Study Tour Blog

STUDY TOUR “BLOG” NOTES

 STEVE KIRN

 Disclaimer:  These are my personal reflections.  Don’t take them as “truth”, except as I see it (which represents a pretty fragile hold on reality, which I freely admit).  As I have already learned on this trip, memory – even from a year earlier – can be suspect, as, for example, I INSISTED that the Umbra offices were near the factory.  The actual truth – an hour+ bus ride!  So there ya’ go…………. 

“The Trip Over There”

 Since people were traveling from so many different origins, no really large “group” traveling together this year, though a few smaller clusters of our group did end up on the same itineraries.  So this year, the group will start in smaller teams, then no doubt “gel” as we start doing things together in Shanghai.

As I had decided to arrive a day early to check things out and rest up from travel, I was flying solo – though every flight was 100% booked (or overbooked).  Who ARE all these people, and why would a Gainesville-Charlotte flight at 5:25 a.m. on a Tuesday morning be full?  Since my trip eventually turned international, that meant a 2:45 a.m. wake-up to be able to check in 2 hours in advance, for TSA purposes.  Technically, that is 3:25 a.m., but the counter didn’t even open till 4:00 a.m.

Generally uneventful flights GNV-Charlotte-O’Hare, except for VERY tight Charlotte connection.  I ran to the connecting flight to Chicago, arriving just before they closed the airplane door – opposite ends of the airport from arrival to departure gates. That also meant gate-checking my carry-on (overbooked flight; no baggage room), which they incorrectly marked as having Chicago as “final destination”.  That meant a 45-minute odyssey in Chicago – my old “home town” for the previous 18 years, so I know O’Hare all too well — leaving security, tracking it down at baggage claim, re-clearing security, etc.

This year, we have gifts of a pen-and-pencil set, engraved with the UF, Warrington and Miller Center combined logo, presented in a hinged box, similarly engraved.  The box, pen and pencil are all made out of rosewood –very nice.  (Thank-you gift presentations are de rigueur on China business visits.  Plus, we want them to remember us!)  Apparently not so nice for the TSA.  Due to checked baggage weight limits, the 12.5 extra pounds of pens and pencils meant I had to carry them separately with me into the cabin, then re-scan them at O’Hare (after retrieving my errant bag).  Those little cylinders looked suspicious to the TSA, requiring a major unpacking, showing what they all were, then repacking (along with my other stuff, also examined since I had “suspicious” material).  Another dash to the Shanghai flight.  So much for grabbing breakfast at Charlotte or Chicago!

Another full flight, with a great mix of Chinese, U.S. and other travelers.  I sighed as we marched through the First- and Business-class sections, enduring the cold, hard looks of those already seated there, clearly disdainful of those of us in steerage.  Minor complaint – there were lots of little kids in those sections.  They don’t even need those big, lie-flat seats (even Business is now lie-flat for sleeping), and they certainly didn’t need the pre-departure champagne, dinners on china, cocktails and fine wines, after-dinner liqueurs, etc.!  There is no justice! Because of my seat location – just behind Business – I witnessed all this grandeur.  Of course, that was through the gauzy blue curtains between the sections.  We dutifully obeyed the admonition to NOT EVEN THINK ABOUT using the Biz class lavatory.  And I can only imagine the sorts of glorious things that went on up in First!!!

Nice seat-mates.  “George” (actual Guojian) from China had the middle seat (I scored the aisle seat, even though I’m a “window” kind of guy.  Important on a 14+ hour flight.)  He teaches English to business people, though he is from China.  Really excited about our trip, and spent much of the flight telling me why we must also visit his home town, Shaojing, and Hangzhou.  Both are near Shanghai, and are the center of China’s textile industry.  Here are George’s titles:

Director, Training Center of College of English Language and Culture, Zhejiang International Studies University

Coordinator, Experience China Program of UWisconsin-River Falls, USA

Supervisor, COST program in China

Provincial Supervisor, IELTS and ACCA tests

He made a good case about future inclusion of these places on a China retail study tour.  The local chambers of Commerce would be proud!

Window seat mate was a young woman on a 12-day tour from Florida Southern College.  Turns out she was also staying in our hotel in Shanghai, as I later ran into her. Her trip combined cultural visits and service in a small town.  Didn’t t get he town’s name.  Or hers.

Otherwise uneventful flight – the best kind.  Watched several movies I had wanted to see (Wow! Media selections on flights now make all the difference!), listened to some old rock’n’roll, read, tried to sleep, ate passable food, watched the little airplane on the TV world map as we made our way to Shanghai!  Smooth airport pickup and drive to the hotel – a trip total of about 25 hours.  But not bad.

Shanghai

 May 10, 2012

 A day of time zone adjustment, and a lovely walk along the Bund – maybe the sunniest day we’ll see.  Lucy, Keshia, Natalie and Emily, plus yours truly, strolled the pedestrian walkway, recently expanded significantly.  Mostly, we took a few steps, then stopped, as Keshia was transformed into an instant celebrity by admiring Chinese.  She has a fabulous, celebrity-style hairdo, and her lovely dark skin made her an instant attraction.  Plus, she definitely had “the look”!  Casting call in the future?  I thought she needed protection, but she said she was enjoying the “star” status!

So, the walk was “Take a few steps. Stop to pause for photos with locals. Repeat”.  Even our own little “Here we are in front of the Pearl Tower” shots had passersby simply jumping into the frame!  We should have charged for the photo ops.  Keishia was soaking it up!  And it was really funny and all in good humor.

The walk continued to a visit to 400+-year-old Yu Gardens, a must-see trip when in Shanghai.  Crowded, but not nearly as much as on weekends, and always a surprising oasis in the midst of urban congestion.  Also included a walk down an outdoor market-style street to get to Yu as we wound around the multiple construction sites in the area.  That included the first taste of “wet market” sights and sounds, including a lady butchering live snakes.  The snakes were not amused.

It was my birthday – #65!  Eek!  Students arriving that day brought me a nice little Haagen-Dasz birthday cake.  Thanks!  Delicious!  And the hotel manager sent another!  I was on “being sure travelers all arrived OK” duty, so stayed by the phone at the hotel.  All indeed made it, with only one late arrival due to a delayed domestic flight.

Good day overall, and folks had dinner (a few of the earlier Bund group took a river cruise), then headed to rest for the start of business visits the next day, Friday.

May 11, 2012

Great visit to launch our tour, with President/CEO, Jonathan Seliger and Fernando Geller, Senior Director of Strategy and Consumer Insights at Coach.

Coach is, in a sense, “re-entering” the China market, as they bought the business back from their distributor 3 years ago, having entered the market under that arrangement in 1998.  But growth here is fast, with 73 stores now, and adding 30 stores per year.  The shanghai flagship store was opened at Hong Kong Plaza in April 2010.  They are positioning themselves as both a “New York Fashion Brand” and “Experts in Leather”, as they compete in the Premium Handbags and Accessories category. (Handbags = HB for short.)

Some fascinating insights from their extensive consumer and market research – too many to list here.  However, they have learned that an income level in China equivalent to $10-20K per year in U.S. dollars, represents a key tipping point for their business – the point at which consumers become willing to spend a month’s salary on a handbag.  No big deal, you say?  Consider this:  60 million households are entering this range annually in China!

