Wednesday, December 7, 2011

An Experience Observing Shopping in Handan, Hebei

I'll share a light story about an experience that like the previous post about the couple in Liuzhou provided me an opportunity to observe shopping behavior in China. Far from Liuzhou, this experience took place in Handan, Hebei province (see here for the more than 1000 mile drive between the two). I don't expect it to necessarily inspire any ideas related to technology on its own, but it will help provide some additional color and context for a few upcoming posts.

While in Handan last year in November, I stopped by yet another mobile phone store to see their selection and talk with some of the staff:

four young ladies at mobile phone store
Assistants in their work uniforms and one of their friends at a mobile phone store.

After a lengthy discussion, one of them offered to show me around the city on their day off. I accepted the unexpected invitation, and the next day met her and two of her friends:

In short, they didn't have much of a plan for sightseeing, but they were thrilled to discover I'd be happy to go shopping with them. By "go shopping" I mean follow them around as they shop. I had no personal desire to go shopping myself, but I knew the opportunity to observe them could provide some useful insights.

The first shopping center they visited was here:

large shopping center

It was a large building full of small individually-owned clothing stores, such as this one which was owned by an acquaintance of theirs:

In upcoming posts I'll share more about the environments of similar shopping centers. But one detail about this particular shopping center is worth sharing now since it connects with the previous post. As in Liuzhou, Lady Gaga made an appearance, this time in the name of one of the stores:

small clothing store with the name Lady Gage on its window

After an afternoon of shopping, I asked them to pick one of their favorite places to have dinner since I was interested to know what type of restaurant they would consider "special". For example, when I presented this choice to a shop assistant in Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province she excitedly chose KFC.

However, this time KFC was not the choice. Instead, they chose a restaurant well known in Handan for this favorite dish of theirs:

bowl of spicy duck heads

It's probably not clear from the photo, so I'll help out and identify that as a big pot of spicy duck heads. Thanks to some previous experiences with coworkers at Microsoft China I was prepared to tackle such a delicacy. Still, I couldn't have predicted that munching on a bunch of duck heads would be the way we'd close out the day.

In upcoming posts, I'll focus in on several items of interest two me regarding shopping in China that could have an impact on the design of technology. I think for now I have fulfilled my quota on posts regarding Lady Gaga and duck heads.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Shopping in Liuzhou Lady Gaga Style

In previous posts I wrote about how opportunistic and exploratory research conducted in a classroom in Nanning and a hair salon in Liuzhou opened up a variety of insights and questions that could help guide the design of technology. I'll now share another experience I had in Liuzhou last year that's very different from both of them. It may not include any photos focused on technology, but it could have just as much of an impact.

One evening, after leaving a store with a wide variety of Chinese designed and manufactured mobile phones I was deciding where to go next. While I stood in thought at a street corner this young couple approached me and asked if I needed directions:

Two friendly college students in Liuzhou, Guangxi

Although I didn't need directions, I took advantage of the opportunity to ask them a few questions about the very inexpensive mobile phone I had just purchased and the conversation led to other topics as well. They then asked if I'd like to join them as they enjoyed a break from their college studies, and I happily accepted.

Later in the evening I accompanied the couple to a shopping area that looks like this during day:

Sidewalk during the day

While there are a number of stores along the street, in the evening the area transforms into another shopping experience -- a night market:

Sidewalk during the night

Given the crowds in the photo, it's hard to see that there are numerous racks with clothes for sale and additional items on display on the ground.

During their time at the night market the couple considered a variety of goods such as some bowls:

and shorts:

That night wasn't just an opportunity for me to observe what they did while shopping, but to also learn about their thoughts on numerous topics and about how they expressed themselves. For example, the young lady was particularly colorful, whether it was her desire to pose for photographs in various locations:

Posing on a bridge over the Liu River

her abilities in opening beer bottles with her teeth:

Opening a bottle of beer during dinner

or her favorite expressions such as the frequent, "That's so Lady Gaga!"

This is just a small taste of what I saw and learned that night and serves as a lead into several upcoming posts about some other shopping environments in China. I'll touch on a variety of related topics such as how computers are used in small retail businesses and how such environments may provide insights for designing better online shopping experiences. Those posts will shed some some light on how what I learned in Liuzhou could be of value to designing new technology.

