Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Dragon Boat Festival in Chengdu

Yesterday was the Duanwu Festival, known to many as the Dragon Boat Festival.  In China it was marked by a 3 day holiday weekend.

I enjoyed the day off in Chengdu, Sichuan and celebrated the holiday in part by visiting the historic Qingyang Temple and two parks -- the Culture Park and Baihuatan Park.  Here are some scenes of the temple and of how some people spent their day at the parks:

The Eight Trigrams Pavilion

Candles burning

Chinese calligraphy

Many like to rub the goat for good luck.

Laundry drying

A bit more fearsome

The ba gua symbol used to represent the Tao and its pursuit

Tea and mahjong are an integral part of life in Sichuan province

Kids enjoying a ride at the park

More tea and mahjong

The closest thing I saw to dragon boats that day

Just relaxing

No day is complete without a butterfly fairy

Monday, June 6, 2011

Blocked in China Every Which Way


I was going to share part of a TV show in China.  The video was on which is sometimes referred to (particularly by those outside of China) as "The YouTube of China" because of its similarities to YouTube.  Also, YouTube, coincidentally like several other key foreign web sites that could be serious competitors to local companies, is blocked in China.

When I was nearly finished with the post I had a question for a friend in America.  So I sent the link to the video on Youku and... well, this is what she saw:

Youku screen saying sorry this video can only be streamed within Mainland China

I didn't notice it before cause I had viewed it prior to turning on my VPN (which makes me appear as if I am in the US).

So, I can't share it with you on YouTube in part because YouTube is blocked in China so the video wasn't posted there.  I can't share it with you on Youku because they block the video outside of Mainland China.

I understand that there are videos in the US which can't be viewed elsewhere due to licensing reasons and such.  It's just that this feels like a particularly ironic situation.

Anyways, this actually gives me an idea for Facebook if they ever come to China.  I'll save it for a post I'm working on.

I've also been noticing some peculiar behavior with the Great Firewall lately.  More on that later as well.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Pandas in Sichuan

This weekend I had the opportunity to visit the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in Sichuan province in China.  Their web site here provides a bit of information and has some exciting announcements, including that they are looking for a Chengdu Pambassador.  I'm not sure if you get diplomatic immunity with that.

The pandas seem to have a pretty good environment to do what they do best, which from what I saw is lazing around and eating.  There were numerous locations in a very lush environment to observe the pandas.

In one part of the base there is an educational video to watch on panda reproduction.  It could leave one wondering if pandas just aren't too concerned about continuing the species anymore.  While I'm certainly no panda expert, I wasn't surprised that breeding pandas has been so challenging when the videos show attempted matings occurring is dismal bare rooms with numerous humans looking on.  Even dinosaurs know you need a little romance.

Some additional facts about giant pandas:
  • English naturalist Chris Packham thinks efforts to save the giant panda are too expensive and the funds should be used to save other animals.  In a particularly colorful moment he said, "I'd eat the last panda if I could have the money we've spent on panda conservation back on the table for me to do more sensible things with."
  • Adult pandas prefer to spend their time alone.
  • Due to their low nutrition diet, pandas need to eat a lot and may defecate up to 40 times in a day.
  • Some tribal people in Sichuan didn't believe the panda had many medicinal purposes but they did use to use panda urine to melt swallowed needles.  The referenced book doesn't offer an explanation as to why swallowed needles were such a problem.
  • "despite there being a number of depictions of bears in Chinese art starting from its most ancient times, and the bamboo being one of the favorite subjects for Chinese painters, there are no known pre-20th-century artistic representations of giant pandas."
  • The common Chinese term for pandas, 熊猫 (xióng māo), literally translates as "bear cat".  This may be because while other bear species have round pupils, the panda's pupils have vertical slits like a cat.
I know some readers have been long awaiting some gratuitous panda photos from China.  I hope the following appeases you:

Open wide

The panda flute essemble

Making a fan?

Panda trio

Young panda cuddling with Mom

Pandas sharing their thoughts on the best bamboo vintages

"I saw a pile of bamboo this big!"

The very distantly related red pandas like to eat too

Another red panda checking things out

Making use of the swing

On the way up

Made it

The older pandas are often kept solitary.  No matter, that's how they like it and the bamboo tastes just as good.

The pandas don't seem to give much notice to the strange humans.  Though they've been known to attack humans in the wild "out of irritation".

A panda shocked to see its mating rituals are being observed.  Actually, it's a less than grand diorama in the museum.

A section of another diorama in the museum.  This one is about the panda's long history.
The parks loves to point out pandas are "living fossils".  Apparently these are some prehistoric panda watchers.

