Archive for the ‘Spotted in Shanghai’ Category

Farewell Shanghai

Thursday, June 11th, 2009

Well, we’ve left Shanghai and have returned to Seattle after a year in China.  It was a great year that gave me many insights about key differences with the local software industry as well as with local culture.  I aim to share some of those thoughts in an upcoming post.

Forbidden CityIn the meantime, I leave you with two pictures.  The first is all about  globalization.  You’ll see that I’m pointing at the bottom-right corner of a sign that explains a key historic building within the Forbidden City.  Until about 1911, no civilian had ever seen the inside of the Forbidden City because only the emperor and his staff were allowed.  Now anyone can visit and see the hidden gems of history.  Well, that and the logo I’m pointing to in the sign:  it’s an Amex symbol.  That’s right –Amex has managed to get its logo plastered on every sign in the Forbidden City.  Globalization at its starkest, I suppose.  Next thing you know, Tide With Bleach will be sponsoring the Washington Monument.

IMG_1692 The second photo is just for fun.  It’s an outdoor statue outside of the Jin An Temple in the heart of Shanghai.  Outdoor statues have been gaining popularity both in Shanghai and in the US, as far as I can tell.  Hours of entertainment.

Postcards From The Edge

Saturday, January 31st, 2009

Here are some oddball photos from Shanghai that have been stacking up for a while, in no particular order.


This was taken at Carrefour, a huge French conglomerate that’s popular in several Asian countries.  Two things were novel (to me) about this shopping cart:  a) it was on an escalator-ramp, which allowed for carts to move from floor to floor, and b) the wheels magnetically lock once you push the cart onto the escalator.  This latter feature is just so clever.  No struggling with the cart’s weight!  (When I first encountered this unexpected feature, though, I thought that the cart had gotten stuck somehow.)

IMG_0590The second picture is a billboard that I photographed inside a mall (the JLife Mall next to what used to be Shanghai’s tallest building, the Jin Mao Tower).  Call me a bigot, but I’m not sure that everyone gets the warm fuzzies when a sign claims to help you “enjoy” a “German dental experience.”  Are the Germans famous for dentistry in a way that I’ve not heard of before?

IMG_0385Then we have several food-related photos.  The first shows the cafeteria where many Microsoft employees eat.  The photo was taken at 1:20 pm, a time when in the US you’d still expect many people to be eating.  But as you can clearly see, the cafeteria was abandoned at this time.  No one would sell me any food, even though it was within the official opening hours of the cafeteria, because the workers were all eating and cleaning up.  In Redmond, you’d have employees eating well through the afternoon.  The China employee culture is very precise when it comes to lunch time.  People don’t eat at 11:50.  They stop heading to the cafeteria at 12:20.  The elevators are impossibly jammed at precisely 12 noon.  It’s like an unspoken agreement here.

IMG_0548IMG_0478The Lay’s chips, you’ll notice, are “Ziran Steak Flavor.”  I love market customization – like 7-Elevens selling tea eggs in Taiwan, or KFCs selling passionfruit juice in China.  The potato chips were pretty tasty.  Speaking of KFC, the one above is one of the most uniquely-decorated I’ve seen.  It’s on the famous West Lake in Hangzhou.  The Colonel sure gets around.

IMG_0222What’s a story about China without something being broken?  Left, you see a child seat.  The safety buckles are all broken, and the seat furthermore features several choice pinch points for little fingers.  What makes this seat truly awesome is that it’s essentially the same seat that we’ve been given in many restaurants, both native and foreign – complete with broken buckles each time.  In fact, I’ll go on record for saying that we have never once used a child seat in a Chinese restaurant that had working buckles.  This suggests perhaps some design feedback to the company that makes these seats (or alternatively, some feedback to parents who care about their children’s safety).

IMG_0214The red button you see on the left is meant for emergencies.  It calls the police or the guards in your apartment complex (you’ll remember from a previous post that there are guards everywhere in China).  It’s a sort of “I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up” type of button that features prominently in multiple rooms in many apartments.  The red button would be a pretty awesome idea – if it actually did anything.  I pressed an unlabelled one when I first got to Shanghai.  Nothing happened for days.  It reminds me of several friends who I’ve talked to over the years who, when dialing 911, got a busy signal.  Does this bother anyone?