Another insight:  the “Chinese market extends well beyond China – the geographic location.  A huge chunk of this merker exists outside China, as Chinese tourists and expats make handbag and related purchases outside China.  Combined in-China and Chinese elsewhere market combined is looking at 22% annual growth (Global luxury HB market now at $28Bn USD, headed to $41 Bn by FY21016 – much of it driven by China.

Handbags mean much more than “a thing to put your stuff in”.  Think status (“I’ve arrived”); demonstration of product and brand knowledge; engagement with fashion and style.  Coach gets strong marks among their young, tech savvy, working woman (but increasingly men, also!) target group, as they are seen as fashionable, chic, colorful, great assortment – and affordable!  “Affordable” here includes bags that range from $95 – $2500 USD, though their sweet spot in China is well under that top price – closer to $1000 – $1200 USD.

Interesting to learn about their work to address significant regional differences in China, not least among them, climate differences that call for very different assortments – including increased focus on outerwear in the colder, Northern areas.  One strategy: “regional flagship stores”, with two doors:  one for women, the other for men, designed to help educate Chinese consumers about their brand.  (Chinese are well aware of Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Chanel, but Coach is currently only at 16% unaided brand awareness, though growing rapidly).  Side note:  male customers represent about 44% of the handbag spend in China, versus 10% in the U.S.  Men present handbags to other men as gifts, but also shop for themselves.  Handbags are key in establishing image – one of the first things you see!  Coach brand awareness among men in China is low – so a great opportunity!

Our hosts were impressed that we were going to Yingkou.  It’s amazing how few visitors seem to visit any cities outside the Tier 1 group.

Student alert:  They welcomed further student contact, including job seekers.  They stressed their focus on recruiting, training and development, retention efforts, restricted stock awards to store managers, and overall emphasis on HR.  Hooray!!! People after my own heart!  And this is theme that will be repeated this trip:  “People” are the limited resource in China – NOT capital, manufacturing capacity, business growth opportunity, etc.  (OK, distribution infrastructure constraints factor in there somewhere, especially as you get farther away from the coastal provinces and Tier 1 cities, but I’m just sayin’…………….)

We leapt into somewhat more traditional Chinese-style shopping in the afternoon at the Shanghai Textile Market – a sprawling, four-story complex out of the center of Shanghai.  Hundreds of stalls selling shoes, fabric, apparel, plus everything else from household cleaning items to wedding gowns to toys.  No posted prices, so you’re on your own for bargaining.  Some people seemed to get into the shoe groove, but the format was anything but a uniform hit.  Am I right, y’all?

Took advantage of extra time to compare Suning Electronics Appliances with recent German entrant Media Markt – good contract of manufacturer-based merchandising (Suning) versus category approach, with company-owned employees (Media Markt).

Lovely opening dinner that night – the first time the group was all together in a relaxed setting, except for the bus.  Getting back into practice with chopsticks, and “What IS this?!?”  everyone seems game for the experience!

Weekend of May 12-13, 2012:

All seemed to enjoy the Zhujiajiao Water Town, especially the boat rides.  Everyone scattered after that for the remainder of , according to own tastes, which was the plan.  I thought the Shanghai Museum was stunning, but apparently this isn’t a “museum”-type crowd, so I was on my own for that few hours.  But it let me enjoy history and art at my own pace for a while.  Not bad at all! Lots of shopping, boat rides, etc. for the others.

Big event:  my room turned into a tailor shop again this year.  About 10 students had garments made, so ensued several hours of fabric samples spread across the bed, measurements, fretting over styles, prices, fabric quality, what to buy for jobs that start soon, “not sure if I want anything with any blue in it” (Hi, Andrew!), etc.  Great fun overall!  (I had a summer-weight sport coat made.  All of my clothes are still too “Chicago”!)

And one general question:  Do I really look like I am that hard up for “Massage – pretty Asian lady”???  Or somewhat less frequently, a distinctly more explicit offer from the “lady” herself?  All this right on the major Hanjing Road pedestrian shopping mall, just outside our hotel.  “No, thanks. Just looking.”

Monday, May 14

Our Cosiway visit was an interesting contrast to Coach, since it’s such a different business line – supplying goods and services to hotels, restaurants/bars, schools, hospitals, stores, etc.  Good example of how visible economic growth leads to comprehensive back-channels of “retail” providers.  When is the last time you thought about the “aroma” business for hotel lobbies, or to deal with, ah, “unpleasant” odors in the bathroom as a business opportunity?  A long way from $1000 handbags!  Once students “got it”, they seemed interested. Language barrier apparent, as it slowed things down in this interaction, but our Chinese students and Peter Long, our travel guide, stepped in admirably. And our hosts, Jin Ying (Product Marketing Manager), and Lee Jian (Overseas Supplier Development) were lovely and gracious.

Very interesting to learn about Cosiway’s efforts to build more import business from well-branded Western companies.  Also, more segmentation, this time by business target and product line,  mostly the latter, which are:

  • Sanitize
  • Green Clean
  • Aroma/Fragrance/Odor Control

They hope to capitalize on new/emerging government standards for sanitization, cleanliness, etc.  Big opportunity!  Their business model, based on small, local offices, has some similarities to the way Enterprise Car Rental operates in the U.S. – keeping things localized, personal, high-service, etc.

Onkyo was fun, especially since they had a cool demonstration room for audio/video gear.  Both video Kung Fu scenes and an audio concert with Yo-Yo Ma and a trumpet player (whose name slips my mind, but was a fine performer) were outstanding.  Thanks to Kevin Chen – Marketing Manager – and Jie Tang – Digital Marketing.

Note: I was informed by the Onkyo folks that during the demo session I was “out standing” in a “standing wave” zone in the listening room.  Arlie got the listening/viewing “sweet spot” if I remember correctly.  However, see opening disclaimer to this journal re: my memory accuracy. (Full disclosure:  I own several pieces of Onkyo audio gear, as that was once a hobby.  They think that I must upgrade my components, which include a very fine dual-audio-cassette dubbing deck [remember those?], which works just fine, thank you.  Alas.  They are right.)

Their passion for things “technological” was very evident!  Much techie shop talk around the conference table, which led to a number of rolling eyes and covert checks of smartphones, preparation of later shopping lists and other activities – though I’m just guessing as to observed behavior. (Hey, I’m a psychologist!)  Provided an interesting base for comparison of passions to those in the “fashion” world.

Again provided more examples of how markets can be segmented.  In this case, as the true “audiophile” market fades in the wake of action movies, explosions and car crashes – requiring LOTS of super-bass impact, with little attention to fine audio detail as in, say, a violin concerto [disclaimer: that’s a personal opinion!] – they now design separate campaigns for segments labeled:

  • Premium: Those for whom only “The Best” will do
  • Power: A combination of performance, price and, well, power! KA-BOOM!
  • “Digital Life” – for those in the world of iPod, iPad, X-Box, etc.

Thanks to Onkyo for a very nice gift CD!  Good listening for our long flight from Guangzhou to Shenyang and then back home (or elsewhere) after the study tour!

