14 October 2010

Porsche in China

I had the opportunity to test drive a Porsche the other day with a friend of mine who is buying one.  We went over to the dealership near People's Square.  I always thought you had to show up in a fancy car and act like a big shot to be able to test drive a Porsche, but it was actually remarkably easy.  The salesman was a nice guy from Shandong province and all I had to do was give him my driver's license and cell phone number and we were on our way.

The showroom was filled with some interesting characters.  The predominant type was very young Chinese girls in designer heels not fit for driving checking out Boxsters and Cayennes while their significantly older boyfriends talked to the salesmen about prices while chain smoking Chung Hwa cigarettes (the brand of choice among the wealthy business/government set).  One girl had an LV bag that was so big I don't think it would have fit in a Porsche.  Then there was the young guy probably not yet 30, wearing gym shorts, a t-shirt, and flip flops, signing the papers on a new 911, paid for in cash.

The level of conspicuous consumption here makes New York City absolutely pale in comparison.

Finally we headed down to the car park below the dealership, where there were about ten Porsches of varying specs.  We got up to street level and it was raining pretty hard.  Finally driving now.  Ripping down People's Avenue (人民大道), with People's Square and People's Park flying by my windows on either side, in the pouring rain, in a bright yellow 911 Carrera 4S was pretty awesome.  The sales guy was on his cell phone the whole time chatting with his girlfriend, and seemed not to care or notice that we were doing 150km/h down the crowded city streets.  I went for a second loop.

Later I asked the salesman how business was at the dealership.  He said he personally sells about 15 cars per month, but that the top salesman sells 30 per month.  There were about 15 salesmen on the floor that day.  That's about 250 Porsches moving out the door every month, and it's only one of several dealerships in Shanghai.  Recession?

No wonder Porsche cited the Chinese market as the driving force behind their decision to produce a full size 4-door sedan, angering some diehard customers.  The Chinese business men who buy luxury cars here rarely drive themselves; it's cheap and convenient to have a driver.  So Porsche needed a car with a real back seat to compete.  Hence the new Panamera.

The really shocking thing about the brisk business at the Porsche dealership is the prices, which are astronomical compared to the (already expensive) cost of a Porsche in the USA.  For example, the above car, a 911 Turbo, retails for $135,000 in the US, maybe $150,000 with options.  Now check out the price in China:

That's RMB2,783,500 or about $420,000.  So the same exact car is about 3 times more expensive in China than in the USA.  Why?  Mainly it's because of stiff import duty of more than 100% on luxury goods, plus an array of other taxes.  The high price sure doesn't seem to be deterring Chinese consumers.  The salesman told me that most models have waiting lists of about 6 months.

13 October 2010

Shanghai Expo 2010

Now that the Shanghai Expo is winding down in 3 weeks, I'm finally getting around to posting about my visit there a few months ago.  The Expo hasn't really been in the news much lately, as things have quieted down a lot since it first opened.  At the beginning, they were getting attendance numbers upwards of 500,000 people per day.  Lines at the popular pavilions (China, USA, UK, France, Saudi Arabia) were more than 5 hours long.  People were pretending to be disabled and riding in wheelchairs (or finding actually disabled people on the street and paying them to accompany them to the expo and pretend to be related) so they could go in the separate lines for elderly and disabled.  Tickets were being sold on the black market at outrageous prices, and people were generally Expo crazy.  Now the situation surrounding the Expo is a little more sane.

I went with some friends a couple months ago when the crowds were still huge.  Despite the huge crowds, it was still an enjoyable experience and I must give props to the organizers for pulling off such a huge event without many problems.  The infrastructure of the place is pretty amazing.  A new subway line was opened just to serve the Expo.  Free buses run around the site to take you from zone to zone.  There were plenty of volunteers (most of whom spoke good English) to direct you.  The architecture of some of the pavilions was really stunning.

But, as everyone has noted, the big downside is the outrageous lines.  On the day we went, it was pouring rain all day.  You might think that would put a damper on attendance, but nonetheless, the lines were daunting.  South Korea, Japan, USA, China, UK, Spain, France, Taiwan, and Saudi Arabia all had lines of more than 5 hours.  So we skipped the popular ones and went to the smaller pavilions where the lines were negligible or nonexistent.

Portugal was pretty cool, with a great movie which highlighted their culture.

Here is a picture of the UK pavilion, which is made of thousands of shiny fiber optic spikes which light up and change color at night.

The Italian pavilion was surprisingly not too crowded.  We had to wait in line for about 30 minutes.  Of course I liked this one because it was filled with Ducatis and Ferraris.  

There is one big pavilion which housed all the African countries.  Most of them were really similar, showing poor villages, folk crafts, dirt roads, etc.  Kenya of course had a poster proudly proclaiming Obama's Kenyan heritage which was pretty cool.

The most interesting thing in the African pavilion was how many of the countries highlighted the recent Chinese investment that has come their way.  From the new port in Senegal, to several airports around the continent, to mining sites, railways, and more, lots of the countries were showing off new development projects made possible by Chinese investment.  Part of that no-strings-attached investment/aid which China has been spreading around Africa (some say in exchange for access to resources) over the past decade.

