Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Breaking Bread Together, Shanghai Style

After bargaining for red paper lanterns, miniature dragons, hats, silk robes and handbags in the market for much of the day it was time for a rest. I swear…shopping really does wear you out. Tim, April and I were drawn into a store front tea shop where we sat and sampled various types of tea around a wooden table. We learned the difference between oolong, black and green. It was a similar study to the nuances of Cabernet, Syrah and Pinot. How did the nose vary from the palate of this particular Dragon Well green tea? Our hostess boiled water, steeped tea and poured a tasting of each as we sat and talked about her life in Shanghai. She taught me how to count to 10 on my hands in Chinese. Who knew there was a different way to count on your fingers? We left after an hour with several bundles of blooming tea. I don’t know exactly how to explain them…they start out as a tight green ball of tea, and then bloom to flowers after hot water is poured on them. I’m looking forward to the next time I gather with San Luis Obispo friends to share this tea, thinking of our time spent breaking bread, Shanghai style.
--- Ali Semon

Monday, March 12, 2007

Reflections on an amazing journey

Now that I’m back home and had my first full night’s sleep in nine days, I thought I might reflect on China one last time (at least in this Tribune blog.)
The trip was amazing, mind-blowing, astonishing (I’ve run out of suitable superlatives) because of what we saw, what we learned, who we met and traveled with.
I had never seen any country--or city or state--with such over-the-top and largely unregulated capitalism, with all of the optimism, entrepreneurial spirit, instant millionaires, instant billionaires, social inequities, innovation, dislocation, better jobs, lost jobs, spendable money, higher costs and excitement that it brings. Oh wait, this is supposed to be a communist country. Go figure. Forget what you learned in school: capitalism and dictatorship can coexist.
I truly understand globalization and the global economy now for the first time. I never knew there was enough capital in the entire world to build a super-modern country of this size from the ground up. That capital is largely coming from the rest of the world, including the U.S., where the buyers of Chinese exports live. The Chinese are financing the U.S. government debt by buying our T-bills, and we are providing the capital for their expansion.
The U.S. could easily end up a second-rate economy if we don’t adapt to the times and the competition. I don’t know all of the ways we need to change, but one thing was obvious: the Chinese are expecting more from their children in school, have a much longer and rigorous school day, and are turning out a huge and growing number of well trained graduates in technical fields. It seems obvious that the future will be the hands of today’s children, but I’m not sure we have the political will to revise our education system.
Does it matter if we end up a second-tier economic power? Take a close look at England or France and decide for yourself.
One tragic part of China’s boom is that it’s come at a huge cost to the natural environment. Air and water pollution is at epic proportions. Interestingly, though, it appears that the Chinese have realized some of their environmental errors, and are trying to fix some of the more obvious problems before the 2008 summer Olympics. They have the technology to grow cleanly if they want to.
The Chinese people we met are embracing the rapid changes and excited about the future. They’re very proud to show off their cities; the 2008 Olympics is coming at the perfect time and will be their “coming out party.” No one who watches the Olympics on TV will be able to ignore China anymore.
What does all this mean to the San Luis Obispo business community? It’s probably too soon to be sure. But it’s obvious that all of the industries that we’re counting on for our economic future--education, government, communications, finance, high technology, tourism, agriculture—will all be greatly impacted by this strong new competitor, partner or customer.
But don’t think Americans will just sit idly by and let China eat our lunch. I was so encouraged that 205 business leaders from just our little city wanted to learn in-person more about this challenge. (In total, more than 20,000 Chamber of Commerce members from throughout California will visit China just this year and just through this tour company.) The members of our group were filled with the same curiosity, energy, enthusiasm, and spirit as our Chinese hosts. They’re not afraid of the big wave coming; in fact, they want to ride it!
--Dave Garth

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Goodbye to Shanghai's bargain shopping

As we try to get our stuff together (not just the stuff we brought, but the stuff we bought, from the $4,000 embroideries to the $6 Louis Vuitton knockoff bags and $1 "Rolexes") on our last night in China, everyone I have talked to from our group of 200 or so has raved about the experience. China itself is the star, with such an interesting history, perhaps no period more so than the last 10-20 years. It would be exciting to return 5 years from now and see the additional changes that will occur by then.

