Thursday, January 24, 2008

Asia Journal, Part 4

DAY 5 – Monday – Shenzhen, or “China is weird!”

Theme Song –“All Night Worker” – Downliners Sect

I couldn’t sleep again, waking at about 5, so I wrote my 20 postcards and took them downstairs to the concierge to mail at 6 a.m. Paddy is sitting on a couch in the lobby, staring blankly into space. This creeps me out; is he making sure we haven’t come in too late, like some infernal den mother? I slink by without his seeing me, even though he’s practically the only person in the lobby other than the ubiquitous bellboys in white.

We have a day of factory and facility tours lined up today. We go to Shenzhen, on the mainland about an hour from Hong Kong. The border crossing is only mildly more stressful than going to, say, Canada, mostly because of the girl in a surgical mask that points a digital thermometer gun at your forehead. It’s just a precaution against SARS and Avian Flu, certainly, but it’s a reminder of the disastrous potential inherent in huge populations, not to mention truncated individual liberties.

Shenzhen is always smoggy, dusty, and under construction. Every time we come here, it’s grown significantly bigger. Right now, there are about 10 million people in Shenzhen: it’s roughly the populations of New York City and Houston combined, and most of this growth has occurred in the last 25 years. It was a sleepy fishing village until it was designated the first “Special Economic Zone” or SEZ, under Deng Xiaopeng, due to its proximity to Hong Kong. As the first SEZ, Shenzhen is one of the first places modern China experimented with capitalism, and in many senses, it is the cradle of the Chinese economic revolution. Chances are, you have something in your home right now that was made in Shenzhen: they make everything from iPods and cameras to hairbrushes and handbags.

To meet a native of Shenzhen, someone who was born and raised there, is unusual. Most of the millions in Shenzhen are from the provinces, and they came seeking jobs. Some find fortune, but most find factories: manufacturing jobs are plentiful and, relative to many jobs inland, well-paid. Not all Shenzhen transplants stay, though. Like young Americans in NYC or LA, they come for a taste of the big time, but many ultimately decide it’s not for them. They save their wages, with the intent of moving back home to settle down.

Like most cities in south China, Shenzhen is full of drivers actively flouting the rules of the road. If traffic is moving too slowly in one direction, drivers just start using the oncoming lanes. They back up on the freeway if they miss an offramp. Cabbies make left turns if they have the right of way or not. Steamrollers and semis share the road with mopeds and bikes. At present, traffic in China is so awful, I cannot imagine what it will be like if all the people that want cars actually get them.

Factory tours are confidential, so I won’t give details, but rest assured, they are eye-opening. Factories in China are enormous, with dormitories, canteens, rec facilities, and titanic workspaces. Even with the labor equation changing rapidly due to the One Child Policy, and the number of migrants declining, labor is still China’s best value. Manufacturing is mostly people-powered, rather than highly automated. In a Chinese factory, you get a very clear picture of just how many people are involved in making the stuff you take for granted every day. Every worker handles a small portion of the finished product. For example, consider an item of apparel like a woven shirt: each component or detail of the shirt is probably one worker’s job. Each pocket, cuff, placket, and embellishment corresponds to one person at a sewing machine. Add up the details and you have an idea of how many people are involved at the assembly level. Double it and you’ll have some sense of how many people are involved at the mills that made the fabric and trims. Triple it and you’ll have a sense of how many people are involved in the logistics of getting it onto a ship and on its way to you: sourcing agents, consolidators, dockworkers, truck drivers. Throw in a few more people for good measure: designers, prototypers, shop floor supervisors, clerical staff, testing lab employees. Now you have a sense of how many lives you affect through the goods you buy. It’s amazing we can pay what we do for consumer goods, but thanks to a certain amount of currency tweaking on the part of the Chinese government, we pay very little. And because we demand low prices, we fuel the growth of Chinese manufacturing and cities like Shenzhen. Is it the best way to do things? Probably not, for a variety of reasons, but a big one is the enormous inefficiency of shipping goods halfway around the world: it's simply not an effective use of resources. But because of Western demand for value-priced consumer goods, it is the way it’s done.