Of course, a panda park wouldn't be complete without panda souvenir shops.

That's all of the panda photos for now.  Goodbye!

Today and 22 years ago in China

Here are some people today, June 4, walking on a pedestrian street in Chengdu, Sichuan province:

Here are some people on this same date 22 years ago walking on a street in Beijing:

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Pondering in Pajamas

Sometimes you just need to take some time to think...

On Renmin Road in Chengdu, Sichuan province

...even if it means outside next to the street in your pajamas.

In some parts of Shanghai it is not uncommon to see people walking about in their pajamas.  This was the first time I noticed it in Chengdu, though, so it really caught my eye.

I wanted to ask the man what he was doing or thinking about but I also didn't want to disturb the moment.  Despite all the activity in the immediate environment he seemed so serene.

Maybe we should all spend a few moments outside in our pajamas deep in thought.

Friday, June 3, 2011

NyQuil, China Style

[UPDATE below]

I had a bit of a cold for a few days and I very much needed a good night's sleep.  I probably would have headed to a store and picked up some NyQuil if I were in the US.

However, in Chengdu, Sichuan province NyQuil was not an option so I realized some East meets West ingenuity may be in order.

So first, I picked up a box of this:

side of Tylenol Cold medicine box with Chinese writing

If you're not sure what that is, let me flip the box over:

side of Tylenol Cold medicine box with English writing

But some Tylenol Cold medicine on its own certainly wasn't equal to a good dose of NyQuil without a special key ingredient.  So, I added that ingredient by washing down the medicine with some of this:

bottle of baijiu
90 proof Baijiu

Baijiu is a very common distilled liquor in China and there are a wide range of qualities.  The above bottle set me back about 10 yuan (about US $1.50).

The verdict of this new combo?

Well, based on my single test run it had a bit more of a kick to it than NyQuil but it served its purpose well.  I had a very good night's sleep.

Maybe this is why I've never seen NyQuil in China.

[UPDATE: A reader kindly recommended against mixing alcohol and Tylenol.  I had unwisely assumed that if NyQuil could mix cold medication and alcohol that other mixes would be fine as well.  After checking herehere, and here I realized it isn't that simple.  Under certain conditions mixing Tylenol and alcohol could have very negative consequences.  Fortunately, given my health, infrequent drinking, and the low dosage of Tylenol I was very unlikely to have a problem.  See the previous links for more information.  I hereby add the warning: I do not recommend trying this at home (or elsewhere).]

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Lakes, Rivers, and Vehicle Washing

In the post "Car Bombs and No-Smoking Ashtrays" I shared some thoughts on the challenges of creating useful symbols to communicate messages.

Near a lake in Chengdu, Sichuan province I saw a sign that doesn't use any symbols and yet still seems to not be achieving its desired effect.

Chinese sign posted on tree

In Chinese the sign says:

Which in English translates to:
It is strictly prohibited to wash vehicles here
Violators will be fined 50-100 RMB [the chinese currency, equivalent to about US $8 - $15]

The sign seems pretty clear to me in its intent and that it is not merely a suggestion.  However, on the other side of the sign I saw this:

man washing motorbike while woman watches

After he finished washing his bike it was only a few minutes before I saw this:

another man washing his motorbike while a young girl watches

To be clear, I did not witness the lady or the girl seen in the photos collect a fine from the two apparent violators.

I can't say how common this practice may be, but I can say that while I was in Jinghong, Yunnan province I saw a similar scene.

car parked in shallow part of a river

My friend and I were confused to see someone drive a car straight into the river.  After watching for several more minutes our questions were answered when we saw the car being washed.  Later, we witnessed others doing the same thing.

However, at least in this case I wasn't aware of any signs saying it was prohibited.  Though, I'm not sure it would have mattered.

Mobile Phones in China: More on Variety

In a recent post, I discussed the great variety of mobile phones available in China and shared some examples from stores in Zhaotong, Yunnan (see here).  A reader, Jendy, had this to say about the post:
"I wrote a paper on the cellular industry in China during my MBA program, after having spent 2 weeks in there with my class. I remember a factory owner saying that the Chinese see cell phones as a status symbol, much like cars or houses in other countries. He said that some of his factory workers would prioritize having the best and most technological cell phone over new clothes, eating a good dinner, etc."
I made some related points when I discussed the role of fashion and image in people's choice of mobile phones in an earlier post "Mobile Phones in China: Local Rates, Fashion, and Fakes":
"Many are willing to spend a large proportion of their income to purchase a mobile phone, sometimes saving up at least several months of their full salary, out of concerns related to fashion and image. For many people in China, their mobile phone will be the most expensive and openly visible item that can be with them many places they go -- like a car for many people in the US. While hanging a mobile phone around ones neck isn't as common in China as it used to be, there remain many opportunities for it to be visible."
Fashion, image, and status can be very intertwined.  For now, I'll avoid getting into a deep discussion on these issues, but suffice it to say they all can play a role in many mobile phone purchases in China.