Today we walked along the Bund, which is the financial district by the river for Shanghai, known as the "Wall Street of the East." It's very stately, and the walkway by the river offers spectacular views from a spotless vantage point. In fact, all of China, though the air and water may be substandard, has hardly any trash visible... on the streets or the highways. You just don't see litter.

The shopping here is phenomenal, whether high-end or via the hordes of street vendors. You really can buy a phony Rolex for $1 if you're a good bargainer, because bargaining is the name of the game, in stores or on the street. One of our group members today bought an I-pod -- with all the attachments and instructions, still in the box -- for $10. None of us think it's real, but it works. The sheer volume of inventory available is overwhelming, and you wonder how you can buy a new "Beijing 2008 Olympics" baseball cap for 75 cents.

It's time to hit the sack before we lift off tomorrow for home, sweet home. Though it's been an eye-opening and fabulously interesting trip (far more than anyone expected, I think), we are ready to leave the "togetherness" of sharing a city with 20 million people... and get back to the SLO Life. California, here we come, tired and happy.
Bob Wacker

Friday, March 9, 2007

It's all in the details

In a land of such overwhelming greatness, the expanse of the Great Wall, a population of billions, the golden 64-foot Buddha of the Ling-Yin Temple, the rising skyline along the river in Shanghai, it has been the smaller details that have impressed me the most on this trip. The curve in a rock from many worn steps as we climbed the Great Wall. The toothless grin of a woman selling five different kinds of rice. The incense permeated air gently guiding the prayer flags as they flutter in the wind. The faint sound of the river lapping at the shore as we walked along the Bund in Shanghai last night. All of these things and more encourage me to return again to China. Olympic games 2008 anyone?
--- Ali Semon

Shanghai is a modern city

We've all been "Shanghai'd"! No, we haven't been thrown in a burlap bag and kidnapped as often happened in the early rough days of this busy port city (and thus how the idiom originated), but driving in to the city tonight, we have been struck with awe at the sheer size and spectacle of the current-day Shanghai. Boasting 18 million people by night and a few million more in the daytime, Shanghai covers 5 times the area of Los Angeles with more people than live in New York -- not the city of New York, but the state of New York!

With so much of the growth coming in the last 10 years, Shanghai is a very modern city, almost futuristic in its look as you travel on a labyrinth of freeways 4 decks high and look eye-to-eye with the 10th story of some apartment building. It was as if we were in a science fiction car-of-the-future commercial flying through some blend of Times Square and the Emerald City. Speaking of apartment (and other) buildings, Shanghai has over 2,000 buildings that are at least 20 stories tall, and the architecture and lighting of many of the skyscrapers is beautiful and dramatic... and it goes on forever. We can't wait to get out in it tomorrow.

We spent most of today in Hangzhou, where we visited the Ling-Yin Temple, site of the largest Great Buddha sculpture in the world, with its beautiful and peaceful gardens plus 500 statues of secondary Buddhas (there's rankings, just like the military) and more than 300 other Buddhas carved out of the rock formations in the garden. The second biggest statue is of the Laughing Buddha, the jolly chubby guy that many people identify as Buddha, but who's really only a secondary Buddha. The Temple and gardens were teeming with Chinese tourists, which makes us all wonder on a crisp March day what the crowds will be like when millions more visit China next summer around the Olympics.

Around Hangzhou and on the 3 hour trip to Shanghai, we noted that the traffic lights and signage were equal to -- or better than -- what we have at home. The signage is all in Chinese’s characters and in English on a green background (we could be in California), and many have electronic lighting as well. Many traffic lights have the same second-countdown electronic lights that we have at downtown SLO intersections for pedestrians, but they are larger and for the cars, which we all agreed is a good idea. The "Walk" signs for pedestrians have an animated pedestrian moving his legs just in case you don't quite get the message. That's one advantage of growing so large so recently -- they get to start with state-of-the-art equipment.

