Thursday, April 14, 2011

Prague Cafe, Kunming: The Drink of Choice

In yesterday's post about how "humility" and "disgrace" play an important role in China I mentioned one of the many places in China that felt far away from issues of censorship, detainment or any of the other negatives of China -- the Prague Cafe in Kunming, Yunnan:

Outside of the Prague Cafe in Kunming

However, while in many ways the cafe is a sign of progress for China there was one clear indication that progress takes time -- at least in the eyes of those of us with particular tastes in beer (see here).  Despite offering a couple of different options for Czech beer, the beer of choice by the Chinese customers there was this:

Dali Beer

The customers at the Prague Cafe were drinking a local brew -- Dali Beer.  I've had it before, in Dali in fact, and it's a mid-range quality Chinese beer (however, like for many things in China the boundaries can be fuzzy).  This may be another example of localized tastes.  More likely, though, it was related to another important issue - cost.  Many of the customers were college students and the Czech beer was significantly more expensive.

At least the customers have the choice to someday discover a wonderful Czech beer.  If they're really lucky, they'll even get to try some Czech inspired bia hoi in Vietnam some day and learn the ins and outs of how not to be tricked when trying to find some.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Humiliation and Disgrace: Interfering With China's Attempts to Improve Its Image and the Lives of its Citizens

[UPDATE: Follow-up to this post here

James Fallows has a post about another post by Richard Burger on the site The Peking Duck.  They are both well worth reading and they discuss how an editorial about the recent detention of the artist Ai Weiwei by the Chinese publication "The Global Times" does more damage than good to how foreigners view China -- despite its apparent aim to protect China's image.  Yesterday, in a post about the renovation of a major museum in Beijing I made a very similar point about how China's methods for trying to portray a positive image can backfire and that "When China can more openly confront its warts, its genuine achievements will be better recognized and appreciated by the world."

In regards to the concern many Chinese have about China's image, "The Peking Duck's" account includes a telling quote from a senior Chinese newspaper editor:
"'How can China admit to the world it is being defeated, it is bowing to international pressure and not doing what is right for China? How can we humiliate ourselves like that?'"
The concern in China about humiliation was particularly highlighted to me during a visit to the Unit 731 Museum in Haerbin, Heilongjiang.  Unit 731 was
"a covert biological and chemical warfare research and development unit of the Imperial Japanese Army that undertook lethal human experimentation during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945) and World War II. It was responsible for some of the most notorious war crimes carried out by Japanese personnel."
The atrocities committed at the site are shocking.  While I've commented before on the almost religious use of dioramas in Chinese museums, the Unit 731 Museum had a diorama that I felt effectively added to the museum's message.  It captures the insanity and terror of what happened at a nearby location in its depiction of the testing of chemical weapons by the Japanese military years ago:

Scene of chemical weapons testing on live Chinese prisoners

Sites such as these in China often bring to mind many of the sites I've visited in Europe and the US regarding the Holocaust.  One quote commonly seen at Holocaust sites is "Never Forget".  Its simple message resonates the purpose in keeping the facts of the Holocaust alive -- to ensure it doesn't happen again.

At the Unit 731 Museum a message prominently displayed in a movie room had a similarly worded  message, but I think the additional words in the message say so much about how history and current events can be viewed in China:


The fixation on disgrace is further exemplified at the 9.18 Memorial Museum in Shenyang, Liaoning.  It highlights other aspects of the war with Japan and further atrocities.  Towards the end of the exhibit is this set of figures:

Rows of figures of Japanese involved in the war with China

A sign nearby read:
The disgraceful end of the Japanese agressors
The unconditional surrender of the Japanese imperialists marked the shameful loss of the aggressors.  The war criminals were brought to justice by the people and history.

One of the largest displays in the museum was solely dedicated to depicting rows of Japanese apparently bowing their heads in shame, again focusing on the issue of disgrace.

Both museums are invaluable in telling their respective stories and I'd highly recommend visiting them.  However, the issue of disgrace, both China's and others', can come across as being more important than expressing a key hope -- that such horrors never happen again anywhere.