For now, I'll just say that the opportunity to talk with the college couple in Liuzhou and observe a small part of their lives was yet another invaluable experience. The opportunistic nature of it added the benefit that I could be sure that factors such as their style of dress weren't a reflection of preparing for me in any way. And based on what they told me, it may have been very unlikely I would have come across them through a typical recruiter for a research study.

So, I'm very glad I took the time to pause on that street corner.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Themes of Fallows in Ganzhou

As far as I know James Fallows is not at the moment in Ganzhou, Jiangxi province. But he did come to mind on a few occasions during my time there.

One is related to his interest in aviation (see here for an assortment of his aviation-related posts) and occurred while I was crossing Ganzhou's Dongjin Bridge (东津桥) which is a historical pontoon bridge constructed of wooden planks, many over wooden boats. As I walked across the bridge I saw several people staring into the sky behind me. I turned around and saw this:

I could even hear the motor from the powered paraglider in the sky which was traveling up and down the riverside. I had never seen a paraglider in China before so it was rather striking. Although it's not as thrilling as some of the flights in China shared by Fallows, I thought he'd appreciate this moment.

I had my suspicions about the paraglider's purpose but couldn't be sure since I didn't have the opportunity to examine it more closely. However, the next day while in a downtown shopping district I spotted a paraglider that was easier to observe since it was closer and from my viewpoint near the moon instead of the sun. Here is a zoomed in section of one of my photos:

As I had suspected, the paraglider appears to be flying for advertising purposes, and an ad for an upcoming trade show is visible. I can't be absolutely sure it is the same paraglider as the previous day but I'll take my chances there.

After I finished my examination of the paraglider I soaked in the scene around me at ground level. This also brought Fallows to mind as it reminded me of some of the spirit of a photo of a shopping area in Yulin, Guangxi that I shared when I guest blogged for him. Fallows had this to say about the photo: captures something I have tried so often to convey in words. When you hear people saying, "Yeah, there are those big cities with their skyscrapers and their bullet trains, but so much of China doesn't look like that," or "If you spend time in China, you take it seriously but you're not so scared of it," or "it's a country of a billion individuals all trying to make their way," it's vistas like this they have in mind. At least that's what I've had in mind when writing or saying such things.
Like the scene in that photo, I was captivated by the scene around me in Ganzhou as I pondered the intertwining lives. In this case, I'll use a video to help share the experience (see below). There's so much to notice: street vendors moving their carts around, people walking through a busy intersection that may look chaotic to many Westerners but works in its own way, the little girls who try to get my attention only to run away when they're put in the spotlight as one prepares to slide down a ramp (we had a fun chat later), and more. While not everyone may find such scenes as fascinating as I do, at least watch it to see some of the everyday life in China that can be overshadowed by flashier images and news. No matter where you may be, it can be invaluable to just stop and watch the world around you.

(added note: For some reason the settings to make HD default for the video below aren't working when I view this post. For a richer experience, after clicking the play button I recommend clicking on the resolution if not HD (such as "360p") and changing it to "720pHD". You can also watch the video in HD here.)

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Two Lunches in China

A few days ago this was the view from my seat:

while eating lunch here in Sujiawei village in Guangdong province:

Today, this was the view from my seat:

while eating lunch here in Ganzhou, Jiangxi province:

I found both places while I was keeping an eye out for a place to eat as I explored two very different places. Not only did they both have really good food, but they provided an opportunity to further immerse myself into the local culture. Discoveries such as these can be important in literally and figuratively providing the fuel for other discoveries.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

More Clues for "Thanksgiving in China"

In my previous post, I asked if anyone could figure out where I spent my Thanksgiving based on a photo of the city. Nobody has yet responded with the correct answer, but there have been requests for more clues before I reveal the answer.

So, here are two more photos:

Despite the very different scenery from the previous photo, the locations in the three photos are all within walking distance of each other. The above photos should provide some help since they include the city's most famous (and very central) lake and at least one feature that is rather noticeable in a detailed satellite view.

