Mooncake Nirvana

Leave a comment


I have a fondness for sweets. I like anything sweet from candy to cake to pie to ice cream. The only thing sweet I don’t enjoy are drinks because they don’t quench my thirst.

Now it is mooncake season. It seems that most people, both Chinese and foreigners, don’t enjoy mooncakes, but I do. I’ve been dropping hints that if anyone gets unwanted mooncakes they would be welcomed by me.

By this morning my begging was largely ignored. I’d only gotten three mooncakes and a small piece of another given to me in a café.

I’ve read that mooncakes are not selling well this year because corrupt government officials have not been buying them to display their wealth. But I don’t know any government officials, so that isn’t the problem in my case.

Then this afternoon, a Chinese friend gifted me the mooncake mother load, a large box of mixed kinds of mooncakes. I am very happy. In fact I’ll be hard pressed to eat them all before the 19th when I return to America.

DSCN0564

I’ve already eaten three of them. One had a strawberry filling, another gape, and the third was peach.

DSCN0560

When I get a gift, I like to see how much it cost. It’s a way of finding out what the giver thought of me. There is a Vanguard grocery store a few blocks from my house. Am looking forward to going to see how much the same or a comparable box of mooncakes cost.

Chinese Tourists

Leave a comment


An edited version of this piece was published in Shenzhen Daily on September 9, 2013.

 

There has been a rash of news stories lately about bad behavior of Chinese tourists abroad. They are criticized for being rude, loud, poor tippers, and generally obnoxious. Most of the criticism, it seems, comes from other Chinese who are embarrassed by the behavior of their countrymen. Some call it uncivilized behavior.

I disagree. If a Chinese person disrupts a restaurant by talking too loud, it doesn’t mean he’s uncivilized. It means he talks too loud, nothing more. If a Chinese fails to leave a gratuity it means there is no tipping in China and the practice was unfamiliar to the tourist.

It was reported in Xinhua that Vice Premier Wang Yang called on the nation’s tourists to improve their behavior, stressing it was important to project a “good image”

Wang went on to call certain Chinese tourists uncivilized. “They make a terrible racket in public places, scrawl their names on tourist sites, ignore red lights when crossing the road and spit everywhere. This damages our national image…” He ignored Chinese culture in this statement.

By now most people have heard the story of a 15-year-old Chinese boy who scratched his name into a 3,500-year-old temple in Egypt’s Luxor. The incident created a furor worldwide, especially in China, unlike some of the more minor offences. But it hardly means that all Chinese are anxious to damage ancient relics. It was no more than poor behavior by an individual.

To help tourists understand how to best behave while out of the country, the central government has issued guidelines on its main website. Subjects include dressing properly, queuing up and not shouting.

There was another story in the news recently about an American tourist breaking the finger off a 600 year old statue in Florence. Was breaking the statue an example of uncivilized behavior? Of course it was. Does that mean all American tourists are uncivilized? Of course not.

Money is the great un-equalizer, and according to an unsigned article that appeared in the British publication, The Corner, 83 million Chinese travelers spent US$102 billion last year (up 40 percent from 2011) making them the most lavish spending of travelers.

Many people think if they pay money for goods or services, it gives them the right to be demanding or abusive. Undoubtedly this attitude is not a strictly Chinese trait.

Once I was in the Budapest factory store of Herend, a famous Hungarian manufacturer of fine porcelain and china. A group of Japanese tourists came in at the same time. One man collected tea cups and wanted to buy one. The clerk told him they were only available as a cup and saucer set. She wasn’t allowed to sell just the cup. After ranting loudly for a few minutes, the man bought the set. Then he proceeded to smash the saucer on the floor before storming out of the shop with the cup only.

Did this mean all Japanese tourists are obnoxious slobs? Absolutely not. Most members of his group seemed embarrassed by his behavior. All it means this one guy was a poor representative of his country. There are examples of poor behavior to be found everywhere.

In Paris visitors from China are told by a sign outside the Louvre Museum (now reportedly removed) written in Chinese characters, they can not urinate or defecate wherever they want inside the museum.

Yong Chen, tourism researcher at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, said most “bad” tourists don’t intend to be “bad.” They are just being themselves. He went on to point out that their knowledge of the destination country and its culture is often outdated or completely non-existent.

Another researcher, Liu Simin of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, arrogantly noted that, “Objectively speaking, our tourists have relatively low-civilized characters.”