Even if one is primarily concerned about disgrace, Fallows points out that if Ai Weiwei were released, or never detained in the first place, it would not be seen by the rest of the world as a sign of weakness.  That the act to cover up or explain away a self-perceived weakness could be so self-defeating came up in another experience of mine.

Previously, I wrote about my discussion with a policeman during my detention in a northern city in China (see here).  In short, I was detained under suspicions of being a journalist (I am not) due to photographing an area with recently demolished homes.  I later discovered that it was a particularly sore topic for the local residents (as it is in many locations in China) since the previous residents didn't feel they were compensated appropriately.  The Chinese media had covered the incidents in the area the very day I made my visit.

On my part it was a complete coincidence and I ended up in the neighborhood after randomly walking about the city.  The policeman I spoke to told me they were investigating me because they believed foreign journalists typically put China in a very poor light.  His comment about the issue was particularly intriguing since he viewed the forced eviction of residents to be a genuine problem in China.  However, his concern about China's image and what he thought would best protect it trumped his other concerns.

After gaining an understanding of his feelings, I told him that similar issues of eminent domain, though not on the same scale, come up in many countries around the world and are openly discussed.  It was not an issue such as this that reflected most poorly on China, but instead issues related to what was happening to me at that very moment -- China's desire to repress news it deems unfavorable.  Although he had never considered such a possibility before, upon hearing my account he seemed to genuinely appreciate the irony of the situation and gave it thoughtful consideration.

I have had many constructive conversations with Chinese about this and other issues of concern.  Richard Burger commented on his similar experience when having a discussion with the editor of The Global Times about the error the Chinese media was making in its attempts to influence foreigners:
"This was, as I said, a long, polite and serious discussion. I never experienced anything quite like it before, because despite the mental barriers I referred, to, she genuinely wanted to hear my opinion and to learn how the West sees China, and I think she actually “got” that the GT, even if they’re right, is scaring people away and damaging its own cause with readers who are not Chinese. She actually said she wanted to discuss my argument with her superiors."
My experience was similar.  The policeman was very curious to hear my viewpoints on this and related issues.  And also like Richard Burger, I hope that my conversations have made even the smallest of differences.

Finally, James Fallows writes, "...the way official China "presents" itself to the outside world makes conditions look considerably worse than the mixed realities of the country itself."  With that in mind I'd like to share where I was when I first read James Fallows' post:

Yes, I was enjoying a tasty salad at a comfortable cafe in China (I typically like to enjoy the local fare wherever I go, but today I craved for a salad).  Not just any cafe, but one I suspect James Fallows would particularly appreciate -- the Prague Cafe:

I was in Kunming, Yunnan, a city in Southwest China, far away from the more metropolitan areas full of foreign influence, such as Shanghai and Beijing.  At this cafe and other nearby cafes, restaurants, and street markets Chinese were relaxing where they wanted to, talking about what they wanted to talk about, and sitting with whoever they wanted to openly and without fear.  The cafes themselves are also a sign of the growing number of people in China with increased disposable income -- even in relatively less prosperous provinces.  This is part of "the vast other areas of Chinese life that are ticking away open and uncontrolled" that James Fallows references.  It is unfortunate that China's advances in this regard are often overshadowed by the Chinese Government's continued desire to repress viewpoints that differ from its own and any "bad" news  -- sometimes at the expense of harming some its own citizens' lives.

So, like Richard Burger, James Fallows, and many others I hope China grows in its ability to be more open.  The world is not looking for China to be perfect -- we all know other countries such as the US have plenty of their own issues.  And countries such as America don't expect China to agree with them on every issue.  But the world is looking for more honest and open discussion about a variety of issues important to China and its people without anyone fearing detention.  This way, the world can better cooperate with the Chinese Government and its people so that China can continue to healthily grow and scenes such as of these young Chinese:

Dancing game at a video arcade in Guiyang, Guizhou

At a festival in Guangzhou, Guangdong

Rollerskating at a park in Shangqiu, Henan

Students studying at a modern library in Shantou, Guangdong

Students raising money for charity in Dalian, Liaoning

can make more of a positive impact on how people around the world view China.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Size or Truth: What Matters Most for a Renovated Museum in China

I want to share some excerpts and thoughts on an article at The New York Times about the renovated National Museum of China in Beijing.  They highlight how the Chinese Government's desire to impress China's citizens and the world can trump any desire to share the full truth.