No hints for which province. Though, there is a clue in the above photos that can rule out a number of regions.

I'll wait a couple more days to see if anyone can now figure it out.  Other posts are on the way.

Added note: Answer here.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Thanksgiving in China

For those who celebrated it, I hope you had a good Thanksgiving holiday.

Mine proved to be somewhat unique since I spent it here in China:

I'd be curious to know if any readers can identify the city. Email me if you want to give it a try. This could be very difficult even for those familiar with China. Cities of over 4 million people don't stand out as much in China as they may elsewhere.

I'll share the answer in a later post of some scenes from this city. The city is also the setting for an upcoming post that's a story of love, fashion, and Android.

Added notes: More clues here. Answer here.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Hong Kong's Lamma Island and Cheung Chau

When Hong Kong is mentioned the pictures that come to mind may be of its intense urban density. However, Hong Kong does have some areas that are less developed and maintain a significant amount of nature. During two recent weekends I visited two of Hong Kong's "outlying" islands -- Lamma Island and Cheung Chau. Both an easy ferry ride from Hong Kong Island, they provided a welcomed change of pace. For me, the most enjoyable part was hiking their nature trails with a friend.

Here are some photos from the very enjoyable days I spent on Lamma Island and Cheung Chau:

The bay at Yung Shue Wan in Lamma Island

Plenty of dried fish for sale

bottle of Dunkertons Black Fox Cider
If dried fish isn't your thing then maybe some organic cider from the UK will do the trick.

A beach with a view of the Lamma Island power plant.

A beach with a more natural view

Sok Kuo Wan in Lamma Island

Boats in Cheung Chau

A variety of yummy seafood balls to fry up

McDonalds in Cheung Chau
A place for some other fried foods on Cheung Chau

Some quiet shade on Cheung Chau

I think a basketball fan lives here.

A view of the sunset from Cheung Chau

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Hong Kong's Border: A Barrier for Many Chinese

Yesterday, as I walked on a bridge over a small river I took this photo:

people walking in one direction on an enclosed bridge

The bridge is significant because it connects immigration checkpoints for Hong Kong and Shenzhen, China. When I took the photo I had just passed through immigration in Hong Kong and was on my way to immigration in Shenzhen. In short, I needed my passport to depart Hong Kong, and yet again needed my passport, but with a Chinese visa, to enter mainland China. While Hong Kong is part of China, experiences such as this one can make it feel otherwise.

Perhaps this is no more strongly felt than by some of China's own citizens. While entering Hong Kong is simple for me as a US Citizen, with only a passport I'm granted 90 days visa-free upon arrival, it is very different for many people in mainland China. For example, here is an excerpt of some of the polices for citizens of mainland China as posted on Hong Kong's Immigration Department's web site:
Visit relatives

6. Mainland residents who wish to visit their relatives in Hong Kong are required to obtain an Exit-entry Permit for Travelling to and from Hong Kong and Macao with an "endorsement for visiting relatives (Tanqing)" from the relevant Public Security Bureau Office.

Group tours

7. Mainland residents who wish to come here for sightseeing may join the group tours organized by designated Mainland tour companies. Group tour members need to obtain an Exit-entry Permit for Travelling to and from Hong Kong and Macao and an "endorsement for group visit (Tuandui Luyou)" issued by the Public Security Bureau Office. As group tour visitors, they must arrive and depart together as a group.

Individual visits

8. Mainland residents from Guangdong Province and 28 cities, including Shanghai, Beijing, Nanjing, Suzhou, Wuxi, Hangzhou, Ningbo, Taizhou, Fuzhou, Xiamen, Quanzhou, Tianjin, Chongqing, Chengdu, Jinan, Shenyang, Dalian, Nanchang, Changsha, Nanning, Haikou, Guiyang, Kunming, Shijiazhuang, Zhengzhou, Changchun, Hefei and Wuhan who wish to come here for sightseeing purpose in individual capacity are required to obtain an Exit-entry Permit for travelling to and from Hong Kong and Macao and an "endorsement for individual visit (Geren Luyou)" from the relevant Public Security Bureau Office.