Also Monday — Students really seemed to gravitate to Pam Giss, of the law firm Armstrong Teasdale, at our lunch meeting.  Pam was the same relaxed, personable, informative person she was last year.  I was impressed with her very fashionable — and impossibly high-heeled! — shoes, as were a number of the women students!  She seems to genuinely enjoy these meetings, and offered lots of excellent personal and professional insights about doing business in China.  I watched the women students in particular attend to her — an excellent role model as an expat, and just a really nice person.  Great stories about alternately relishing, adapting to – or screaming at! – various aspects of the Chinese culture.  Feels like a “friend” after just two, one-hour sessions, a year apart.

Tuesday, May 14  

 Mark Fairwhale  was again a good stop on our tour.  Currently with about 1200 stores, MF continues to grow.  More sehmenting discussion, including combination of high-end (M-idea Forever) and fashion brands (Fairwhale Jeans and Fairwhale Shake).  Also offline sales (MFart+ — somewhat unfortunatelt named, in my view), MarkFairwhale.com and derivative enterprises, including sunglasses (Ray-Ban) and Home lifestyle.

Our group session was good, though I was surprised that students didn’t have more questions.  (The ones they asked were good ones.)  Last year, this was a session that was hard to break up – maybe because last year’s group had more of a “fashion” interest?  That said, I’ve been making both subtle and not-so-subtle pitches at each stop about how a number of our students were interested in internship and career opportunities in China.  Chai Kim Fatt, whom I met last year, and I had a few private moments this year, and seems genuinely interested in exploring employment opportunities with our students.  They offer international internships, and are looking to hire as they grow.

I am finding that our hosts are very receptive to “advertising” for our students, when done properly, so I plan to continue.  All of our visits have stressed the challenges of “finding good people”.  (Warms the cockles of my HR soul……)

Our afternoon flight was delayed a couple of hours (Air pollution?  It’s really bad this year. Given reason – air traffic control, which could be related to the dense, relentless haze.)  So late arrival in Shenzhen — couldn’t be avoided. Stepping off the bus felt like “home” in Florida — hot and humid!

I must have again looked like a needed a massage or, “something more”, if you catch my drift.  Taking even a few steps off the hotel property led to several such offers – just like last year.  A Shenzhen tradition?  We had asked for a different hotel after last year’s experience, but when I looked out the window, I saw that the Shangri-La (an excellent hotel, this year’s destination) was literally on the opposite side of the train station from the Best Western – last year’s hotel, also nice in itself, but with a seedy group lurking just off-property.

While I’m on the subject, on Wednesday night, I found myself in what I presume was some street theater designed for no good.  Walking around the hotel block, I first saw a man approaching, with a woman perhaps 10 meters behind him.  As if on cue, they both started running – she chasing him and yelling something in Chinese.  I figured it was a purse snatching, until a) I saw that she still had her bag across her shoulder and b) why wasn’t she chasing him sooner if he had stolen something?  I strated to join pursuit, then thought, WAIT a second!  This makes no sense!  Anyway, they ran on a bit, then vanished.  A few steps later, a couple walked across my path, out of a parking lot.  As I approached closely, she suddenly turned, and hooked her foot around his ankle.  He pivoted, then they started what I can only describe as “stage fighting”.  My antennae were now fully up, and I walked past, though again I thought, “I should do something!”.  After a few feet further, they also abruptly stopped the “fight”, though I didn’t turn to see much more.  My guess: both scams to “engage the Yankee tourist and pick his pocket”, or worse.  It was like being on a movie set.  There was something “orchestrated” about both events.  Maybe I will show up on  Chinese “Candid Camera”.  Better than showing up dead……..

Am I doing something wrong?  Do I look like a good “mark” in general?  Maybe I’ll start walking even faster and more deliberately.  Scowl. Get a nasty tattoo. Work out more.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

 Off to Wal-Mart’s China headquarters.    A really nice, tight, concise presentation from Henry Skelsey, who is a young U.S. expat (attended Wake Forest — where he studied Chinese in addition to other areas) who graduated into the first part of the bad job market, decided to “go for it” in China, and headed to Shanghai with no job or connections.  A hit with the students, and very gracious about handing out cards and encouraging contact.  He said he’d love to help students who want to make a similar leap.  (I think there are big things in Henry’s future, and he could still easily pass for one of our grad students, so a long career ahead.)

Adding time for Sam’s Club was a good plan.  More time for things like pix of the “seafood” area’s dead crocodile/alligator, and sampling foods from demonstrators.  What an operations!  The world’s highest volume Sam’s.

The Collective Brands folks seemed just genuinely delighted to see us.  Apparently, this is the first time any such group has ever come to see them!  So, we got very good treatment — lots of presentations which, alas, ran until about 5:30, 90 minutes over.  But there was NO WAY I would ask them to hurry it along.  You could see they put a lot of effort into it, and were so proud of their work, plus the content was very interesting. (See earlier Onkyo comments.)  There are times when one must “go with the flow” – you learn more that way, and CBI was most informative.   I had seen the speaker list a day early, but couldn’t give pen/pencil set gift to every speaker since I carried “only” 25 and must reserve some for later visits, so I bought some fancy chocolate truffles at Sam’s Club to add to the two sets I left there.  As we left, I caught them excitedly unwrapping the gifts!  Hope that extra candy will suffice!

Didn’t really have a chance to explore how the Wolverine acquisition was seen.  For obvious reasons, they could not comment on proceedings while the “deal” was under way.  However, it must place their future in some real question – maybe very positive, but clearly a cause for uncertainty.  We did not discuss this further.

We were trying to put together a REALLY quick trip into Hong Kong for the evening for a few people, but the extended stay at CBI made it impractical – and it would have been a “push” in any case. Too bad.  Life will go on.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

 So, now it is Thursday, and we are off to Umbra. Very excellent presentation from Michael Liu, Industrial Designer and Overseas Coordinator – a Long Island native and Pratt Institute grad.  Interesting to see award-winning designs from their history, plus current best-sellers (the soap-dispensing “penguin” was a big hit).  I still wonder if any of the samples from their display room – or designers desks! – found their way into purses or satchels!  (Just kidding.)  Very innovative, clever designs.  Maybe even an opportunity for budding “designers” in the group, as Michael told students how to submit their own design concepts – and maybe earn royalties!  Again – employment opportunities are possible.  The hunger for capable, educated HR talent seems ubiquitous – and endless.

Then, a bus ride of an hour or so to their factory, with a chance to see the manufacturing process live.  Our IE and ISOM folks were especially interested to see the extensive use of hand assembly, and relative absence of automation.  The financial equation – and short-run flexibility, among other factors – still favors labor-intensive production.  Also got passing look at workers’ lunch-time and outside view of living quarters, right next to the factory. Check student blogs for more reaction to what they saw.  Haven’t had much time to discuss this yet.

Adding the factory tour meant that the day was taken up by the Umbra visit and a 3 ½ hour bus ride to Guangzhou.

That evening, about 10 students met with Tim Lindeman, a representative of Dimensional Insight – a Massachusetts-based software firm with operations in Guangzhou.  (Thanks to Andrew for arranging this.)  Tim offered lots of insights about doing business in China as a small firm (12 Guangzhou employees) – nevertheless with very large clients and targets for future business.  At least as important, he shared a great deal about his 12 years in China, with his family.  He soon returns to Lexington, MA, saying “12 years is enough!”, though it has clearly been quite an experience!

Friday, May 18, 2012.

 Rain.  But hey……………….