Jendy continued with a claim connecting the role of a mobile phone as a status symbol and the diversity of mobile phones in China:
"So, it's not really surprising that there is more variety in China when there is a large population of people who prioritize cell phones over many other things."
Jendy also provided some anecdotal evidence for the impact Chinese brand mobile phones are already having globally:
"On a side note, I have friends in Chile who order Chinese phones over the web because there is so much more variety and phones with more features than you can't find here (dual sim phones for example)."
As Jendy's example shows, by developing localized designs for Chinese consumers Chinese mobile phone manufacturers are also likely creating devices that meet needs in other markets.  There are reports that exports of Chinese brand mobile phones are rapidly growing (I'm still looking for a source I feel OK about linking to, though).  It will be fascinating to see how the industry develops.

To further highlight the variety of mobile phones available from China I'll share some photos from a store you may have heard of in Zigong, a city in Sichuan province that is a six hour bus ride from Zhaotong.  In a previous post about Mother's Day in Zigong I shared some photos of a fashion show at Mall-mart and commented that the store was similar to Walmart in many ways.  I later discovered that Zigong's first actual Walmart had opened only a few months prior to my visit.

Zigong's first Walmart

As typical for Walmarts in China, it had an electronics section including mobile phones.  Like the department store in Zhaotong it had a wide array of Chinese brand phones in addition to more globally familiar brands such as Nokia.  However, many of the Chinese brands were different from those I had seen in the Zhaotong store.  Here are some photos of the selection available at Walmart (thanks to the Walmart staff for permission):

Quejaz mobile phones

Hedy and Gionee mobile phones

"Great" mobile phones

Lenovo mobile phone with transparent screen.

Nokia mobile phones 

Konka and Dim mobile phones

Dim and Opsson mobile phones

There were other brands as well.  The Walmart in Zigong and the stores in Zhaotong are of course just a handful of stores, but they are representative in many ways and provide a hint of the diversity of mobile phones available in China.

More on mobile phones in China later.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Car Bombs and No-Smoking Ashtrays

James Fallows recently shared two photos of signs in Beijing and asked his readers to guess their meanings (see here for post).

Here is the first sign:

And here is the second sign:

The first sign confused me at first, but when I thought "China" the meaning was immediately obvious to me: "no firecrackers".  In China, I've seen firecrackers lit just about anywhere, including on sidewalks as people are walking by.  I've also seen signs forbidding them in a variety of places such as subway stations.

In a later post James Fallows shared some other responses from his readers to the "no firecrackers" sign.  Here are just a few:

  • "No Fishboning Permitted!!!"
  • "Don't pull the martial arts weapons off the pine trees"
  • The sign must mean: "Don't step on the fishbones lying on the ground, because it will make a funny noise."
  • My guess - "cutting down trees and/or removing tree branches is prohibited."
  • Beware of falling Douglas fir twigs?
For a fuller list of interesting guesses by Fallows' readers see the post here.

The second sign, which James Fallows initially labeled "no car bombers", left me more baffled.  In his post, Fallows shared some of my thoughts including that it was "no loudspeaker announcements from cars", "no sirens", or "no giant sponge monsters on top of car".  As the last guess may indicate, none of my answers had left me convinced I had really figured it out.

Later, Fallows added the following two contributions from readers on the meaning of the sign:

  • My wife (from China) says the second one means "no transporting loads on top of cars."  (btw, she knew no firecrackers instantly).
  • [Reader who once lived in China] As for the second sign, I have seen it many times before and never figured it out. But the firecracker sign gave me an idea: could it mean "no setting off fireworks on top of your car?" I have seen people in a Chinese wedding motorcade dropping fireworks onto the road, so perhaps in the past they affixed them to the roof of the car.
The first explanation seems questionable to me because I am unclear why this rule would be applied to such a specific area.  I also am not sold on the second explanation.  I've seen some pretty raucous wedding motorcades but have never seen anyone lighting firecrackers on their car roof (yet).

