Monday, November 11, 2013

China's Great Firewall Says Hello

I have not be able to post here for a few days due to significant problems in using my VPN. Without a properly functioning VPN, I am at the mercy of China's Great Firewall. This means a variety of sites are blocked, including Blogger which I use to publish this blog. For reasons I am unable to completely explain, there are occasionally periods of time when I can still reach blocked-in-China sites. If this post publishes, it means I was able to take advantage of one. This actually represents an improvement from yesterday.

My VPN provider is trying to solve the problem, which at least in part appears to be the result of some crafty strategies being used by the Great Firewall, although there are other issues which also concern me. It is almost as fascinating as it is frustrating. I don't know how many others are affected by what I'm experiencing. I also don't know if it is specific to me, Zhuhai, or Guangdong province. For now, I will just add that it was a year ago when I last had so many problems with the Great Firewall.

Hopefully an effective solution can soon be found. Perhaps more on this topic later.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Vivo and the Giant Inflatable Android Robot in Zhuhai

During a recent visit to a shopping district in Zhuhai's Nanping Town, I spoke to salespeople at several stores, each of which sold a variety of mobile phones. Some of what I heard and saw matched up with what I have seen in reports about China's mobile phone market. But some did not.

An example of the former was the apparent popularity of smartphones running the Android operating system. An example of the latter is highlighted in this photo:

a large blue inflated Android robot with the Vivo logo on a sidewalk at a Zhuhai shopping district

Yes, that's a giant inflatable blue Android robot with the logo of BBK's Vivo brand. If you didn't know before, you can probably now guess that Vivo phones run the Android operating system. Vivo is not a Chinese brand often mentioned in the news or always included in charts of mobile phone market share, but salespeople at a couple of mobile phone stores told me Vivo was their top seller. At some other stores it was near the top. And at one store, when I asked the manager to show me something "interesting" after having looked at a Xiaomi phone, without hesitation he brought me over to a case of Vivo phones. I am not able to verify the claims of Vivo sales, but promotions for Vivo were easy to see at several stores in the form of tents or the common-in-China inflatable arch.

a Vivo sales promotion tent and several Vivo inflatable arches in Zhuhai

There was only one giant Android robot though.

Like the outdoor sales promotions for Xiaomi I saw in the same shopping district, for now this is shared in the spirit of "some of what I saw and heard in one small part of China". Later, I will share a little more in this spirit before discussing recent reports and commentary regarding mobile phone sales in China. I will particularly focus on two brands which have recently received much more media attention than Vivo--Apple and Xiaomi.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Imitation, Creativity, and a Right-Hander's Dream in Chinese Mobile Phones

As I have mentioned many times before (most recently here), a broad variety of mobile phones are designed, made, and sold in China. During a recent visit to Zhuhai's Jida subdistrict, I took a closer look at a store selling phones not made by better known Chinese brands such as BBK, Oppo, Xiaomi, and Gionee. Although some of the phones imitate other brands, some include "micro-innovations" and some can be rather distinctive from phones commonly available in markets outside of China such as the U.S.

Below, I will share four examples of what I found. My intent is simply to stimulate some thought about the mobile phone domain in China.

an iPoone flip phone with a partial Apple logo and a small pink flip phone with a drawing of a young woman holding a heart

The iPoone above on the left obviously fits into the "inspired-by-Apple" category--a category in which I regularly spot new designs. The "Think Different" phone I saw in Guangzhou and the iPncne phone I saw in Ningxia also fit in this category.

The phone above on the right has no obvious Apple influence and is just one of the many small clamshell phones available with various images.

a Dlor flip phone with a poem and an image of two hands and two rings and a yellow JYING flip phone with a scene of butterflies lit up and a digital clock

The yellow phone on the above right offers a butterfly light show. The shopkeeper made sure I noticed the digital clock on the outside.

The "Dlor" phone on the above left is what most caught my eye that day, so I will provide a few more details about it. These words are above the image of the two hands:
I'm not left-hander
Numerous instances of the same image with almost exactly the same words can be found on a number of Chinese online sites. However, I was not able to pin down the original source.

two five-fingered hands hold a ring, another ring in front of the hands, and the poem "I'm not a left-hander 幸福在我的左边 可我........ 却不是个左撇子 抓不住你"

One reasonable translation of the Chinese is "Happiness is on my left, but I can't catch you since I'm not left-handed".