A new visit this year – to the U.S. Commerce Office.  Presentations by David Schroeder, Economic Officer with the Consultae, and Terry Tyminski of the Commerce Office.

Dave’s presentation was especially helpful in talking about the ongoing evolution of Chinese markets – and especially his main rule for success in doing business in China:  Do a lot of market research.  He provided some useful thinking about the diversity that exists within the market.  For those who are successful, and have done their homework: 20-30% annual growth – not bad!!!

Terry has been in China for 20 years, only recently joining Commerce.  Her business experience there: IBM and McDonald’s in particular, offered insights “from both sides of the fence”.  It was surprising to hear how few employees Commerce actually has in a busy place like Guangzhou – fewer than 15 reps, though the number is due to be significantly increased soon.  Good discussion about Commerce services, business trends and, again, “living in China” insights.  (There’s a theme here.)

Afternoon included a fairly lengthy bus ride to Guangdong – heart of the shoe business!  Brown Shoe, another Retail Center sponsor was a key planned stop on this tour. Learned some useful, fundamental information about shoe manufacturing from Harlan Chang, HR manager at the site.  Great insights into proportional cost of materials, labor, overhead, etc. and contribution to various price points, from very “cheap” to high-end.  Also had behind-the-scenes tour of design centers on site, and then the shared-venture manufacturing facility that is part of the very lovely Brown complex. Met Scott Higginbotham, who has worked in the shoe business in China for over 20 years.  (He is Director of the Sample Development Department – a serendipitous conversation as we toured the design and product testing (interesting!) areas.

The manufacturing space was bright (even in the rain), spacious, clean and well-lit.  The shoe business simply demands lots of hand work, due to the many different styles and construction of shoes.  This was a first-rate manufacturing facility, with lovely, landscaped grounds and extensive recreational and other facilities for workers.  Very impressive!

The day concluded with many of the group heading out for a quick dinner and then karaoke.  Some amazing talent in the group!  But fun all around.

Saturday, May 19, 2012, Guangzhou

The day started sunny (!!!) in Guangzhou, but also included extended torrential afternoon downpours, just as I was heading out for a Pearl River boat ride.  So much for that.  But a day of relaxing was not bad at all, including Skype contact “back home”.  The rain, high humidity and hot temperatures provided a certain dose of “Oh yeah, just like back home in Florida!”

I did spend a couple of hours before the rain started, just walking around the large shopping area around our hotel.  The area encompasses extensive pedestrian shopping malls with many stores – many of them duplicates of the same brand, positioned at times one to a block – plus scores of narrow, tree-lined side streets, dense with small shops, at times grouped by merchandise category.  For example, there was the “buttons and trim” district, a couple of blocks long; the “hardware” district”; the “household power panels” street, the PVC pipe zone, (I kid you not), and many others.

One such street, directly adjoining our hotel, was one for assorted pets (or dinner items?). Cages housed baby bunnies, lots of puppies and kittens, plus various parakeets, parrots and similar birds.  There were also fish and turtles, and a few other animal varieties.  The puppies seemed to attract a lot of attention, as they were in enclosures that let you pet some of them.  Very young, with many “toy” breeds, but no mutts.  These were definitely not “rescues”.  The street did not inspire me to think that these were gentle, caring breeders.  Instead, there was a certain boredom and disinterest that did not give me a good feeling about the future of these animals, though they seemed reasonably healthy – perhaps to aid sales. [Side observation: when I have seen people walking dogs in China, the animals seem well cared for and happy.]

One especially distressing event:  Near one of the “kitten” displays, I noticed an impossibly small kitten, clearly frail, hungry and malnourished, with very thin fur on his/her back legs.  It was trying to reach up to the cages holding the kittens for sale, and totally ignored by the vendors.  It was one of the most pitiful sights I think I have seen, and my inclination was to “do something” – but there really was nothing I could do.  Couldn’t get that kitten’s image out of my mind for days.  Still can’t.  It passed somewhere between totally unnoticed – or viewed with apparent disdain – by the vendors.  Disturbing.

After the walk, I wondered……….

There was incredible density of shoppers (at least before the rain).  Apart from gaudy electrical signs and loud music, the primary “advertising” for these many shops along the pedestrian malls seems to consist of store staff standing at the doorway – air conditioning cascading into the street – clapping their hands incessantly.  Must be a major repetitive motion injury hazard!  (And store associates in the U.S. complain of job demands and boredom!  Just saying’………)  My question:  Will these shoppers abandon this style of shopping for something more “Western”?  The pedestrian mall stores already seem to have begun such a transition, but the side streets appeared to do well too.  Maybe China will see a mix of both approaches?

Things are happening fast here, and the market remains dynamic, even in this city that has been an international trading center for hundreds of years.  Even during the oppressive, closed years of the Mao era, the Canton Trade Fair — held here annually – was the single major link to outside trade.  You’d expect Guangzhou to be a model for what the future might hold (after, say, Shanghai).

 

Final observations on Guangzhou:

1) During my aforementioned walk I went nearly one full hour without seeing another evidently-“Western” person, and only two or three the entire time.  There were, on the other hand, a number of KFC and McDonald’s locations.  The Colonel’s image does not count as a “person” in this case, though he most certainly was one!

2) The annoying and persistent approaches for “Massage – pretty lady”, etc. were notably absent in the area of Guangzhou where we stayed.

3) Karaoke (or KTV as it’s known) was great fun, though the video song selection was another reminder of having turned 65.  I had heard many of the newer ones, but definitely didn’t “know” them, and was even more definitely not up to busting the moves that it takes to perform them!  So, a lame, off-key attempts at an Eagles tune, before I found some Dion and the Belmonts, and Neil Sedaka pieces (just 3) that were among the few from “my era”.  I realized that when I joined my first rock’n’roll band in 1961, most of these students would not even be born for another 28 years!  Yikes!  Anyway, my few oldies seemed to please the crowd, at which point I decided to quit while I was ahead, and leave the rest of the evening to them, so I went back to the hotel.

Early start (5:30 a.m. departure for the airport) tomorrow, so off to bed now. Guess I’ll miss the Preakness, as we will be in transit. [Added note a day later: I’ll Have Another won in a thrilling race.  Triple Crown this year?  First since Affirmed in 1978 if it happens!  No one here seems to notice.  Not that they necessarily would……]

Sunday, May 20, 2012, Guangzhou to Yingkou

A day of travel – taking a bit longer than we thought (much to students’ distress….)  A very early start, with a 5:30 a.m. bus departure, then a wait at the Very Large and shiny airport.  Flight delayed, then a 3½-hour flight, followed by a 3+-hour bus ride.  That meant that we were en route nearly 12 hours.

A theory:  China actually has no landmass – just “islands” cities, separated by vast spaces of gray clouds/fog/pollution.  When flying, you rarely, if ever, see the actual ground until just before landing.  The air seems permanently infused with this yellow-gray haze………

The upside of the long bus trip from Shenyang – I saw a very different part of the area around Yingkou than last year.  We passed through beautiful mountains, plus many tunnels, in an extremely varied terrain.  We later learned that the Yingkou area hopes to develop this mountainous space as a tourist destination.  It has extensive hot springs, is suitable for wintertime skiing, etc.  Could have potential!  Yingkou definitely needs some tourist-y things to attract attention, and visitors.