IMG_0578These last two highlight subtle humor in language and culture.  “Wall Street English” is a huge chain that offers English tutoring.  They have video ads that feature hip Asian people confidently proclaiming, “I speak English – Wall Street English.”  This is perhaps only bested by their main competitor, “English First,” which loves featuring billboards of an Asian woman tied at the wrist with thick rope to a white man.  I guess it’s supposed to be a we’re-in-it-together sort of thing, but it strikes me as… odd.

IMG_0551Lastly, the trash cans.  Kudos to the Chinese for having trash cans that typically come separated between regular trash and recyclables.  This is a great move.  But you’ll note the particular recycle bin on the right is labeled “Unredeemable.”  True in literal meaning, comical in connotation.

Enjoy. Always. With a Twist.

Tuesday, November 18th, 2008

I’ve been a Coke fan (in preference over Pepsi) for many years now.  China’s the first place where I’ve experienced a truly new twist on its classic taste.

Today, in a simple Beijing restaurant next to Tiananmen Square (motto:  “What tank treads?”), I ordered a Hot Coke Ginger Lemon Drink.  I confirmed twice, thinking that I must misunderstand the menu, then absolutely had to order this most creative of drinks.

As promised, it was Coke, but served boiling hot, having had fine threads of ginger cooked in it along with a few slices of lemon.  Coke, ginger, and lemon are, I’m happy to report, three great tastes that taste great together.  It was truly the most creative preparation of Coca-Cola I’ve ever been served.  (Coke, for those of you keeping track, averages 200+ 8-oz. servings per American per year.  The American Dental Association should positively own stock.)

The concoction was served fresh, with the hot Coke still fizzing.  One must consume it within the first few minutes of its production lest its inherent fizzy-ness be lost in scalding heat.  The ginger added delicate treble notes to the Coke’s slothful, sticky alto;  the lemon added carefree highlights at the onset and retreat of the main melody.

I’m told by the waitress that it’s quite a common drink in China.  I suppose by “common” she means “you could spend six months here without ever hearing of it.”  She claims that it’s often had during colds as a way to clear the sinuses.  All Chinese school kids no doubt want to get sick, and often.

The folks at Coca-Cola Enterprises are probably delighted by this development, which hearkens back to the early days of Coke in the 1900’s when its traces of cocaine were billed as revitalizing to the health.

All it needs is a clever name, like those of most alcoholic drinks, where the name guarantees half the success.  How about something enigmatic and insider, conveying a chummy sense of knowing camaraderie whenever it rolls off the tongue, like “Moses Simpson Coronary?”

Coke.  Enjoy.  Always.  Now, piping hot with ginger and lemon.  At your local Beijing restaurant.  Ask for it by name.

Free Falling

Monday, November 3rd, 2008

I’m still undecided whether, in net, living in Shanghai is safer than, say, New York City.  Sure, there are plenty of random chemical smells.  Yes, my office in the outskirts of Shanghai is right next to a nuclear power plant (“The…. Siimmmmmpppsons…”).  But personal safety (vis-a-vis violent crime) is much better in Shanghai than in most major US cities.  There’s, after all, no allowance for widespread gun ownership.  And in general things just feel much safer.  You can walk most places at night without feeling in danger.  You’re much more likely to be hurt in Shanghai by the general disregard for health and human life than by violent crime.

Then again, once in a while you run into things that make you think twice.  I spoke to a coworker in Beijing last week who, while living in Park Plaza Hotel near Zhongguancun, entered an elevator that fell 17 stories when its cable snapped.  He stepped in, heard some elevator workers overhead, then suddenly experienced a loud snapping noise followed by 12 stories of free-fall.

This was no amusement park ride.  This was Life in Shanghai.

After falling 12 stories, the emergency brakes kicked in near the fifth floor.  The elevator slowed a bit from its blistering downward path, but not enough to prevent a hard impact at the bottom of the shaft.  He bounced off the floor hard, getting cuts on his scalp, lips, and face.  He then staggered out of the elevator, bleeding everywhere, and simply went up to the concierge.

“You should really get that elevator fixed.”

And he limped away.  For several days afterwards he took the stairs.  But he’s now back to normal.

