't ready for it.

No wonder Americans think Brits are standoffish and Brits think Americans are (I can't narrow it down to a single adjective). I've been in the States and in many a social setting been faced with this sort of interraction:

Stranger: Hi, I'm Bob!
Me: Er, hello

I don't know who the hell Bob is, and I certainly don't want someone like that stalking me so my natural reaction is to recoil and adopt a defensive position.

No wonder I find it so hard to give presentations. Simply standing up in front of people is like giving away part of your soul.

Friday, May 11, 2007


According to the Economist Shanghai is now home to China's fattest children. A recent survey revealed that of Shanghai’s 8m+ schoolchildren, 15% of the boys and 9.2% of the girls are obese. Both figures were about four percentage points higher than the national averages.

Presumably the combination of a rapidly increasing Fast Food Culture combined with Little Emperor Syndrome
is going to conspire to create a nation of incapable and unhealthy adults.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Yes, but Why?

Drat. It seemed so simple. Go back to the UK, meet up with family and friends and show them a few photos. And then, when we were looking at pictures of some Chinese buildings, the question.

"Just why do Chinese buildings have curved roofs?"

Seems simple doesn't it. Some research on the web confirms (!) that they do indeed have curved roofs (e.g. "The roof of a typical Chinese building is curved") but no-one seems fit to put forward a theory as to why that actually would be.

It's annoying because it's a simple question and apart from a vague attempt at "something to ward off evil spirits" I had to admit defeat.

Any ideas out there?

Friday, May 04, 2007

Phones on Planes

When will airlines face the facts that this stuff about mobile phones interfering with aircraft navigation systems is a load of old toot?

Think about it. On the average flight there is almost certainly someone who forgets to switch off their phone or Blackberry. On the average flight in China that number almost certainly increases as the number of people who follow the announced instructions is distinctly lower than elsewhere.

So, if we assume that every commercial flight that has, say, one active mobile phone on it and there are, let's guess, 100,000 flights per day worldwide (extrapolating from this article that says there are about 29,000 flights per day in the USA alone), and that we'll just focus on the time period since 2000 as mobile phones were commonplace and Blackberry's coming into regular usage. That would mean that 7*365*100,000 or 292,000,000 commercial flights.

To my knowledge, there have been no crashes attributed to mobile phone usage and 0 out of 292,000,000 would seem to imply a fairly low risk. Other opinions seem to be divided (here, here and here).

So, it looks like phones are pretty safe and they have transmitters built into them. This would seem to me to indicate that the insistence on making me stop using my iPod 20 minutes before we land (I've wiped it and resynced it so I have more music now) would seem to be completely unnecessary.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

iPod Woes

My iPod suffered badly during its last syncronisation and seems to have deleted loads of tracks which it can no longer play. Oddly it seems to have done this by artist so (as I've collected lots of music over the years) I'm left with a very strange 'Shuffle' playlist consisting only of:

Cindy Lauper
Killswitch Engage
Stabbing Westward
Depeche Mode

It's quite weird to listen to it going from one to the other as you imagine. And 'Cher', what was I thinking?

Tuesday, April 24, 2007


You know, I've got this sneaking feeling that my recently acquired copy of Battlestar Galactica just might not be genuine...

Monday, April 23, 2007

Outward Ho!

So our recent "Outward Bound" weekend was a success in terms of the goals I was trying to hit, although there were some interesting facets doing it in China compared to the UK.

The trip there - I had elected to drive but the majority went by bus. Where the place is (青山湖) there is a pristine highway linking it to Hangzhou that was only recently completed. Underneath the highway is the old 'road', except that it's now mostly sand and gravel after the construction of the massive elevated road. The training company elected to make the bus drive along the windy, bumpy, single-track old road with a cry of 'but it would have cost 100RMB (6 GBP) to use the new road!'.

The training company is based in the grounds of a three-star hotel but quite clearly it had seen better days. The meals sucked big-style and the staff weren't particularly helpful.

Me: I'd like a beer please
Waitress: No
Me: What?
Waitress: You can't have beer
Me: Why? There's beer in that fridge. Cold beer. I have money.
Waitress: You're not allowed
Me: Says who?
Waitress: The training company

Aha. A representative arrived and negotiations ensued. An allowance of 2 bottles of beer (And 2.1% proof beer to boot!) was offered which eventually turned into 5. I understand that they don't want people partying all night but this did seem to me to be a fundamental difference in approach as to how to break down some barriers and get people talking. Last Outward Bound I did in the UK, people got to actually know each other far more in the bar (at least that hotel had a bar, unlike this one) at the end of the day then they did while we were abseiling or potholing.

Breakfast was by far the worst meal of the day because even the things I might have eaten (pork buns, for example), were horrible. I don't believe anyone would come up with the catchphrase "Go to work on a 满头" but that was pretty much the only edible food, largely because they (that's steamed buns by the way) don't really taste of anything.

Asking for a coffee, I was told "There's hot soy milk" - and that was that. No alternative.

What made me sag slightly was when I realised that on the wall was a huge colour picture of a country cottage kitchen table and upon said table were plates and cups with scrambled eggs, bacon, some lightly buttered toast, croissant, orange juice and coffee. Posterlicious. Sadly, not one of those things were available in the hotel.

Breakfast, and indeed most of the meals, had a habit of reappearing (no, not like that) - lunch, for example, contained several types of "vegetable with pieces of fried breakfast products". Yum.

