Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas in China

Around this time of year, it isn't uncommon for people in the US to ask me, "Is Christmas celebrated in China?" So, I'll share some thoughts on what I've experienced. This post is not intended to be all-encompassing nor will it explore how Christians in China are (and are not) able to express their religious beliefs during the holiday.

While there are millions of Christians in China, the vast majority of Chinese are not Christian. However, at least in several of the larger Chinese cities I've been in during the holiday period it is not uncommon to see Christmas decorations at places such as shopping centers and restaurants. Also, Christmas music can sometimes be heard playing in such places (I once heard Christmas music playing at a Hunan-style restaurant in Shanghai in mid-June -- they had no idea it was Christmas music). My sense is that much of this visible "celebrating" of Christmas is simply people wanting to participate in what is viewed as a Western tradition and not a religious holiday. And at least some of it appears to be commercially motivated.

This generic template of numerous conversations I've had in China as Christmas approaches helps provide a sense of how Christmas can be perceived:
Chinese Person: What will you be doing for Christmas?
Me: Nothing special, I don't celebrate Christmas.
CP: Really?!?!? Why not? You're American!
Me: Yes, I'm American, but I'm not Christian. I'm Jewish.
CP: So what?
Some will then point out that they celebrate Christmas despite not being Christian and ask why it would be any different for me. Christmas has as much religious connotation for them as Halloween does for most Americans.

This short report by The Christian Broadcasting Network (hat tip to M.I.C. Gadget) about the growing Christmas tradition in China mirrors some of what I've found -- particularly in the interviewees' responses to questions about the meaning of Christmas:

For more color on Christmas in China, below are several photos of decorations (and hats) I've seen in Wuhan, Hubei province (map) the past few days. To be clear, the photos are very much cherry picked and are not intended to imply that all of Wuhan is decked out for Christmas. It definitely isn't. But particularly in many shopping areas, one can feel some of the spirit of Christmas -- at least in a commercial sense.

Outside a large department store

Some decorations inside the department store

I'm willing to bet few understand why the term "X mas" is used.

A small store selling Christmas decorations

A shoe store

Another department store (FYI - Chocoolate is a fashion brand from Hong Kong)

Hair salon

A department store at a very large and relatively empty shopping mall


Family wearing their Christmas hats

Finally, my comments above may have left some readers wondering, "What does a Jew in China do on Christmas Eve?"

Well, I can happily say I do the same thing as many Jews in the US where most places are closed that evening.

I go out to eat at a Chinese restaurant.

A Scene in Wuhan, Hubei

Where I was today:

Around several clothing and fabric markets in Wuhan, Hubei province

Really, more soon.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Shanghai Metro Mascot Chang Chang

In my previous post I discussed the "security theater" at subway stations in China and my efforts to understand why balloons were not allowed. I just realized that I left out a critical photo so I'll share it now:

Shanghai Metro mascot Chang Chang (畅畅) at People's Square station
Chang Chang happily holding a balloon

In the photo is the mascot of the Shanghai Metro -- Chang Chang (畅畅). Despite being very close to a metro security point Chang Chang maintained a cheerful demeanor while holding my balloon. I'm not sure if this violates any subway rules, but I did notice that the nearby security inspectors duly ignored me while I prepared Chang Chang and took the photo.

In case you're wondering, I'm not aware of any connection between Chang Chang and the Citibank advertisement in the background. However, their very similar colors make me wonder if some assume Chang Chang is endorsing Citibank.

OK, enough with balloons and subways for now. Soon, back to some other topics more commonly covered here.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Chinese Subway "Security", Radiation, and a Dickies Balloon

I recently shared some "themes of James Fallows" I found in Ganzhou, Jiangxi province. There's another theme of his of interest to me that I've recently encountered  -- "security theater". The term was coined by US security expert Bruce Schneier:
Security theater refers to security measures that make people feel more secure without doing anything to actually improve their security. An example: the photo ID checks that have sprung up in office buildings. No-one has ever explained why verifying that someone has a photo ID provides any actual security, but it looks like security to have a uniformed guard-for-hire looking at ID cards. Airport-security examples include the National Guard troops stationed at US airports in the months after 9/11 -- their guns had no bullets.
Like in a growing number of Chinese cities, Shanghai has a useful subway system. And like at least some of those Chinese cities, it engages in what I believe is "security theater". Before entrances to the paid areas of subway stations riders need to pass through security such as seen here:

security and scanner in Shanghai metro

security and scanner in Shanghai metro

security and scanner in Shanghai metro

The scanners seen above were put in place shortly before the World Expo last year and have remained in use since then. I can't speak for every city so I'll just describe the current security experience in a number of stations in Shanghai. As you approach the scanner a security inspector will make a signal that apparently means to place your bag or whatever item you may have onto the scanner. I say "apparently" because many people simply ignore the signal and walk by without placing anything on the scanner. In such cases the security typically reacts in no way other than to signal (suggest) to the next person that maybe they should place their bag on the scanner. However, if you're carrying luggage or a very large package typically they will more strongly insist that you place the item on the scanner. In short, if you have a bomb or any other forbidden item in your backpack or bag (or under your clothes/jacket) it's usually up to you whether you'd like to place it on the scanner.

Not only am I skeptical about the effectiveness of the security, I don't even think it's effective "security theater" since so many people blatantly ignore it. Fallows has shared his thoughts regarding the Beijing subway here and writer Adam Minter summed up his own thoughts last year when he wrote, "... to my mind, these x-ray machines don’t qualify as 'security theater' because they project incompetence, not security." What the machines are effective at is creating bottlenecks for entering the paid areas of subway stations, providing jobs for security inspectors, and providing business for manufacturers of scanners.

Shenzhen is another city in China that recently adopted the use of scanners for subway stations. They were installed in preparation for the 2011 Summer Universiade that took place this past August.  Shenzhen Security Electronic Equipment Co., Ltd expressed pride and confidence in the scanners they sold in a press release where they claimed, "To ensure safety, the Shenzhen subway in the city to install security equipment, foolproof, thus ensuring the Universiade held. [sic]" However, to my surprise these "foolproof" machines were no longer in use and the security inspectors, who during the Universiade were college students, were nowhere to be seen when I visited Shenzhen in mid-November.

scanners not in use in Shenzhen metro
Scanner in Shenzhen no longer in use

I thought maybe I had reason to smile because someone had determined that the scanners weren't really needed (at least when a Universiade isn't occurring). A friend of mine who lives in Shenzhen told me that at the conclusion of the Universiade it was announced the added security would stay in place. However, after about a couple of months the security suddenly was no longer being used. My friend was not aware of any official announcement as to why. But I had a nagging feeling there must be more to the story.  And there was...

Just two months ago the Shanghaiist reported that security machines in Shanghai had been operating without the proper radiation saftey license:
The Shanghai Metro now claims they didn't test the machines properly because there were simply too many of them, and not enough time before Expo! (There are a few other aspects of our metro system that we now suspect have seen similar degrees of neglect.) To save time, they had the machines sampled and tested by a third party (not the proper government regulator) who deemed them satisfactory.

Apparently testing on the scanners has been going on for a year now, and only about 245 of the machines have been cleared. They now promise to get all the machines licensed before the end of the month, but they will not shut down metro security in the mean time.
Could the same have occurred in Shenzhen? Well, according to echinacities the answer is yes:
According to reports, 286 X-ray luggage scanners installed in Shenzhen subway stations violate China’s radiation regulations and could increase cancer risks for children and pregnant women sensitive to radiation.
Ah, that seems to explain the (temporarily?) decommissioned scanners in Shenzhen.

So, other than scanners without proper inspections for radiation safety, college students as security inspectors, and a very lax inspection process that is unlikely to provide any real security is there anything more to say about subway security in China?

Well, if none of that has caught your attention maybe the following will do the trick. While subway security may seem lax, there is indeed something you can possess that will apparently guarantee you being stopped in Shanghai. I know because I was stopped at multiple entry points for having one. Here's what caused the security inspectors to forbid me from riding the subway:

Dickies balloon in a Shanghai metro station
A Dickies balloon after being denied the joys of riding the Shanghai subway

Above is a Dickies helium-filled balloon -- given to me free as part of a promotion in a nearby shopping mall on Shanghai's Nanjing East Road -- proudly on display outside of the security area. I asked the security inspectors, who at least didn't appear to be college students, why the balloon was not permitted and I was told (rough translation), "Because you're not allowed to bring balloons." I stared at the security inspectors, briefly pondered humanity, and walked away despite their offer to take custody of my balloon.