The most surreal pavilion was, of course, North Korea.  The displays and videos naturally painted a beautiful picture of what it's like to live in the happiest and more prosperous country on earth, highlighting the world-class hospitals, universities, subways, hotels, and stadiums that North Korea boasts.

I snapped this picture of the guy working behind the counter selling North Korean paraphernalia and souvenirs.  It's hard to tell from the blurry photo, but I couldn't help but notice the Ralph Lauren logo on his shirt, right next to the obligatory pin of the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il.  Talk about opposite worlds.

For many Chinese people who will  never have the opportunity to leave China, the Expo is as close as they'll ever get to seeing the outside world.  Hence the daily crowds of half a million people pouring in from all over China.  For a foreigner, the Expo remains a kind of quaint idea, hearkening back to World's Fairs.  Anyway, despite the pouring rain and huge crowds, a visit to the Expo was nonetheless an enjoyable way to spend the day and we had a great time.

It's even better to go now that it's not too hot and the crowds are smaller.  I also just received an email from the American Consulate in Shanghai announcing that the American pavilion has opened its VIP entrance to anyone with an American passport, meaning that you don't have to wait in line, so I may go check that out in the next few weeks.  Though the American pavilion has been plagued by scandal and lack of funding and uncertainty from the start, I might as well check it out.  How could I not?  After all, Hillary Clinton gave it such a glowing review, declaring on her visit to Shanghai in May, that, "it's fine."

For far better coverage of the 2010 Shanghai Expo, check out the Expo section of Adam Minter's blog: Shanghai Scrap.

08 July 2010

Indonesia March 2010

I spent a week or so in Indonesia at the end of March and now that I'm finally getting around to updating this blog, thought I'd make a few notes.

Overall the first thing that struck me, coming from China, is the overwhelming poverty.  It is poverty and lack of development in a way you really don’t see in much of China.  I was mostly in the capital Jakarta and an industrial city called Semarang.  Jakarta is the biggest and most developed city in Indonesia, but it feels like what you'd imagine Shanghai to have been like 20 years ago.  It's much dirtier, more chaotic, the traffic is truly unbelievable, the air is terrible, police corruption is reportedly rampant, it’s 100+ degrees and 90% humidity (in March).  The gap between rich and poor is more apparent than that in Shanghai.

The traffic is so ridiculously jammed, that it's virtually impossible to make a left turn (crossing traffic) or a U-turn at a median.  So these enterprising street kids have set up an operation whereby they're posted at major intersections and U-turn spots, and when you indicate that you need to turn left, they physically guide your car in the proper direction, literally forcing the oncoming cars to stop and let you pass.  For this service, the driver cracks his window and passes down 100 rupiah ($0.01).  This is basically the only way to make a left turn in the downtown area from 6AM until 10PM.

They other thing that you notice as a foreigner, especially coming from China, is the very tight security at all buildings and complexes.  You approach the hotel and it’s a big, walled compound up on a hill or a cordoned off city block.  Big gates and thick cement blast walls.  Your car is searched thoroughly when you enter.  Trunk is opened, mirrors placed under the car to check for explosives, dogs sniffing, armed guards, etc.

When you actually get to the doorway of the hotel, it is the same as airport security.  All bags must pass through an x-ray machine and you through a metal detector.  There were also sturdy barbed wire fences surrounding all the factories for some reason, something I've never seen in Korea or Taiwan or China.

Another thing I learned is that a big chunk of the economy (banking, restaurants, manufacturing, transportation) is controlled in large part by ethnic Chinese, so there have been several crackdowns / backlashes against Chinese.  At one point it was actually forbidden to teach Chinese in schools, and there were riots and looting of Chinese-owned businesses.

Not really having anything to do or knowing the lay of the land, I went to the hotel bar one night.  The bar was filled with 50-60 year old European (lots of Dutch; Indonesia was a colony of the Netherlands for hundreds of years until the mid-1940’s) business men and 15 year old Indonesian hookers in heavy makeup and fake eyelashes.  100 bucks a pop, a huge amount in Indonesia, but not much (especially when converted to Euros) for a Dutchman.  Truly depressing.  I drank whisky and made friends with the bartender instead, who ended up being Chinese, and told me how lousy it was to be a Chinese in Indonesia unless you owned your own business.

The next night I decided to go for a walk around the city instead of returning to the bar.  After no fewer than 5 different bellhops told me “jakarta not safe” as I made my way down the hotel drive, it turned out to be just fine.  It seemed like people were surprised to see a foreigner walking out alone, but it was a pretty interesting scene.   Wild soccer fans raucously parading through the streets after a victorious match, a bunch of street vendors selling various goods, a lot of street food carts, and about a billion motorcycles.  Everyone smiled and I didn’t feel unsafe at all.

Anyway, it was an interesting place to go for a week, a nice change of pace from China, but next time I go I'd hope to hang out with someone who knew the city instead of just going around from factory to factory in the back seat of a car.

Spotted at SIN

I saw this out the airplane window a few months ago on my way to Jakarta.  You can't really tell from this blurry picture but the writing on the side of the plane says "State of Kuwait."