Business visits

9. Mainland residents who wish to make business trips to Hong Kong in their private capacity are required to obtain an Exit-entry Permit for Travelling to and from Hong Kong and Macao and an "endorsement for business visit (Shangwu)" from the relevant Public Security Bureau Office.
To be clear, even if someone from mainland China has a passport they can be denied entry to Hong Kong if they have not applied in advance for a permit. And just because someone can apply for a permit doesn't mean they'll receive it. Also, people in different parts of mainland China are not treated equally. For example, point 8 only offers residents in select locations the opportunity to visit Hong Kong for sightseeing purposes if they're not a part of a group tour.

I recall one time in particular when a Chinese friend received a permit to visit Hong Kong and she was eagerly awaiting its abundant shopping opportunities (some international goods are cheaper or more available in Hong Kong than in mainland China). Unfortunately, upon getting off the bus in Hong Kong she had to immediately return to mainland China for work-related reasons. Although she wanted to return to Hong Kong the next day, she couldn't because her permit was only valid for a single entry.

A couple of months ago Su Gengsheng wrote a blog post detailing her own eye-opening experience of being denied an entry permit for Hong Kong by local police in Hunan province. A translation can be found in the post "Is Hong Kong really a part of China? Emotionally no." by Annie Lee on ChinaHush. While Su blamed a "chaotic management system" for her problems, Lee mentions another post with a different perspective:
After reading Su’s blog post, Netease certified columnist Nan Qiao commented the subject matter in his post “When will HK return to China”. He went on HK government site to check out the rules set by Hong Kong and concluded that Chinese are being discriminated from the fact that residents from 53 foreign countries such as the US, France, Japan, Britain can enter and stay in HK for up to 90 days visa-free; and residents from 11 other foreign countries get the visa-free stay for 30 days such as Costa Rica, Honduras, Indonesia, Jordan, Kuwait etc; and some 17 other countries’ passports get 14 days visa-free stay. Of course China is not the only one that is keep out by visa, there are a bunch of other countries too, including Afghanistan, Albania, Cambodia, Congo, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, North Korea, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Lebanon, Liberia, Libya and so on.

“In HK and our central government’s eyes” wrote Nan Qiao, “are we Chinese family fellows the same as people from Afghanistan, Burundi, Cuba, North Korea, Iraq etc? People may think that these restrictions are reasonable considering mainland’s super large population. Then why Indians get to have 14 days visa-free stay in HK? Does India have a small population?”
Based on the conversations I've had, thoughts on whether and how the policy should change can vary quite a bit, particularly if comparing those of people in mainland China and Hong Kong. Whatever the justification for the policy, Nan's later comments at the end of his post touch on a broader point: what impact does the policy and its application have on how other countries treat or perceive China and its people? The answer to that question may matter more to many in mainland China than whether they can visit Hong Kong without needing to apply for a permit.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Scenes of China: Liuzhou, Guangxi

The hair salon with the computer I highlighted in my previous post was found in Liuzhou, Guangxi (map). To provide additional context, I'll share some photos from that visit to Liuzhou last year.  As with other photo series I've posted, my intent is to provide a glimpse of the people, daily lives, and environments that can be found in specific parts of China.

Some shops not far from the salon mentioned in the previous post

Several groups of people were happy to pose for a photo on top of a mountain in Longtan Park

karst scenery behind a lake
Longtan Park is close to downtown Liuzhou and includes some beautiful karst scenery

A street in downtown Liuzhou

A view of downtown Liuzhou in the midst of smog

Urban development next to karst formations

Nearby demolition and new apartment complexes under construction in the distance

A man takes a break near a distinctive bridge over the Liu River

A popular local restaurant serving the local delicacy luosi fen (螺蛳粉)

Luosi fen is a spicy noodle soup including fresh vegetables, pickled bamboo, fried dried tofu, agaric, peanuts, and the key ingredient, a broth made from river snails.  This local specialty cost significantly less than US $1.

An extensive underground shopping area

A roller blading class of kids showing their skills on a popular pedestrian shopping street

A promotion outside of a Nokia store on the pedestrian shopping street

Young lady busy on her mobile phone

Two men playing the popular Chinese game Xiangqi in Liuhou Park

A young couple at Liuhou Park