The training was actually pretty good and most of the negatives surrounding it are really directed at the hotel. Note if I ever do this again is simply to bring enough food and drink that I'm completely self-sufficient.

One of our first exercises was to be divided into teams and go through an exercise, part of which was to create a team song with the advice that taking an existing tune and changing the words to the song would be ok, except the Chinese National Anthem which would have been illegal. It sounded pretty serious as it was repeated a number of times.

The exercises themselves were interesting mix of physical and mental activities and worked fairly well at getting people mixing and communicating.

This one, which I call "falling onto a group of people who are significantly smaller than me" was a bit of a worry. Before anyone writes any witty suggestions, the trainer on the platform with me was simply making sure people fell in a straight line... The saving grace was that I was one of three Laowai in my group so we could at least take turns in the key (posterior catching) position. On the flip side, I imagine from the point of view of "having someone significantly larger than I am fall on me" probably wasn't much fun either.

All-in-all, I don't think some of the exercises would be possible in the UK and certainly not the US from a Health-and-safety point of view (getting everyone over a 4-meter high wall certainly had its moments) but no-one died, good fun was had and, a bunch of my staff now have a nice shared-experience.

There are more photos of people undergoing derring dos training company's website.

And on the way back, we even managed to persuade the training company to send the bus on the new, fast, smooth road so, improved communication skills at work!

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

On Guilt

The current combination of incredibly hectic job (oh that I could safely blog about the goings-on at the moment), EMBA, family and ongoing house fit-out (I'm beginning to understand what Petrocelli used to go through) means that I'm constantly wracked with guilt.

Whatever it is I'm doing (such as writing this blog entry, eating, or playing the odd game of Desktop Tower Defence (many thanks to John Biesnecker for that little time-eater) or taking Frankie (NB - new photos on Flickr) to Gymboree) I'm wracked with guilt that I should be doing one of the other things. If I change to doing the thing I'm feeling guilty about, the guilt just shifts to one of the other things.

My mother arrives tomorrow, I have 2 essays to write, was just presented with 1500 pages of new material for the next course module in 15 days time, I have over 50 people to recruit at work, I have to spend more time with YY and Frankie and I must get back down the gym (failed miserably to run 5km without stopping for breathers yesterday and I'm 3kg heavier than the start of the year).

I can safely say that I also feel guilty about reading virtually nothing except my course materials (which isn't very good value for money with the books I have and subscriptions to the Economist, and HBR) and about not having the time to do the follow-up reading after the courses are complete...

I'm glad I'm not religious.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Customer Service Experience

As mentioned elsewhere in this blog, customer service is not a forte of many Chinese businesses. That said, some service industries way outstrip anything that British businesses can do.

Good customer service experiences can be had from and in-call service. For example, my Internet connection died over Chinese New Year. I can guess what the experience might have been in the UK during Christmas.
1. Depending on your ISP (and whether they've outsourced the call centre to Bangalore) you might just get a recorded message suggesting that everyone is partying and will get to you at some point.
2. If you do get through and they determine that its not a configuration problem and you need an engineer they will make an appointment for an engineer from another company to come, quite possibly for a hefty fee. Being a public holiday though, you'll be without service for several days until everyone's back to work and the backlog is cleared.

Compare that to the China experience.
1. Place call which is answered promptly. Determine that it is not an accounts receivable problem on their part and they will despatch an engineer to site, even though it's a public holiday.
2. 10 minutes later, receive call from engineer to say he's outside and to reconfirm address. Engineer arrives, fixes problem (which he says was caused by my wireless router and not their equipment) at no cost and leaves.

The China scenario would simply be unbelievable in the UK. It just couldn't be done.

Sadly, my experience in B&Q (a British DIY chain) was more like the UK experience.
1. Take purchase to check-out (it was very early so I avoided the normal 'joining the shorter of 2 queues only to find that the person in front of me has 12 items they wil have to look up in the pricing book - I always wondered if the name 'Be and Queue' was deliberately ironic).
2. Locate checkout staff who are mysteriously absent.
3. They scan your 3 purchases and 1 of them doesn't have a price in the computer.
4. Staff go to rush to the aisle where the item came from. I tell them they're 1.29 each. They go anyway.
5. Staff return and huddle round the computerised till and proudly state 'we don't sell these - they're not in the computer'.
6. I counter with 'you're a shop, you have goods, you know the price, I have money'
7. They 'mei banfa' me and that's that.

An attempt to suggest that their manager would probably like them to sell me the goods, take my money and reconcile it later al seems too complicated so I give up and leave.

So, at least a British firm in China can uphold its core customer service values...

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Drill Instructors vs Starbucks

An, er, unique part of China life is watching a ragtag bunch of retail employees being put through their paces. Here the staff of a local department store were marching back and forth whilst the security guards barked orders at them.

Looking at the casually dressed yoofs lolloping about, it didn't appear to be of much value given that the barista confirmed that they go through this every day.

I've seen people from the local foot massage place running in unison round the block and waitresses and busboys all in a line receiving the daily lecture (which, I believe, is typically the same lecture every single day). I've suggested to my employees that we might do the same but oddly they don't seem too keen.

Monday, March 19, 2007

On Branding

The subject of product branding is much newer and more controversial in China than it is in the 'West'. Advertising is fairly immature, brand loyalty is limited and protection for intellectual property is still poor.

There often seems to be little effort put into actual brand creation before companies embark on the production of packaging, fitting out of premises and mass advertising and this seems to make little sense at first.