If you're now puzzled by the poem or wondering why hands with an extra finger were used (did you notice?), you're not alone. Any Chinese friends I have asked expressed some confusion, and examples of confusion can be found online (in Chinese) as well.

Yes, there are many questions to ask. And all of the above phones raise more general questions such as "What motivated the design?" and "Why would somebody purchase this phone?" The answers to these questions could guide the design of new phones, whether they look like the above phones or not, for people in China and in other markets as well. As I first suggested after seeing the Think Different phone in Guangzhou, even when there are imitations, such phones can be a potential source of valuable insight or inspiration for global mobile phone brands.

Finally, there is one question I will answer now. No, despite it fascinating me, I did not buy the Dlor phone. After all, it doesn't suit me since I'm a left-hander.

Monday, November 4, 2013

More on Inspired-by-Starbucks Stores in China

There are two things deserving further attention regarding the previous post in which I shared an example of a cafe in Zigong with a Chinese name that sounds very much like the Chinese name of Starbucks.

1. In a comment to the post, "Pete" wrote:
If you have to explain the joke...

This made me ponder which Chinese brands I'm familiar with. The the three I thought of were Tsingtao, Norinco, and Seagull. I wonder what the far more than 99% of Americans who aren't interested in the combination of beer, guns, and watches would think of.
I don't doubt Pete appreciates that some of this blog's readers can't read Chinese and are not representative of people in Zigong. So the first line in Pete's comment raises the issue of whether people in Zigong who might consider going to this cafe would appreciate "the joke". The short answer is: I don't know, especially since I am not familiar with the brand recognition for Starbucks in Zigong.

But I still consider it likely that the person who came up with the name is familiar with Starbucks. Again, it would be quite a coincidence otherwise. And in conversations I have had with owners of other stores with possible (or clear) examples of trademark infringement, I have found some might be motivated by reasons not necessarily dependent on the familiarity customers may have with a particular brand. Sometimes an imitation of a brand may be more representative of the owner's own likes or aspirations than of an attempt to deceive others to any degree.

The second part of Pete's comment raises the issue of Chinese brand recognition in the U.S. There were reports of a survey conducted by HD Trade Services indicating that 94% of Americans are not able to name a single Chinese band. The link to the original report, provided by a number of publications, does not currently work, and I cannot find the report elsewhere. So I will refrain from commenting on it.

I will just add that some Chinese companies are now more concerned about whether Chinese consumers think a brand is well-known abroad than whether the brand is actually well-known abroad. One example I have previously mentioned involved a company advertising in London primarily for the perception it provided in China. I will discuss a potential new example in a later post.

2. Some readers may be curious about the stores I saw that "would likely be of more interest to lawyers at Starbucks". So here is one I saw three year ago which quickly came to mind:

Sutarbucks Coffee in Yanji, Jilin province, China

Yes, despite the Korean writing, this Sutarbucks Coffee store is in China. Korean is common in the city were I found it--Yanji, Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, Jilin province--due to its large population of ethnic Koreans and its proximity to North Korea. Like in Zigong, a genuine Starbucks cannot be found in Yanji. The nearest one is about 5 hours away by car in Changchun. Again, I'm not positive this would count as trademark infringement, but I would be rather surprised if Starbucks wasn't an inspiration.

And Pete might be happy I don't think I need to explain why.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

A Zigong Cafe With a Familiar-Sounding Name

While scrolling through small preview images of photos from Zigong, Sichuan province, I became curious as to why I took a particular photo 2 years ago. About a second after opening it up I laughed and knew what had motivated me. Since it relates to a recent post, I will share it here:

新吧客 (Xinbake) coffee store in Zigong, Sichuan province

For those who don't see why this "drink bar" which sells coffee, milk tea, and fruit juice caught my attention, I'll provide an explanation.

The store featured in a recent post, Starbucks, has the Chinese name 星巴克, which in pinyin with tones is spelled "Xīngbākè". "Xing", which means "star", sounds somewhat similar to "sheeng" and "bake" sounds like "bah kuh" (or "bucks" to a lesser degree). The above store's name is 新吧客, which in pinyin with tones is spelled "Xīnbākè". So although the characters all differ, its name sounds very similar to the Chinese name for Starbucks. The only difference is the "ng" sound instead of "n". Especially given what the store sells and its green coloring, it would be striking if the similarity is a coincidence.

Although the store's name jumped out at me, I am not sure whether this could count as a case of trademark infringement. And I've seen other cafes in China which would likely be of more interest to lawyers at Starbucks due to their similar logos and English names.

