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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Conan Copies the Chinese Copier

I have previously commented on various examples of potential copyright or trademark problems in China -- whether mobile phones, Apple Stores, computers, or ice cream. However, these are certainly not the only cases. One question many foreign companies ask is "What can we do about it?"

American talk show host Conan O'Brien has taken his own path to answering that question after he discovered a show produced by Sohu in China had copied his own show's opening sequence. I do not know whether any legal action has been taken or is even possible, but O'Brien may have done something even more effective: he publicly mocked Sohu's show. And just as important, the key excerpt has been posted and is currently available on Sohu's video sharing service in China:


[Update: If video is not appearing you can find it on Sohu here]

While I and several of my Chinese friends find the excerpt humorous, I think there is a deeper point to be made. Fan Huang on the Shanghaiist commented on the potential impact:
The internet now makes former boundaries porous to an incredible extent yadda yadda, and we feel like the current moment is when a previously solid cultural bubble separating China and the rest of the world has been pierced...

We hope incidents like the Conan smackdown contribute to a new notion in China that wantonly appropriating other people's names/designs/tv show opening sequences is no longer okay, because the specter of losing face is now possible on a global scale.
Face is indeed an important concept in China and understanding it can help companies better address a variety of issues. Conan's aim may have been more about producing fresh humor than causing Sina's show to change its opening sequence, but I believe this illustrates how best responding to copying in China can be aided by a better understanding of Chinese culture and some more creativity.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Great Firewall Update: Google+ Blocked Again

Last month I explored a variety of web sites to see whether they were freely accessible in China. In short, from my location in Guangzhou I found that:

  • Facebook, Twitter, Vimeo, and YouTube were all completely blocked.
  • Amazon China, eBay, MSN, NPR, and Windows Live loaded without apparent problem.
  • Amazon.com, Bing, CNN, Gmail, Google+, Yahoo!, and this blog had a variety of problems but were not completely blocked.

For more details see here.

Recently, there have been reports of Google+ being accessible in China and that it led to an outburst of Chinese language comments on President Barack Obama's Google+ page (see here for a news report that includes some of Jeremy Goldkorn's insights on the Chinese language comments). I was surprised numerous reports claimed that Google+ had only recently become accessible since I was able to access it last month in Guangzhou.

In light of the news, a few hours ago I did a quick check of some of the sites I tested last time. I conducted the tests on two different operating systems from my location in Zhuhai, Guangdong province. The tests were conducted while while using a non-local DNS server and without a VPN (for details on what that means see the earlier post). The results on the two operating systems were the same. It is possible some of the results would have been worse with a local DNS. It seems unlikely any would have been better. This is what I found (changes from previous testing in bold):

  • Facebook, Google+, Twitter, and YouTube were all blocked.
  • Amazon.com, Gmail, Windows Live, and Yahoo! loaded without apparent problem.
  • This blog loaded with the same problems as described before.

So, while Amazon, Gmail, and Yahoo! all fared better than last time, Google+ is now blocked.

For me. In Zhuhai. Today.

My understanding is that I am now not the only one being blocked from accessing Google+. It is also worth noting that my VPN is working just fine. When I want to "get through" the Great Firewall I can do so without problem.

My guess at the moment is that the Great Firewall underwent some recent updates and that there were a few bugs in the rollout. However, there are some peculiar aspects regarding the reported recent accessibility of Google+ that make me wonder if there is more to the story.

But for now, I will return to trying to get that video to work.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Seeing What is "Out of Sight"

In the "About Me" section of this blog I wrote "I'm fascinated by the similarities and differences in how people 'see' the world around them." And in a previous post I shared how following a dog led me to some interesting discoveries in Yuli, Taiwan. In that spirit, here is a short animation made by three graduates of the National Taiwan University of the Arts about what a little girl "sees" while searching for her very helpful dog (no Chinese required and thanks to a Taiwanese friend for introducing it to me):



Update: For those who cannot watch YouTube due to the Great Firewall here is a version on Tudou (possibly not the same quality):


The "Out of Sight" website  can be found here: http://evaty.main.jp/oos/

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Beach Inconveniences in Hong Kong

Two signs I saw last November at a Cheung Chau (長洲) beach in Hong Kong:

Sign 1 - Suspension of Lifesaving Service. Lifesaving service for this beach has been suspended in winter and will be resumed from 1st April, 2012. Sign 2 - Notice. The shark prevention net was dismantled for maintenance on 01-11-2011. We apologize for any inconvenience caused.
Note: 01-11-2011 in Hong Kong format is 1 November, 2011.

Despite it being a warm and sunny day, I did not go in the water.

Friday, February 24, 2012

From Video Mishaps to Hong Kong, Open Plan Offices, and Text Messaging Legal Woes

I had hoped to have a post today about the parade in Taiwan I mentioned here. However, I am having some bizarre problems creating the video. It looks completely fine in the edited preview, but in the final version some sections get stuck rapidly alternating between just a few frames. Other sections are fine, though. I will give it a whirl again this weekend. If all goes well I will put up the post on Monday. Otherwise, maybe I can just add some techno music to the video, and it will go viral.

For now I will do something I have not done in a while -- a quick review of some random links I had been holding onto for potential deeper commentary. Since I may never get to them, here are a few in no particular order (previous post of assorted links here):

1. I have previously discussed (herehere, here, and here) the barriers mainland Chinese face visiting Macau and Hong Kong. Bo Gu of NBC News describes her own first visit to Hong Kong. Her story about how she obtained the necessary permit highlights both some of the challenges in obtaining a permit and provides a taste of how "official processes" can work in China.

2. An article by Julian Treasure on The Sound Agency website discusses research indicating that open plan offices can hurt work productivity, even when they have been designed in the hope they can promote "creative thinking and better problem solving". I have not yet had a chance to review the original research papers, so I do not want to comment specifically. I will just say that what is reported is consistent with other cognitive psychology research I have conducted/reviewed in the past.