I accept, of course, that a lot of these brands are designed for internal consumption therefore the 'English name' of the company or product is there to make the product look and feel more international. This leads to various nonsense such as kitchen manufacturers Soilm internationalisation cupboard. Some might have been OK if they had been spelled correctly (such as clothing range Flangship riob.rava) and others are grammatically and syntactically sound but still don't work for me (a Taiwanese baby food brand called Baby Enzymes puts me in mind of a factory with a conveyor belt full of babies and an industrial blender) and bathroom fittings brand C Standard (for situations where A standard or B standard would seem to be going over the top? Possibly the people that came up with this have reinterpreted the name American Standard...?)

To be fair, branding is obviously a fine art. I've wondered before whilst in China if the thing I'm looking at is a 'real' brand or not. For example, I don't think I'd come across Ermenigildo Zegna before I came to China and was surprised to learn it had been going since 1892.

So I don't really know how to tell if, for example, if something is a 'real' brand or not.

I tried coming up with simple rules but they're not always applicable:

1) Silly names are probably not 'real' brands - FALSE. OK, I think I can rule out Senda Woman by this rule but apparently not Vasto (link doesn't work in Firefox) and Wanko which seem to be real brands.

2) Brands which try to sound like another brand to leach off a major brand's poplarity are probably not 'real' brands - I think this one is mostly TRUE. Lots of examples here: YCC and YQQ zip manufacturers (clearly trying to leach off YKK), Agosdantum (even with the Aquascutum logo), Dancôme T-shirt manufacturer. One example of a company that has 'become' a real brand is Li-ning (sports good manufacturer - now a large, well established company who I initially took as a fake brand because of its logo).

3) Blatant rip-offs of another brand. TRUE.
I accept that House of Lords might feel a bit threatened by his Tonyness' attempts to reform it and possibly this is a way to make a bit of cash to mount a defence but somehow I don't think so.

Of course, from a retail customer perspective, even if there are brands I recognise it's not necessarily that clear that the goods are genuine. In a nearby department store, the signage in the menswear section all appears to have been made by hand (would you pay full price from something that purports to be the "Pierr eCardin" section?). My natural assumption is that companies are normally very defensive of their brand image and would never allow the sort of brand impact that hand-made signage would create but is that true?

Friday, March 16, 2007

On Branston Pickle

Branston Pickle, originally uploaded by mick y.

Woe. The Branston has run out.

I am, sadly, one of those expats who likes their 'old country' food too much to live without it in regular doses. The oft aforementioned City Shopper service does us proud for many items - Oxo cubes, Paxo, Colmans Mustard, Sharwoods Curry Sauces and Basmati Rice but... no Branston Pickle.

Branston Pickle is a food that seems to unite the British expats here for their fondness of it (we even felt the national twinge when the Branston factory burned down in 2004).

I don't know how long Branston pickle has remained an oversight to the expat shopping service. The services (and there are lots of them) that will ship British goods to hungry expats all stock Branston and for a markup of only 1000% to cover postage and packaging will ship worldwide.

So, British expats, time for the rallying cry.... "Bring out the Branston! Bring out the Branston!"

Thursday, March 15, 2007

As Billy Connolly Said

I remember watching the Big Yin himself saying that he didn't know what was going to happen as he got older but his ears seemed to be preparing for something big given the volume of hair they had started sprouting.

Well, I'm more intrigued how my nose happened to know that it was my 40th birthday just last month.

With the sort of military timing normally reserved for the 366th day after purchase of a complex household appliance for which no extended warranty has been purchased, I've started growing, er, a little moustache but slightly above my top lip.

Alas, it appears that with advancing age I will no longer be able to mock Victor Kyam and all of the other old fellas that need specialised trimmers. For shame.

If any of my older readers have any tips about other depressing fates lined up for me over the next 10 years please let me know.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

On receiving a package

Footwear is a perennial problem for the average expat and given that my feet are beyond average even in my home country, I've decided to mail-order some running shoes.

I feel a bit silly ordering running shoes from the US, given that the majority of them are manufactured here in China but as the average shop here thinks that size 43 is huge beyond belief, then I've got no chance.

However, getting hold of ones shoes is now even harder than ever. Fedex just rang to say my shoes were in Shanghai (only ordered two days ago from California so kudos to Running Warehouse for their excellent shipping service), however because of the "high value" of my shipment (a whole US$125) there were new customs clearance formalities which basically consist of sending them:

A copy of my passport info page
A copy of my visa
A copy of every stamp in my passport for 2007

Colour me suspicious but why would I have to prove to customs (apparently it's mandatory) that I'm in China to receive my package? What does my whereabouts or my status as a resident or the countries I have visited got to do with collecting duty on an inbound package?

Do they need this information to charge me duty? Clearly not.

Clearly then one is left with two possibilities:

1) Incompetence - they're not sure what they want so they ask for everything they can think of even though they don't have a good use for it. At least that way when someone starts asking questions, they can be sure to have lots of angles covered. And it keeps people gainfully employed processing unnecessary information.
2) Skullduggery - the information is being gathered for a use other than that for which it is purportedly being collected.

My money's on 1).

Wednesday, February 28, 2007


It appears that China has just successfully developed the first Cyborg - the dictionary lean towards a cyborg being part human but it simply defined from cybernetic and organism so I think this counts.

Behold, China has created the first cybernetic... pigeon.

According to this article in Danwei the hapless pigeon can be made to take of and fly round in circles by remote control.

Could this explain strange sightings in the turkey farms of Norfolk just before the H5N1 outbreak?