The last part of the trip to Yingkou was closer to what I remembered from 2011 – rather dry-looking soil, obviously in need of water, at least by irrigation.  But crops were rising, though still mostly at “seedling” level in this northern city.  And as we approached the city, we again witnessed the forests of high-rise apartment developments, most just concrete shells, lacking windows or any form of internal or external finish.  But if people come, the buildings await!  The surroundings upon entering the city area will take a lot of landscaping to look like the pictures on the sales billboards out front.

City entrance has a certain “Las Vegas” feeling:  a wide, long street, with various tall buildings fronting the street – though with little development behind them – a bit of a “movie set” vibe.  No sense of a “center”.  It is clearly a city in transition, building for a future yet to be fully constructed.  But a new airport is set to open in 2013, the new high-speed rail connection is under construction, and the sports arena in downtown is being demolished, given the completion of a brand-new – and much larger – stadium, near the Yingkou Industrial Zone.

After checking in to the hotel, we briefly toured the Tesco and attached shopping center that had opened since UF’s 2011 visit.  It’s a full Hypermarket, with another – this one by Carrefour – scheduled to open just 500 meters from Tesco.  Clean, effective merchandising and wide selection at this Tesco.

Late-night discovery – my power adapter does not fit any of the outlets in Yingkou, and no piece to complete the connection is sold here!  Oops.  Will have to write notes later.

Monday, May 21, 2012, Yingkou

We were feted repeatedly today!  The Guangxi Elinore Fresh sowed, and we reinforced last year with our visit, continues!  I recognized many people that we met last year, and they seemed genuinely delighted to have us for a return visit.  All inquired about Elinore and Cece Schulz, and I relayed greetings and good wishes.  We were truly treated like celebrities!

The students got their first supermarket tour (other than Tesco) at the Xinglong store.  The manager, Mr. Wu, was our host.  And in the afternoon, we got an extensive tour of the RT Mart, for comparison.  My memory may be wrong, but RT Mart seemed to have shrunk the size of their fresh fish and seafood offerings – the space where we see them all alive.  There were still clams, oysters, turtles, frogs, swimming fish, etc. – and the crocodile (this one distinctly dead and on ice – probably fights back when the staff tries to do him in!)  In any case, there appeared to be a shift toward fish already killed, and displayed on ice, and a more extensive use of coolers and freezers to display fish packaged on a Styrofoam “plate” and sealed in plastic – American style. A shift in merchandising – and consumer preference/acceptance?

Late morning, Lucy Deleo, our two “faculty” participants and I had a meeting with Mr. Tang Xinen, the Vice Mayor of Yingkou, in the same big hall we met in last year.  It was a fairly relaxed and congenial conversation of about 20 minutes, capped by a presentation of another framed, cut-paper art work that is a local specialty.  Very nice!  Hope I can get this one home intact to hang in the Retail Center! Not so lucky last year, thanks to China Post, which demolished what I thought was a pretty well packed box.  The Vice Mayor had to leave for a trip to Shanghai, but we had a lovely and delicious lunch with Mrs. Han and two government representatives, one of them Liu Xiu-bo, Director of Overseas Chinese Affairs for the municipal government (didn’t get other man’s name). Students ate separately.

A highlight was our visit to Yingkou University.  A lecture hall full of students and faculty warmly welcomed us.  A faculty study group headed by Prof. Sun Qiheng made a presentation regarding the economic conditions and plans for Yingkou, followed by Q & A.

The presentation was very thorough and won’t be repeated here.  A few highlights:

Yingkou is now China’s 10th largest port, growing from 1.5 million tons in 2007 to 2.6 million tons in 2011

  • Local GDP now 120 billion RMB
  • Retail sales 8.6 billion RMB, with growth led by jewelry, hardware; overall sales up 13.8%. Food still highest component.
  • In addition to Tesco and Carrefour, Walmart is entering market
  • Yingkou has strong agricultural base
  • Several keys to future success: Increase rural residents’ consumption (seen as #1); stimulate growth, employment, overall consumption (and income); develop tourism

The program was followed by a presentation of a beautiful scroll featuring a bright red dragon (for good luck, especially in tis year of the dragon), and a festive dinner with the students.  A great buffet included many traditional and local dishes, plus cheeseburgers and pizza! Students provided musical entertainment, and did calligraphy demonstrations, including doing all the students’ names – and a big banner for Warrington!  It was all very gracious and fun.  They really put on a show!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012, Yingkou and travel

Left the hotel and took a quick bus tour of some of the Industrial Development Zone, including seeing the very impressive scale model of the total planned space (manufacturing, port, infrastructure, residential, commercial, etc.) and video of “the future”.  The confidence that it will all come to pass is tangible.  This makes it somewhat disconcerting to ride through vast – but empty – residential buildings, and visit a large public area (with tiles crumbling, and grass growing through the pavement.  Will it all come to be?

The tour of the new Coca-Cola bottling company, which will bottle milk, juice, water and, of course, Coke and other sodas, gives hope.  Clean, modern plant that is up and running now, and will eventually employ over 600 when all lines are operating – a 24/7 job.  FoxConn – famous for its work for Apple, is also under construction with a major plant, so things are looking up!  Still, there are some sights that give one pause……….

We had a quick group lunch, and then boarded the bus to head to the Panjin railway station for our trip to Beijing.  We boarded a fast – but not super-high-speed — train.  Extremely crowded – in fact oversold, meaning a number of people stood in the car connections for the four-hour ride.

I was separated from the rest of the group, as one of our tickets was in a separate carriage.  On my one visit to the other car to see the group, I learned that close proximity among strangers could breed a sort of aggressive impatience.  I was headed back to my seat in this crowded train, and a guy was trying to come the other way.  With all seats occupied, there was no way to completely get out of the way, so I pressed as close to one side as possible.  Not good enough, apparently!  He lowered his shoulder and came straight at me, knocking me completely off my feet, though I caught myself on a seat handle before fully hitting the deck.  Even the Chinese passengers seemed surprised and alarmed.  I sure was!  No harm done, but unexpected…..

More scenes out the train window:  Vast, flooded rice paddy areas – then suddenly more forests of high-rises and cranes right next to them (all apparently vacant, as is often the case) – in the apparent “middle of nowhere”.   As we got closer to Beijing, there was more variety in the crops – corn, bananas, what looked like cabbage, lettuce and other vegetables.  But all on fairly large scale, though divided into small plots.  Where U.S. farmers might be tending to the crops from a large tractor, this was all handwork.  Imagine a 2-3 acre plot, with one farmer bent over or squatting to weed or otherwise tend to the plants by hand.  Amazing!  Maybe it’s more “green” – get rid of those weeds and bugs manually, instead of spraying lots of chemicals.

We pass plains and mountains, some of which remind me of The Boulders area in Carefree, Arizona – outside Phoenix. Other mountains appear to have entire sides sheared off by some sort of mining.  That “haze” is everywhere – even in wide-open areas on the 4-hour ride.  We pass a large power plant – apparently nuclear, with 4 cooling towers.  Can’t be more than 500 m from the railway.  New manufacturing plants stand next to what seem to be ancient kilns, perhaps for brick making – quite large! They are rounded, long, horizontal and shaped like half-cylinder, red clay in color.  Are they in use?  Can’t tell as we move quickly by, trying to catch glimpses of the sight through the trees that line the length of the railway, except for short gaps of a few meters.