Like with other possible changes in Zigong, I'm also not sure if this store is still there. All I know is Zigong currently remains without a genuine Starbucks. The nearest one is several hours away in Chengdu. So Xinbake might be the closest you can get to Starbucks in Zigong.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Looking Back at Zigong

Man walking down a relatively quiet street in Zigong, China

Two years ago I spent about 10 days in Zigong--a city in Southwest China's Sichuan province. Zigong was where I perused a dinosaur museum with a "romantic scene", saw more of the various mobile phones for sale in China, watched a Mother's Day fashion show, met a friendly family in a neighborhood of older homes, and chatted with another friendly group of people at a restaurant. It's also where I found examples useful for contrasting the online lives of students in mainland China and Taiwan, comparing Google's, Baidu's, and later Bing's online map services (here and here), and showing how a global online social networking service such as Facebook could potentially address unmet needs in China.

Like almost everywhere else I have been in China, there is more I could say than what I have already expressed here. And soon I will share another another aspect of Zigong which caught my eyes. But first, I want to bring attention to the reason Zigong came to mind today. China correspondent Rob Schmitz first went to Zigong in 1996 as a Peace Corps Volunteer and recently made a return visit. In an article on Marketplace he shares some of the changes he saw in the city and his acquaintances there:
Zeng picks me up in the provincial capital of Chengdu in his brand new Volkswagon bug. Each day, this city limits traffic to certain numbered license plates to curb air pollution. To get around that, Zeng simply bought five cars – one for every day of the week. He’s on the move. At 29 years old, he’s now one of China’s top young artists. "When I was young, I played with toy cars, but I never imagined I’d ever be able to buy one," Zeng tells me as we speed down the expressway.
Schmitz's account reminds me of the changes I've seen since I first set food in China only 8 years ago, whether while living in Shanghai or from revisiting cities such Kunming, Quanzhou, and Changchun. And it makes me wonder what changes I would notice in Zigong after a little more than 2 years. For example, Schmitz notes Zigong's relatively new Walmart, which I saw when I visited (shown in the mobile phone post), but I wonder if the Mall-mart (shown in the Mother's day post) on the other side of the river is still there. What became of the student (mentioned in the Facebook post) who felt "crushed" by the limitations of his college and degree? And has the home of the friendly family I met continued to survive China's relentless development?

I don't know. Although Zigong is on a list of places I would like to revisit in China, the list is long and there is always more to see. Making return visits such as Schmitz's can be incredible, especially in a country changing at a remarkably fast pace. I recommend reading Schmitz's full article here for a taste of those changes.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

A Scene in Zhuhai: Fishbowls for Sale

One morning in Zhuhai I passed this girl who was helping place some fishbowls for sale in front of her family's store:

little girl looking at me while she stands at a low table with fishbowls in front of a pet store

Like another little helper in Guangzhou, she seemed surprised to see me taking a photo of her. After I showed her the results, though, she smiled and did a little dance. As I walked away she happily returned her attention to the fishbowls.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Starbucks and its Customers Both Paying a Higher Price in China

At a Starbucks in Zhuhai, Guangdong province, I spoke with a number of employees during their team meeting a few days ago.

One of the items on the agenda was planning for the upcoming Halloween holiday. In some ways, the workers reminded me of a young woman I met in Nanning who enjoyed working at another American company--McDonald's.

Starbucks was especially on my mind because it recently had the honor of being the latest foreign company to receive the wrath of the China Central Television Network (CCTV). As Adam Minter wrote in Bloomberg's World View blog:
What did Starbucks Corp. ever do to the Chinese Communist Party?

That’s the question China’s latte-sipping set is asking in the wake of a now-notorious investigation, first aired on national television Sunday, that revealed -- among other examples of allegedly shameless profiteering -- that a tall latte costs about 45 cents more at a Starbucks in Beijing than it does at one in London, and that Starbucks’s profit margins in the Asia-Pacific region exceed those of any other in which the company operates.

The story has dominated China, with major international news media outlets subsequently picking up on it.
Read the rest of Minter's post here. The big issue here isn't Starbucks unfairly charging customers in China more than elsewhere. Instead, the CTTV's report is another example of the additional challenges non-Chinese companies can face in China, even if they are offering something strongly desired by many Chinese consumers and providing better-than-average opportunities for Chinese workers.