Our guide has explained to us how most phrases have multiple meanings depending on the inflection you put on it. The same phrase can mean "Hello" or "How are you?" or "Are you okay?" or "Great to see you" depending on how you say it. We don't quite understand how that works with the written word (or character), but it works for them.

Except for the Chinese characters on signs, billboards, and buildings, and the inescapable observation that everyone is Chinese, what you see in much of China could be anywhere in the West. They dress like we do, they interact like we do, and their surroundings could be matched somewhere in the US. It's not the Communist China that I imagined based on prior experiences in Communist countries -- they're not despondent, they're not somber. China is very, very full of vitality.

Bob Wacker (& Dave Garth)

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Suzhou: A study in contrasts

Today in Suzhou was a day of contrast--the very old and the very new, the very clean and the very dirty, the very traditional and the very transitional.

In the morning we visited Tiger Hill and its beautiful 1,000 year old Buddhist pagoda, one of the few visible remnants of a very rich religious history; most Chinese do not practice any religion today.

Just a few miles away, we boarded a traditional flat bottom tour boat to see the old part of the city from the moat and canal that flow all the way to the ocean some 10 hours away (by boat.) The narrow canal provided a fascinating and intimate look at life in a lower class neighborhood with small and very old residential buildings right on the canal edge and an open air market looking like a typical third-world gathering place—dark and dirty stalls selling everything from live eel to monkey-on-a-stick. But a look just above the stalls and one can see the very new and modern skyscrapers in the background less than a mile away. The houses on the canal were much like the private residence where we were invited to dinner earlier in the week.

The residents served a nice dinner to 20 of us in a dingy, tiny home of less than 600 square feet. The kitchen was about 6 x 10 feet, so small that food was stored inside the tiny washing machine.

We then drove almost three hours in light traffic North to Hangzou--without ever leaving the Shanghai metro area. That’s right: we drove through more than 100 miles of city without any significant open space in sight. Hangzou, essentially a Shanghai suberb, has itself 7 million residents. That’s more than New York City.

It takes time to adjust to this huge mass of humanity. It will take longer to come to grips with how this huge and skilled workforce and huge potential consumer base will impact the U.S. and San Luis Obispo.

Dave Garth

Mastering chopsticks

I think just about everyone has had some uncomfortable encounter with chopsticks. For me it was always trying to find that delicate balance while maneuvering a perfect piece of sweet and sour chicken into my mouth without losing it to my white shirt. Well, my last day in Beijing brought on a new experience.
I was just beginning to feel confident with the squatting toilet routine and felt that I could take on the world, or at least the bathrooms of the Eastern world. But that’s when I had a setback. My hotel key fell out of my secure pant pocket and into the porcelain abyss of Never Never Land.
I stood for a moment brainstorming what to do. Should I cross my fingers, close my eyes, count to the lucky number eight and hope that I could somehow force the key down the pipes with a solid flush? Or do I dare figure out a way to draw it out? I mean, really, how necessary was this key?
Luckily, a kind bathroom attendant came to my rescue. Using her super-sized chopsticks, she deftly clasped the key between the wooden sticks and immediately flung it across the room and began rinsing it in the sink. Water spraying, soap bubbling, dryer blasting. The whole process was done with her chopsticks. I was overwhelmed with not only her thoroughness in cleaning a disposable hotel room key but her willingness to help this fumbling American. I expressed my gratitude with a ‘shi shi’ and couldn’t help but wonder if she had been in this predicament before. It all seemed too easy for her. I tried to learn from her and file away the lesson that a smile and kind actions go a long way, and that mastering chopsticks can get you somewhere as well.

--- Ali Semon