Since I found the reply of the security people to be lacking, I decided to visit various nearby establishments and speak to a number of people to see if I could uncover any similar aversions to my Dickies balloon. Obviously, the mall where I received the balloon had no worries about it, but what about elsewhere?

Well, this coffee shop had no worries:

Dickies balloon in Shanghai cafe
Balloon not considered dangerous in the vicinity of caffeine

A statue of Lebron James in a large Nike store looked unfazed:

statue of Lebron James in Shanghai Nike store with Dickies balloon
Lebron James slam dunking on a balloon

The newest Apple Store in Shanghai? No problem, apparently my Dickies balloon wasn't a threat to all of the iPads and other electonics on display, and like in Hong Kong the Apple Store staff had no issue with me taking photos.

Dickies balloon in a Shanghai Apple Store
Could the iBalloon be next?

These two Shanghainese girls showed no fear of the balloon:

two Shanghainese girls holding a Dickies balloon
They both had a good laugh when I showed them the photo.

Even these Japanese guys in their newly purchased panda hats weren't concerned by the balloon:

Japanese guys wearing panda hats and holding a Dickies balloon
Just another Shanghai experience for them

That night the subway was the only place where I wasn't allowed to bring the balloon. While it was wonderful that my explorations led me to meeting a variety of people, I didn't feel I was any closer to understanding why a balloon wasn't allowed on the subway. One possibly related issue that I've since learned about is that in the Hong Kong subway balloons could be problematic for overhead cables (some discussion on the topic in Chinese here). However, according to the rules for the Hong Kong MTR seen in the safety brochure here (pdf) only metallic balloons are forbidden. My Dickies balloon was definitely not metallic.

And speaking of the Hong Kong subway... There aren't any scanners in use there. How is it that scanners are critical for cities such as Shanghai, but not Hong Kong?

Anyways, I wasn't going to change Shanghai's subway rules that night, and I determined that storming by security with my free balloon, even if stuffed under my shirt, wasn't worth it. Fortunately, this little boy graciously agreed to adopt my balloon:

little boy with a Dickies balloon
He was actually more interested in the green toy in his hand.

So, after an enjoyable evening I was able to peacefully pass through security and hopefully avoided any unhealthy doses of radiation. However, subway security in Shanghai remains a puzzle to me. Maybe I should just be happy I don't have to take off my shoes.

Disclosure: None of the companies referenced in this post provided me any compensation, except for my brief possession of a Dickies balloon.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Scenes of China: Huizhou, Guangdong

In earlier posts I asked whether anyone could identify the city in the photos here and here. I suspected it would be difficult and indeed I didn't receive any correct responses. "KingTubby" correctly identified the body of water in two of the photos as West Lake, but I suspect he knows it's a good guess to make since there are a number of cities in China with a West Lake (and a reason I didn't ask "name that lake").

The city is in fact Huizhou in Guangdong province. It is just a couple of hours by bus or train from Shenzhen, the city in mainland China that has a border with Hong Kong. And for any of you who may live in Milpitas, California, USA this is your "sister city" in China.

According to, which claims to be "the premier online source of Guangdong news and information", Huizhou:
...has absorbed, digested and renovated advanced technologies and management from abroad to nurture and build its own industries and brand names, such as TCL, Desai, Maikete, Huayang and Bailubao. People first coming to Huizhou are immediately aware of the presence of TCL, which ranks third among China's top 100 electronic enterprises, and whose emblem, signs and sales outlets can be found everywhere in the city. The company mainly manufactures telephones, color TV sets, computers and mobile phones. Its successful operations have energized the whole city.
I'll have to confess that upon arriving in Huizhou I wasn't immediately aware of anything that suggested TCL's presence. I'm doubtful that TCL played a role in one my first experiences in Huizhou, this auto-rickshaw I rode to my hotel:

By coincidence, a few days later the same rickshaw driver was driving by and picked me up when I left the hotel.

On that note, here are other photos of scenes in Huizhou that show some of what else reached my awareness there:

Street in central shopping district

Man playing an erhu, a traditional Chinese instrument

Entrance to an alley where there were many stores selling "antiques" (or what at least looked like antiques)

Night market

Modern skyline

Just a random street in the city center

Driving lessons start early

Peanuts were a common snack sold in the city

View from a historical tower

College students handing out real estate brochures for a part time job

Local market in a suburb

Employee at a small clothing store having a good laugh

And as the last photo reminds, more soon on shopping experiences and technology in China.

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.