Nonetheless, I would welcome another CCTV report on Chinese paying more for a foreign brand's beverage. After all, "imported wines to China are subject to taxes that amount to about 48% of the declared value." That usually works out to costing to a bit more than 45 cents. Wine consumption in China is rapidly growing, so wouldn't many Chinese be happy for foreign wines to cost less? And the tax is entirely controlled by the Chinese government. How can you lose, CCTV?*

*Yes, reducing the tax wouldn't necessarily guarantee a drop in wine prices. But if prices didn't fall after a big change in taxes, CCTV could conduct another investigation!

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Tchotchkes for Sale at Night in Zhuhai

At a popular area along the Pear River Estuary in Zhuhai, Guangdong, it is common to see people selling a variety of small items, many sea-related, which can be of interest to tourists. For most of the items, if I were to present them as gifts to my parents I'm sure they'd be fondly described as tchotchkes. Below are several photos I took earlier this evening of tchotchkes for sale.

The buildings visible on the other side of the water are in Macau--one of China's Special Administrative Regions. For some daytime photos from similar vantage points, see my earlier post about Macau's border with mainland China--something I can cross far more easily than most Chinese.

Friday, October 25, 2013

A Zhuhai Bar with a Giant Inflatable Rubber Duck

In an area of Zhuhai with a number of upscale clubs and bars, one of the establishments decided it needed a special piece of ornamentation outside.

large inflatable duck in front of a bar in Zhuhai

A young man working there offered to take my photo with the duck. I politely declined.

If you're unfamiliar with the role giant inflatable rubber ducks have had in China this year, for a summary of the South China Morning Post's excitement over the original duck in Hong Kong see Shanghaiist here, for more general Hong Kong excitement over the duck see Hong Wrong here, for why China's Communist Party might not be thrilled about the above bar duck see an article from AFP here, and for an assortment of Beijing-related giant duck news see Beijing Cream here.

There's probably not much I could say that hasn't been said before. But if that's still not enough duck for you, email me for the approximate address of the Zhuhai bar. Last time I walked by the duck was still there.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

More Dust Cloud Art in Zhuhai

I will touch on a topic I did not expect to revisit. Today as I approached a previously featured intersection in Zhuhai, China, I saw a familiar cloud of dust.

dust cloud at a street interesting in Zhuhai, Guangdong, China

Yes, the gravelblower had returned. Many passersby on the nearby and not-so-nearby sidewalks covered their mouths and noses with their hands, shirts, or whatever else they had available. Here are a few scenes of people who especially immersed themselves in the experience:

man covering his mouth with his hand while riding a bike through a dust cloud created by a gravelblower

man covering his mouth with his hand as he walks through a dust cloud created by a gravelblower

man riding a tricycle cart through a dust cloud created by a gravelblower

While watching what could be a piece of performance art, I considered other solutions for removing the gravel and also wondered if I had missed the real purpose of the gravelblower. And then, as if someone had read my mind, other workers came to do their thing.

workers removing gravel from a road using brooms and shovels

Some workers used brooms to sweep the gravel into piles, and others used shovels to remove the piles--all while the gravelblower continued making dust clouds. Notably, the workers were upwind from the gravelblower. Also, the sweepers were more efficient at moving the gravel than the gravelblower. I dared to wonder whether it was possible someone decided to use a leafblower so the sweepers and shovelers would breathe in less dust. If that was the goal, I suppose I should start calling the gravelblower a "dustblower". And there are several shortcomings to their process--at least one of which could be readily pointed out by the passersby walking though the dust cloud.

Somehow, the performance art idea seems more appealing.

Finally, as I pondered gravel clearing processes, I noticed I wasn't the only one who felt compelled to stop and watch for short amount of time.

man holding a variety of balloons and watching workers clean gravel off a road

Insights from those familiar with road construction and gravel removal are welcome. Otherwise, I think I'll bring this topic to a close.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Traditional Bakery Advertising in Macau

I need to keep it simple today, so I will share a colorful scene of a Koi Kei bakery delivery truck near a Koi Kei billboard advertisement in Macau's Taipa Village.

As suggested by the design of the advertisements, Koi Kei is a traditional-style Macanese store. It sells a variety of food products, including cakes, candies, and meat jerky. One great aspect of Koi Kei's stores, at least the ones I have seen, is the large variety of free samples available for tasting. They have a number of locations in Macau, several more in Hong Kong, and one in Singapore. One of their stores is down the narrow street next to the sign. The street is also the location for a favorite Portuguese restaurant of mine in Macau--O Santos. Needless to say, I rarely leave this area feeling hungry.