In a previous post, I shared Hong Kong writer Chung Wah Chow's comment that many museums in China strictly followed a single template for their design -- often leading to uncreative results (and in my opinion a few too many ineffective dioramas).  According to the NYT article a broader range of experts was apparently consulted for the National Museum of China's renovation.  Unfortunately, it may have had more of an impact on ensuring the museum would be the biggest than the museum presenting Chinese history truthfully and proportionally.  A European museum director recalls his conversations with those involved in renovating the Chinese museum:
“I got a call asking how many square meters is the Louvre,” recalled Martin Roth, director of Dresden’s state museums and an informal consultant to the museum for a decade. “Then 10 minutes later another call asking how many square meters is the British Museum. I said, ‘You guys are sitting with the architects and are figuring out how to be the biggest, right?’ They laughed and said yes."
“We feel we had a lot to show and need the space,” Mr. Tian said. “It’s not about being the biggest, but China does have 5,000 years of culture so it’s not inappropriate to be the biggest.”
Size being important for a project in China is not so surprising.  Yet, all that space, all that history, and:
Officials rejected proposals for a permanent historical exhibition that would have discussed the disasters of early Communist rule — especially the Great Leap Forward, a political campaign and resulting famine that killed more than 20 million. Some organizers also wanted a candid appraisal of the Cultural Revolution, a decade-long attack on traditional culture and learning, but that effort was squashed. 
One professor in China voiced his displeasure with the newly renovated museum:
“It ignores the conflicts, which real history shouldn’t do,” said an archaeology professor at Peking University who asked to remain anonymous because of the issue’s delicacy. “This is why I would not call this exhibition real history but propaganda.”
This brings to mind an incredible series of posts by Xujun Eberlein about the search for truth regarding America's involvement in China in the post-WWII years (I highly recommend reading it).  In part, it shares how propaganda can persist in China -- both in people's minds and at historical sites -- even when some experts in China know the truth.

I've commented in the past that my more positive impression of an art museum in Hanoi, Vietnam than of many similar city art museums in China may have been reflective of the choices of the museums' curators.  The NYT article highlights the value of curators in a quote about the National Museum of China:
“What they need are passionate curators to go into those bronzes and textiles and find new interpretations,” Ms. Murck said. “Because a great museum depends on a great curatorial staff.”
However, even if China has great curators it might not always matter.  For example, the National Museum of China curators and other experts had their suggestions overruled by various Chinese officials, including those in the Ministry of Culture.

For now, the Chinese Government seems most concerned that one of its showcase museums is the biggest in the world and paints a rosy picture of China.  It is ironic that in its quest to improve its image in the world with a renovated museum, China has effectively highlighted one of the issues which cause many around the world to perceive it negatively in the first place -- China's inability in many situations to provide a balanced and accurate account of its history and current events.

When China can more openly confront its warts, its genuine achievements will be better recognized and appreciated by the world.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Copying & Localization: Dairy Queen, Mango Queen, and TCBY

Previously, I shared that not only was Dairy Queen facing an ice cream competitor with the curiously similar name DU, but also facing potential competition from Mango Queen.

Now I'll share that Dairy Queen may have decided that Mango Queen and/or others like it were on to something.  Inside a Dairy Queen in Kunming, Yunnan I saw this sign:

Dairy Queen menu sign showing mango selections

As seen in the center, Dairy Queen now offers two different mango drinks/smoothies.  Given typical tastes for desserts in China, this seems like a reasonable localized offering.  Dairy Queen might not have any competition from Mango Queen in Kunming but mango drinks & desserts are popular at many places.

But even if Dairy Queen corners the mango drink/smoothie market in Kunming, they may still have to worry about some other competition down the street:

TCBY store

Yes, it's TCBY.  I've spotted them in other cities in China as well, however they appear to be fewer in number than Dairy Queen.  In the area seen above I saw at least 4-5 Dairy Queens and 2 TCBY's within a 20 minute walking distance.  Even with that density, I saw one Dairy Queen with a line of customers stretching outside.

