Monday, June 4, 2007

China – first impressions of a modern Beijing

I have been to China for the first time in my life. Beijing is one of the four great ancient capitals of China (Xian, Nanjing and Luoyang are the other three). Beijng is today recognized as the cultural, educational and political center of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), proclaimed in 1949, whereas Shanghai and Hong Kong dominate in economic fields.

It has taken me a couple of weeks since I came home to gather my thoughts from all the experiences and I will divide my travel report from China into several parts. Below you’ll find my first consolidated impressions of the work related part, of Beijing as a city, the Chinese people and local customs. In my next parts, I’ll take you with me on some of my sightseeing excursions and salsa clubbing.

I was staying for five nights at the Great Wall Sheraton Hotel Beijing, a fancy hotel just outside the east Third Ring Road, and for three nights at Beijing City Hotel which was more centrally located.

A breath of China
You can try and learn some Chinese characters (and associated culture) by visiting

Browsing the web for other travelers' comments can be quite enlightening. "Lasse G" from Sweden says that Teresa Teng (Deng Li Jun) is one of the most popular singers in China (or at least was in 2005). Click here to hear one of her songs and catch a breath of China - quite nice, actually!

Sony Ericsson Developer World China launch
The reason for my trip was the official launch of Sony Ericsson Developer World China with a fancy launch event for developers and close to 50 Chinese media in mid-May. This was an interesting happening in comparison to all developer events I’ve been to representing my company in the US, UK and other parts of Europe so far. The Chinese are very pompous and ceremonial in their ways and this was considered a formal opening of business operations of the new program launch. A famous anchor man from Beijing TV, their big TV channel, was the moderator and presenter at the event and all the foreign guests (including myself), technology partners and the company’s Chinese senior executives were prominently lined up on the front row with a name sign placed in front of us. There was lots of talk about "building bridges for a successful future", "let's join hands for mutual success", "achieve win-win" etc and "Thank you, Mr So and So, for your infinite wisdom and expertise". I couldn't help but being somewhat amused.

After some opening presentations there was a formal launch ceremony with the elevation of a golden plaque sign with the logo and date (May 15th) of the official launch of the Developer World program in China on it, paper fireworks and a photo opportunity for all attending media in front of the back drop on stage. These photos showed up in a lot of the media coverage after the event.

Launch ceremony

I was there as the official spokesperson for our global program and also conducted a couple of group interviews with ten reporters from a mix of IT, telecoms and programmer publications.

Here I am with my boss Ulf and my Chinese colleague Joyce at the launch event

After three days of working till midnight I finally got a few days off to explore Bejing and its surroundings.

A lot of foreigners come to China to shop like crazy. These days, there are even long-weekend, direct charter flights to Beijing from Stockholm, so that Swedes can go on shopping esprits. I was taught by my friend and former colleague Abbas and his Tai Tai (=wife) Christina, who have been living in Beijing for the past two years now, that bargaining is customary at Chinese clothing and silk markets. If you can get the price down to 1/6 of the original price mentioned by the seller you have done a very good job. You should never pay more than 1/3 of the price. They took me to Pearl Market, where they showed me the ropes and I made some really good bargains on silk bed-covers, table cloths and dresses. They also took me to a place where you could buy fake (but good-quality) Omega, Swiss Patek Philippe and Gucci watches.

Drink stand outside Pearl Market

Abbas & Christina at a Sizzler’s

Me at the Sony Ericsson shop in a modern department store

Band playing in a department store

The day before my departure, I went to the Yashow Clothing Market which was very close to the Beijing City Hotel and I managed to do some decent bargaining on my own. Normally I hate bargaining but it turned out to be quite fun, like a challenging sport which gave me a few good laughs. The sales persons always try to tell you that your counter offers will not even cover their manufacturing costs (“C’mon, no joking!”) in order to make you up the bid, and sometimes even pretend to be angry, but no matter what your rock-bottom offer is and you turn around and start walking away, they almost always call you back and eventually say ok. If they don’t, you at least knew you have reached as low as they can or will ever be willing to go – anything above it is just a game. I am sure they have a very good profit margin on what they sell to all the foreign tourists who come to Beijing for the first time, and I am sure I paid over-price on a lot of the things I bought, but nonetheless it was good fun and much cheaper than back home.

Yashow Market

The Place – a new shopping area with one of the world’s largest outdoor electronic advertising boards. As you look up, you will see swimming sharks and dolphins in the “ceiling” – very cool!

Preparing for the Olympic Games in Beijing 2008
As a foreigner you may be a little disappointed to see so few traces of ‘the old China’ in its capital, and apparently many older buildings have been torn down to make room for new, modern buildings and skyscrapers, like the World Trade Center with its ice-skating rink below.

World Trade Center

There are a lot of construction sites and restoration work going on in Beijing right now. This is part of the overall face-lift that the city is undergoing in preparation for the Olympics next year. Similar to the Japanese, it’s very important to the Chinese not to lose face. One interesting aspect of this is to keep up appearances, and in construction business it means putting up a facade with a nice glass front and lots of shiny windows so that people won’t be able to tell that the building is just an empty concrete skeleton that may never be finished, or that it takes years before it’s completed – that is, if investors are long-term enough to see the project through, which apparently is not always the case. It seems a little strange to me that the finances for a whole building project have not been secured before the actual construction work starts. This seems to indicate very short-term thinking.