Thursday, February 22, 2007


I'll let the picture below explain the relevance of today's posting...

Happy Birthday to Me

Er, yes. Well - actually no - it's tomorrow but, never mind, that day has arrived.

Life begins (hopefully) or as YY puts it (dolefully)

As recently as 4 years ago, I had never been to Asia and didn't know a single word of Chinese (beyond Chicken Foo Young). The idea that I would becelebrating my 40th birthday in Hangzhou, married to YY, have an (almost) three month old baby and be running a Chinese company wasn't really where I saw myself going. Still - it's all good. Really, really good in fact.

I also (and the reason this post is a day early) never imagined that I would be spending my 40th birthday by getting up at 5am so I could catch an 8am flight to Hong Kong with the express purpose of spending the rest of the day studying Financial Accounting.

Funny the tangled webs we weave.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

CNY Fireworks

CNY Fireworks, originally uploaded by Ambling Sheep.

Just to give you a hint of the amount of rubbish generated by the Chinese New Year fireworks this is a shot I took last night (bathed in the light of the fireworks themselves at this was some time after midnight).

At a guess 250 people live in my apartment complex. 6.8 million people live in Hangzhou. The celebration goes on for 15 days.

Chinese New Year is bad for the environment. Discuss.


I don't normally watch a lot of CCTV-5, the home of sport on Chinese national TV, largely because of its tremendous focus on NBA basketball and the English Premier League and a corresponding lack of Rugby action.

Today, however, I got to watch something new and, er, different. Judose.

If I've got the rules right ( I was watching from a treadmill in the gym so I couldn't hear the commentary) the two combatants enter the field of battle at which point they inexplicably grab one of their feet with a hand and then hop into battle with their opponents. It appears that you lose if you let go of your foot, fall over, hop out of bounds or use your free hand to steady yourself by grabbing your opponent.

I'm sure it's probably quite difficult and very tiring but I couldn't quite see the point. It's not like wrestling or boxing which might simulate an actual fight. This, not so much ("I'm going to duff you up behind the bike sheds Kevin, just remember to keep hold of your own foot").

It would be interesting to see a Judose specialist enter the Ultimate Fighting Championship. I can see, for example, ju-jitsu expert taking on a boxer, but if you're relying on your opponent to hop on one foot, it may put you at quite a disadvantage if he doesn't.

It's probably worth waiting to see if it develops before they get too excited about the television coverage as it may just well go the way of kabaddi.

Friday, February 16, 2007

'Tis the Season

If Christmas is the Season to be Jolly, Chinese New Year is pretty much the season to be filled with unrepentant invective.

Chinese New Year is pretty much up there with Stinky Tofu and Bai Jiu as one of those things that Westerners cannot get their heads round. Even the mild mannered (by China blogging standards) Sinosplice is unable to avoid some steam-venting around this particular time of year.

Two years ago at CNY I was in my wife's home town in Gansu province enduring repeated shocks to the system as firework vendors hurled hand-grenade equivalent fireworks into the traffic as the means to advertise their wares (although typical small-time marketing practices that exist in China dictated that all street vendors were selling the same selection of fireworks as every other street vendor at the same prices). I also nearly because immobilised in the aging sofa of a relative (possibly a shu-shu - I got intoduced to so many shu-shus, ge-ges and at least one di-di that I immediately lost track) after being served the 9th full cooked meal of the day.

The high-point of new-year's day for me was watching the family playing with the baby (again, not entirely sure whose baby but definitely some relative). Over the course of half an hour the baby had been given to play with; a box of matches, a small spiky pendant, the screw cap off a bottle of spirits and, his favourite toy, an apple peeler. Fortunately none of these people are going to be anywhere near my baby this New Year so I can relax...

I was also told on New Year's Eve I would be treated to the best television that would be shown all year. Again, Sinosplice's definition covers this nicely:

The Chinese New Year craptacular (春节联欢晚会) is the mother of all Chinese craptaculars.

How true. Sadly, Chinese television is so monotonous, that there is a strong possibility that both of these statements are true. Chinese television does actually make American television appear to be a broad-brush, free from bias expression of a wide range of people's personal interests in comparison. I guess it's possible that people's personal interests in China only stretch as far as an interest in the life and times of former emperors, how badly the Japanese treated China and the state of the modern police force (with minority interests such as the 'cat stuck in a tumble-drier' din that is Beijing opera) being hived off onto their own channel.

I guess it's not all rosy in the UK (this headline from the FT ("Crowded trains ‘to leave 130,000 standing’" actually refers to London's lack of train capacity not, as I thought to China at New Year) but I'm sure it's both quieter and tastier.

If anyone is thinking "What a great time they must be having with several days off for Chinese New Year" just bear in mind that the fireworks go off for 15 days straight, that there's a small baby in the house and that I found this on the kitchen floor the other day. Apparently it's been taken up to the roof of our building because it hadn't absorbed enough pollution. I fear that it will feature on the menu over the next couple of days (hopefully there will be some left over for my mother to enjoy when she comes over in April).

Er, Happy New Year

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Scale in China

If you ever forget the scale of any problems which might present them in China, CER reports that 97,260 officials were caught in a corruption probe in 2006 alone. Simply staggering - particularly if you have a quick think about just how many people didn't get caught!

Monday, February 12, 2007

Transliterations of Names

Translation of names between Chinese and other languages is always going to be a hit and miss affair. There are so many combinations of letters that simply cannot be accurately represented using Chinese characters, and that's just with English. Bring into the mix the fact that different languages that use the alphabet pronounce them differently and the Chinese translations can be as clear as mud (anyone know the Chinese for Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch?)