Driving back through Shenzhen on our way back to Hong Kong and the hotel, I note the changes since my last visit, and how they reflect the increasing influence of the West. There are more KFCs than before, and a Gucci boutique -- a real one, not one selling fakes. The world's largest golf resort, with 216 holes, is in Shenzhen. Yet there is still the guy carrying live chickens to market on his moped, workers in broad bamboo hats sweeping sidewalks with straw brooms, and a portrait of Chairman Mao smiling benevolently from the wall of a building under demolition. As our intrepid hostess Fanny noted last time we were here, after our van was nearly run over by a semi, trash truck, and steam roller at the same time, "China is weird." Fanny, a native Hongkongese, meant it in the sense that China is nothing like Hong Kong: provincial, backwards, 'weird.' But China is also nothing like it was just a few years ago, evolving at such a pace this city of ten million sprouted up almost instantly, and that it is just as suddenly the manufacturing muscle for most of the world. That, to the Chinese, must be weird indeed.

DAY 6 – Tuesday – Hong Kong

Theme Song – “Check Out”– Pretty Things

Today we had our last meetings in Hong Kong, which all went well, despite Skippy's best efforts to disrupt them. In the evening, he managed to insult both our hosts and his own team at dinner. I am thrilled we are ditching him tomorrow and going to Tokyo.

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Thursday, January 17, 2008

Asia Journal, Part 3

DAY 4 - Sunday - Hong Kong

Theme Song – “Action,” Sweet
Because everybody wants a piece of it.

Today is forced fun day, in which I am expected to engage in tourism with people with whom I would never vacation. We have Joe, a VP; Chris, an SB; Tom, a buyer; Kay, a PM; and Skippy, Kay’s boss, an SPM. These acronyms are irrelevant, except for the fact that every one containing an S or a V can pull rank.

I am crabby and fairly queasy, given my lack of sleep, congestion, and certain indiscretions with sake last night. We get in the rented van and go to Repulse Bay. The switchbacks on the way don’t help; worse still, Skippy blathers inanely about himself the entire way. I’ve always heard that Skippy is reviled by his reports and now I understand why. I never understand how people can be in a stunning, exotic place and ignore it completely because they can’t shut the f*ck up. It is a beautiful day, spoiled by the company. When we arrive at the bay, I make a beeline for the water. Chris says “Julie’s walking home,” and I wave bye bye, stepping into the Pacific. Skippy continues yapping. We go to the nearby temple and I pray to Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, for him to shut up.

After the bay, we go to Stanley Market, so the group can load up on tchotchkes. Stanley Market is a warren of stalls on the edge of the bay. Most of the stalls sell souvenirs, Chinese handicrafts, knock-off handbags, overruns – tourist junk, but it’s diverting.
I’ve been there/done that, so all I buy is t-shirts for Eric and a packet of postcards for everybody back in the States.

Fortunately, since we are at Stanley and it’s noon, we can stop at Smuggler’s Inn, a hole-in-the-wall expat pub my crew has enjoyed many times before, prior to being saddled with all the suits. I love Smuggler’s, and the photo gives some sense why: it’s rowdy and raw, and honestly hosted some piracy in the past. If you didn’t know better, you'd assume they sell grog instead of Guinness. We happened upon it four trips ago when we got stuck in a June downpour during a trip to the market. We ducked into the pub for cover, and fell in love with it...probably in no small part to the fact that somebody bought us a round of drinks. Thanks, whoever you were.

Our party sits down outside in the sun, and immediately most everybody proceeds to brownnose Joe; this is weird and disappointing because Smuggler's has always been a place we’ve dropped our business mien on these trips. My great realization of the day is that I will probably never make VP because there will always be someone willing to be a much greater sycophant than I. There is not a micron’s clearance between Skippy’s lips and Joe’s bum.