Just as we were about to pull away from the gate, 3 or 4 big black Mercedes-Benz sedans pulled up and discharged their passengers who quickly boarded this private jet, shielded by bodyguards and minders holding black umbrellas.  Made me wonder what was going on!  A meeting of the heads of the Kuwaiti and Singaporean sovereign wealth funds?  A deal to export crude from Kuwait to be refined into gasoline and petrochemicals at Singapore's refineries?  Or maybe they just wanted to enjoy some whiskey and cigars and karaoke?  Mere speculation...

26 February 2010

Spotted in Cixi

I guess it takes immature bathroom humor to get me to actually update this poor excuse for a blog.  The second in the toilet sign series, sighted at a bar in Cixi, Zhejiang:

The poor English translations here never cease to amuse me.  With all the laowai around, you'd think they would just hire somebody to quickly proofread menus, signs, etc.  But no.  Incidentally, this translation is literally correct, 小便 (xiaobian) means to urinate and 区 (qu) means district.  This was the sign above the section of the bathroom with urinals instead of stalls.  Anyway, I really can't complain because you certainly don't see bathrooms in America with a sign reading 厕所 (toilet).  Come to think of it, America is basically impossible for non-English speakers, except for the various Chinatowns, Koreatowns, and maybe L.A and Miami for Spanish speakers?  But on the whole the rest of the world is far more accommodating towards English speakers than vice versa. 

In other news, I am in Taipei for a quick trip, which is always a nice break from China.  Although, it is really too hot here.  It is February and it was about 30C here today, well over 80F.  Not fun when you're wearing a suit and tie and walking around the city.  Flew in here yesterday and now I'm in the airport waiting for the flight back to China.  Taiwan is so close to China that you'd think the trip would be easier than it actually is.  Although it's much better than before.  A few years ago there were no direct flights between Taiwan and the mainland due to political reasons, but now things have opened up.  It still takes the better part of a half day to make the trip though.  Mostly this is because the airports are not in the city center.  PVG is an hour plus from Shanghai's downtown, same for TPE and Taipei.  Maybe it's an Asian city thing?  It's the same with ICN and Seoul.  Makes it less convenient.

It's a sunny day here and I'm looking forward to getting back to Shanghai for the weekend.  Sunday I head to Korea for the week.  One of the companies I meet with there promised me that we were going to eat dog next time I come, so we'll see how that goes.

Speaking of food, I was at KTV the other night and they served us some drinking snacks.  Peanuts, french fries, chicken feet, and duck necks:

 This, in conjunction with a friend's vegetarian mom visiting China recently, got me thinking about meat consumption here.  It is not really easy to be a vegetarian here.  Almost all main dishes have some meat.  But it is never served as a big, main hunk of protein like a steak or a chicken breast.  Instead you get much smaller pieces of shredded meat used more as flavoring among vegetables and other ingredients, or maybe a few thin slices of beef or pork in a noodle soup.  Someone told me that meat us usually cut up very small because that way it cooks faster, and cooking fuel was hard to come by (expensive) back in the day.  I have no idea if that's true.  Anyway, while most meals really aren't complete without some meat, overall consumption is much less and much different than in the U.S.  However, as incomes rise, so does meat consumption, and China is certainly consuming more and more, but I don't think they'll be eating big steaks, whole chicken breasts, or pork chops anytime soon.

Another thing about meat here is that you know that you're actually eating an animal.  This goes all the way from purchase to consumption.  Most meat is sold in open air markets by actual butchers.  You watch him hack the animal (or its pieces) apart, cut to order.  You want to eat fish?  You'll usually buy it live, pointing out which one you want to the fishmonger, watching as he wails it against the ground to stun and kill it, or maybe cuts off the head and gives that to you separately.  At the very least you always buy fish whole.  Fillets are very hard to come by.  There's no mistaking the anonymous protein when it lands on your table with head and tail.  Same is true for poultry and pork and beef.  It's usually served with the bones intact.  This comes back to the duck necks.  You grab one, and it's pretty identifiable as a neck, vertebrae and all.  You chew around the edges and tear off the meat.  It's actually really delicious, I've come to like them quite a bit.  But there's no beating around the bush that you are eating an animal.  No shrink wrapped boneless chicken breasts here.  It also points to another thing, which is that they eat the entire animal here in a way that Western cuisines rarely do.  Sure, the whole nose-to-tail butchery thing has gained some popularity with food snobs in Manhattan and San Francisco these past few years, but here it's a matter of tradition and necessary frugality.

05 January 2010

Getting back into it

It has been a long while since I've updated this thing but I thought I'd throw up a picture and an interesting/gruesome clipping from the trusty Shanghai Daily in an effort to get back into the habit of posting here.

This is from October of last year. A Chinese friend of mine asked me to be the best man in his wedding, and of course I did not refuse. It was quite an experience which I will try and write about later!

This one is pretty self-explanatory. I don't even know if Hollywood could top this level of violence and sex. Everyday in the paper there is a section where they print small blurbs of the bizarre/criminal/outrageous news from around the country.