If Greece has anything to say about the sign they may actually support something similar to Fallows' original suggestion.  For example this sign in Greece:

according to Wickipedia means "No vehicles carrying explosive or flammable goods".  All I can say is I guess Greece doesn't have a giant sponge monster problem.

I was now curious to hear from some more people in China.  Not having time to do a rigorous experiment in Beijing, I informally showed the Beijing "no car bombers" sign to a waitress and waiter at a cafe (where I am writing this piece) in Chengdu, Sichuan province.  Here's a summary of their responses (they both easily recognized the first sign as "no fireworks"):

Waitress (who had last year passed her driving test):
  • She was clueless at first.  She said she had never seen a sign like that in any of her preparation for the Chinese driving test.
  • She first suggested it might be about not carrying fireworks.
  • She then wondered if it was about not making noise.
  • Her final answer was that it was a warning not to stop because something could fall from above.
  • He too had never seen such a sign.
  • His first guess was that it was about objects falling from above.  He stuck to that.
I shared the suggestion that it was "no transporting loads on top of cars."  Neither thought that was a possibility.

So, with the little evidence available to me it doesn't appear the sign has a consistent interpretation, even to Chinese.  However, maybe it's a Beijing thing.  With any luck, Fallows will later share more (which looks like will happen soon).

The signs brought to mind another moment when I had been confused by a symbol in China.  This is what I saw in a supposedly no-smoking hotel room in Dunhua, Jilin (for some earlier posted photos of scenes in Jilin see here):

While the symbol seemed readily clear to me, "no smoking", its placement on an ashtray seemed to be rather contradictory.  I wondered if there was an explanation other than someone having a strong sense of humor.

Numerous times in China I've seen evidence that would suggest the ashtray may be a response to hotel guests' behavior.  No-smoking rules are not regularly enforced in many parts of China.  It's not uncommon to find people smoking in designated non-smoking areas, whether it is a hotel room, elevator, stairwell, etc.  I've also seen the effects of people smoking in a no-smoking hotel room -- for example, glasses intended for drinking filled with cigarette butts.

The ashtray may be a pragmatic design in that it both informs people (where else is a smoker more likely to notice a non-smoking symbol?) and it reduces the chances of other undesired consequences if people ignore its message.

Also, in many cities in China no-smoking rooms are only available in more upscale hotels.  It is possible this hotel merely wanted to "act" upscale but had no real concern about guests smoking.

When I showed the ashtray photo to the same Chinese waitress she said it meant "You shouldn't smoke because it's bad for your health, but here's an ashtray in case you still want to".  Her interpretation would be consistent with the idea that the "do not" slash is more of a suggestion than a rule.  Maybe fitting since in China there are many "rules" which are in fact rather flexible.  Another waitress believed the symbol meant "no smoking" but was confused about the purpose of the object.  Her only guess was that it was a pencil holder.  When I suggested the possibility it was an ashtray she dismissed the idea as ridiculous since the no-smoking symbol was obvious.

So, like the car-bombing sign, the true intentions behind the no-smoking ashtray (or whatever you want to think it is) remains unclear.

I share the above because it highlights the challenges in creating symbols that convey a clear and consistent meaning without using any words AND the challenges in fully interpreting symbols in other cultures where you may not be aware of key contextual information.

This is an issue I've faced in my work when evaluating/creating icons for software, online services, etc.  Even a button for a seemingly simple function can provide a difficult challenge.  What at first may seem to be an obvious solution could be found to be ineffective after observing how numerous potential users interpret it.  It can take several cycles of design and testing to find the best symbol.

Furthermore, you may need to either localize symbols for particular groups of people or find a symbol that is interpreted consistently regardless of culture (which can be challenging depending on the cultures involved).   Even if a symbol is understood, it may still need to be localized to feel more "home-like".

And possibly, like the "no fireworks" sign, sometimes it might not be a problem if a symbol is only understood by some people.  The people who don't understand the symbol may not be the people you're trying to reach.  The "no fireworks" sign may be clear enough to fireworks-loving Chinese.  The fact that non-fireworks wielding foreigners don't understand it is not critical (assuming they don't cause a fish bone incident due to a misinterpretation).

So, next time you see a symbol being used you can ponder the challenges in finding the "right" symbol and whether the way you see it is the same as people from other cultures.

Finally, the waiter and waitress I questioned about the Beijing sign didn't feel satisfied with their answers.  They very much wanted me to tell them the answer and I had to say I was unsure myself.  When I explained that I thought the confusion was possibly indicative of poor design or that the meanings of some symbols need to be taught to be understood the waitress responded, "Well, this is the government making mistakes.  Don't blame the people."

I definitely won't.