This is probably the closest first-hand account of a near-death experience that I have ever personally run into.  I’m amazed and fascinated by the possibility of being confronted with only a few seconds of time to square one’s life away and prepare for instant death.  This coworker of mine took it remarkably well.

It of course doesn’t help that I’ve stayed at the very same hotel in Beijing.  Perhaps next time I stay there, I’ll be sure to ask for a room on the lowest floor possible.  Then again, maybe that’d be a mistake:  since the elevator’s emergency brakes took 12 stories of free-fall to kick in, it’d probably be wisest for me to ask for a room on the highest floor possible, thereby giving the brakes a bit more time to work their magic.

Mama Said Knock You Out

Monday, October 13th, 2008

I’m told Spartans were pretty rugged folk.

Mongols weren’t exactly wimps either.  You don’t amass the largest continuous-land-mass empire in human history by smoking peace pipes.

I briefly considered this today as a taxi driver was being punched and kicked by three people at the airport on my way to Shenzhen.  Hongqiao airport is one of the two airports serving downtown Shanghai.  There were more cops there today than usual directing traffic.  I figure it’s because it was a Monday morning, with lots of commuter traffic.  They kept things moving along as well as could be expected.

It occurred to me that the safety barrier normally erected between a taxi driver and his passengers — presumably for the driver’s safety –could in limited circumstances become a liability.  Sure, barriers keep bad elements out.  But they also lock you in.  And therein lies the problem.  Three people pull open your door, start shouting, and swiftly decide to supplement their point of view with fists and boots.  The cops might be too busy to help you.  Or they might frankly not see it as their job to intervene.  There’s a lot of traffic that needs directing.  Or perhaps they subscribe to one observer’s comment that you probably deserved the “lesson” you were getting.  If this was Taxi University, class was definitely in session.

I haven’t decided whether the passenger — who not only fled when class began in earnest, but also got back into the taxi once class was dismissed — was wise, cowardly, foolish, or just incredibly efficient.  After all, you don’t pay a new fare when you continue with a taxi after stopping.

It’s hard for me to imagine those first few sentences when getting back into the freshly-educated driver’s taxi, but perhaps that’s why my future’s not in fiction.  I’d guess it’d be a meek congratulations on the continuing education credits, then off to Concourse B.  The guilt would tempt me to tip a bit more.  Then again, you made me late.

I didn’t get out to help, though class was in session a mere two meters from me.  You can decide whether I was wise, cowardly, foolish, or just incredibly efficient.  My flight was leaving in an hour.  I was not yet at the gate.  Traffic was made worse because people were conducting class in the middle of the airport entrance.  This was definitely not adding up to leaving for Shenzhen on time.

I’m told a woman was once beat to death on a crowded bridge stopped with traffic during rush hour in New York City.  If memory serves correctly, class went into overtime during that session, lasting much longer than usual.  No one helped.  Perhaps everyone was acutely aware that they had not registered for the course, and so would not want to intrude on what was rightfully someone else’s education.  No one even called the police.  I’m not sure if anyone called nearby friends.

It’s commonplace to encounter belligerent shouting in Shanghai.  You might be at a supermarket.  You might be at a bus stop.  You might be in a five-star hotel lobby.  The location doesn’t seem to matter much.  Escalation is lightning quick.  WHAT!?  My coffee is late?!  What sort of two-bit joint is this?!  You moron!  I’m convinced I derive less titillating pleasure than many folks from these encounters because I don’t enjoy Jerry Springer.  I could probably lighten up a bit about the visceral aspects of human nature.  If it’s good enough for Ultimate Fighting Championship, it should be good enough for me.  Call me high-brow.

Being a suburbanite, it’s hard for me to know whether this tendency towards shouting and mano-a-mano combat is simply an urban phenomenon or one that’s especially acute in the Chinese culture.  I’ve not lived in the heart of any major American city, though I can easily be convinced that LA or New York might be like this.

What I mostly think about when I bring the kids out — to, say, the park or the shopping mall — is what they’ll learn from all the shouting and fighting.  And, in a rare moment of honesty, what they think about my efficiency.

One Small Step for Man…

Monday, July 14th, 2008

So, the following sign has been personally spotted by me in both Beijing and Shenzhen (a government-planted city that is directly across the China’s former border with Hong Kong):

Small step makes big success

I’ve spotted this sign in many places and found the context rather humorous.  The English translation doesn’t do justice to the cleverness of the verse.  I’d translate it more as “One small step forward for Man, one big step forward for Civility.”