Several things about transliteration leave me cold, however.

The first - you see it a lot in sports like volleyball (very popular on TV here) where people will wear shirts that say their name on the back in the form X.Y.Zhang. With Chinese characters, there is absolutely no concept of initials (in this sense) so why do it at all? OK, the team may have several Zhangs or Wangs but it makes no sense to Chinese people.

Second - use of Pinyin. No-one reads Pinyin. No-one publishes books in Pinyin. It's not a language it's a teaching aid. Signs in Pinyin always remind me an episode of the British TV show Challenge Anneka where the host, Anneka Rice ran into the grounds of a school for the blind and loudly shouted "Is there anyone here who speaks Braille".

So who, therefore, are signs in Pinyin intended before. Most Chinese people I know could not quickly read a sign that says "Xiao shan gui ji ji chang" (and wouldn't bother when the Chinese characters are just above it) and then most non-Chinese can't either - similarly road workers in Hangzhou are given high-visibility vests (amazing in itself) that proudly say "JIAOTONG" - presumably someone tells them what it says when they're first given them.

Finally - mixed names. I can understand that for most people here calling a certain footballer "Ronaldo" is much harder to remember/pronounce than 罗纳尔多 but who decided to translate AC Milan as "AC米兰"?

I think the CCP's Sprilitual Civilization Steering Committee has let these travesties slide...

Thursday, February 08, 2007


POUPA, originally uploaded by Pinto Moreira.

There are some spectacular bird photos out there on Flickr.

This has to be one of the best bird photos I've seen (certainly amongst those photos that don't have "All Rights Reserved".

Clearly there's more to this photography malarkey than just equipment and technique and, whatever it is, I'm believe that some people have it and I don't. Which is a shame. It's not even worth linking to my recent Hoopoe photo (taken in Jurong Bird Park in Singapore so I didn't even have to try very hard to find the thing!) because this one is simply several orders of magnitudes better.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

In the deep midwinter

Francesca at West Lake, originally uploaded by Ambling Sheep.


Well, not quite. It was 25 degrees Celcius today. Thanks to a 4:30am start for an 8am meeting in Shanghai, I didn't feel at all guilty popping out for a walk round West Lake with YY and Frankie for the first time in the early afternoon to take advantage of the unseasonal weather.

Hopefully the fact that we've hardly had anything approaching a typical winter this year doesn't bode for a scorching summer and an extreme typhoon season as the year rolls on.

Sunday, February 04, 2007


I've mentioned my fondness for hotpot on many occasions and particularly for Chuan Wei Guan (川味观) hotpot restaurant.

That's all changed now thanks to this expose (in Chinese) about a recent health inspection that uncovered that the used oil from the hotpots (delightfully "口水"油 or saliva oil) was being filtered and reused.

Apparently the local manager has appeared on the 1818 reality news show appealing to customers to come back because everything's OK, now. Apparently this isn't working at the moment though which, given that it's the incredibly busy Chinese New Year season coming up, will no doubt cost the silly, silly man a small fortune.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Like Rats to a Sticky Box

I pity the rat that comes into our office.

I should add a link that I was prompted by Reluctant Nomad's recent series of posts here, here and here about various vermin dispatching incidents.

Rats don't normally get a lot of sympathy from me... like most things that breathe or move, they are considered edible in some places here. I have to say that the idea of eating a rat doesn't seem too unpleasant, as long as one knows where the rat came from in the first place. Cage-farmed seems a lot more palatable than sewer-caught...

I realised that the Chinese rat got short shrift when I walked to our local cafe one day and passed a couple of fellows who had a rat in a cage and a pellet gun. Clearly the pellet gun was a feeble affair and repeated shootings probably served only to enrage, and possibly blind, the rat. A little while later and P, with whom I was dining shouted 'Oh my God!' followed slightly too late with 'Don't look now!' as I turned to see the caged rat as it was, having just been covered in an accelerant, set on fire.

So, probably a result of recent restaurant refurbishments in our building, we have a rat problem. I have heard one run the length of the office across the ceiling tiles and that was enough to get the exterminators in.

Now I understand that in an office it's not a great idea to use poison. In your back garden it's probably OK as the nearly-departed rat will probably disappear into a drain never to be seen again, but an office has lots of places to die and then it falls to your nose to find out where that is. One rat that seemed to get stuck behind a desk perished where he was and by the time the 'decomp' was evident, at least half of the rat had dissolved into the surrounding carpet.

So, if poisoning isn't the answer, apparently trapping is. Given the two choices I was aware of - humane (i.e. a baited cage that allows you to take the rat away live - presumably so you can incinerate it on the pavement outside) and deadly (i.e. large versions of the humble mousetrap) I was surprised to see that the pest controllers offered a third trap option - glue.

I'm slightly surprised, as I surf, to find Glue Traps available in the US and UK as I could only imagine that they work by sticking the rat to the glue and it then bleeds to death after it gnaws its own legs off. This seems contrary to the laws requiring humane treatment of, well, pretty much anything in those countries.

As much as I want the rats out of my office, I'm rather uncomfortable with the idea of them stuck in a box in the ceiling bleeding/starving to death. The swift blow of a spring-loaded trap seems a lot more reasonable when you look at the alternatives.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

In case one gets complacent

About the 'underdeveloped' legal system in China and how stupid things happen regularly and make the news, here are the latest winners of the long-running 'Stella Awards' from the Home of the Free.

The 2006 True Stella Awards

Issued 31 January 2007

(Click here to confirm these are legitimate.)

#5: Marcy Meckler. While shopping at a mall, Meckler stepped outside and was "attacked" by a squirrel that lived among the trees and bushes. And "while frantically attempting to escape from the squirrel and detach it from her leg, [Meckler] fell and suffered severe injuries," her resulting lawsuit says.
That's the mall's fault, the lawsuit claims, demanding in excess of $50,000, based on the mall's "failure to warn" her that squirrels live outside.

#4: Ron and Kristie Simmons. The couple's 4-year-old son, Justin, was killed in a tragic lawnmower accident in a licensed daycare facility, and the death was clearly the result of negligence by the daycare providers. The providers were clearly deserving of being sued, yet when the Simmons's discovered the daycare only had $100,000 in insurance, they dropped the case against them and instead sued the manufacturer of the 16-year-old lawn mower because the mower didn't have a safety device that 1) had not been invented at the time of the mower's manufacture, and 2) no safety agency had even suggested needed to be invented. A sympathetic jury still awarded the family $2 million.

#3: Robert Clymer. An FBI agent working a high-profile case in Las Vegas, Clymer allegedly created a disturbance, lost the magazine from his pistol, then crashed his pickup truck in a drunken stupor -- his blood-alcohol level was 0.306 percent, more than three times the legal limit for driving in Nevada.
He pled guilty to drunk driving because, his lawyer explained, "With public officials, we expect them to own up to their mistakes and correct them." Yet Clymer had the gall to sue the manufacturer of his pickup truck, and the dealer he bought it from, because he "somehow lost consciousness" and the truck "somehow produced a heavy smoke that filled the passenger cab." Yep: the drunk-driving accident wasn't his fault, but the truck's fault. Just the kind of guy you want carrying a gun in the name of the law.

#2: The specialty search engine says Google should be forced to include the KinderStart site in its listings, reveal how its "Page Rank" system works, and pay them lots of money because they're a competitor. They claim by not being ranked higher in Google, Google is somehow infringing KinderStart's Constitutional right to free speech. Even if by some stretch they were a competitor of Google, why in the world would they think it's Google's responsibility to help them succeed?
And if Google's "review" of their site is negative, wouldn't a government court order forcing them to change it infringe on Google's Constitutional right to free speech?

And the winner of the 2006 True Stella Award: Allen Ray Heckard. Even though Heckard is 3 inches shorter, 25 pounds lighter, and 8 years older than former basketball star Michael Jordan, the Portland, Oregon, man says he looks a lot like Jordan, and is often confused for him -- and thus he deserves
$52 million "for defamation and permanent injury" -- plus $364 million in "punitive damage for emotional pain and suffering", plus the SAME amount from Nike co-founder Phil Knight, for a grand total of $832 million. He dropped the suit after Nike's lawyers chatted with him, where they presumably explained how they'd counter-sue if he pressed on.

©2007 by Randy Cassingham, Reprinted with permission.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

On procrastination

I often think, rightly or wrongly, of Chinese as lacking in the infinite subtlety of English. This largely centres on the vast number of ways that I might answer a question in English compared to the comparatively fewer options you hear in Chinese.

For example an Englishperson's response to a 'how are you?' question at the end of a tough day might be:

I'm tired/worn out/run down/sleepy/exhausted/knackered/fatigued/whacked/beat/ready to drop/etc., etc.

The Chinese equivalent from my experience would typically be represented by a respresented by

累 or, if they were really tired 好累.

Like I say, it's may well be a case that the act of observation means that the result is affected (i.e. people use simple vocabulary because I'm there). I'll let you know in 30 years when I've finally started to approach fluency.

It is nice, however, to come across phrases which are completely different from anything you'd say in English and add a lovely touch of colour to the language. On that note, today's Phrase of the Day is:

lǎn lǘ shàng mò shǐ niào duō

This is a proverb which means: A lazy person will find many excuses to delay working

The literal translation however is: When a lazy donkey is turning a grindstone, it takes a lot of time off for peeing and pooing

On that note, I must get on...

Monday, January 29, 2007

I've excelled myself...

I don't really know what has come over me in the last couple of weeks but I really have been pushing the envelope with regard to foods...

I've always been a fussy eater and was a vegetarian for many years before coming to China. Since ceasing to be veggie I've eaten pork, beef, chicken and lamb and, pretty much nothing else animal-wise.

I don't know what made me change this but it started when I got a free lobster tail with some roast beef that I'd ordered. In the last two weeks I have deliberately eaten:

Fish roe

I have to say that the seafood didn't excite me at all, nor did it particularly put me off. The lobster tasted pretty much only of butter so I really can't see what the fuss is there.

I'll let you know when I eat my first frog and turtle...

Week One, Done


That was a pretty intense experience. I thought my introduction to academia after 20 years was going to be tough and I wasn't wrong. A typical day had about 17.5 hours of 'work', less than 5 hours asleep and the rest eating and talking.

It was actually quite easy to keep going because of the intensity, the only day that was tough was the very last day because the pressure was easing off (no forthcoming homework) and the fatigue beginning to kick in after 6 strenuous days.

I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of learning, connecting with others in the same boat, and the feeling that I've made a good choice to 'improve' myself. In terms of learning, its very clear that a primary method is to extract the experiences of the students and facilitate the sharing of these to the others. We are a fairly experienced group of people so there is a lot of scope for this.