The whole train ride provides a real insight into the variety of terrain in this area.  It seems perpetually windy, from the time we got to Shenyang airport en route to Yingkou till now.  All the trees “lean” and all in the same direction.  With this wind, it’s not surprising. Must be REALLY cold in winter!

We roll into Beijing after 7:00, so it’s late when we get to the hotel – thanks in part tot the first of our continuing encounters with Beijing traffic.  Terrible! No group dinner tonight, but just as well.  A long day.  Spectacular Hotel – The China World – a Shangri-La property.  Nothing like finishing up the study tour in a first-rate place! Stunning lobby, and a “mall” underneath with every major global luxury brand I can think of.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012, Beijing

Big day today – a visit to the U.S. Embassy, and an appearance by the Ambassador!  Definitely not yer’ everyday event…

We start with our first encounter with the hotel’s breakfast buffet – fabulous!  Many food preparation stations, extensive Chinese, other Asian and Western options.  Just about anything you want, from squeezed-to-order juice, to omelets, and fruits, to many Chinese dishes (also prepared to order), and lovely baked goods.  The students are decked out in their finest and look very professional and all-around great, especially after weeks on the road.  (I’m wearing both my lapel Gator AND my orange-and-blue striped tie, in case the U.S. diplomatic corps can’t take a hint.

We are greeted by James Cunningham – a Commercial Service intern (nice gig!) bound back to the U.S. in a month.  Very helpful.  We also meet Megan Peterson (another intern), Tom Niblock, Vice Consul, and other Embassy staff.  Josh Halpern, Commercial Officer, gave the formal presentation on China, the U.S. and current/future prospects – quite informative.  There is much more we could have learned, with more time.  What we did learn, however, is that Josh’s mother is a Gator grad!!!  (Made sure that Josh got both a Gator cap and a Miller Center/UF/Warrington pen and pencil set.)

Halpern covered a wide range of topics, including challenges such as UPS and FedEx having license approvals delayed (in government favor of China Post).  He described obstacles to closer US/China relations, including issues around protectionism, rising labor costs, certification/approval delays and complexity, and an unclear regulatory environment.

Halpern gave some hints as to big “opportunity” areas for U.S. trade with China, including green building; pollution control; travel; medical devices; rail/metro; aviation; education; IT; agriculture.  He also discussed other aspects of the Chinese economy, and (happily) pointed out the availability of 100,000 scholarships for U.S. students to study abroad. Excellent presentation.

Ambassador Gary Locke next spoke to the group.  Very personable, and clearly interested in education.  His message: Don’t over-specialize!  Use the university experience to experiment in learning about many disciplines, different perspectives.  It was basically an argument for “liberal education”, and he returned to the theme when students asked about how to get into the diplomatic stream.  (Some post-meeting laments from students about not having asked more in-depth questions about the work of the diplomatic corps, etc.  But, hey.)  Cameras were banned, but the Embassy staff took some group shots.  Hoping to get those ASAP.

Jim Sciutto, the Embassy Chief of staff (and my cousin!) was key in getting this meeting set up, and also took the floor for questions after the Ambassador left for another meeting.  He was a fabulous help.  This would have never happened without him.  (Got to have dinner with Jim and family later that evening – a perk of the trip!)

After a group lunch, we met with Frank Yang, Vice Secretary General of the China Chain Store and Franchise Association.  After some presentation about the general role of the CCFA (75% of membership is Chinese companies, 25% abroad), requirements for joining, etc., questions turned to some keys to success for companies entering China to do business.  His top two:  1) Localize and 2) Have strong culture and leadership, using RT Mart, Family Mart and Yum! Brands as examples.  He thinks contemporary retail formats will displace the “street vendor” culture – which he believes present a bad image, anyway.

Evening was another “on your own” night, and students scattered – many to search bargains at the Beijing Silk Market, just down the street from the hotel.  Whatever else happened, “I don’t know nothin’ about it.”

Another good day!

Thursday, May 24, 2012, Beijing

Another great breakfast, and a leisurely 9:20 departure.  Sleepin’ in!

Bus ride (natch!) to Lenovo — #1 computer seller by a wide margin in China, and #2 globally behind H-P.  Sold 65 million PCs in China in 2011.  Clearly, PCs live on here!

Cory Grenier, Marketing Manager, gave a presentation that a number of students rated their favorite.  He had a great list of success factors for China:

Both global and local teams – bilingual!

  • Understand Chinese culture
  • Creative ideas that drive demand and sales
  • Holistic ability (video, web, print, event, PR)
  • Speed – both production and execution
  • Simplify; Turn “features” into “benefits”
  • Attention to detail and quality
  • Strong government and community relations
  • Integrity:  both legal, and “doing the right things right”
  • Versatility – instant implementation of new technology

Pretty good checklist! Led to lots of Q &A, and we went overtime for our tour of Lenovo’s exhibit area.  But, time well spent.

The exhibits themselves were excellent – the latest products, apps, displays, etc.  Anna Zhao was an able tour guide and the group had fun playing with the “toys”.  This is one of the most popular visits – explaining why we ran long.  We could easily and happily have stayed longer.

3S Lift was our afternoon destination – a late replacement for the Beijing auto plant for Hyundai.  While we were in the first week of our tour, Hyundai unexpectedly announced it was shutting down the plant for “retooling” – no further explanation.  All tours and such were cancelled.  This was a major disappointment for many students, but completely outside our control.

Eugene Wang, Vice President, gave a good presentation about the company’s history and products – which focus on safety and maintenance gear for large wind energy turbines.  Things I hadn’t thought of, such as power climbing aids for climbing the long ladders inside the turbine bases, platforms for repairing the turbine blades, etc.  A big hit was watching two students (Keisha and Mehdi) giving the climbing assist gear a real-life tryout.  Keshia went first, but after one misstep – and a sudden “lift” from the device! – thought better of it.  Mehdi was next, and made it to the top of their roughly 7-8 meter-high test frame.  Hope we got some good video!  This gear is also used by window-washing services, tank cleaners, etc.  Not top of mind – but interesting to learn about!

So, an unexpected visit (including a plant tour), a worthwhile substitute for B2B “retailing”. They produce for China (70% market share), and export to over 30 other countries.

Another “evening on your own” to close out the day.  Again, the group heads off in subsets – a natural after almost three weeks as a “herd”.  I can sense that the regimentation is getting to people.  That said, people seem to genuinely like one another and the folks have coalesced into a “team”.  Again, I’m not sure where people went, but this is a “grown-up” group, and the last thing they need every minute of the day is supervision and direction.

There is a palpable sense of “Wow – it’s almost over”.  I can sense people mentally packing their bags, and have noticed it for the last day or so, following the Embassy visit, perhaps.  All to be expected, as focus shifts to whether suitcases will be overweight, how to get to the airport, subsequent travel plan details (e.g., several heading on to Seoul, Sydney, Cairns, elsewhere).  Some disengagement, but people still sticking with the program – and new friends.

Friday, May 25, 2012, Beijing

Two “#1” visits today:  Suning, the leading retailer in China, and 360Buy, the #1 online buying site.  So, it’s “bricks and mortar” vs. “e-commerce” in a one-day smackdown!  Excitement abounds!  (OK, the group is interested but not exactly excited……  I think I’m seeing the “blur” effect from so many company visits, though it is exactly what we promised!  Some folks are mentally checking out, though they rallied for the visits.  Troopers all!)