As evidenced by the milk tea at TCBY, a popular drink in China, it is clear they've adjusted their menu as well.  All of this goes to show how many American food & beverage companies are localizing their menus in China -- an important thing since Chinese tastes and expectations are different from American's.  I am happy to say, though, that while tastes may differ there is clear evidence that many Chinese share a preference with American's for a key item -- Oreo Blizzards remain a staple in Chinese DQ's.

The various "shared ideas" of Dairy Queen, Mango Queen, TCBY and other dessert places also highlights that the line between inspiration and copying can sometimes be fuzzy.  I'm not equating all such acts and defending plagiarism, copyright infringement, etc., but simply pointing out that there sometimes can be murkiness in these issues -- even from a purely Western perspective.

The issues of copying and localization play important roles for foreign companies doing business in China.  Copyright and trademark issues can be major problems, but to some degree many foreign companies will benefit from their own form of copying, whatever you want to call it, so they can best adapt to the local market.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Christianity and Churches in China

Today in Beijing, police detained Chinese Christians who were praying in a public plaza. 

While providing updates via Twitter, Louisa Lim, an NPR Beijing correspondent, sent a tweet capturing the feelings of some of those who were involved:
"I'm not scared" one Christian said before outdoor prayers. Those I saw didn't waver in their hymns, as police w walkie-talkies surrounded.

It is yet another facet of the growing number of people being detained or disappearing in China in an apparent recent crackdown.

I'll take this moment to share a little of what I've seen regarding Christianity in China.  It was never a focus of any of the research I've done. However, over time I've noticed Christianity in a variety of contexts.

Even when interviewing participants for research studies to design better technological services and products for Chinese consumers, I've come across religion - whether seeing a Bible on a person's table or someone telling me how they communicated their religious beliefs (some of my previous research in China was for mobile social networking services).

Any church services I have happened to observe were in Chinese.  This sign helps give a sense of the proportion of Chinese vs English services in a city with a relatively large number of foreigners not fluent in Chinese (Cantonese and Mandarin are both Chinese dialects):

sign showing schedule of church services and events with only a few being in English
Sign outside church in Guangzhou

There were other instances of Christianity being openly displayed.  For example, when I was exploring several old villages in Yantou, Zhejiang, I came across this funeral procession:

While appearing traditionally Chinese in many ways, a closer look showed a strong Christian influence:

flags carried in funeral procession with a Christian cross
Flags with Christian cross

some people wear hats with Christian crosses
Hats with Christian cross

The Christian funeral procession was parading through some very public streets and squares.  It was not particularly surprising to see that Yantou had at least 2 larger churches.

One of Yantou's churches

After seeing the procession, I had an interesting conversation with this local shop owner:

lady with young child in a small convenience store

She commented that the older people in the town believe in Buddha while the younger people "believe in science".  However, she had no idea how to characterize those who believe in Jesus.

While religious expression is tightly controlled in China, the visibility of Christian beliefs is one of the many things I was surprised to discover as I've conducted research across China.  While walking in several Chinese cities I've even seen people actively encouraging others passing by their church to come in to participate or watch.  It will be fascinating to see what impact religion plays in China's future.

Below are photos of various churches I've seen across China during the past year or so.  Many of them are in cities not familiar to those outside China.  This is not intended to be representative in any way -- it's just what I've happened to see.  To the best of my knowledge all of the following churches are "alive" in some manner.  I've seen others that are now museums or relics.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Best Belt Buckle on a Waiter in China

The post title says it all...

Chinese waiter in formal attire with a large yellow happy face belt buckle

Revel in the happiness.

Opportunistic Research for Designing Technology in China: Teddy Bears and KFC

In my previous post, I shared what I learned from a discussion with a policemen while I was detained in China.  Though the events of that day gave me much to worry about at the time, it proved to be a fascinating opportunity to gain further insights about China.

I'd like to use that unusual example of opportunistic research to jump into sharing more about how I do research in China using wide range of methods to guide the design of technology that is useful, usable, and desirable.

For today, I'll describe another instance of opportunistic research that occurred while I was headed to a restaurant in a central shopping district in Kunming, Yunnan.  On the way I saw this Chinese girl:

girl hold stuffed bear appearing to look at a KFC

Was she gazing longingly at KFC -- a very popular restaurant in China?  No.  In fact, she was looking at something else:

girl looking a video display above a KFC

Above the KFC was a large video screen.  The above photo captures a moment when a Papa John's advertisement was being displayed.