3. A Reuters article by Patricia Reaney warns:
Couples who may be heading for a nasty break-up should be careful about texting because it could end up as evidence against them in divorce court.
I appreciate the concern from a legal perspective, but it strikes me as somewhat ironic. I am no relationship expert, but it would seem to be that if one wants to save a marriage that reducing lines of communication may not be in a couple's best interest. Also, the advice to not put anything in writing seems easy to follow -- just speak your thoughts. However, sometimes people are better able to express themselves through written means (and sometimes very specific forms of writing). I have conducted research that... well, I cannot share details so I will just say that I think there may be some opportunities for innovations here. And they will not necessarily only apply to troubled couples.

That is all for the links. Now hopefully I can sort out the video problem.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A Taiwanese Perspective on Michele Bachmann

Early last September when I was in Kaohsiung, Taiwan's second largest city, I spent an evening with a Taiwanese friend who lives there. While driving to a cafe for desserts my friend told me she was fascinated by Michele Bachmann and hoped she would continue her campaign to be the Republican nominee for the 2012 U.S. presidential election. I found it surprising that a Republican member of the United States House of Representatives and strong supporter of the Tea Party movement might not only be known to at least some people in Taiwan but also have some followers.

The ensuing conversation proved rather enlightening. I will share it here since it provides an example of how American politics are perceived in a part of the world that in recent decades has seen a variety of democratic reforms and last month had an important presidential election of its own. To be sure, my friend's opinion is just one voice out of many in Taiwan, and I make no claims as to whether it is representative.

I recently communicated with my friend and everything she wrote is consistent with my memory of our earlier conversation. So, I will simply provide her recent written responses. [I have made some very minor edits for clarity since my friend is not a native English speaker. I have also reorganized the text for better flow since some content is the result of requests for her to elaborate.]

How do you know Michele Bachmann and what is your opinion of her?
Michelle Bachmann is a public figure so it was hard to ignore her when all of the spotlights were on her. I first noticed her when she appeared on the cover of Newsweek. It seemed she was being bullied by some of the media so I started to wonder if people had been unfair to her. But it turned out she’s a very interesting individual.

She had my attention particularly for her very conservative speech as well as her ambition for the presidency. I understand ambition is sometimes a good thing. It’s the very same quality I see in Hillary Clinton, but she’s not like Clinton at all! I mean, it’s just hard for me to relate a “submissive” wife to also being an ambitious / calculating politician. That didn’t sound very convincing to me.

What also amazed me was that she seemed to have loads of followers/supporters. She won Iowa, right? [She did not. My friend may be thinking of the Ames Straw Poll] I don’t understand why people voted for her. I was confused and also curious. Later I decided to give up wondering why. Like I said, I enjoyed seeing her. Every time she was on the news I had so much fun, like I was enjoying a daytime soap opera. She’s not dull at all!

As a matter of fact, it’s not Bachmann that I am interested in. It’s the world politics that attracts me, and I am particularly fond of US politics because of all the conflicts between parties and all the ups and downs in the recent Republican primary. It brings me a lot of fun.
What makes Michele Bachmann seem like a soap opera?
She's funny. She likes to put things in a dramatic/exaggerative way, and her talks are mostly odd, absurd and ridiculous… and I guess those are the crucial elements of soap opera?
Would you want Bachmann to be President of the U.S.?
NOOOOOOOOo I don’t want her to be the president of the US. I can’t imagine her being the leader of a super power. I think one good old Bush is good enough for all of us.

She and Bush are equally silly, only Bush is funnier (his choking on a pretzel or wiping his glasses on some poor woman’s clothes...). If she became the president, I am afraid the US would return to medieval times, gay rights would be banned, girls would not be allowed to wear bikinis, wives would have to be submissive to their hubbies....
So, Michele Bachmann may feel a little pride in knowing that her celebrity has spread all the way to Taiwan, although maybe not in the fashion she would likely prefer. And I assume my friend now has mixed feelings to know that Bachmann dropped out of the Republican primary after a poor performance in the Iowa caucuses.

I would be curious to hear what others think about my Taiwanese friend's views of Bachmann. In an upcoming post, I will share some photos (and probably video as well) of a large parade I saw in Taipei after I had left Kaohsiung. It highlights an issue that my friend fears would worsen in the U.S. if Bachmann became President. At the very least, I am pretty sure the people in the parade would not agree that they were celebrating, as Michele Bachmann has described it, "personal enslavement".

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Cigarettes, Noodles, and Diapers: Profiting from China's Internal Borders

At Zhuhai's Gongbei Port (拱北口岸) in China's Guangdong province one can see a steady stream of people exiting immigration at the border between Macau and mainland China.

people exiting the Macau border control building in Zhuhai

Numerous people pass through the border for a variety of purposes. One of those purposes is very pragmatic.

Sometimes it is apparent that many people are openly carrying at least one of several items. For example, these three women were each carrying a box of instant noodles and a box of cigarettes:

three women each carrying a large box of noodles and a box of cigarettes

While some people may be bringing these items from Macau for themselves or to give away as gifts, it is clear many have another goal in mind -- selling them as part of a large grey market in mainland China.

For example, some people will sell their box of cigarettes to buyers on the other side of the street from Gongbei Port:

buyers near the Zhuhai-Macau border waiting for people selling boxes of cigarettes
People with larger colored bags are just some of the buyers that can be found in this area.

Though at other times, people can sell their cigarettes immediately upon exiting the Gongbei Port building:

numerous cigarette buyers at the exit of the Macau border control building in Zhuhai, China
Buyers (in this case all have plaid-patterned bags) quickly clear out if people with the appropriate uniforms arrive.

Especially for selling other items, some walk a little further and head down an alley with a warehouse-like building including many individual "stores". The sales patterns can vary from day to day. On one day there was a store where people could sell a brand of Japanese instant noodles (出前一丁) without waiting in line. However, people carrying another item had to stand in a long line:

people waiting in a line in Zhuhai, China

In Chinese I asked one of the men apparently working in the area, "What is this?"