Bad behavior involving Chinese tourists doesn’t all go one way. In the news recently was a story of some Chinese who were shaken down for money in Cambodia. There was another story of a Chinese student being charged more that $4,000. USD for a taxi ride in Chicago. And there are always a few stories of Chinese tourists or students being crime victims.

On a personal level, I’ve done things in foreign countries that I’m not proud of. In most cases they were a result of lack of knowledge, but a couple of times I was purposely a bad ambassador for my country and acted like a spoiled, petulant child.

Once I was turned away at a busy restaurant in Amsterdam. The only empty tale they had seated four people. I was alone. I whined, complained, and generally acted childish to the hostess for not seating me. Later I regretted my behavior, though by then it was too late.

Most People who work in the tourism industry understand that all people are not alike, and don’t expect everyone to act the same. They instinctively realize the best way end bad Chinese behavior is for more Chinese to travel.

As Wang Wanfei, a tourism professor at Zhejiang University, noted, “Travelling is a learning experience for tourists. (Chinese tourists) learn how to absorb local culture in the process (of traveling), and get rid of their bad tourist behavior.”

Pussy Riot

Leave a comment


Three days ago I stopped in a café about 15:00 to read my newspapers and drink a cold beer before returning home. There were 20, maybe 25 tables in the cafe, and only one other was occupied.

Then a few girls came in and sat down. Then a few more. Then a few more. They didn’t come in like an organized group. Sometimes one or two came in together, then a group of six, then a few minutes later maybe four came in. Soon every table in the café was filled.

I think they sent the lunch hour employees home about 14:00, so there was just the manager, the assistant manager and one waitress on duty in the dining room. From what I could see there was one cook in the dumpling/pancake making station and one, maybe two other cooks in the kitchen.

With this skeleton crew on duty, the café was unprepared to handle the full house they suddenly had. Everyone was yelling and running around trying to get things under control. Most of the women seemed pleasant and didn’t complain about the slow service.

I couldn’t figure out who these women were. Guessing, they seemed to range in age from their early 20s to mid 30s. They didn’t wear name tags or appear to have a leader. Whatever type of group it was seemed to be very informal.

I tried asking a few who they were, but none of the four or five I approached spoke English. Since it was raining when I left the house, I didn’t carry my camera that day, unfortunately.

I decided to give up my table so the café could seat people there who would spend more than my 6 RMB. I moved to an empty outside table.

There is a small café next to the one where I was. Once outside, I saw it was filled with women too. Next to it is a fairly large hot pot place, also overflowing with women.

Slowly the women finished their meals and began drifting out of the restaurants. They headed down the street to the left. Looking, I didn’t see tour busses or anything unusual. The women kind of dissolved into the street scene after a few blocks.

The next day I put my camera in my pocket and went back to the same café at the same time, but there was no pussy riot that day. Maybe I’ll go back again today, just in case.

First Steps

Leave a comment


There is a small café I like to visit every two or three weeks. The food isn’t great, but is OK. The thing I like about it is everyone, from the owners, to the managers, to the help, are extremely friendly.

DSCN0530

I’ve been stopping there for years. The managers  are a husband and wife team. They have a son who is about 8-10 years old who is always there.

A couple of years ago the wife got pregnant. She popped out a baby girl. Since they keep the baby with them at the café,  I’ve been an observer of the baby since her birth.

DSCN0537

Like her parents, the baby is very friendly. Her mother usually brings her by my table where we high five a few times. She always smiles and laughs.

Last week the baby took a few steps on her own. She was a year and three months old.

DSCN0540

It’s been interesting to follow the baby’s progress from birth to toddler. I think I’ve enjoyed watching because I missed much of my son’s early years as I cared too much about work. Going to a Little League ball game or taking him and a few friends to a movie was an imposition. Now that it’s too late, I deeply regret not spending more time together.

DSCN0538

I rationalized my inattentive parenting by telling myself that my work enabled my son to have a better life with things like private schooling, nice clothes and cars, a British nanny, and living in a big house in an excellent neighborhood. Looking at things today, I think this baby has a great life growing up with her parents and her brother in the café while learning to walk in a parking lot. Which life is better? I’m not so sure anymore.

Fruit Fly

Leave a comment


This morning while doing something on my p.c. I saw something from the corner of my eye. I looked around, but saw nothing. A few minutes later I saw it again. Looking again, I saw a tiny fruit fly sitting on the edge my tablet computer.