Having dabbled with the idea of an 'online MBA' for the last few years I think this is one of the things I can't imagine them being able to replicate.

One interesting fact is the average length of time people remain in their current position post this MBA is less than 18 months.


I've been cataloguing the books I have on various management topics on LibraryThing (you can take a look at them if you like) and was checking out its recommendations. One recommendation, based on my library is, for example:

Managing transitions : making the most of change by William Bridges
52 copies. 1 reviews. Average rating 4.25.
Because you own: Leading Change, Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices (Harper & Row Management Library)

So, probably not entirely unreasonable that other people who own the book about leading change might be intersted in transition management.

The most peculiar one has to be this:

Writing Erotic Fiction: And Getting Published (Teach Yourself) by Mike Bailey
7 copies.
Because you own: Cold Calling Techniques: That Really Work! (Cold Calling Techniques)

Now I'm not a salesperson and only bought the book to get a better insight into the process but assuming that a lot of the other owners of this book are salespeople, does this mean that a career in sales is a likely precursor to a career in writing erotic fiction?

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Goddamned Chinese Bureacracy (again)

Excerpt from an email...:

"Hangzhou PSB (the police force - ed) told me that if a child born of at least one Chinese parent was born in China, then the child is considered to be Chinese. Though you have registered her birth through the consulate and applied for her British passport, she could not exit from China without going through the following step 1 & step 2 first.

1) Her Chinese Hukou needs to be registered in the Police Station in Gansu where her mother's is located. (that's 2000km away from where we live). The Hangzhou official told me that the details requirements could be very different in different cities.

2) After Francesca’s Hukou is registered, she needs to apply for a single-use Chinese travel document in Gansu PSB to allow her to leave China.

3) After she leaves China and arrives in the UK, she can go to a Chinese embassy and apply for a visa to come to China. "


Sunday, January 21, 2007

And we're off

So here I am, another day another taxi, off to university for the first time in 19 years. Classically underprepared (I think - I haven't made it through all 400 pages of material I received in December yet) trying to convince myself that it seems very unlikely I'll be the least prepared person in class.

Hopefully everyone is in the same boat of worrying about what this experience is going to be like. To be honest I am fairly nervous for fear of letting myself down. Clearly need to allocate my time better to avoid feeling under-prepared though.

Undoubtedly there's going to be a bunch of smart people in the room but it seems very unlikely that they're all more capable than me at everything. So why can't I chill out?

On Leaving Singapore

Singapore is "Heaven on Earth" - sorry Hangzhou, you're nice but Marco Polo had clearly never been to Singapore. Then again various theories say he never came to Hangzhou either.

Singapore is clean and green, virtually free from serious crime, warm all year round, stable government, good business environment, etc., etc.

Even the airline is fantastic. Just flown for the first time in Singapore Airline's new First Class cabin. Big widescreen TV, superb menu and a seat wide enough to fit me, YY and Frankie side-by-side (not that they were there but you get my drift)..

Possibly the only downside from relocating there at some point would be that Frankie would probably end up having to do National Service. Clearly I'm much too old for anyone to even try that with me.

Hong Kong, on the other hand, is cold, drab, polluted (ok, I accept it's not entirely their own fault).

Taxi drivers are also much less likely to speak English (although the driver of the one I'm in right now can speak putong(ish)hua so that helps. Still, doing an MBA in Hong Kong would seem to be the ideal time to try to pick up some Cantonese on the side.

One slight irritant is that this is the first year that the HK authorities have insisted that the EMBA students need student visas. With a British passport I could enter Hong Kong for 6 months. With my student visa applied, that's reduced to 7 days. Aside from the fact that processing my entry took 4 times longer than before, the 'Student' entry stamp is so big they will only get one per page - not good as I need to come 20 times this year!

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Singapore is not China

Despite a large percentage of the population (over 70%, apparently) being ethnically Chinese, Singapore bears absolutely no resemblance to China.

OK, there are a lot of people that speak Mandarin (or possibly Manglish – it’s much more likely to have English strewn at various points in the sentences) but they absolutely do not think of themselves as “Chinese”.

To that end, there is a survey in the (Singapore) Sunday Times that reflects Singaporeans views of Mainland Chinese workers.

1. Hardworking
2. Rude
3. Greedy

(it’s not a very scientific survey but they could have picked honest, intelligent, selfish, condescending or sophisticated. By contrast Indian and Filipino migrant workers are Hardworking, Intelligent and Honest).

Chinese Talent (it doesn’t define the distinction but I can safely say that “worker = blue collar, talent = white collar) doesn’t fare much better as they are perceived of as:
1. Hardworking
2. Intelligent
3. Rude
3. Greedy

So, more intelligent but otherwise unrefined.

The article does then go on to interview someone to justify why these perceptions are too harsh and suggests that if you ask a Chinese worker what salary they are looking for they may say “The more the better” when what they’re really saying is “If it can be just a bit higher than the market rate that would be great” and that “with greater business dealings and cultural exchanges between Singapore and China, the misconception will surely disappear over time”.

To suggest that the idea that some Chinese people are not ‘greedy’ or ‘rude’ and that this is a misconception would seem to be reaching realms of fantasy.

A lot of the characteristics people harp on about (spitting, constantly trying to rip people off, not caring if you live-or-die) of the older, less-educated, less well travelled people must serve to embarrass the younger, more professional types. I’ve had many a conversation over the last few years with Chinese of all ages who hate the pushing and shoving rather than queueing, the spitting, the complete disregard for others and the attempt to rip people off.