He replied, "This is nothing."

I did not feel the need to continue the discussion since it was already clear that this "nothing" was in fact people selling a highly desired item in mainland China: Merries diapers from Japan.

Merries diapers from Japan

Why do these items need to be brought from Macau? Due to their status as special administrative regions, both Macau and Hong Kong sell goods that for a variety of reasons are not available (or as easily available) through official channels in mainland China. However, in some cases a grey market sales network in mainland China exists as I previously described for the iPhone 4S. The border at Macau and Zhuhai is particularly convenient for transporting some of these goods since both cities have urban areas immediately adjacent to the border. Not surprisingly, many of the stores in Macau near the border sell the very items that are most desired by mainland Chinese.

There can be a variety of reasons as to why these goods are in particular demand. For some, such as the diapers, it is due to the perceived safety and quality of equivalent products made in mainland China. The article "What Chinese Shoppers are Buying Online" on Forbes discussed this issue:
Recalling the terrible fall 2008 mass poisoning incident when six Chinese babies died and hundreds of thousands of children were sickened by melamine-tainted milk, it is no surprise that Japanese-made infant powdered milk is among the top-selling products. Some Chinese believe that direct Internet sales and home deliveries of powdered milk products would ensure that the contents had not been altered...

Also in the “baby” category are best-selling Japanese diapers, including the Kao “Merry” or Unicharm “Moony” brands (128 yuan/US$19)–again, priced higher compared to local brands. Chinese parents believe that the diapers contain no harmful chemicals that cause allergies or rash, and the materials are top-notch, preventing spillage.
And it is not just Chinese who are concerned. Some foreigners residing in mainland China have also turned to the Internet to purchase baby supplies produced elsewhere (see here for one perspective).

Based on what I saw, it appears that due to customs' restrictions people are very limited in the number of items they can bring to Zhuhai (I rarely saw people carrying more than one package of the above-mentioned items). However, last August Dan Harris on the China Law Blog commented that the situation was far more flexible at another border at that time:
An interesting thing is happening on the "border" between Hong Kong and China.

Nothing.

Let me explain.

Like virtually all countries, China has various limits and duties relating to what can be brought into the country. China is generally quite good at enforcing these limits and duties.

Except for quite some time now it has been looking the other way when it comes to food imports from Hong Kong. If you go to the border between Hong Kong and China, you will see what I mean. There you will see many, many people bringing back into China massive quantities of baby formula and the customs people are doing nothing. Nothing. The same is true for all sorts of other packaged foods being brought into China.
It is not uncommon for the various border "policies" to change (sometimes without official notice) so this difference comes as no great surprise.

There appear to be several other fascinating aspects of how the various grey markets seen at the Zhuhai-Macau border operate such as people being typically paid in Macanese currency, sellers reportedly making multiple trips in a day across the border, and variations on which items are "popular" from day to day. I will refrain from commenting on them, since I am still fuzzy on a number of issues. Regardless, it is striking that a grey market can apparently thrive for items such as instant noodles that need to be carried one by one across two immigration checkpoints.

So, like the Shanghainese reader who expressed an understanding for Macau's and Hong Kong's borders due to concerns over protecting cities' cultures, there are other mainland Chinese who may have their own reasons to appreciate the borders. While some mainland Chinese are not supportive of the policies which restrict their travel within China, for others the borders combined with special rules for Hong Kong and Macau provide an opportunity for profit.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Should Shanghai Have Borders?

Today, as I saw this scene of people in Zhuhai looking across the harbor at Macau:

view of Macau from across the harbor in Zhuhai


I recalled a scene from last summer in Shanghai of people looking across the river at Pudong district's modern skyline:

view of Shanghai's Pudong district from the other side of the river

Despite the similarities in the two scenes, including a bit of smog, while mainland Chinese need a permit to enter Macau, no permit is required for them to enter Shanghai's Pudong district -- one of China's most developed areas. Regarding Shanghai, a Chinese reader from there responded to my post about Macau's border with mainland China with these comments [English slightly edited for clarity]:
I can understand why Macau and Hong Kong have these rules.

I don't want my own culture to be changed, even my own city [Shanghai] will be captured. Lots of people are too aggressive here. So many people come here but they actually don't like it. They condemn our city, our language, our rules, and they want to change things here. They hate Shanghainese.
In response to the title of this post, no, she does not feel that Shanghai should have borders separating it from the rest of China. And though she will need a permit to do so, she hopes to visit both Hong Kong and Macau someday.

The reader's comments provide much fodder for discussion. For now, I share them simply to highlight a mainland Chinese perspective on the borders that may not have been expected without a deeper understanding of China. I am sure there are a variety of other perspectives that could be found in China and Shanghai as well. In the post about Macau's border I wrote [emphasis added]:
Despite growing up in a cultural environment very different from most Chinese, I suspect I would be asking questions very similar to those that some people in China are now asking.
The "some" is of course very key in terms of appreciating the variety of views held by China's people. Additionally, there can be a diverse set of factors guiding these views. Just the comments above from a single person touch on several very important issues for China such as the rapid pace of change, the variety of cultures, and the divisions between certain groups of people. Even an issue that could seem so straightforward from the outside, the views of mainland Chinese on borders restricting their own travel within China, is full of complexities. Once again, there are many layers.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

So Close Yet So Far: Chinese Citizens Without Permission to Visit China's Macau

While walking along China's Pearl River Estuary (珠江口) in Zhuhai, Guangdong province I briefly spoke with these two young women:

two young ladies in Zhuhai with sea and Macau in the background


This couple living in Zhuhai:

young couple siting on park bench in Zhuhai


These two tourists from China's Hunan province:

two young ladies posing in front of sea in Zhuhai


And these two young men visiting from China's Jiangxi province:


All of these Chinese had one thing in common: they were not able to visit the location seen in the background of the first and last photos -- Macau -- despite it being part of their own country and within reach by an easy overland walk. None of them had the appropriate special permit. Even if they had a passport they would not have been allowed to enter. Macau, like Hong Kong, is one of China's special administrative regions with its own laws, currency, police, and immigration policies. And like Hong Kong's border, Macau's border can be a blockade to people from mainland China.