Suning ended up being mostly a quick store visit, though Mr. Ha, the store manager, provided a brief “corporate background” presentation, ably translated by Peter.  This is a BIG Suning store, over 10,000 square meters in size, and doing over 400 million RMB in sales each year, second highest Suning store in Beijing.  I’m not sure if it represents a transitional model from their transitional merchandising strategy (“shops” in a store, organized by brand, but within the shop, showing/selling all the products made by the brand, and staffed by the brand manufacturer.  Pretty tough to shop that way, especially in a store this large.)

This store is generally organized by category (e.g., televisions, or cooking appliances), but then by brand (Sony, HiSense, etc.) within the category.  So you must walk from one branded shop to another to compare brands – and no side-by-side comparison possible.  This is even true in the high-end audio section, where U.S. stores typically organize displays to permit you to audition, say, loudspeakers, by switching between speaker pairs, more likely grouped by size than by brand.  A/B comparison is facilitated, as you can literally “switch” the speakers by remote, checking the sound of the same music source immediately.  Not here.  Though all speakers are along a wall, branded speaker pairs literally sit side-by-side – even touching –  (useless for stereo imaging comparison or other critical listening tests), again with these pairs grouped by brand.  I’m not even sure if they were hooked up – though there was an adjoining listening room for very high-end gear.

My observation: Suning is simply giving away one of its key advantages versus on-line merchants.  You can’t audition speakers on-line, especially with a knowledgeable sales associate at your side.  In fact, there were no sales associates at all in the “audio” area.  Not enough business to justify a sales rep?  But other departments/categories has enough staff to drive a U.S. retailer into bankruptcy over staffing/sales ratios.  All supplied – and paid — by the manufacturers, of course.

We also learned that Suning only opened its own e-commerce site a year ago, in May 2011.  That makes for a catch-up game, and the decision was very likely complicated by this brand-based store merchandising strategy.  And to complicate matters, the manufacturers also run their own direct-to-consumer sales sites.  Complicated! Can Suning avoid the “showrooming” trap (i.e., check out the merchandise in the store, then buy cheaper online) that threatens Best Buy in the U.S., and has already claimed Circuit City?   “Film at 11:00……. “, as they used to say on the teevee machine.

A couple of students who intended to buy items here found them expensive in this store, e.g. 400 RMB for a USB drive available online for 200 RMB.

As we left the store building (prominent sign), I noticed a somewhat sad-looking Gome’ store (dirty façade, no windows, blank wall with just the Gome’ sign) that was literally right next to Suning.  We were running late, so no time to stop and look.  Too bad.  Another big lunch, this time at TGI Friday’s (or was that Thursday’s lunch?  And even further back, just what day – and what city – was it where we ate at “Bubba’s Texas Style Bar-B-Que & Saloon”?  Yikes!  I’m not sure!  No, wait!  It was while we were still in Shanghai! But I will send them a Gator pennant.  FSU already has one, though the dominant theme is Texas and the Longhorns.  It was the first – and only — Country & Western music I heard here.)

Off to 360Buy, where we heard from Shaun Xu (Director of Business Development (basically a “Strategy” center), and Richard Wang, project manager in the same department.

360Buy has two main goals; be #1 online in China (already done that!), and in the top 5 globally.  (SK observation: since the first goal is already accomplished – though you have to keep growing to stay there – why not go for #1 globally?  Just sayin’………  Nice population base to start with!)  All of this with “Happy, easy shopping”.

Amazing growth considering they were only founded in 1998, and didn’t even enter e-commerce until 2004.  Last six years: annual growth rates of 200%!

More “Gee whiz!” stats:

Order before 11:00 a.m. – same day delivery

  • After 11:00 a.m. – next day
  • Free delivery if purchase is at least 39 RMB
  • Online order status checking provided
  • 200,000 orders/day in 2011, headed for 400,000/day this year
  • China market share of online = 50%
  • Product quality? Company policy is no knockoffs, and no “used” items (which Taobao offers – though not necessarily a bad thing…..)

In response to a question, Mr. Xu said that their biggest challenge is “management, including keeping people motivated to work to deal with the exponential growth, technical issues of keeping their site up and running, and how to manage the organization as a “team”.

SK note:  Apart from the technical issues, I observe that it is HR challenges that dominate.  This is a theme we heard throughout China:  No lack of capital, growing consumer markets, etc.  The challenges involve attracting and retaining good people, team building, compensation and rewards, management leadership, and so on.  It’s not just about “money”.  And you can’t just buy success.  I asked about whether they are interested in interns or trainees for their business.  He immediately said “yes”.  When I asked which areas demonstrated the greatest need, he listed:

  •  Retailing and retail management – RETAIL STUDENTS TAKE NOTE! THIS WAS FIRST ON THE LIST!
  • Logistics (ISOM, this one’s for you!) – a big challenge, as they have become the “logistics university” for China, with employees regularly poached by other companies
  • International Trade
  • Mergers and Acquisitions (Hello, out there, Finance folks!)
  • Strategy (talk about having a growth “problem”…….!!!!)

Saturday, May 26, 2012, Sightseeing around Beijing

It is hard to capture today’s visit to Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and The Great Wall in words.  I know we will have scores of pictures that tell the story much better.

Still, I am struck by (and bullet points seem “wrong” here….):

  • The vast scope of the Square (Trust me on this one, folks:  Ya’ gotta BE there!) and imagining 1989
  • The imposing Great Hall of the People, Mao’s image looking down on us from across the street in the Forbidden City’s North entrance (reminding me of the film I’ve seen so many times as he reviewed the passing troops on the Square from just that spot, where his picture now hangs)
  • The mausoleum where his preserved body rises from the freezer in a crystal glass “box”, 6 days a week, to be viewed by thousands waiting in line (despite the horrors of the Cultural Revolution)
  • A conversation YingYing and I had as we walked across the Square about how different history (not just China’s, but the world’s) might have unfolded if Chiang Kai Shek and the Nationalists had triumphed in 1949
  • The elegance and majestic scale of the Forbidden City (time to watch “The Last Emperor” again – it was filmed there).  We paid about 40 Yuan to enter.  The earlier price of entry for uninvited commoners like us: immediate, summary execution.  (SK note: A bit costly for my taste. Can we “bargain” here?  Maybe a stern lecture instead?)

The Great Wall is simply a sight to be seen.  It is beautiful in itself, and it demands just standing and looking from one of the towers, imagining the effort, pain, anguish (and death) required to build it in this mountainous place.

“Climbing the Wall” is a challenge.  It is far steeper than you might imagine from the usual photos.  Trust me on this.  And too many bus/train/plane rides, piles of noodles and other goodies, and getting off my “elliptical machine” routine were no help.  Huff! Puff! Huff! Puff!  I went to the second tower on our route, but punted on the third.  (Sorry for not bringing the banner all the way up, gang – I figured you’d already be heading back down!)  But I spent some quiet time just looking out the windows, listening to the birds, and trying to visualize the workers and the years since it was built, hitting around 5000 km in length in 221 B.C.  Frankly, I’m happier about that time than completing the full climb.  OK, for a number of reasons……..  ;-D

We were in the middle of a noisy restaurant for our closing Peking Duck dinner (delicious, by the way), so the closing dinner didn’t unfold exactly as I imagined, but it doesn’t matter in the end.  The setting was festive, the group was together, and we it was time to bring this adventure to a close.  We toasted ourselves, our group our experience, and our ChinaSense guide, Peter.  It was a fine evening (and about half our group, still ready for more – and, no doubt, not on one of the “early” flights the next morning) headed to another market for scorpions, seahorses and starfish on a stick and other delights!