Where do these signs occur?

Sweet urinal action

That’s right — exclusively over urinals.  The clever turn of phrase, appropriately matched to a pertinent situation, makes the whole situation pure comedic magic.  When I first saw the sign, I had to ask someone what it meant.  The implications of the English translation weren’t obvious to me.  I chuckled a bit when it was finally explained.

The empiricists amongst you will no doubt ask whether the signs are having an effect.  I can happily attest that indeed, in such bathrooms, these signs have resulted in positive change.  I trust that no more explanation is necessary.

"Next Time I’ll Bring a Knife"

Friday, June 20th, 2008

Overheard on the elevator today while going up to work:

Man:  “I think it’s my third time here.”
Woman (colleague):  “We’ve been here four times.  But you missed one of the meetings.”
Man:  “That’s right.  A total of four times, but I missed one.  I can’t believe after all these meetings that we’ve still not reached an agreement with them.”
Woman:  “Tell me about it.”
(This is a rough translation, since in Chinese the literal phrase “tell me about it” doesn’t mean what it does in English.  If you want to imagine more of a Chinese flair to this conversation, just roll your eyes and lament, “AYE-yoh,” or you could use the popular, “AYE-yoh-eh.”  Let your arms flap a bit in exasperation.)
Man:  “Well, if we don’t get an agreement with them today, next time I’ll bring a knife.  ‘Oh, Mr. Chen, I think we should discuss…’ POW!!<Mr. Chen makes a forceful stabbing motion in the elevator>  “That’ll show ’em.”

The good news is that Mr. Chen, Deal Closer Extraordinaire, got off the elevator one floor before the Microsoft offices with his yet-unperturbed colleague.

This conversation got me thinking.  It used to be, say, in the early 1990’s, that these sorts of jokes would be lightly chuckled at and filed away in the Dark Humor section of water cooler lore.  But somewhere in the last decade in the US, these jokes stopped being funny.  We’ve essentially applied the famous airport TSA sign — “All jokes will be taken seriously” — to our lives.

Has this change happened in the US because of all the workplace violence, all the Going Postal, the last few years?  Or is it just I that thinks these jokes would no longer be funny if said in an elevator in the US?

Let me know your opinion.  A barrel of laughs?  Nervous staring and shuffling in the elevator followed by a quick call to building security once you’re out of Mr. Chen’s earshot?  Which would happen in the US?  Has our culture changed?

POW!!  (Just kidding.  Plastic butter knife.)

Recently Spotted in Shanghai

Friday, May 16th, 2008

Every once in a while, I hope to report on interesting sights spotted in Shanghai.  This edition will be about firearms.

Several days ago, I was in a taxi when a scooter passed by to my right.  On the back of the scooter, strapped casually pointing sideways, was an M-16 assault rifle.  The scooter was being driven by a normally-dressed guy, the same sort of person you see all the time riding scooters in Shanghai.  No military uniform, nothing.  Just a rifle you could film Commando with.  Given that my mental schema when traveling in public doesn’t include looking down the barrels of military weaponry, much less military weaponry riding on the back seat of what essentially was a Roman Holiday Vespa, it took me a while to actually figure out that an assault rifle had just gone by.  My camera made it out moments too late.  Let’s hope that scooter doesn’t get into a traffic accident anywhere.

While we’re on the subject of serious weaponry…  I was just about to step out of a mall today (Metro City Mall at Xujiahui) when I passed a guard standing inside the mall doors holding, I kid you not, a pump-action, short-handle shotgun.  People were walking within less than a foot of the muzzle without even a second thought.  Here’s the thing though:  it seems to me that in order for you to choose a shotgun for this particular mall-door duty, you must either expect never to have to use it or you must not care about civilian casualties.  There were scores of people within 20 feet of this thing.  How could you ever fire it without hurting others?

On a positive note, I suppose the shotgun must really beat the pants off of RFID door alarms when it comes deterring shoplifting.

Once again, I didn’t get a photo of this.  Not because I wasn’t quick enough, but because it seems to me that in general one should probably not photograph prominently-armed guards from close range, with an indoor flash nonetheless.