Obviously this survey is creating a gross generalisation here. A similar survey right now might suggest that "working class" people in the UK are all foul-mouthed, ignorant, ill-educated, ill-mannered racists who can't pronounce "Shilpa". But the point of gross generalisations is, of course, that you notice the people who have these characteristics more than you don't (for example, you can't miss the people that spit but you don't pay attention to the 10 other people that don't).

Yet again, it is another PR problem. People don’t necessarily know who the ‘Chinese’ talent are (apart from the fact they probably speak slightly more standard English without the Singlish sentence structures) but people can spot a gang of Chinese construction workers easily enough. That way the perception quickly comes that ‘all Chinese people are…’.

I don’t think that increased business dealings and international exchanges can change people’s perceptions because it is a fact that some Chinese people have these characteristics. Just like the recently published guide for Chinese tourists acknowledges that some behaviours have damaged "the image of China as a civilized country". Hopefully business dealings and international exchanges can change people’s actions to prevent these perceptions coming about in the first place.

So, what about us Europeans? What do Singaporeans think of us? Apparently we're

1. Intelligent
2. Creative
3. Condescending

Ah, OK. I guess given the character traits of the average expat in the business community, that's probably about right...

Monday, January 15, 2007

Nokia N73 Dissapoints

The Nokia N73 phone has a fantastic specification list and on that note meets all of my requirements:

Phone with handsfree
Long talk time
Good battery life
3.1 megapixel camera
English/Chinese dictionary
Syncs with Outlook
Able to access Gmail easily

Unfortunately it has one massive drawback that let's down all of the above and that is that the processor speed is simply inadequate for the task.

The whole point of a camera in a phone is for those opportunities where you chance upon something unexpected, where you are unlikely to have a camera on you and that's where it disappoints.

For example - from the back of the taxi you get the 'what's that? That's interesting. Grab phone. Slide camera cover open. Wait. Wait. Wait. Damn the taxi's set off again'.

I guess on a phone that has a button marked 'clock' on the main menu that takes 3 full seconds to display the time is, inevitably, going to be more complicated with something like a camera but, it's still rubbish.

Verdict: 4/10. Great phone, ruined.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

The Pace of Change

China's Beaureaucratic Machine is certainly not a well-oiled one at the moment. In the space of the last few weeks, we have been struck twice by examples of the inability for one part of the machine to communicate with another and twice again by complete bolts from the blue.

1) Personal Taxation: In Early November I received this update from PwC that highlights new requirements for the personal declaration of Individual Income Tax. The regulations introduced in November apply to 2006 and require that I (and an awful lot of other people) now have to file a personal tax return. Previously that was done by one's employer but this has to be done in addition. So far the deadline (March 31st 2007) is quite clear but, as the PwC article points out, exactly what is, or isn't, in scope for expatriates is as yet unclear. Contacting my local tax bureau reveals that they appear to be just as surprised as we are by the introduction of this new rule so, despite the looming deadline, they don't know what we need to report, or how.

2) Street Names: We arrived in China just after three roads (文一, 文二 and 文三) had their western names renamed to something completely different causing no end of fuss because the taxi drivers didn't know where 文新 road (formerly West 文二) was. No sooner did they get the hang of it when they were all renamed again to (文一西, 文二西 and 文三西) roads (西 meaning West).

Well, it's happened again. I missed the turn for one of our offices because I was looking out for the road name on the street signs. It was only after I realised I'd passed the office and had to turn round that I realised that the name of the road has been changed. Raising this with my admin staff to check the facts, they assure me that they have contacted the post office who are adamant that 伟业路, the new name that's on the signs right outside of our office, is in fact in a completely different part of town. I guess we don't need to change our stationery as long as the post office thinks the name hasn't changed but it might deter our clients from calling.

3)Housing Benefit - This is a popular employment benefit for most staff where employers can contribute up to 15% of salary (which is free of tax, thus popular) to the 'housing fund'. This, the employees can use to buy a house, pay mortgage payments, etc. The employee has to contribute a matching portion, again, tax free.
The government has suddenly announced a very significant drop in the amount that can be paid in to the housing fund. It seems very likely that this will lead to employee dissatifaction with the employer (rather than the government) unless the employer does something to compensate but, giving the cash instead of the benefit will still result in a significant net loss to the employee as it will all become taxable. This leaves the employer in the irritating position to be faced with either significant staff dissatisfaction or significant extra cost.

4) Local Medical Taxes - Another sudden introduction in December starting Jan 1st. All Chinese staff suddenly find their compulsory government medical insurance taxes increasing by, wait for it, 4300%. OK, it's only 4RMB/month now but increasing it to 88 RMB in one go is quite a leap. At the same time, the employer contribution increases from 0 to 2.5% of salary, increasing the misery of the housing benefit change.

As an employer, this is one of the great irritants of doing business in China - it's not that the employment landscape changes but, like much of Chinese business life, everything happens suddenly and often in completely incomprehensible ways.

It is very difficult to get a complete picture of the landscape any point in time, let alone keep up with the changes. When we first came to China we asked everyone we could find about all of the benefits, taxes, fees, surcharges and miscellaneous laws that would cost us money and people told us all sorts of things. Despite knowing about pension contributions, housing benefit, income tax, corporation tax, sales tax, VAT, birth insurance and the like, no-one mentioned that we would have to pay stamp tax (on every contract we sign), water conservancy tax, a fine for not having any disabled staff (effectively a tax)... and that was just the position on October 1st 2003.