SoHo Beijing

I’ve heard of the “Leaning Tower of Pisa” in Italy but didn’t think that anyone would be adventurous enough to construct a building that is leaning from the beginning… On the photo below you can see one of many construction sites in Beijing and an example of some new, innovative architecture. These two towers are leaning towards each other and there will be a walking bridge between them to offset gravity and keep them from falling. Interesting – hope it works…

The leaning towers of Beijing
Modern business center

In some back streets you can still see some remnants of the days when millions of Chinese bicycled to work every day, but the streets which have several lanes and broad sidewalks are not new and are probably so broad thanks to the bicycle history when a lot of room for all the people to pass was needed. Today, there is a growing middle-class which can afford to buy brand new cars. There are few cities in the world where you see so many new cars of the latest model.

There are about 16 million inhabitants of Beijing. Unless they work for an international company and are used to traveling abroad or entertaining foreign guests, the Chinese are in general very poor at English, as can be see from the photo below.

The merchant handing me this business card must have used one of those online automatic translation tools which typically turns text into incomprehensible nonsense English

Taxi drivers don’t know any English apart from “thank you” and “bye” so you have to hand over a written note or a business card with the destination address in Chinese characters in order to be understood.

I can’t really blame the Chinese for not knowing any English since I don’t know any Chinese. The only few words I’ve managed to learn and remember from my 8 days in China are (and apologies if the sounds are not written correctly in Latin characters):

  • Ni hao = Hi / Good day
  • Xie xie = Thank you
  • Bei = North (like in Beijing = Northern Capital)
  • Xi = West (like in Xi’an =Western City; but it was actually the eastern terminus of the Silk Road)
  • Dong= East (like in Dongdu = Eastern Capital; old name of Luoyang)
  • Nan = South (like in Nanjing = Southern Capital)
  • Li = Street

I had heard stories about the, in Westerners’ opinions, generally bad table manners of the Chinese with loud slurping, burping and passing gas as a normal part of enjoying a good meal, but I was glad to discover that this must be a myth. One interesting observation I made, though, was that Chinese don’t push in the chairs when leaving a restaurant; they just stand up and leave. When calling on the waiter or waitress, Westerners typically sit silently and wait to catch the eye of the person waiting the table and then discretely sign at him or her to come to the table and take an order or bring the check, whereas the Chinese call out in loud voice and wave their arms, and if the waiter or waitress does something wrong or is too slow to serve, they simply yell at them. It seems that the service trade is part of an ancient hierarchical structure where the waiting staff is treated as inferior of the customer and that it’s accepted behavior for the customer to demonstrate this difference in social status in various ways. Of course this attitude also exists in the West but it’s not quite so blatant or widespread. Also, it’s not customary to tip in China, which is quite a relief for a Swede who finds the American way of having to tip for just about everything in the US somewhat tedious and discomforting (because you never know how much and you’re uncomfortable because the receiving party never seems to be grateful, just expects to be tipped without having to do anything extra for it).

The government has started campaigns to encourage the Chinese to improve their English language skills and general manners in time for the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008, of which they are a very proud hosting nation. My boss had someone jump into his cab from the airport asking to practice his English during the ride, and apparently just went back and forth to the airport talking to different Westerners to improve his language skills. Talk about determination.

Count-down to the 2008 Olympics at a local police-station

The five mascots of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing

The Chinese are quite entrepreneurial and are always trying to find ways of making a quick buck. However, they don’t strike me as the most long-term planners. I am not sure if this is due to some historic reason and inherent culture, or just due to new opportunities of the recent economic transformation which people simply don’t trust will last. The Chinese are very fond of gambling and various sorts of lotteries. In an effort to make people pay taxes and report business operations, official Beijing parking and taxi companies use receipts which have a silver-marked scratch area. By demanding a receipt and scratching the silver marked area, you can win a cash award or read the words for ‘Thanks’.

Beijing taxi receipt

Going out in Beijing
People away from home seem to always bundle together and find their own water holes where they can bond with other foreigners and feel more like home. Expatriates (meaning Westerners) in Beijing are no different. During the second part of my stay in China, I was staying at the very central Beijing City Hotel. On the street corner there was a very popular pub and nightclub called The Den. This was a loud place where you could go to enjoy a beer, a mixed menu of fish ‘n chips, Italian pasta, pizza, Chinese pork and vegetables with sweet and sour sauce or an American steak while watching soccer, American football, basketball or baseball on TV.

Even though I am usually keen to try more local food and customs when I travel, as you can guess by now, even I succumbed to the Western temptation, perhaps due to the fact that it was 50 meters from my hotel entrance and just too convenient after a whole day of exhausting sightseeing, or perhaps because being in a country where you can’t make yourself understood and you’re left out of regular conversations make you more tired than you realize and you just want to go someplace where you are among ‘your own kind’. Or perhaps I just couldn’t resist the sign with the Swedish flag talking about Viking Football hanging on the outside wall of The Den, naturally speaking to my Scandinavian patriotism…

Luckily for me, on my last night in Beijing Abbas took me to a typical Chinese restaurant with excellent home cooking. I had a Tiger beer and thoroughly enjoyed several courses of very well-prepared food; broccoli with garlic, sweet pickled cucumber, potato shreds, pork with peanuts and parsley, omelet etc.

Abbas at a Chinese "home restaurant"

It was good to walk off all the food later and we went for a drink on San Li Tun Street which was very close to the hotel. On a street with several popular bars like The Loft, Comfort and Rock Roll young people go to party. In this area you also find Beijing’s biggest salsa club, Salsa Caribe, which I’ll tell you more about in one of my other reports.

1 comment:

hk said...

Lu (not Li) = Street :)