It was a very good trip, and a superior group whom I hope to see or otherwise cross paths with again, and for whom I wish all the best in the future!  And you guys are the best for showing up on time!  I never got to show you my “screaming, banshee, madman” side!  Bon voyage!

 Postscript

 OK, Now it is Sunday, June 3, 2012, and I’ve been home since about 2:00 a.m. on Wednesday morning, Gainesville time.  That’s later than planned, thanks to a cancelled flight from Chicago to charlotte, also leading to my suitcase spending some ”quality time” overnight at the O’Hare airport.  It arrived around dinner time on Wednesday.  Also, we met a young woman at the Gainesville airport, also on the same flight from Charlotte who basically was stranded at the aiport, with no way to get to her hotel.  She was in town for an interview for a Veterinary School surgical residency – to be done while she is still on active duty with the Air Force – currently serving in Afghanistan.  We were glad to take the extra time to give her a ride.

But I digress………..

With a few days’ reflection (and still some weird sleep patterns, as I try to re-set my body clock), let me start by saying that I thoroughly enjoyed the great group of students and faculty on this trip.  The group coalesced quickly and seemed to take pleasure in one another’s company.  No small thing – people were on time for tour departures and flights, letting our guide, Peter, plus Lucy and me avoid any drama over late arrivals, foot-tapping and watch-checking, and general exasperation that comes with holding a busload of people, waiting for late arrivals.  Thanks, everyone!

Going back the second year provided some new insights.  It hardly seemed that a year had passed as there was a sense of familiarity that let me spend more time looking closely at what I was seeing, versus simply trying to figure out how to navigate.  More important, it was good to renew acquaintances with people we visited in 2011.  You can sense the guangxi developing.

I’m still left with this sense of contradictions in my experience of China.  Some of this may simply reflect a country in the process of rapid transition – where “old” and “new” are thrust into juxtaposition. But I also wonder if some of these contrasts reflect deeper, culturally based matters that will persist over time.

To pick one example, our Beijing hotel – China World – is the place where foreign dignitaries often stay, and has beautiful, paneled sleeping rooms, and a grand lobby with gilt and red columns, marble everywhere, elegant staff, etc.  It is part of a hotel/office/shopping/residential complex that is very high-end, with all the global luxury brands represented in custom stores.  It also includes Beijing’s tallest building – a great place to have a cocktail and survey the city (when the smog permits).  All is very finely – and expensively – done, with attentive staff everywhere.  (They also clearly play a “security” role, deflecting interlopers.)

But if you step outside China World, even a few steps past the elegant entrances, you quickly see that steps a chipping apart, the pavement is uneven, and broken in spots, cleanliness standards decline (though both Beijing and Shanghai’s main public areas are kept very clean, with many workers wielding brooms and dustpans all day).  It is as if the money went into building and featuring these glittering public spaces in the hotel, but that if you “pulled back the curtain”, you saw much less discipline, maintenance, and, well, “quality”.  This was not an uncommon occurrence.

Similarly, we saw large open spaces in cities like Yingkou, with grass growing through the sidewalk and tile cracks, empty storefronts (awaiting new residents), fountains – turned off, and sometimes with the empty pools that surround them, crumbling from exposure.  (Makes you wonder about the completed apartment complexes that lack windows or other finish materials, and the resulting effect of extended exposure to the elements.  (It gets cold there!)  When people do arrive, how much re-work will be needed to bring these structures back to “finished” status?  All of this, in the case of Yingkou, exists alongside new structures such as the gleaming new Coca-Cola bottling plant, as fine as any such operation anywhere.  Again – the contrast…….

There were also some jarring differences between rich and poor.  Even in big U.S. cities, Bentley’s and Rolls Royces are pretty uncommon.  Not here!  Bentleys were ubiquitous, plus Porsches (911s, Panameras and Cayennes), Rolls, Maseratis, high-end Jags, S-Class Mercedes, and so on.  Especially in Beijing, the traffic has risen to match the presence of these cars.  I guess if you’re going to be stuck in traffic, you might as well do so in comfort and style!

Contrast this conspicuous display of wealth with the pitiful street beggars.  I suppose every city has panhandlers (My first day back in Gainesville, one guy told me he was saving up for a Maserati – ha, ha – and wondered if I could help him out.  Or at least give him a cigarette.  My own Maserati fund is a little short at presenta, and I don’t smoke, so I wasn’t a very good mark.)

But in Shanghai, just outside our also-very-nice hotel, I encountered this pitiful guy, slowly dragging himself down the street with his tin cup, curled up on a small, wheeled platform like an auto mechanic might use to slide under a car.  He was very dirty, and his body was twisted into a sort of “pretzel”.  Most ignored him as best they could.  And in Beijing, just outside the Forbidden City, you pass an entire string of horribly disfigured, burned, scarred, limbless people, some with grotesque birth defects, perhaps doing a sort of karaoke-style singing to help solicit contributions.  They were often shirtless – presumably the better to display their handicaps.  Pretty disturbing stuff, but sights that I found made me want to walk by faster, rather than linger.

What to make of this?  China’s history is full of examples of a great divide between have’s and have-not’s, and uprisings among the poor when the gap becomes too great.  All the data say that China will soon overtake the U.S. in numbers of millionaires.  Will the country do something to bring along some of these miserable people as well?  The middle class is growing, but I wonder who will be left behind?

Other impressions and thoughts, in no special order:

  •        Traffic is terrible, especially in Beijing.  And the air is worse.  The gray haze is simply everywhere, frequently stinging the eyes, irritating the throat and generally making you feel bad.
  •      Really nice interstate-style highways outside the cities.
  •      Many lovely people, who clearly want you to “like” what China is doing, and to appreciate the people, the country and its history and culture.
  •      When you visit Tier 3 cities (like Yingkou), you’re treated like rock stars.  All these various university MBA trips to China need to be sure to get out of Beijing, Shanghai and at least hit Guangzhou, Shenzhen or better – Tier 3 & 4 cities.  That’s where the action is right now.
  •      Despite what the wait/walk signs say, any kind of vehicle – including mopeds and bicycles — has the right-of-way over pedestrians.  It’s a game of “chicken”, and the vehicles win. Every man for himself.
  •      Chinese food is delicious, especially at breakfast, for some reason.
  •      But big Macs still taste like they do in the U.S.  McDonald’s consistency trumps cultural variation!
  •      Some of the best pineapple I have ever eaten – a must at every breakfast.
  •      Bargaining over prices is tiring, and time-consuming.  But it can be “profitable”, even though I walked away from every such interaction feeling like I didn’t really get the best price.  Maybe I’m too rigid and culture-bound.  Or maybe the Chinese will come around to “our” pricing practices.  I’ll wait……….

Steve Kirn

 


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