The intersection of "East meets West" and advertising piqued my interest (as did the teddy bear she was carrying).  Food could wait and I approached the girl to hopefully speak with her:

close up of the girl with her stuffed bear

Fortunately, the girl was open to speaking about a variety of issues.  Some of the details I learned were that she was:
  • waiting for her sister to go to dinner
  • not interested in KFC because she felt it was "unhealthy"
  • holding a big bear because her friend had given it to her that day for her recent birthday
  • using a piece of technology she really liked that had been given to her by her mother:

Girl's iPod shuffle

Most importantly, in a relatively short amount of time I gained insights into the girl's:
  • perception of brands and fake products
  • technology usage
  • aspirations
  • social relationships
  • and more
Relevant knowledge in all of these areas can be key to the successful design and marketing of a variety of technologies.

Also, while what I learned could be a valuable research contribution for a new technological product or service, I didn't approach the girl because I saw her using technology nor were many of the questions specifically about technology.  Sometimes, ignoring technology can provide the biggest insights for designing and marketing technology.  I'll expand on this thought in later posts.

I will also later share other research experiences, the particular challenges I have faced conducting research in China, what some of the findings suggest for design, and more.

And no, I wasn't headed to KFC for lunch.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Detained in China: My Chance to Hear a Policeman's Views on Revolution and More

The recent increase of people in China being mysteriously detained is deeply worrisome.  A relatively up-to-date review of the situation can be found here.

This brings to mind my own experience of being detained last fall for several hours in a city in northern China.  I don't want to make a big deal about the detention itself or directly compare it to current events.  While it was a rather stressful and worrisome experience that could have easily escalated further, it certainly was many levels of magnitude tamer than what many detained Chinese are presumably experiencing at this very moment.

What I most want to share now is from a conversation I had when I was alone with one of the more sympathetic police officers (at one point 5 officers were involved) while his partner conferred on the phone with her superior.  Given my experience interviewing numerous people under a variety of conditions in China, I felt reasonably confident that I was not being played in a "good cop, bad cop" scenario and that the police man's comments during that period of time were genuine.  Since the Chinese Government apparently has significant problems in understanding how to best deal with the perceptions of foreigners, it would be surprising to me if a 2nd tier city policeman who had never left China could have been so savvy.

While some of the young man's views may not be representative of the majority of police officers it was nonetheless fascinating to hear them voiced by one.  During the conversation several themes came up that I've noticed in numerous conversations I've had with younger Chinese across China.  They include:

China's "face" can be an overriding concern.
For example, he felt that the housing situation in China was unfair to many people and he hoped for change.  However, he didn't want the foreign press to report on it because he felt it would reflect poorly on his country.

Anything the US Government wants is bad for China.
Whether it was the US Government's stance on the exchange rate for Chinese currency or the reporting on China by the US media (which he viewed as an extension of the US Government), he assumed that for any disagreement between the US and Chinese governments whatever the US advocated must be detrimental to China.  I have previously noted that assumptions regarding the US Government's intents and who it controls played key a role in students' perception of Google last year after a speech by Hillary Clinton and exploited in a recent piece in China accusing Google of "meddling" in Egypt.

China remains far behind the US.
The idea that China is about to surpass the US was laughable to him.  For example, he said, "China only makes cheap stuff.  America makes more important things."

There is an unfair spread of wealth in China.
He said that "80% of the money in China is held by very few" and that the poorer people were very upset and could become "emotional" about the current disparity of wealth in China.

The magic number for improvement is 20 years.
He believes the Chinese Government has many problems and that it will need to change or the people will revolt.  However, he also believes there is a 20 year window before any revolt would be inevitable.  The 20 year figure is one I've commonly heard from people across China.  I have wondered if it in part reflects a desire to avoid feeling they need to personally do anything about the problems they perceive and/or effective "communication" by the Chinese Government to help reduce the number of calls for immediate change.

He was also eager to hear my viewpoints on several topics and it proved a useful opportunity to explore some ideas I had about how foreigners (whether individuals, companies, or governments) can best express their viewpoints in China --  something I plan to post more about later.   There was only one topic we discussed that he was not open to reconsidering --  in his eyes Japanese were categorically "bad".