Smuggler’s is mostly patronized by Brits and Aussies, so the jukebox isn’t bad. Screwing around with the jukebox takes me away from the table for a blessed moment. I cue up “Action”, the Fall’s “Mr. Pharmacist,” the Undertones’ “Teenage Kicks”, and the Who, “Can’t Explain.” Clearly, I have an attitude today, which I am trying desperately hard to suppress in the presence of the suits. It scrabbles its way out in my musical selections. I flash Kay the heavy metal devil horns and say "Everybody wants a piece of the action!"

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Asia Journal, Pt 2

DAY 2 – Friday – Hong Kong

Theme Song – “Veni Vidi Vici,” Black Lips
“I came, I saw/ I conquered all/All ya’ll”

Why? Because we aced our meetings. All the samples of the designs are beautiful. This happened despite Paddy tagging along. Paddy is my new boss. He spends most of his time in everyone’s business looking for excuses to meet with his superiors and brownnose them. I still haven’t figured out what he’s doing here halfway around the world, besides devising ways to take credit for our work.

We skate through the meetings and head back to the hotel at the end of the day. I take a short nap and then get ready for dinner. Tommy is our dinner host tonight. Tommy is a burly young Taiwanese guy who runs a trading company. He favors mob-boss pinstriped suits and Gucci loafers. He looks kinda thuggy, but he’s really just a big softie. He just got married and had a baby. He has pictures: his new daughter is tiny with a load of thick black hair and she looks just like Dad: she is adorable. Everyone in our circle in Hong Kong seems to have childrearing on their mind; if they aren’t expecting, they are new moms or dads. If they are new moms and dads, they are armed with pictures in their wallets and movies on their cellphones. With the One Child Policy still in effect in China, if you are a new parent, you are at a singular point in your life; these young parents all glow with hope and pride; it is heartening to see such intense faith in their kids’ future.

We eat at a nice Vietnamese restaurant in Lan Kwai Fong, a party district frequented by expats. Ordering is always a bit of trauma, because Chinese hospitality demands that there always should be more than enough, so it is absolutely certain that everyone has eaten their fill. Everyone gorges and regrets it later, but the food is delicious so it’s hard to complain.

After dinner, my sourcing team and I escape the suits and go to a bar around the corner. Danny, our ex-market rep, comes along as an honorary member of the team, even though he’s been transferred. It’s a promotion, but he is complaining about how he misses us -- the design manager on his new team is nasty. I concur with Danny’s assessment: I know this guy, and I always thought he was an arrogant prat. Apparently, everyone else in the office thinks so, too. There is a lot of bullshit flung around in the design community about designers being the new rockstars (look at Karim Rashid’s myspace page for an illustration of how NOT to pull this off), and this prat buys it all, expecting constant adulation for feeble work. He once told me he preferred not to design; he’d rather have his underlings do it all for him. At least rockstars have to have chops or they cease to be stars.

Hopefully, after three bottles of wine shared amongst friends, Danny has escaped the daily grind for a while. We have a lot of laughs, and drunk dial a couple of coworkers back home, just to jerk their chains: when you’re sitting in frigid Minneapolis, hearing the chardonnay is chilled and it’s a balmy 70 degrees in Hong Kong is a sick joke.

DAY 3 – Saturday – Hong Kong

Theme Song – Roky Erickson and the Aliens “Click Your Fingers Applauding the Play”

Another day of meetings aced. I think Paddy is finally convinced that we actually are as good as they say we are. Hopefully, this means he’ll leave us alone to do our thing with less of his ‘assistance’. I get back to the hotel at about 4 and can’t sleep, so I dink around in the New World Store. I heart the New World Store; it’s more or less a grocery store with a weird amalgam of housewares, toiletries, Asian kitsch and office supplies. It is both familiar and fairly weird to my American eyes: it’s a mall store with garish sale posters and easy-clean surfaces, but it stocks stuff like durian, a tropical fruit that’s considered a delicacy but smells something like sewage. There is also stuff like this:

Angry Caucasian Dude Snacks and Cat Fiber Marshmallows (which is what we thought they were until we realized they were actually “calcium plus fiber marshmallows”, thanks to some iffy typography) The marshmallows are surprisingly good.