However, if you are not from China getting into Macau can be much easier. According to a table on the website for the Macau Public Security Police Force's Immigration Service people from the following countries are currently exempt from needing to apply for any visa or entry permit and only need their passport:

AndorraIndonesiaBosnia and Herzegovina
AustraliaIrelandNorway
AustriaIsraelPhilippines
BelgiumItalyPoland
BrazilJapanPortugal
CanadaKiribatiRomania
ChileLatviaSamoa
CroatiaLebanonSeychelles
CyprusLiechtensteinSingapore
CzechLithuaniaSlovak
DenmarkLuxembourgSlovenia
EgyptMacedoniaSouth Africa
EstoniaMalaysiaSouth Korea
FinlandMaliSpain
FranceMaltaSweden
GermanyMexicoSwitzerland
GreeceMonacoTanzania
HungaryMongoliaThailand
IcelandNamibiaTurkey
IndiaNetherlandsUnited Kingdom
Cape VerdeNew ZealandUruguay
Commonwealth of DominicaBulgariaU.S.A.
San MarinoMontenegroBrunei
-(a total of 69 countries)-

Additionally, Hong Kong residents are exempt from needing a visa or permit.

There are some minor loopholes to the restrictions for mainland Chinese. For example, if a mainland Chinese citizen has a passport, proof of an onward flight from Macau, and an entry visa to another country then they are able to enter Macau for a period of up to 7 days. In other words, in China a visa to another country can open the door to a section of one's own country.

Despite the restrictions, it could be argued that relative to Macau's population a large number of mainland Chinese have had access. In fact, as currently noted on Wikipedia "According to the 2006 by-census, 47% of [Macau's] residents were born in mainland China, of whom 74.1% were born in Guangdong and 15.2% in Fujian." Also, mainland Chinese play important roles as tourists and workers, especially for Macau's famous and very large gambling industry. The Independent reported several years ago:
Two-thirds of Macau's gamblers are mainland Chinese, most of them from just across the border in the prosperous province of Guangdong...

Only Macau residents can work as croupiers in the casinos, but pouring the tea, emptying the ashtrays, building the new casinos and guarding the loot as it is transported off to the banks is the enclave's army of 98,000 foreign workers. Like the gamblers, most of these migrant workers come from across the border in Guangdong...
As the article suggests, whether the permits for mainland Chinese are approved fairly is another question.

Whatever justifications there may be for the permits, their effects may be broader than they initially appear. In addition to impacting the travels of many mainland Chinese, these conditions may also affect people's sense of identity and self-worth. Some Chinese are publicly asking why people from a variety of other countries such as Japan, India, and Mongolia can more easily visit some parts of China than is possible for themselves. Some are also asking how they can expect to be treated as equals abroad when they are not even treated as equals within their own country.

It is not clear whether any significant changes are imminent and whether it is an issue of prime importance for many in country that faces a variety of immense challenges. Regardless, I could not stop myself from wondering what it is like for the people I met to gaze upon one of the more developed areas of China and know that they do not have permission to even walk along its streets. I try to imagine what it would be like for me to stand in the U.S. state of New Jersey and look across the water at New York City knowing that I would need to apply for a government permit to visit even though a Chinese citizen with a passport could enter at any time. Despite growing up in a cultural environment very different from most Chinese, I suspect I would be asking questions very similar to those that some people in China are now asking.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Amazon in China: A Clear but not Always Affordable Choice

In the previous post about my trip from Guangzhou to Zhuhai I mentioned that I needed to wait an additional 30 minutes to catch a train. The extra time was well spent, though, due to meeting this pair of young women in their mid-20's:

Outside Guangzhou's South Train Station

We met because they asked me to take a photograph of them together with one of their cameras. Afterwards, we chatted about a variety of topics.

During the conversation, the person on the right side of the photo mentioned Dangdang, a Chinese electronic commerce company. One of its competitors in China may be more familiar to those outside of China, Amazon.com. It was relevant to some research I have done, so I asked her about her perceptions of the two services and how much, if at all, she used them.

She said that when she had been in college she always used Dangdang and almost never used Amazon's Chinese website. The reason was simple -- price. As a college student her funds were particularly tight and the lower prices she found on Dangdang were a very important factor in her choice of book sellers.

However, now that she has a job and is making money she is more likely to purchase her books from Amazon.com despite still finding their books to be more expensive. The reason she is willing to part with more of her hard-earned money is that in China it is possible to buy paperback books of varying quality. Now that she can afford it, she said she buys books from Amazon because she has found they sell better quality books which are easier to read than the books she has bought from Dangdang.

I have not personally compared books from Dangdang and Amazon, but based on the quality of other books I have seen being sold in China I could appreciate her comments. Especially for books that are not likely legal copies, such as those often sold at the mobile bookstores I mentioned last year, the paper and print quality can be very inferior (there can be varying degrees of quality). Sometimes, the blurriness of the print adds a noticeable strain to reading, pages stick together, or the print easily smudges.

Another reason she shops at Amazon now is that Amazon is cheaper than another alternative -- buying equal quality books at brick-and-mortar bookstores. While she is happy to be making money, she feels it is very little and is motivated to find ways to save on her book purchases as long as quality is not sacrificed.

A final and very key element to her choice of Amazon is "trust". She knows the books will arrive quickly and that they will be the best quality possible.

Of course this is just a single case and based on her self-reported behavior and perceptions. And I have come across some very different opinions of Amazon elsewhere in China (possibly a post for another day). Regardless, this captures some key themes I have repeatedly seen in China.