My first instinct was to swat it, but quickly had a change of heart.

Most fruit flies have a very short life span, as little as 24 hours. I enjoy making lemonade and limeade and had brought some lemons, limes, and grapes home the day before. I assumed the fruit fly on my tablet had been hatched from eggs on one of these fruits.

While there are many types of fruit flies, most  are considered nuisances, rather than pests. In other words, they don’t hurt anything.

Most live for about a day, then die of old age. During their short life span, their main function is to find another fruit fly to fuck, thus perpetuating the species.

I wondered if my fruit fly had gotten laid yet? I hadn’t seen other fruit flies in my house, though it seems likely there might be some since Sea keeps a nice plate of fruit on the kitchen table at all times in addition to what I’d purchased yesterday.

By this time my fruit fly might have been middle aged or even old. Had he been fucked? If not, I considered it cruel to send him into fruit fly eternity as a virgin. I took a breath and blew him off my tablet. I never saw him again.

Somehow, that made me feel like a very good person.

Restaurant Review: Kagoshima Sushi

Leave a comment


Kagoshima  Sushi is located on Jingtian N. Street. It is about a 25 minute walk from my old residence. We used to eat there quite often, but since we moved it is more than an hour walk. We haven’t been there in more than a year.

Yesterday we went there for an early dinner. We walked and arrived about 16:00. There were just a few other customers in the place.

The sushi is served on a conveyor belt that goes around a large roundish bar. I enjoy the concept because you can look at the actual food instead of blindly ordering from a menu. Each dish is served on a plate that is color coded for price. The sushi chefs work in the center of the conveyor. They also have a menu with other Japanese foods.

DSCN0542

To be honest, I’m not a great lover of sushi. I find most of it tastes the same. I can’t tell the difference between a tiny silver of crab wrapped in rice with a seaweed cover from a piece of salmon, tuna, or shrimp, prepared the same way. Ultimately the pieces get dipped in a soy, ginger,  and wasabi dip that becomes the dominate flavor. If someone declared I could never have sushi again, I wouldn’t retire to my bed, weeping into the pillow.

Between us we picked seven plates of sushi from the conveyor, plus we ordered a bowl of noodle soup and a plate of French fries from the menu. I had a bottle of Japanese beer.

DSCN0546

The sushi was good. My favorite was the smoked eel because I could actually taste the eel. My least favorite was the tempura shrimp because it wasn’t served hot. The other dishes tasted like the soy/wasabi/ginger concoction described above. Since I find it hard to judge sushi by flavor, I judge it by presentation. This sushi was extremely well made, neat, and presented in an appetizing way.

Sea ate most of the noodle soup. I tasted a spoon full of broth. It was rich and flavorful with a touch of miso in the background.

Surprisingly, my favorite dish was the French fries. They were freshly made, not frozen, and while cooked maybe 30 seconds too long, they were still excellent.

I asked the chef if the recent ChinaJapan friction had affected his business, but because of language difficulties, we never really connected.

Sea has a discount card, so the bill came to RMB142 after a small reduction. Not bad. We were so full we took a taxi home instead of walking.

The restaurant earned 4 out of 5 stars on the prestigious Kirtley scale.

Economic Storm Clouds

Leave a comment


An edited version of this piece was published in the August 12, 2013 edition of the Shenzhen Daily.

 

I am not a Harvard trained economist, like the geniuses who are running the world’s economies, but I am an interested observer. There are many economic trends going on in China and the rest of the world that are troubling.

There is an ongoing property bubble in China. Official government figures show a 113% increase in property prices in the past eight years. This is  contradicted by research by Tsinghua University and the National University of Singapore which found prices actually rose by 250% between 2004 and 2009. These figures represent a faster increase in values than was experienced during the US housing bubble. This confusion and contradiction about values and trends comes about because of the lack of transparency in the Chinese economic system. It’s difficult if not impossible know exactly what is going on.

There is trouble brewing in the Chinese banking system. The trouble comes from three areas: bad loans to local governments, bad loans to property developers, and the shadow banking system.

Because there is so little transparency in the Chinese banking system, it often seems that one hand doesn’t know what the other is up to, and no one is in control. Some experts say many or most loans to local governments are now non-preforming. In 1999, the Chinese government created four massive asset management companies that would eventually take on toxic loans valued at some USD $480 billion. According to Moody’s these bad loans are still on the books.