We go to dinner with fun colleagues at a swank Japanese place. They always order up cold sake when we do this, which comes in a lethal dispenser loaded with ice. It is always hard to gauge your sake intake, especially given that etiquette demands that you never fill your own cup: somebody is always filling it up when you’re not looking.

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Sunday, January 13, 2008

Asia Journal - Pt 1

DAY 1 and 2 - Wednesday into Thursday – Minneapolis to Portland to Narita to Hong Kong

Theme Song – “Myriad Harbour,” New Pornographers
"I took a plane, I took a train - oh, who cares, you always wind up in the city..."

Today is all about planes and airports. We leave at 9:30 in the morning and fly to Portland, where it is raining, as it always does. We transfer to the plane to Narita airport, which serves Tokyo. This is the longest leg of the flight, and we are sitting in business class, which is a great comfort on a trip like this because I can’t sleep on planes. This makes no sense, given that I can sleep pretty much everywhere else (including sitting upright in a folding chair at Paycheck’s Lounge with somebody’s punk band was blasting away). Business class at least plies me with distractions: food, drink, on-demand movies, a plug for the laptop (which didn’t work), crappy inflight magazines with crappier crossword puzzles, and a weird seat that resembles an airborne LaZBoy with a canopy and a lot of button controls. I have a good ten hours to kill. All told, this trip takes about 18 hours, and we arrive tomorrow… thank you, International Date Line.

(10 hours later, sleepless entire time)

Landing in Narita, you fly over small farm plots, fallow rice paddies, and a lot of small greenhouses. It is quaint and bucolic, a dull winter green. Houses with tiled roofs cluster around winding roads, punctuating the fields. It is lovely now, but lovelier in June when the fields are greener. There is a distinct Japonesque tidiness to everything. Even the car plant we fly over looks clean and pleasant, with hundreds of identical sedans rowed up outside. When you land, all the runway personnel wear uniforms that make them look like extras from an episode of Ultraman; somewhere between lab techs and road workers, they have hardhats, collared shirts, pressed pants, and reflective coats. The Japanese love uniforms; the girls screening bags wear maroon blazers, skirts, white gloves and little pillbox hats.

We only have a couple hours’ layover in Narita, and usually spend most of it in the club lounge, where we can plug in the computers and discuss the perplexing smoked cheese wrapped like a piece of candy. All the guys love it, although they agree it doesn’t really seem like food. All the girls find it frightening. There is an automated beer dispenser, too, that pours you a glass of Asahi Super Dry: it tips the glass at the proper angle to minimize the head. My former buyer found this irresistible, and would get a couple beers from it every time we stopped, regardless of the time. When we leave Narita, the sun is almost set. We have a little over four and half hours to fly to Hong Kong, much of it over the China Sea. I snooze a little; maybe an hour tops.

When I wake, Taiwan is shrouded in cloud, an amorphous light off to the left of the plane. It looks like a spangled ghost lost at sea, its translucent edges formed by shoreline, where the light stops. A little closer to Hong Kong, flotillas of fishing boats light patches of water, spread out in alien arrays in the black sea.

We get to the Intercontinental close to 11:30. As many times as I’ve been here, the panoramic view of the harbor from the lobby always stuns me. It is the most beautiful waterfront I’ve ever seen: titanic illuminated buildings, backed by dark mountains and framed by palms. The wall of the lobby facing the water is entirely glass, and about three storeys high; for immediate impact it is unrivaled in HK. Regardless of how exhausted and jetlagged you are, it makes you feel as if you finally arrived somewhere special.

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