The evolution of this woman's shopping habits is of particular interest to me because being able to buy lower quality paperback books is not a typical option in countries such as the U.S. (used books are another story). The difference touches on an issue important for companies such as Amazon to consider: the value they can provide in China may be different from what they provide in other countries.

The issue of "trust" also caught my eye. For now, I will just say that it takes on a very special significance in a country where fake or poorly made products are easily found. While some companies are negatively hurt by fake/imitation products in China, it also presents a key opportunity that I think many are failing to fully seize (again, a post for another day).

Price, quality, and trust. Important factors all around the world, but they can play out in their own special ways in China. And for this particular woman's book needs right now, Amazon has hit a sweet spot.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

From Guangzhou to Zhuhai to Macau

[Update at end]

I have not posted during the past couple days due to some travel. It started in Guangzhou where I took a 40 minute subway ride to Guangzhou's South Train Station, one of several train train stations in Guangzhou and one of the many mammoth new train stations that can be found in a number of cities in China.

When I arrived I first sought out these machines to purchase a ticket:

automatic train ticket machines at Guangzhou South Train Station

ID is now required to purchase tickets. Unfortunately, the scanning system for the machines appears to only read Chinese Resident Identity Cards and not passports. After discovering this fact I went to the old fashioned ticket windows in a different section of the station:

ticket windows at Guangzhou South Train Station in China

Anyone familiar with Chinese train stations will appreciate my relief in finding such short and well defined lines. The scene would be very different in many other train stations in China. Even with the short wait, though, the train I wanted to ride had sold out since I had checked it on the automated machines. Fortunately, a few first class seats were remaining on the train departing only 30 minutes later. Some high speed rail lines in China have reported low ridership numbers. All I can say is that with trains departing every 15-30 minutes this line appeared to be very busy that day.

After purchasing the tickets I entered the sprawling main departure hall:

main departure hall at Guangzhou South Train Station in China
If only I had roller blades with me.

And after passing through security I was in the waiting area:

waiting area at Guangzhou South Train Station

But there was no need to wait and I headed directly to the train:

boarding train at Guangzhou South Train Station

While the train line I rode is sometimes referenced as "light rail", the trains do not in fact fit that classification. So, I will call it by its more proper name: the Guangzhou–Zhuhai Intercity Railway.

Traveling at speeds up to 200 km/h (124 mph) I arrived in about 50 minutes at the terminal station -- Zhuhai North Station. Apparently the line will someday extend to a more central location in Zhuhai. One can only hope. As it stood, after paying just 44 RMB (about US $7) for the train ticket I paid almost double that for the long taxi ride into town. City buses were available for only 1 RMB but they did not go exactly where I wanted and included many stops. Also, they were already full with recently arrived passengers, and I was not sure there would even be space for me when the next ones arrived. While I enjoy trying to ride "local" in China, this was a time where I decided to take a pass. Fortunately, I got my money's worth as my taxi driver apparently had aspirations to be a Formula One driver.

The day after arriving in Zhuhai I went to Macau. Similar to what I explained in my post about the border between Hong Kong and Shenzhen, you must pass out of mainland China through immigration in Zhuhai and then take a short walk before going through immigration once more to enter the special administrative region of Macau, despite it being part of China. And like Hong Kong, mainland Chinese need a special permit to enter Macau while many foreigners, including myself, only need a passport. From the time I left my hotel, walking to the border, going through two immigration channels, and finally arriving in Macau took less than one hour. It was even faster when I returned to Zhuhai due to shorter lines.

So, as you can see I've been busy moving about. No complaints from me though. The food in Macau is great:

African Chicken Macau Style
African Chicken Macau Style

And pretty decent food in Zhuhai can be very inexpensive:

dish of squid, fish, vegetables, and rice in Zhuhai, China
Squid, fish, vegetables and rice for about US $1.40

I share all of this not only to provide a "taste" of some of my recent meals but also of some of the travel experience one can find in China. The high speed train ride was certainly a very different world from many other travel experiences I have had, such as a horse cart in Xizhou, Yunnan province.

More posts, including some about Guangzhou, Zhuhai, and Macau soon.


Update (July 25, 2012): For more about the extension of the Guangzhou-Zhuhai Intercity Railway see the newer post "The Future Intercity Railway Station at the Macau-Zhuhai Border".

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Store Cats in Guangzhou, China

It seems like some readers have a strong desire for cat photos. So, for this weekend post I'll share several photos of cats I've recently seen at various small stores in Guangzhou, Guangdong province (cheesy captions added at no additional charge):

This cat is skeptical that you really know what you want to order...

cat in China appearing to look down at items on the ground
but still willing to see if it's in stock.

cat with bottled and canned drinks in the background
Only serves drinks

kitten on a leash in China
Being a kitten doesn't absolve one from work...

mushrooms and herbs for traditional Chinese medicines
at a shop for traditional Chinese medicines.

cat meowing in China
This cat was at a small convenience store but...

was more interested in getting attention then selling anything.

cat sitting near a wheel of a cart outside
Not at a shop but possibly playing hooky

Five cats is enough, right? If not, you can see some cats in Sichuan province.

Cats don't appear to be as common of a pet in China as in the U.S, and I've noticed that people who do have cats often don't interact with them as closely as commonly seen in the U.S. The friendliest cat above was certainly the one seen meowing. After it determined I was "good" it climbed up me so that I'd hold it (and of course pet it). One worker in the shop reacted as if she'd never seen someone hold the cat that way before.

Anyways, if you're a dog person, I have material for a post I'll tackle one of these days. For now I'll just say it's a more in depth and complicated Chinese story to tell. 

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Posts Coming Soon to a Blog Near You

I haven't had a chance to post recently and when I was ready the Internet and/or Chrome decided to go haywire. I am now using Firefox with a slow Internet connection, so I'll do a preview of what's ahead.

Before continuing on the themes started with the stories about Xiaoxin, I will take a detour early next week with a couple of Taiwan-related posts. One is a post I've already promised about Michele Bachmann. Why would this, um, "colorful" Republican member of the U.S. House Representatives come up in a discussion I had with a friend of mine in Kaohsiung? Stay tuned...

A later post will be about a parade I saw in Taipei a few months ago. It will be particularly appropriate to share at that moment since the parade was about an issue of great concern to Michele Bachmann -- although I doubt she would have agreed to participate. Again, stay tuned...

After those posts, I'll get back to the earlier theme and share a story that can add some perspective to why Xiaoxin was so excited about her payday.

To finish off this post I was going to add some gratuitous photos of cats in local Guangzhou shops. However, now Picasa is behaving very peculiarly. I'm using a VPN at the moment so I don't think my problems are related to blocking from the Great Firewall, but I can't be sure.

I'm just going to go to sleep and hope this is all magically resolved when I turn on my laptop tomorrow.

Cheerio.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Blog Birthday

Today is a special day of sorts. Isidor's Fugue has now been in existence for exactly 1 year. The first post was mostly an "I think therefore I am" proof of existence. That reminds me of a night when I was a teenager and briefly convinced myself that "I think therefore I am" was not necessarily true. This greatly worried me for a few moments until I realized the flaw in my logic. I was quite relieved. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), I have no memory of how I originally reached the erroneous and bizarre conclusion. I will just say that I was very tired at the time.

Anyways, this blog most certainly exists (at least in my mind). But I'm not sure I would have gotten started when I did without a most wondrous opportunity offered by James Fallows to be a guest blogger on his blog at The Atlantic. As he noted in his introduction, we had corresponded frequently about a variety of mutual interests including China, technology, and beer and first met each other in person at the World Expo in Shanghai. When he invited me to guest blog I was surprised, honored, and very excited.

So, for one week I was able to put my words and photos on The Atlantic. Some of my posts went  in directions I had not expected, and the week culminated in one of the most sleep-deprived states of my life. It was great, and I learned a tremendous amount from the experience. And while there are some posts I would especially love to rewrite, there are others that I still enjoy -- one is my first post there, which was my first blog post anywhere and posted the day before my first post here. It thanked Fallows and a family in Wuzhou, Guangxi for their very different, but both very special, invitations. You can read it here. Another post I wrote explained some of the motivation for this blog's name. You can read the post about fugues here. Finally, one of the photos I shared particularly caught the attention of my host and you can find his worthy comments on a photo that may look familiar to you here.

Of course all of that is not on this blog, but it was certainly the start of my blogging and helped attract some initial readers here.

I am going to avoid yammering on about the past year of blogging. Instead, I want to address a question that I am sure many of you are asking yourselves at this very moment, "What can I do to celebrate this exciting birthday?!?"

And now a few of you may be thinking, "Yippee! Here comes the PayPal link!"

Well, I'm sorry to disappoint you. There will be no PayPal link today. I do not even have ads for you to click.

Instead, my suggestion is simpler (and cheaper).

Share a link to this blog or a specific post you like to some of your friends, coworkers, family, or whoever. It should only take a minute unless you want to do it by stone tablet. If you do it that way, please send a photo.

If you can not think of what you would like to share, how about catsmonkeys, frogs, or a dog that served as a tour guide for me one afternoon in Taiwan? Or if you are more interested in technology how about a post on a Chinese lady's opinion of the problems Google was facing in China last year or a comparison of Google Maps and the surprisingly flashy-at-times Baidu Map? Interested in censorship in China? Maybe a post about a waitress's opinion regarding her inability to access Facebook or another comparing students in mainland China and Taiwan would do the trick. Want to share some scenes from China instead? How about photos of the city of Hengyang, Hunan province, the beautiful villages of minority cultures around Kaili, Guizhou province, or the fascinating Islamic culture I saw in Zhaotong, Yunnan province? Food your thing? Well, then how about tasty items from Hanoi, Vietnam or a comparison of Italian and Taiwanese food culture? And of course there are the recent posts about Xiaoxin such as the story of her first payday in Shanghai.

Whatever floats your boat. Easy, eh?

And if nothing else, it may help convince me that I exist if my thinking about my thinking ever goes awry once more.

Yes, it's late again.

Thanks for reading, commenting, and sharing. More of course is on the way.

Edit Notes to "A Most Spectacular View for Royalty"

After some reflection, I decided to remove the section about eating a fish head in the post "A Most Spectacular View for Royalty". I did this because I felt that the account did not support the main themes I hope to highlight in the that post and the other connected posts. While I like the fish head story, I was concerned it was more of a distraction. Given the nature of the post, I thought it was best to make the edit while appropriately noting it.

So, I of course noted the change on the post and placed the fish head story in its own special post here. It's only slightly modified from its original version. I did, however, note my later change of heart regarding fish heads and provided a link to proof.

Fish Heads High in the Sky

In one of the posts in my series of stories about Xiaoxin, a young lady from Sichuan I met in Shanghai, I mentioned that we ate at a restaurant atop of the Jin Mao Tower. One of the dishes we ordered was a large fish served whole. It did not fit with the themes I wished to emphasize in the earlier stories so I am presenting the story about the fish here. I think it highlights not only how Xiaoxin and I came from different cultures, but also how logically accepting something does not mean that more "visceral" parts of the mind accept it as well.

After we had nearly finished the delicious fish Xiaoxin said, "It's your last night in China. You should take the fish head and enjoy it." I knew that many in China considered the head the best part of a fish. In fact, there are popular dishes comprised only of fish heads. However, my interest in exploring new foods had only taken me so far at the time, and my still Western view of fish heads meant that eating one would be a challenge. I could also see from Xiaoxin's eyes that the fish head had much appeal to her. So I said, "I'm sure I couldn't enjoy the fish head as much as you. Please, I want you to have it." Xiaoxin still insisted that I should have the fish head, but even just thinking about eating it made my stomach feel queasy. Fortunately, after much discussion she finally accepted my "gracious" offer to take the fish head for herself.

As I began to enjoy the other dishes I heard a strange slurping noise coming from her direction. I turned my head and saw Xiaoxin had the entire fish head up to her mouth and was sucking in whatever it is that can be found within a fish's head. I swiftly turned my head away and did my best to control the intense nausea sweeping over me. Logically, I thought it was fine for someone to eat fish head, so I had not expected such a visceral reaction. As I tried to recover I saw a non-Chinese lady sitting on the other side of the room. It appeared she had witnessed the recent episode and was fully appreciating the moment.

I sat there looking away for a few more minutes as Xiaoxin finished savoring the fish head in a way I had never known a fish head could be savored. Fortunately, the fish head had her full attention, and she never appeared to notice my reaction. Especially after having heard her childhood stories about her desire to eat fish, I was happy she was able to so thoroughly enjoy it. I was also happy that my nausea did not reach full fruition.

Since that night over six years ago, my aversion to fish heads has disappeared. In fact, I have tried a variety of fish head dishes including a ginger soup in Taipei. Despite my change of tastes, I think I could still be gracious enough to let Xiaoxin enjoy the fish head.

Or maybe I would order two.

A Most Spectacular View for Royalty

[Note: This is the third in a series of posts about a young lady from Sichuan province I met during my first trip to Shanghai, China. An introduction to why I am sharing these stories is here. The first post told the story of Xiaoxin's very special first payday in Shanghai and the second shared Xiaoxin's thoughts regarding a vegetarian restaurant.][Added note: This post was edited to remove a section which can be found in a separate post here. An explanation for the edit is here.]

While there was much about Xiaoxin's experience in Shanghai that signified the improvements in her life, some of it did not meet her expectations. During my conversations with Xiaoxin there was one problem in particular she regularly discussed: her dissatisfaction with the business practices of her job. Initially, she had been excited to work at the art gallery. She had grown up with a deep appreciation for art, and she welcomed the opportunity to share her interests. However, she quickly found that her job was less about selling art to people who appreciated it and more about convincing tourists to purchase overpriced items. Although she was certainly happy to be earning much more money than she could in her hometown, her ideals did not allow her to take a more "pragmatic" approach and be content.

Of course not everything we discussed was about her life, and she was curious about mine as well. One day she said as if imagining a dream world, "Living in the U.S. must be wonderful. It's like all the streets are paved of gold." I briefly considered Baltimore, where I lived at the time, and thought there was much I certainly would not describe as golden. Capturing my feelings concisely would be difficult, though, so I decided to focus on one issue by saying, "Sure there's much that is great about America, but there are also many people who are not very fortunate and live in poorer conditions."

Without hesitation she replied, "Yeah, but they must feel so good to be surrounded by all that greatness."

I had never considered this and again thought about Baltimore, especially the poorer neighborhoods which closely bordered more prosperous areas. Were the people there lifted up simply by being proximate to "all that greatness"? I didn't know for sure, but I was not aware of any evidence that people felt this way. So I wondered out loud, "Maybe being around all that greatness can make people all the more aware of what they don't have. They could actually feel worse than if they weren't aware of it." The expression of wonder on Xiaoxin's face quickly disappeared. She never responded but instead considered the point in silence.

Conversations such as this one provided insights for each of us into the other's world and also more perspective on our own. I met a number of people during that trip to China, but it was only Xiaoxin that I got to know this closely. So, as my time in Shanghai was coming to an end I explained to Xiaoxin that I wanted to splurge on my last night with a special meal and that I hoped she would join me.

She accepted my invitation, and on my last evening in Shanghai I brought Xiaoxin to the Jin Mao Tower, at the time China's tallest building. I had chosen a Shanghainese restaurant near its top primarily because it offered an incredible view of Shanghai.

After the meal we walked to one of the large windows in the restaurant. I pondered the amount of unparalleled rapid development represented beautifully in front of my eyes. I also wondered what Xiaoxin, who had grown up in a far less developed region of China, was thinking. Maybe Shanghai's own version of golden streets further uplifted her spirits.

That was to be the last evening Xiaoxin and I would ever spend together in Shanghai. In a number of months, she would return to Sichuan. I would have never guessed that in a little more than a year it would be me and not Xiaoxin living in Shanghai. I will never forget those days, and I doubt she had any awareness of the type of impact she had on me.

There are many other people I later met in China who have also changed how I view the world. In future posts I will also share some of their own stories and comment further on what lessons there may be in my experiences with Xiaoxin. While she and others are but a small part of China's more than one billion people, their stories can shed light on issues of great importance to understanding not only their lives, but many others as well.

Finally, as that evening's meal of fish and other Shanghainese food settled in our stomachs, a meal which had cost more than the monthly salary of many in Xiaoxin's hometown, we continued to look at the brightly lit landscape. But like her payday and the meal at the vegetarian restaurant, the experience was not the same for each of us. The difference at the moment became very clear to me when she broke the silence and in a voice touched with amazement said, "You know what?"

"What?" I asked as we gazed at at an almost unreal scene.

"I feel like I'm a princess."

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Truck Riding and Sewer Fireworks

I will soon post a story that continues the series that began with Xiaoxin's first payday in Shanghai and her childhood dreams to eat meat. In the meantime, I'll share a photo and a video that can be (very) loosely tied together.

Today's weather was rather pleasant in Guangzhou. While many had to work at least these guys seemed to have found a way to enjoy it while relaxing outside during a break from their toils:

two men lying on cardboard on the back of a truck in Guangzhou, China
Not going to McDonald's

Scenes such as this are nothing out of the norm in China. While safety may be a concern for the above riders, I will not use this as an opportunity to provide any advice.

But I will share another piece of advice regarding safety: don't throw firecrackers into sewers. It may seem that ignoring this advice could lead to interesting results. In fact it can, and that is exactly the problem. If you are wondering what prompted me to offer such sage advice then watch the video on Youku that can be viewed below. The news story is in Chinese, but the visuals should be sufficient to make my point.


In case you are wondering, the man was sent to the hospital with facial burns and other ailments. Hopefully he fully recovers, and his experience can serve as a valuable lesson for all that fireworks and sewers were not intended to be combined. One can only imagine the other dangers that lurk in the world yet to be discovered.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Guangzhou's Renwei Temple and Nearby Neighborhood

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to stop by Guangzhou's Renwei Temple (仁威祖庙). The Taoist temple has a history of over 900 years, but like many temples in China it has been rebuilt on several occasions. I also walked through the nearby neighborhood. While the homes there would be considered "old" by many in China they certainly don't have the same depth of history as the temple. Like many similar neighborhoods in Guangzhou a number of its buildings are marked for demolition, and it may not exist in its current form for much longer.

Below are some photos of what I saw. To capture a feeling of both the neighborhood's and the temple's history I thought it would be interesting to try something new and alternate the photos being presented in sepia tones and in full color.

alley in Guangzhou, China, with a large tree and several bikes

two men walking underneath hanging laundry in Guangzhou alley

men playing cards outside and an elderly couple walking by in Guangzhou, China

convenience store in Guangzhou, China

people playing mahjong in a Guangzhou alley

people playing mahjong in a Guangzhou alley


people praying at Guangzhou's Renwei Taoist Temple

3 legged ding at Guangzhou's Renwei Taoist Temple

pile of trash at Guangzhou's Renwei Taoist Temple

woman lighting candles at Guangzhou's Renwei Taoist Temple

young woman placing incense sticks at Guangzhou's Renwei Taoist Temple

Thursday, February 2, 2012

A Most Delicious Lunch Without Meat

[Note: This is the second in a series of posts about a young lady from Sichuan province I met during my first trip to Shanghai, China. An introduction to why I am sharing these stories is here. The first post told the story of Xiaoxin's very special first payday in Shanghai and the third post can be found here.]

As seen in the previous story, our mutual enjoyment of spicy food provided a door through which Xiaoxin and I could connect. However, food also proved to highlight how some of our experiences and expectations were very different.

After our first two meals together, I told Xiaoxin there was a restaurant in Shanghai I had enjoyed on my own and wanted to introduce to her. She expressed interest, and I casually mentioned that it was vegetarian.

"Vegetarian?", she asked. So I explained that there was no meat in any of the food.

She cocked her head to the side and with great puzzlement asked, "No meat? Why would you go to a place without meat?"

For many in China eating meat is a sign of prosperity. The idea of being vegetarian for either health or moral reasons is not very common. But I really didn't grasp how much this was true until I saw Xiaoxin's reaction to my suggestion. In her eyes, it made absolutely no sense that someone who had sufficient money would chose to eat at a restaurant without meat.

I realized that explaining my perspective to her would be difficult at best, so I said, "Trust me. It's really good food. If you don't like it we can go to another place afterwards." With an expression of skepticism laid over confusion she agreed to give it a try -- if for no other reason than to be polite.

At the restaurant I ordered 5 dishes for us to share. I made sure a few of the dishes included the mock meat many vegetarian Chinese restaurants excel at making. And of course, a few of the dishes were spicy.

The results were clear. Xiaoxin was very surprised to discover that she really enjoyed the food, including the mock meat. She said she hadn't had a meal without meat in a long time. She told me, "When I was little we very rarely had meat to eat. It wasn't easy to get and it was very special for us to have any." Xiaoxin then paused for a few moments before thoughtfully adding, "I remember sometimes seeing the little girl down the lane and sometimes she would be eating chicken. I would feel so jealous of her. I really wished I could have some chicken, too. And sometimes, sometimes she would be eating fish! My mouth would water when I saw that." The deep expressions on Xiaoxin's face and in her voice as she told the story only sharpened my imagined picture of her long ago staring in envy at the girl with the fish.

Fortunately, Xiaoxin's life had significantly improved over the years since then. She later commented on these changes when she pointed out with some pride and amazement, "But now my life is so different. I eat meat all the time and can have it whenever I want. In fact, I'm really picky about my meat now. It's really so different for me. It's hard for me to believe what my life was like before."

I had known that while very significant challenges remained in China, the lives of many people had vastly improved during recent decades. But Xiaoxin's story made me feel it in a way I never had before. Maybe nothing better indicates the difficulties of those days and Xiaoxin's limited hopes for the future than when she said, "And you know? When I was a kid I had a dream. My dream was that when I grow up I'm going to eat meat three times a week!"

The perspective this put on her current life struck me very hard. I had nothing in my own experience that could compare to it. To eat meat three times a week -- that seemed like a dream to young Xiaoxin.

The next story will shed some light on Xiaoxin's dreams not when she was younger but instead at the time when I met her. Like this story and the previous one, part of it will also be about a meal we shared. In fact, it was our last meal together in Shanghai.

And I made sure to order a very large fish.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

My Brief Afternoon Break in Guangzhou

A post following up on the story about Xiaoxin's special first payday in Shanghai is on the way. Before that, I'd like to share in this light post a few photos I took while taking a brief break this afternoon following a late lunch in Guangzhou.

Where I ate lunch was near a large park, and I decided to take a stroll through it. In one section of the park I stumbled upon this performance of a piece in a Chinese opera:

performance of Chinese opera in Guangzhou, China

A small crowd had gathered to watch the performance:

crowd watching performance of Chinese opera in Guangzhou

As suggested by the lady with a camera in the photograph, performances of Chinese classical music are not a very typical part of many people's lives in China today. However, informal performances aren't uncommon in many of the parks I've seen. Fortunately I was able to catch this one which was a little more elaborate than most I've seen.

On the way back from the park I took a shortcut down this alley:

alley in Guangzhou, China

And briefly met this little girl who seemed surprised to see me there:

little girl holding a small container of trash in Guangzhou, China

She was taking out the trash from her family's small store  -- evidence that little helpers are universal. In this case, that meant dumping the trash on the side of the alley.

That's all. Again, more about Xiaoxin soon.