While I certainly hope I never again face being detained (at any level) in China, I am glad I had this opportunity to have such an open conversation with a police officer.  For me, it also reflected one of my strategies I've often employed while conducting exploratory research in China -- be opportunistic. 

Finally, there were some comments he made that may not have been easily categorized into some of the themes that came out of any of my prior research but were particularly telling.

At one point he said that the police were on "the side of the people" while the military was "on the side of the Chinese Government" -- a striking dichotomy for him to explicitly state.  It also proved relevant to understanding his answer to a later question.  After saying he expected the people to revolt within 20 years if the government didn't make significant changes I asked him, "If there is a revolt against the Government by the people, what will you do?"

He sat pensively for several seconds.  He looked off in the distance and said, "I'm not sure which side I would take."

He then paused before directly looking at me and adding, "But my job is to protect the people."

Horse Cart in Xizhou, Yunnan

I'd like to add yet another example to my posts on various modes of transportation in China (two on this blog here and here, and another here as a guest on James Fallows' blog).

While traveling between some of the villages in Xizhou, Yunnan I made use of this form of transportation:

view of road ahead while sitting on a horse cart

As I rode the "horse cart taxi", I saw that numerous local people were also using them to get around. I particularly enjoyed this mode of transportation as there was no apparent pollution -- at least during my ride.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Ai Weiwei: A Chinese Artist With Real Problems

Several days ago, to celebrate the April 1 holiday I wrote a post about a Chinese artist.  In it I refer to the very real challenges faced by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.  Not long after my post, I discovered that Ai Weiwei had been detained in China prior to boarding a flight from Beijing to Hong Kong.  France and Germany have already called for his release and others are voicing their concern in other ways -- for example an architect refusing to take any additional commissions in China until Ai Weiwei is released. 

I will very soon be back to posting regularly and will comment more on Ai Weiwei's predicament and related issues.  I feel that China being so concerned about an artist speaks volumes.  Unfortunately for Ai Weiwei and others like him, China is not playing an April Fool's joke.

Friday, April 1, 2011

China's Great Firewall Inspires a Chinese Artist

I've been posting quite a bit on China's Great Firewall and related issues (most recent post here).  The Great Firewall has had much impact in China, not the least on artists.

In Handan, Hebei a local artist unveiled a piece of art in a public park to express his views on the Great Firewall:

bench straddling a concrete square border with dirt in the center

The artist described the piece to me:
"The concrete square represents the Great Firewall encircling a China that is still building.  The bench represents those breaking through the Great Firewall by thinking outside of the box.  And not least, the bricks which are mostly outside of the square represent the ideas for building a better China that remain out of the reach of many because of the Great Firewall and other policies of the Chinese Government."
I'm glad I was able to speak to the artist.  Otherwise I'd be bewildered as to how something that appears to be so "wrong" could be constructed.  I'm sure you can find additional symbolism in the piece.

That such a display of art was in a public park came at a great surprise to me.  I'd be worried there could be undesirable repercussions for the artist, such as those apparently faced by Ai Weiwei (see here).  Maybe for this reason the artist, Hei Pofu, said it would only be displayed as above for today.

[Additional Info:  Since time has passed, please note the special date of the post.]

China Scenes: Quanzhou, Fujian

Finally made it to somewhere with a manageable Internet connection.  By middle of next week I should be back up to regular speed for posting.

Today, I'll share some photos from Quanzhou, Fujian.  Quanzhou is across the water from Taiwan and its administrative area has a population reportedly of 7-8 million.  I'd argue that some Chinese cities' administrative areas are more similar to counties in the US and that population numbers in China can be "fuzzy", but those are topics for another day.  Regardless, Quanzhou has plenty of people and here are glimpses of into some of their lives:

Shopping street

Street/Sidewalk Market


Which catches your attention more?  An iPhone 4 car?

Or a Counter-Strike car?

Families at a park

Baby bottles on poles & fish?

fish sucking food from a baby bottle
A fun way for kids to feed the fish

Two girls working at a mobile phone shop

Small lake in the city center

College student playing her violin outside to take a break