The shadow banking system is fraught with abuse, though no one seems able to get a handle on exactly what is going on in it. The government and the The People’s Bank of China have joined forces in efforts to tighten the screws on the banks participating in the shadow system, which has fuelled the explosive credit growth that has helped to drive China’s economic success, but also raised doubts over the ability of borrowers to repay loans.

One of the greatest problems created by the increased reliance on shadow banking is the maturity mismatch. While most infrastructure and property investments are financed over three to five years, products sold by the shadow banks generally have a maturity of 3-12 months, This has effectively created what some have described as a national Ponzi scheme system, whereby existing investors’ returns are paid for from the influx of money gathered from new depositors.

The average Chinese keeps some 70% of the family assets in cash or bank deposits. These deposits earn about 3.5% interest, sometimes a little more. The banks use these deposits to make risky loans at high rates of interest in the shadow banking system.

China’s central bank has sent a warning signal to the country’s overextended lenders when it refused to increase money supply. This pushed short term borrowing costs to a six-year high, and caused the banks to have to scramble to increase liquidity. Largely because of the problems in the banking system, Moody’s cut China’s credit rating from AA- to A-.

The Chinese government has signaled a willingness to bail out the big banks, instead of letting them go under. As we discovered in America and Europe, when there isn’t a penalty for failure, you get more failure.

Hopefully the Chinese authorities are well aware of the dangers in the banking and property industries. They have been taking steps to try to end the crisis without precipitating another crises. Most of what they’ve tried has been weak and ineffective. They jiggle a little something here, adjust something there, pass a new rule elsewhere else. So far they efforts have been largely unsuccessful.

But it’s not only China where economic storm clouds are gathering. The U.S., Europe, Japan and other countries have discovered the joys of quantitative easing. That is printing money from thin air to finance the government debt and borrowing at absurdly low interest rates. In the U.S. the government borrows from itself at close to 0% interest with money it prints from nothing.

This can not go on forever and the central bankers have indicated they will consider slowing the amount of money they print in the future. This will send interest rates up and could increase the cost of borrowing dramatically, creating even more problems for the cash strapped governments.

There is a moral aspect of government printing and spending money made from nothing. Money is supposed to be a store of value. In the old days a U.S. quarter had 25 cents worth of silver in it. A British penny was made from a penny’s worth of copper. Paper money could be redeemed for gold or silver bullion at Federal Reserve banks.

In 1971 President Nixon ended the dollar’s convertibility into gold. Soon most other nations followed suit. This led to torrents of money being printed and borrowed by both governments and individuals. The amount of debt in the world doubled, redoubled, then redoubled again as the printing presses ran 24/7.

This led to 16-18% inflation and world-wide economic stagnation. Inflation is the cruelest tax of them all. It penalizes everyone, especially those who worked hard and tried to plan for the future by saving money. It seems likely what is going on today will end up the same way. We are witnessing the beginning of the destruction of fiat currency.

One consequence of the money printing is that much of it is flowing into the world’s stock markets. Most markets are behaving well, some are hitting new highs, despite the underlying poor business conditions. This is another bubble that will inevitably burst.

The bureaucratic strangulation of economic activity is another big problem. China’s bureaucracy and red tape are legendary, but can it usually be overcome with a few well placed Yuan. In the west a bribe is not always possible.

In the U.S. there were 71,000 pages of new rules, regulations, and unlegislated laws imposed in 2012. In 2011 the number was 82,000 pages. Each of these rules limits or imposes requirements on something, often economic activity. Slowly the unelected and unaccountable bureaucracies of the world are strangling the golden goose.

A final worrying thing in today’s economy is the slowing of worldwide economic growth. The Chinese economy looks like it will grow about 7.5% this year, after 13 straight quarters of slowing growth. That’s down from a high of well over 10%.

The U.S. will be lucky to see 2% growth this year, down from an average 4% in better economic times. With a handful of exceptions, most world economies will see virtually no growth, and some will experience contractions. Brazil grew at 7.5% in 2010. It has slowed to 0.9% today. South Korea went from 6.3% growth in 2010 to 2% now.

A healthy economy helps everyone, from the richest to the poorest. Economic growth is vital. If overall economic output is declining or merely holding steady, most companies will not be able to increase their sales, profits, and employment which are the primary drivers of economic expansion. New labor entering the job market will discover finding employment difficult.

The world way may muddle its way through these problems, but then what?

SzD 8/8/13

Older Entries Newer Entries

%d bloggers like this: